Pioneers travel the roads less travelled by motley humans. The destiny keeps them on their toes and they never reach their wits end. The spirit of adventure and will to move beyond the fog keeps their imaginations locked onto newer and newer targets. They just move on. This story is about one such pioneer- Sardar Sham Singh.
Sham Singh was born in 1890 in Village Purkhali of Ropar District of undivided Punjab into a Jat Sikh family. The family owned a small tract of land and used to till the lands and rear a few buffaloes to sustain their living. He was all of 19 years when he came to know about farming opportunities in Burma (Myanmar of today). His mother wanted him to get married and settle down like the other boys of Village Purkhali. Sham Singh had other ideas. The spirit of adventure to the unknown lands of Burma had overtaken him and in January 1910 he set course for a 4000 Kms journey from Ropar to Burma. He was the only one in all the adjoining villages to have set on this journey. Holding his frugal belongings and modest money, he bade goodbye to his parents and started the journey to Delhi. As the images of his village fell behind, his mind drifted to the future that beckoned him. Crossing the vast plains of Punjab which would one day bear the City of Chandigarh, he reached Delhi. Resting in Gurudwara Sarais, Sardar Sham Singh began a hard toil towards Burma from Delhi.
Crossing the states of UP, Bihar and Assam, Sham Singh finally reached Imphal, Manipur in late April 1910. He had hopped from place to place, working along the way and generated money to ensure his sustenance during the journey. At Imphal, Sardar Sham Singh took the directions for moving into Burma. A small caravan of bullock carts was shaping its journey towards the hamlets of Moreh and Tamu. The international borders had not been drawn when Sham Singh reached Tamu after a 5 days journey from Imphal to Tamu. Language became his biggest barrier but that did not deter the tough 19 year old lad to scale his way up inside Burma. Finally, traversing miles away from Ropar, Punjab; Sardar Sham Singh reached Lashio in upper Burma. Lashio is the largest town in northern Shan State, Myanmar, about 200 kilometres northeast of Mandalay. It is situated on a low mountain spur overlooking the valley of the Nam Yao river. Lashio was the administrative center of Lashio Township and Lashio District and was also the administrative center of Shan State (North). At Lashio, Sham Singh finally dug his anchor and soon he picked up an employment with a generous Burmese gentleman named U Maung.
The tall and strapping Sham Singh was soon tilling the lands of U Maung and learning the new language and culture. He was by now almost 4000 kms away from his home. U Maung was also very happy with the hard working Sikh and adopted him as a part of his family. Sham Singh had turned 25 when U Maung suggested that he marries a local girl and settle down in Burma. U Sham, as he was popularly being called agreed to the matrimony and soon he married a Shan girl. U Sham raised his family and soon he had land holdings of his own. His wife bore him 3 daughters and a son Mehar Singh in 1932. Young Mehar was an energetic child and would visit the fields with Sham Singh. Soon, the news of fighting forces of the Japanese Imperial Army started reaching Lashio state. U Maung and Sham Singh were very worried as the clouds of the big war were nearing them.
To cut off China from Allied aid, Japan went into Burma, captured Rangoon on 08 March 1942, cutting the Burma Road lifeline to China. Moving north the Japanese took Tounggoo, Burma, and then captured Lashio in upper Burma on 29 April 1942. U Maung had bid goodbye to his good friend U Sham and his family in Feb 1942 and promised to look after his properties and belongings. Sham Singh and his wife trudged back the same route that Sham had taken almost 03 decades back. Crossing into Manipur, Sham Singh and his family crossed the British Indian troops and received the news of Punjab from the troops belonging to Punjab. Finally, in May 1942, Sham Singh arrived at Village Purkhali, Ropar with his family. It was a tearful reunion with his kith and kin. His mother had expired a decade ago waiting for him. His father was not keeping very well. Sham Singh went back to tilling the meagre lands that the family held. His wife and children, meanwhile, were trying to adjust to the new surroundings, language and food barriers. The only common subject was the fertile lands of Burma and Punjab.
The clouds of partition and the pangs of new atmosphere kept Sham Singh unsettled in Punjab. A letter from U Maung arrived in 1946 and Sham Singh prepared to move back to Lashio. As the family moved out of Purkhali towards East, they crossed scores of families which were displaced towards the West. U Maung and U Sham had a tearful reunion at Lashio and true to his words; U Maung restored all the lands and belongings of U Sham. Once again, U sham began tilling his lands. His son Mehar Singh had no interest in the lands and wanted to open his own shop. The location of Lashio is unique and the population comprised of Shan, Chinese and Burmans. Mehar Singh soon set up a shop of textiles along with U Maung’s youngest son and the business prospered. He married 02 of his daughters to Burmese men and settled their families and the third daughter was married in Punjab.
The events of life turned again in 1962 and the geo-politics of Burma took a new turn. Once again, Sham Singh and his family had to shape course towards Purkhali, Ropar. U Maung once again took charge of the family’s belongings. Back at Purkhali, Sham Singh and his family came to known as ‘Burma Wale’. Sham Singh had got his meagre share of the family’s lands and got down again to stitch his life. In 1966, he got the news of U Maung’s illness. He and Mehar Singh along with the ladies started back for Lashio. India and Burma, by now, had an International Border. Reaching Manipur, Sham Singh had a tough time reaching Moreh, Manipur. Moreh, by now had become a closed establishment and one had to have a permit to visit this border outpost. Sham Singh struggled his way through and crossed over to the Tamu town on the Burmese side. Using all his links with the affable Burmese, Sham Singh and Mehar Singh reached Lashio. They got resident’s permit in Burma and once again cleared the dust from their locked house and shop. U Maung breathed his last in the lap of U Sham and now it was U Sham’s turn to look after his friend’s family as an elder. The family continued to stay till U Sham suffered a minor stroke in 1982. He was 92 years of age. It was his grand wish that he wanted to die in Purkhali, Ropar. Mehar Singh brought Sardar Sham Singh back to Ropar in 1983 and the state was in its own turmoil. The big locks in front of houses silently told the widespread migrations towards the East from Purkhali but not as far as Burma. The city of Chandigarh was by now touching base with Ropar. The bustling activities and migrations did not miss Sham Singh’s much travelled wisdom and in 1984 he persuaded Mehar Singh to move out of Purkhali and return to Lashio once again. As he bade farewell to Mehar and his family, Sham Singh knew that he would not meet his son again. In Jun 1985, the night had blacked out Village Purkhali. Sham Singh lay on his cot in his mud house at Purkhali. Soon, the day’s heat melted into the night’s cold and Sham Singh’s soul left his body. His grandson Balbir Singh found him lying with a smile on his lips as he tightly held his sacred “Guru Granth Sahib”. The strong Sardar had finally left for his last journey at the age of 95.
Mehar Singh reached Purkhali locking his shop and properties and handing them over to U Maung’s son. The family had now decided to settle down forever in Purkhali. The connect with Burma remained through Mehar Singh’s 02 sons who had settled down at Moreh, Manipur. Balbir Singh, the eldest son of Mehar Singh married Jagjit Kaur from Moreh. She too had a Burmese connection as her mother is also the Kayan tribe of Burma. Mehar Singh never liked the tilling of lands and kept his interest alive in business till he passed away in 2007. Balbir Singh has great passion for tilling of lands and the affable Burmese looking Sikh continues to till his meagre lands in Village Purkhali. The see-saw of life is unique and Balbir’s son Manmeet has no interests in tilling of lands and desires to join the Army.
Lying almost 09 Kms away from the main road leading from Rangeelpur to Ropar, Purkhali bears a testimony to the epic journey undertaken by the Backpacker Sardar Sham Singh. Criss crossing 4000 kms, Sham Singh always came back to Purkhali to settle down. Each time, the circumstances pushed him to his limits and he had to find his solace at Lashio, Burma. His family has continued to be spread from Punjab to Manipur to Burma. His surviving grandchildren are still struggling to settle down their lives as they still remember their Lashio connect and U Maung’s family which is still waiting for their return. Balbir Singh wishes to take Manmeet to Lashio to show him the closed shop and their house. The Backpacker’s genes are turning into small tides and who knows if someone from Purkhali again undertakes the arduous journey!! All the best Manmeet....
PS:- This story does not end here. We travelled to Village Purkhali, Ropar on 23 Aug 2014 to link up with Sardar Balbir Singh and his wife Jagjit Kaur. Jagjit happens to be a childhood friend of my wife Aparna from Moreh, Manipur. Jagjit was absolutely hale and hearty when she saw us off from Purkhali on 23 Aug 14 after we went around the village shrouded in olden images. As I was completing this story on 31 Aug 14, we got the tragic news that Jagjit Kaur expired today (31 Aug 14) after a fever of a few hours. The root cause is not yet known and the warm welcome accorded by Jagjit and Balbir are still fresh in my mind. RIP Jagjit.