Descendants of Sikh hero visit ancestor's shrine for first time

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam paying his respects at the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Temple during the Bhai Maharaj Singh Festival at the Silat Road Sikh Temple yesterday.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam paying his respects at the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Temple during the Bhai Maharaj Singh Festival at the Silat Road Sikh Temple yesterday.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Bhai Maharaj Singh's great- grandson Hardeep Singh (left), travelled here from India with two other descendants.
Bhai Maharaj Singh's great- grandson Hardeep Singh (above), travelled here from India with two other descendants.

Revolutionary Bhai Maharaj Singh arrived in Singapore in chains in 1850 after being arrested by the British in his native India for leading a movement against colonial rule.

Although revered as a saint by India's Sikh community for his spirituality and patriotic fervour, he spent six years in a bricked-up cell at Outram Prison where he went blind, developed throat cancer and was reduced to a mere skeleton. He died there 159 years ago today.

Yesterday, three of his descendants travelled to Singapore from India to visit a shrine dedicated to him at the Silat Road Sikh Temple.

Great-grandsons Gurraj Pal Singh and Hardeep Singh, both 67, were accompanied by Mr Gurraj Pal's nephew, Mr Gurpartap Singh, 42, to view the tribute for the first time.

The shrine has occupied its current spot since 2010. It was moved from its original spot in the Singapore General Hospital compound, near where Outram Prison once stood, to the entrance of the temple in 1966, before a dedicated memorial building was built.

To mark the month-long festival - the 159th Bhai Maharaj Singh Anniversary - the visitors brought along items that belonged to their ancestor, including a salottar (wooden stick), a mala (rosary) and a sri sahib (sword).

They are being displayed over the weekend at the Bukit Merah temple at a free exhibition.

Speaking through a translator, Mr Gurraj Pal told The Sunday Times: "We all feel very happy, fortunate and honoured to visit this place. We are grateful to the Sikh community who have institutionalised Bhai Maharaj and created a shrine."

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who visited the memorial with Bhai Maharaj's descendants, said in a speech that the Sikh story "also says something about our Singapore identity".

He added: "It is a story of how we can keep our pride in our heritage and culture, whilst interacting freely with each other, across the broader Singapore community and contributing actively in every area of Singapore life."

Mr Tharman also attended a Ceylon Tamil community gala dinner at Shangri-La Hotel, where a cookbook was launched to celebrate Singapore's 50th birthday.

As well as detailing 177 recipes, such as kollukattai (a bean-filled, steamed pastry) and brinjal spicy dry curry, the book, called From Heart To Palm: The Culinary World And Culture Of The Ceylon Tamils In Singapore, also traces the history of the community's pioneers and their journey from Sri Lanka to Singapore in the 19th century.

At that time, there was a shortage of skilled labour in developing Singapore. As many Ceylon Tamils were well-educated, they found work here in roles such as land surveyors and postal workers.

Mr Tharman, who is of Ceylon Tamil descent, observed that the community had done well because it had never looked inward.

He said: "Ceylon Tamils had been proud of their heritage but quickly embraced a national identity. Most important for us Singaporeans is to take pride not just in ourselves but to take pride in what the other communities are about."

He handed out 50 bursaries, each worth $500, to needy students. The gala dinner is a highlight of the community's SG50 celebrations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'Descendants of Sikh hero visit ancestor's shrine for first time'. Print Edition | Subscribe