Baba Modan Singh
Hav Modan Singh, member of a survey team was conversant with the description of ‘Taposthan’ of the Shri Guru Gobind Singh ji, as given in the scriptures. The exact location of this spot had eluded all efforts, till he located the site that fitted the exact description. With the help of another devotee, Sant Sohan Singh, he laid the foundation of the present day ‘Tirthasthan’ in 1937 and opened the access through Govind Ghat. Dedicating his life to this religious place he took to living in hollow of tree trunks and surviving on meagre food, till his demise in 1960.
The Discovery of Hemkunt sahib
The Dasam Granth containing the composition ‘Bachitra Natak’ was compiled by his disciple Bhai Mani singh, in 1734 - twenty-six years after the death of the Guru. A tumultuous century passed before the attention of the Sikh community was drawn to the passage in Bachitar Natak that described Hemkunt Parbat and Sapatsring.
Kavi Santokh Singh, a mid-nineteenth century historiographer, was the first Sikh to pen his speculations about the Guru's tap asthan (place of meditation). In his fourteen volume Sri Gur Partap Suraj [Parkash] Granth first published in 1843, he elaborated on the story of Dusht Daman's creation and intense tapasaya at Hemkunt. Several decades more passed before the search for the actual location of the 'lake of ice' began. In the late nineteenth century, the Maharaja of Patiala gave a grant to Pandit Tara Har Narotam, a Nirmala scholar and Sikh historian to compile a comprehensive list of all the gurudwaras commemorating the life and work of the Gurus. In a work entitled Sri Gur Tirath Sangrah, published in 1884, he published descriptions of 508 of these sacred places and Hemkunt was among them.
In his account of Hemkunt, Pandit Narotam first connected the story about Dusht Daman from Suraj Parkash, with Hemkund but was doubtful because the version, as told there, did not fully conform with what the Guru himself wrote in his autobiography since Bachitar Natak reveals the only clues given about the Guru's tap asthan – that the place named Sapatsring (seven peaks), was on or near Hemkunt Parbat (lake of ice mountain) and was the same place at which King Pandu had practiced yoga. In order to corroborate these descriptions, he set out to explore the Garhwal Himalayas and his search took him to Badrinath and nearby Pandukeshwar, a village near the present-day Gobind Ghat. There, he came across local traditions referring to the same clues.
Beyond Badrinath, in a village named Mana near the Tibetan border, Narotam met with a group of Bhotia women. They were departing on a pilgrimage on the festival of Janam Ashtami, the birthday of Lord Krishna. He asked the women where they were going, and they said "We are going to Lokpal. There we will take ishnan." They described the lake as more sacred than even Badrinath, and Narotam asked if he could accompany them to have its darshan. Upon reaching the shore of the lake, he recalled the verses from Bachitar Natak as he gazed up at the seven peaks. He determined that the place where he was standing fit the description in the Guru's writings. Then, according the village elders, he wrote a powerful poem about the place. In Sri Gur Tirath Sangrah, he provided a description of the location of Hemkunt/ Sapatsring/Lokpal together with a hand-drawn map of the surrounding area. It seems, however, that Narotam's discovery was not heeded by the Sikh community until the twentieth century, when Hemkund (Hemkunt) Sahib was to be rediscovered singly and jointly, (paradoxical though it sounds) by two ex armymen – Sohan Singh, a retired granthi and Modan Singh, a havildar who retired from the Bengal Sappers.
In 1925, the renowned Punjabi historian, reformer, and poet Bhai Vir Singh published Sri Kalgidhar Chamatkar. The title refers to the ‘miracles of the plume-adorned one,' Guru Gobind Singh. The opening chapters of this "quasi-historical" biography describe the Guru's passage from Hemkunt to Sach Khand (the realm of Truth) where he was given his mission by God, and then from Sach Khand to Mat Lok (the terrestrial world). Although Bhai Vir Singh had never visited the area, he gave beautiful descriptions of the seven peaks of Sapatsring, of the Hemkunt lake, and of the stream which flows down from it to meet the Alaknanda river near the village of Pandukeshwar. He then described a cave in which a tall, slim ascetic sat in deep meditation. His meditation was so intense that he merged with God, and then God commanded that he go into the world to establish a brotherhood of ideal humans. Then Bhai Vir Singh also went on to relate the Guru's dialogues with other ascetics, yogis, penitents, and rishis from various religious traditions who were also doing austerities at Hemkunt. Bhai Vir Singh's account was evidently inspired by the passage from Bachitar Natak, by Kavi Santokh Singh's description in Suraj Parkash, and by Pandit Tara Har Narotam's discovery in Sri Gur Tirath Sangrah. Notes appended to the first chapter of post 1930's editions of Sri Kalgidhar Chamatkar give brief descriptions of four possible locations for Hemkunt. They indicate that Bhai Vir Singh did considerable research before concluding that Narotam's findings were correct.
When Sant Sohan Singh read Sri Kalgidhar Chamatkar in 1932, he found the description of Hemkunt so compelling that he resolved to find the place at which the Guru had meditated. Sohan Singh was a retired granthi from the Indian army was working in a gurdwara in Tehri Garhwal - the same region in which Hemkunt is located. He set out in search of the lake in 1933. Like Narotam before him, he worked from clues in Bachitar Natak and the Mahabharata, and perhaps from Narotam's own Sri Gur Tirath Sangrah. Sohan Singh was not successful that year, but he was so inspired by the idea that the tap asthan might exist in reality that he committed himself to carry on the search and thus returned to the area to try again in 1934. That year he went to Joshimath and Pandukeshwar where he made inquiries of the local people about holy places in the vicinity. It was they who said that the lake known as Lokpal, accessible from the valley on the other side of the Alaknanda river, might fit the description of Hemkunt Parbat Sapatsring. He crossed the river with the assistance of the villagers and started towards the sarovar they had spoken of.
On the final day of his journey, he climbed the steep slope towards Lokpal alone. When he saw a beautiful lake, he started to count the peaks which surrounded it, wondering if this could be the place described in Bachitar Natak. As he was counting, he heard a voice behind him say, "O Khalsa, kidhar aye ho (from where did you come)? Kya dhundhte ho (for what do you search)?" Sohan Singh turned and saw a tall rishi (hermit) clad all in white. He had a long beard, heavy eyelids, and a face so radiant that Sohan Singh was unable to look at him eye to eye. So he bowed his head before the rishi and said, "Baba Ji, Mai Guru Gobind Singh ka tap asthan dhundhne aya hoon (I came to search for the meditation place of Guru Gobind Singh)". The rishi gestured to a flat stone beside the water and said that this was the place at which the Guru had sat for so long in deep meditation. "Go and bow your head." Sohan Singh hastened to go, with his eyes filled with tears of joy. The ecstasy of fulfillment after a two year search left him somewhat dazed. Nevertheless, when he recovered a bit, resolved to ask the rishi more questions the holy man had disappeared. As per the testimony of a local man later employed by the Sikhs as a guide, guard, contractor, and caretaker in the years that followed the discovery of Hemkunt, Modan Singh, came to the valley in March of 1935 but was forced to turn back because of snow. In July the same year ie 1935, he met Sohan Singh and together they set out for the lake. Perhaps searching singly, in order to survey more area, Modan Singh reached the lake first. When he crested the slope, the weather was very cloudy. Slowly it cleared and he saw before him a clear, blue lake surrounded by a mountain with seven peaks. He wondered if he had at last found the place he had been seeking. As he stood beside the water he had a vision of Guru Gobind Singh addressing him and saying, "This is the place you are looking for. Come tomorrow and you will discover the exact spot on which I meditated." The next day, Modan Singh came to the lake again, accompanied by Sohan Singh, and they found an old manuscript handwritten on birch bark lying on a large flat stone beside the wate. The page, was deciphered by Sohan Singh and it was revealed that the stone slab was the spot where the guru had meditated for 1,200 years in a previous incarnation and thus Modan Singh erected a nishan sahib on that spot. The discovery of the place, and miraculous events that happened to him thereafter, led him to spend the remainder of his life in the service of the Guru and the shrine. The mysterious page has been untraceable since his death.
Later in 1936, Sohan Singh disclosed that he had met yet another aged yogi who stayed in the area. He described the yogi as covered with white hair and having long eyelashes which hooded his eyes. The yogi appearing before Sohan Singh, raised his hand in blessing, and said "Shabash! Tum acha kar rahe ho. Yahi hai, yahi hai Guru ka asthan, thik yahi hai (Well done! You are doing well. Here, here is the Guru's place, certainly here)"
In his excitement to spread news that the Guru's tap asthan had been located, Sant Sohan Singh first went to Mussoorie, a hill station in Uttarkhand. He approached the president of the gurdwara there and explained what he had found in the hope that a memorial could be set up beside the lake. The gurdwara president, disbelieved Sohan Singh. Therefore Sohan Singh went to Amritsar and announced his discovery before S.G.P.C. He was disappointed once again since his story was met with skepticism or ambivalence once again. Sant Sohan Singh then approached Bhai Vir Singh in Amritsar. The scholar questioned Sohan Singh thoroughly about the place he had discovered. For two days, Sohan Singh stayed with him in his home while further research was done . When at last Bhai Vir Singh felt satisfied that the place fit Guru Gobind Singh's description in Bachitar Natak, he committed himself to the cause of developing it. He gave Sohan Singh Rs. 2,100 with which to buy supplies to start construction of a small gurdwara on the shore of the lake and went on to publicize the discovery of Hemkunt in order to collect and manage further funds for its development. From 1936 onward, Bhai Vir Singh became instrumental in developing Hemkunt.
Before the first Sikhs came to the valley, there was a small stone walled mandir on the lakeshore. The four stones that comprised its roof and walls housed a statue of the Buddha alloyed from eight different metals. There was dissent among the local people when, in the early thirties, the Sikhs explained to them that they hoped to construct a gurduara nearby. Some villagers "did not want a Sikh shrine to supersede their ancient belief of the association of this place with Lakshman". They feared outsiders would compromise its sanctity. Other villagers did not understand the concept of a gurduara, so told the Sikhs to build a larger Lakshman mandir instead.
The Sikhs agreed, and the elders gave them permission to do repairs on the mandir and also build another one for their Guru. In 1936, repair work began on the mandir. The Sikhs had their contractor build a new four by four foot building to demonstrate that they respected the place's meaning for the locals. The same year, the first gurdwara was completed on the shore of the lake. Early in 1935, Sant Sohan Singh was purchasing building materials in Mussoorie when Modan Singh, again met him and asked what he was preparing to build. Sohan Singh explained, and Modan Singh asked if he might accompany him to the site. They went together to Hemkunt that same year. In Pandukeshwar they hired a contractor to oversee the construction, then the two Sikhs went to the lake accompanied by local men. Work was begun on a ten by ten foot stone gurdwara with a three foot verandah facing the lake. In November of the following year, the structure was completed over the same spot on the shore of the lake that had been indicated as the Guru's place of meditation. A copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, which had been presented by Bhai Vir Singh was formally installed inside during the first week of September, 1937 making Hemkunt Sahib the highest gurdwara in the world.
(In 1945, the Buddha figure was lost from the mandir, and it was replaced by a stone image crafted in Joshimath. When the original deity was recovered years later, it was installed in another Lakshman mandir in the nearby village of Bhyundar. The temple at Lokpal was enlarged still further in June of 1988 with the help of the military. )
Soon after, Sohan Singh contracted tuberculosis and Bhai Vir Singh arranged for his treatment in Amritsar. In February of 1939, Sohan Singh passed away, but not before entrusting Modan Singh with his mission to continue the development of Hemkunt Sahib. From 1938 onwards, he came with a small group every year to have darshan of the Guru's tap asthan. The first structure built at Gobind Dham (vill Ghangharia) was a small tin shed. Prior to its construction, Modan Singh had found shelter from rain, cold, and wild animals in the hollowed out trunk of a tree. The tree still stands in the courtyard of Gurdwara Gobind Dham, and pilgrims gather around the plaque mounted before it to read its story. A series of appeals for construction funds was made by Bhai Vir Singh in the pages of the Khalsa Samachar and other Punjabi publications.
Monies were raised by Sikh sangats from India and abroad. Over time, dharamsalas and gurduaras were constructed along the path in Gobind Dham and Gobind Ghat, and along the road in Joshimath, Srinagar, Rishikesh, and Hardwar. During these formative years of development, all construction materials were carried along the route without the benefit of a motorable road to Gobind Ghat. At that time, the bus terminus was at Chamoli, some seventy kilometres away. In 1951, the Chief Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar was given responsibility for the upkeep and further development of the route. Arrangements to have a path constructed were made with the locals. Then, with the inspiration of Bhai Vir Singh, the first organized jatha was formed in 1952. The small group of pilgrims were led up the beginnings of a path which was not completed until two years later. The going was difficult, but not as difficult as it had been in previous years when local men had held the Sikh pilgrims, unaccustomed to mountain terrain, by the hand and helped them up the slope to the lake.
In March of 1960, shortly before his death in December, Modan Singh established a seven member trust to take over the management responsibilities. Today the trust oversees the operation of seven gurduaras along the route from Hardwar to Hemkunt. Inspiration for building a larger gurdwara at Hemkunt Sahib came from a woman who was given the mission to lay its foundation stone in a vision of Guru Gobind Singh. When Mata Ram Kaur, a housewife from Pathankot in Punjab, presented herself in Gobind Ghat in 1960 and revealed her purpose, the management thought her a hoax. However, she was able to convince them of the sincerity of her mission by describing details of Hemkunt that never having been there before, she could not have known. That year a decision was taken at Gobind Ghat to draw up plans for a new gurdwara.
This was supported by the fact that Modan Singh had also foretold that in a vision, Guru Gobind Singh himself revealed to him that the shape of the Gurudwara to come would be in the form of a lotus. Accordingly, the architect commissioned to draw up plans for the new gurdwara designed it with the image of a lotus in mind. Since no specifications or guidance were available, several designs were considered and experiments were made. The plans were drafted in 1964, but work could not begin until 1968 when the motor road was extended to Gobind Ghat and beyond, along the Alaknanda valley towards Badrinath. Alongside early sketches of the new structure published in ‘Sri Hem Kunt Sahib: History and Guide’, a caption reads, "Look at the design and you will feel that the Creator of Universe has gently placed a Brahm Lotus at the exact spot where Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji had realized Oneness with Him. From heavens He holds the stem of the Brahm Lotus in His Hand, that is why, petals touch the ground while stem is skywards,.”
The roof of the gurdwara has been designed to withstand the weight of heavy winter snowfall. At its base, five half-ton foundation plates were laid over the course of three years required to haul them up. On these plates, pillars were erected, and the final hexagonal perimeter of the gurduara began to take shape. At its base the gurudwara measures 110 by 110 feet, and doors on each of the five sides symbolically welcomed pilgrims from every faith and direction. The lower storey was completed first, and in a room in its centre the Guru Granth Sahib was installed beneath a brass canopy. At the end of the 1993 season, the upper storey was completed and the Guru Granth Sahib was installed at the start of the 1994 season. Work still continues at the site to improve paths and facilities…………….
The originality of this post by Rattanbir is limited to identifying the spot on Google Earth; restructuring and clarifying the information contained in the thesis by Heather Michaud (1998) titled : WALKING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE GURU: SIKHS AND SEEKERS IN THE INDIAN HIMALAYAS and adding some tales he heard on his own journey to the shrine in 1989. In case any reader has additional information on Sohan Singh Modan Singh or the identity of the architect who designed the gurudwara, or any other anecdote related to the spot or the gurudwara, but duly supported by a credible document.
Gurdwara Gobind Ghat was built under the supervision of Modan Singh in 1944-45 A.D
Author of original article: Lt Col Rattanbir Singh, Principal, St Kabir Public School, Sector-26, Chandigarh (India)