Best known for his Mahankosh, the first Encyclopedia of Sikhism in Punjabi, the legendary Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha was a Renaissance man, who has left a lasting impact on Punjab and Punjabi scholarship. A revolutionary Gursikh far ahead of his times with strong convictions, he practiced what he preached.
Administrator, diplomat, encyclopaedist, historian, hunter, interpreter of Sikh scriptures, tennis player, tutor to an heir apparent and scholar, Bhai Kahan Singh of Nabha was, indeed, a Renaissance man, who has left a lasting impact on Punjab and Punjabi scholarship.
Bhai Kahan Singh was born on August 30, 1861 in 1861 in village Sabaz Banera about 5 miles from Nabha, in his maternal grandparents’ house.. His father, Mahant Narain Singh, was steeped in the Sikh tradition and was well known for his ability to recite Guru Granth Sahib.
Like many others of that time, Bhai Kahan Singh received no formal education, but was taught by tutors at home. He became well versed in Hindi, Braj Bhasha, Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian, English and, of course, Punjabi.
Bhai Arjan Singh Bagrian, Maharaja Bhupindra Singh of Patiala and Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha are seated in this 1917 picture, often said to be the only one in which the two maharajas are together. Standing on the left is Raja Gurdit Singh and on the right is Bhai Kahan Singh. Bhai Arjan Singh Bagrian, Maharaja Bhupindra Singh of Patiala and Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha are seated in this 1917 picture, often said to be the only one in which the two maharajas are together. Standing on the left is Raja Gurdit Singh and on the right is Bhai Kahan Singh. Photo: Courtesy Maj A P Singh
Bhai Kahan Singh was taught music by the famous musician, Mahant Gajja Singh. He learnt martial arts from Nihangs and was also a good shot and fond of hunting. He played the sitar and the dilruba with distinction, and was known as a soft-spoken, considerate man, who was always immaculately attired.
As an administrator, he began his innings in 1880, when he started working for Nabha state. He held administrative positions that included City Magistrate, Nazim, Mir/Munshi, Nehar Nazam. The term nazim was used for an administrator and would roughly be equivalent of Collector or Deputy Commissioner.
Bhai Kahn Singh first met Mr. M. A. McAuliffe in Rawalpindi where he had gone with the Maharaja. McAuliffe got permission from the Maharaja to allow Bhai Kahn Singh to teach him about the Sikh religion. He stayed back there for three months. Subsequently, McAuliffe spent many winters in Nabha and summers in the Hill Stations with Bhai Kahn Singh to study Sikh religion and Sikh history and, of course, Gurmukhi.
Years of research went into what became a six-volume work and Macauliffe often visited Nabha and other places to work with Bhai Kahan Singh who, in the meantime, had published Nanak Bhavarth Dipika (1888), Ham Hindu Nahin (1898), Gurmat Prabhakar (1898), Gurmat Sudhakar (1899), Gur Gira Kasauti (1899) and Sharab Nikhedh (1907). He had also come out with two tikas or exegeses, Jaimant Assamedh (1896) and Visnu Purana (1903).
The Sikh Religion was published by Clarendon Press, an imprint of Oxford Press, in the UK in 1907. Bhai Kahan Singh accompanied Macauliffe to London to assist him in the publication of the book. Macauliffe even transferred the copyright of the book to Bhai Kahan Singh. According to Major A. P. Singh, grandson of Bhai Kahan Singh, Macauliffe also offered his house, 10 Sinclair Road, London, to him. Bhai Kahan Singh, however, declined the offer.
Along with his literary pursuits, Bhai Kahan Singh continued to serve Nabha state and with increasing experience, and because of his ability to sort out problems, he was also given other responsibilities that included being a foreign minister, a Judge of the High Court and member of the Judicial Council, etc. He played a significant role in the framing of the Anand Marriage Act, which was proposed by Maharaja Ripudaman Singh, and as a result of which marriages were given a legal status. Like other people with means, he would spend summers in Solan and Shimla.
Nabha and Patiala states did not always enjoy a positive relationship even though the rulers of both states, Maharaja Bhupindra Singh and Maharaja Ripudaman Singh, were related. However, Bhai Kahan Singh, Bhai Arjan Singh Bagrian and Raja Gurdit Singh of Retgarh played a significant role in effecting reconciliation between the two rulers.
He compiled Gurushabad Ratanakar Mahan Kosh from 1912-1930. During the years 1915-1917, he was the legal adviser to the political agency of Patiala state. Mahan Kosh, as it is commonly called, has 64,263 entries and is well known for pithiness and accuracy. Maharaja Bhupindra Singh of Patiala sponsored its publication, and now Punjabi University, Patiala, is translating it into English and Hindi.
A Sikh with strong convictions, Bhai Kahan Singh practised what he preached. His son, Bhagwant Singh, popularly known as Hari ji, wrote Dasam Granth Tuk Tatkara, and index of Dasam Granth, thus continuing his father’s legacy.
He passed away during his afternoon nap on 23rd November 1938 but remains the perennial inspiration for scholars everywhere. As people reflect on his rich legacy, it is only natural that they should also salute this Renaissance man, Punjab’s pioneering encyclopaedist.