Bibi Harnam Kaur
Bibi Harnam Kaur ji (10 April 1882 - 1 October 1906), a pioneer in the field of women's education, was born on 10 April 1882 in a Udasi (Hindu), Sidhu Jatt family of Chand Purana, a village in Firozpur district of the Punjab.
Her original name was Jiuni. Her father's name was Bhagvan Das and mother's Ram Dei. Bhagvan Das was a religious minded person, had become a disciple of an Udasi sadhu, Sadhu Ram Das, of Firozpur, after whose death he became the head of his dera or seminary. Here Jiuni and her mother joined him when the former was only an infant.
She was a precocious child and had read Panj Granths, Dasam Granth and Hanuman Natak before she was six years of age. She then joined the local Arya Pathshala and learnt Hindi, but left off after six months because the Pathshala had no facilities to teach Gurmukhi.
Difficulty in education for girls
Later she was sent to the village of Daudhar, now in Faridkot district, where she studied for several years under Bhai Dula Singh. Meanwhile, Bhal Takht Singh, who had started a Gurmukhi school at Firozpur under the auspices of the local Singh Sabha, offered to open a school exclusively for girls.
The Singh Sabha welcomed the proposal but was reluctant to let it be run by a bachelor. To overcome the difficulty, Jiuni's parents promised Takht Singh the hand of their daughter - The Kanya Pathshala (literally girls' school), was opened in Firozpur on 5 November l902, and Jiuni joined it, both to learn and to teach, as an employee of the Singh Sabha.
Her betrothal to Takht Singh took place on 11 October 1893 and they were married on 8 May 1894. She received the new name of Harnam Kaur when she was administred, on 15 July 1901, Pahul or the rites of the Khalsa.
The couple threw themselves, heart and soul, into their work. Harnam Kaur's monthly salary was Rs 6 and her husband's Rs 8. On 1 September 1900, tired of internal dissensions in the management of the Singh Sabha, they quit its service, but continued to teach privately.
Boarding school opened
Early in 1903, Bibi Harnam Kaur persuaded her husband to open a boarding school for girls at Firozpur. A number of parents offered to send their daughter's to the boarding school which was named Sikh Kanya Maha Vidyala and which started functioning from March 1905. Harnam Kaur worked hard to make the Vidyala a success.
In addition to helping her husband at teaching, she looked after catering and lodging arrangements for their wards. She had also set up Istri Satsang, a women's religious society, which held meetings in the afternoon of every Wednesday, and a parcharak jatha or missionary group.
But she did not live long to serve the cause to which she had dedicated herself, and died on 1 October 1906.
From the Punjabi book "Adarshak Singhnia"
Sikh women always have been and will be the backbone of their community. Their selflessness lies second to none in the world. The life story of Bibi Harnam Kaur, a selfless pioneer in the field of female education, is one shining example.
She was born to Bhai Bhawan Das and Bibi Ram Dei in a village in the Ferozepur district of the Punjab state. Her original name was Jiuni. Her father was a religious minded person who became the head of a seminary after the death of his religious leader, Sadhu Ram Das.
She was mature in childhood and by the age of six, she had read many religious books like Punj Granthi. She studied Punjabi from a priest in a Gurdwara. Bhai Takhat Singh, a devoted selfless worker in the field of education, had started a Gurmukhi School for boys under the Singh Sabha (Sikh Society).
In Ferozpur city in 1882. He offered to open a school exclusively for girls. The Singh Sabha liked the idea, but was hesitant to let it be run only by a bachelor. To overcome this difficulty, Juini’s parents were approached to allow their daughter to help Takhat Singh with running the School for girls.
They agreed and the school was started in 1892. Bhai Takhat Singh was the manager and the Bibi was the only teacher. Neither of them was paid more than eight rupees per month. She was engaged to Bhai Takhat Singh in 1893 and married the next year.
She was baptized in 1901 taking the name Harnam Kaur. The couple worked whole- heartedly, but due to intolerable and undue interference of the management community which was suffering from internal dissensions, they quit its service in 1900, and continued to teach privately.
Now the couple wanted to start a Chief Sikh Girls school (The Sikh Kanya Mahavidyala), but financial problems surrounded them. They did not lose heart, sold their ornaments and unnecessary articles, and started the school with determination and faith in God in 1901. It was a name- sake of a school run by a couple in a thatched dripping house with only 3 students on its rolls. The following year teaching of English was also started.
Bibi Harnam Kaur persuaded her husband to open a boarding house for girls. They had to take a loan to purchase land to build the boarding house which started in 1904. This type of facility was rarely available in those days. Parents from far and wide got their daughters admitted in the school.
The school did not charge any tuition fee. It also did not receive any grant from the state as many conditions were attached with the financial help. Girls belonging to poor families and widows were given free boarding and lodging. It was run on donations collected from well to do Sikh families.
The school was treated as important as the Khalsa College, Amritsar which also started up to 8th grade at the same time. Bibi Harnam Kaur worked as superintendent of the boarding house and along with her husband lived there. The boarding house was run on family lines and she treated the boarders like sisters and served them like mothers.
It is said she washed the feet of girls with warm water when needed. She also gave head baths to the young girls and washed their clothes also. Boarders did not want to return to their homes even during vacation.
According to Bibi Harnam Kaur, founder of the school, the aim of the school was that an educated girl should prove of the greatest use to her house, she should be religious and chaste, devoted to the service of her husband and children, a perfect mother and a virtuous wife. Simplicity is a virtue she should love. She should be a useful member of society.
Religious education and singing of sacred hymns with the help of musical instruments was a daily feature of the school. Needle work and embroidery were also included in the school syllabus. In 1909 this school stood first in the all India exhibition of embroidery held at Lahore. Due to the devotion and sincere efforts of the couple, the school progressed by leaps and bounds.
The earliest authentic report about the progress of the school was written by two well-known personalities of the state.
- The Lt. Governor of Punjab visited the school, in 1915, and remarked, “I’m happy to note that the school has also a department for training lady teachers. I congratulate the founders of this institution and the Sikh community on the wonderful and unique success of the institution.”
- That same year, S. Sardul Singh Caveesher, a prominent Sikh leader, visited the school and wrote, “It was indeed very unfortunate that I did not come earlier to this place. I was at my wit’s end to decide whom to admire most, the worker or the work”. According to him, the enrollment of the school at that time was 312 of which 210 of them were boarders.
The school was successfully preparing the students for High and Proficiency in Punjabi classes of the Punjab University. There was a competent staff of 45 persons belonging to both the sexes. The property of the institution was worth about two hundred thousand rupees. The school started publishing a monthly magazine, Punjabi Bahen (Sister) to propagate female education.
The school had a good library which was started as early as 1901 in memory of Bhai Dita Singh. Bibi Harnam Kaur had also started, Istri Satsang, a women’s religious society, which held meetings every Wednesday.
It was really a wonderful development if we keep in view the period, about 100 years ago, when people did not like to send girls outside their homes. In those days education for girls was mostly carried out at home and it was described as domestic education.
At some places priests in Gurdwaras taught them only to read and write in Gurmukhi. Mostly girls were assigned the job of making dung cakes (for heating), cooking, spinning, cleaning utensils, plastering walls, taking food to the fields and picking cotton. Early marriage was prevalent.
This turnaround in educational reform for girls was all possible due to the untiring efforts of Bibi Harnam Kaur whose only ambition in life was to serve the people to the best of her ability. The motto of the couple was:
- The food should not fall short.
- The guest should not turn back.
- The wealth should not amass.
- The business should not slack.
She was an ordinary woman of middle height who dressed very simply. The only sign of superiority lay in her firm gait, and in her ambition to raise the status of women. Her main stay was her faith in God and her sole aim was to work honestly for female education, and she enjoyed this noble work. She was dedicated to the Goddess of education.
She was all humility, courtesy, painstaking, preserving, and selfless. She possessed a deep insight in the character of girls. Her face was expressive of energy and determination. She was a personification of motherly love and service, and a model of simplicity.
A true incident from her life as given below will prove it.
Some village folk entrusted to her a baby girl. She had at that time a child of her own on the breast. On the arrival of the starved baby, the kind Bibi brought it up on her own milk and trusted her own baby to the milk from the market. S. Sardul Singh Caveeshar met this girl who stood weeping before the photo of the Bibi. She (the girl) told him her life story. Bibi Harnam Kaur passed away in the prime of her life in 1907.
Her solid and unprecedented work of far reaching consequences was continued by her life partner and co-founder of the institution Bhai Takht Singh who remarried Bibi Agya Kaur. She was also devoted to the cause of female education. Bhai Takhat Singh on whom the community conferred the title of ’Living Martyr’ also left this world in 1937, but the institution is still one of the best private schools in the state.
His daughter Mrs. G. Parmpal Singh, a student of this school, headed the Punjab Education Department and retired about thirty year ago. Although Bibi Harnam Kaur did not live her full life. she left a permanent monument in the shape of ’Chief Sikh Girls School, Ferozepur City, due to which she will be remembered forever. She helped to raise the status of women and tried to emancipate them from the old shackles and prejudices. She really tried to make our homes a heaven.
She and her husband deserve to be called the architects of our community. They proved how devoted persons can work wonders with meager resources and unfavorable circumstances. It is due to her efforts that the Sikhs are ranking high among the Indian communities as far as the percentage among them of the educated women is concerned.