Posted by: Singh Is King | Sunday, November 4, 2007

The dera way for Punjabis – Eating Sikhi out of Punjab

With her eyes on a door 30 feet away, she rests her head against the wall of the darbar sahib of Dera Sant Baba Ram Singh Ganduanwale. Along with half a dozen sisters-in-faith, who are asleep, she awaits Puran Brahm Maharaj to open that door and give darshan to the sangat (congregation) on a hot Sunday afternoon.

Karnail Singh, head of Dera Baba Mastanaji, is a former Youth Akali leader.

A couple of granthis are reading softly from the Granth Sahib in the centre of the hall. “You can sit or lie down. Nobody knows when the door will open. Are you visiting this place for the first time?” the woman from Mohali asks enthusiastically. High walls enclose the dera on the Chandigarh-Sirhind road, and after a number of questions from sevadars, one is able to enter the courtyard. Some people are lying on the grass, with their children playing nearby. There are all kinds of vehicles parked inside. A number of people are working in the langar (community kitchen), and we are asked to partake of it as we wait. The woman from Mohali says that the Baba’s family has been with the Sikh gurus from the days of Guru Nanak. “Maharajji’s brother, Sant Baba Ajit Singh ji Hansaliwale, also has a dera, a few kilometres away.

You can go there and visit the highly enlightened soul,” she says. She shows posters and calendars of the two brothers who provide spiritual sustenance to thousands like her. “Even before I tell him my problem or pain, he knows it. And if he suggests a way out, you can be rest assured it will work,” she says. “Though I visit a gurdwara in Mohali, everyone needs a maharaj for solving small and big problems,” she adds, as she offers me a glass of lassi in the langar, where half a dozen men are waiting.

When I tell them that I want to write about their devotion to the Maharaj, they clam up. One of them raises his voice and says: “Maharaj ji is a learned man. He has the world at his feet, and does not believe in publicity. And he has told us not to publicize our faith either. Journalists write whatever they want to. So please excuse us.” The woman’s tone, too, changes, but she has a suggestion. “You start coming here, and in a few weeks you will experience the miracles of Maharaj ji. Then you write. “Tens of thousands of devotees like her flock to deras looking for a maharaj or sant baba for spiritual guidance and a magical panacea for their woes. Apart from devotees, the babas get sewa-voluntary service. Sewa can be anything from sweeping and cooking, to offerings like an air-conditioner or a few sacks of wheat. Each dera, which means a place, sports a darbar sahib, with the continuous reading of the Granth Sahib, and a langar.

Most gurus interpret the Granth Sahib and preach respect for all religions. There is nothing like conversion. Alongside the Granth Sahib, people place the portrait of their Maharaj ji Sant Ram Singh’s dera at Neelon Bridge in Ludhiana is simply called Guru ka Langar. He quotes Guru Nanak to the faithful, who touch his feet, make an offering, and pour their hearts out. Credited with traveling across the country to propagate the teachings of Guru Nanak, the 90-year-old seer has only one message: “Only your God is real. Everything else like money, friends and family will be left behind. Do all the good you can. “Joginder Singh, in his 40s, could never think of doing anything other than serving at the dera. “If people want to reach God, they need a teacher. For me that teacher is Sant Ram Singh ji,” he says. Ram Singh visits the dera only occasionally. Those who want to meet him go to his house a couple of kilometres away. Surjit Kaur, a little over 60, lays her infant grandson at Ram Singh ji’s white socks-covered feet, and tells him that he has not stopped crying for the past two days. He strokes the baby’s head and tells Surjit that all will be well. “This grandson is Babaji’s gift to us, to my daughter who has two daughters. We don’t go to any doctor for the children as he is our doctor,” she says.

Why do people flock to deras, I ask Ram Singh. “People have to be guided to the Guru. It is kaliyug, and more and more people will go with the frauds, who will exploit them. I am a man of Guru Nanak and I tell people to consume neither liquor nor meat and to work hard. I tell them that apart from God, everything else will be left behind,” he replies. I ask him to comment on the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda’s Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh. Ram Singh replies: “I want to know what his religion is. Who is he, an udasi, a jogi, a sanyasi, a nath, a sant or a Sikh? And whose preaching is he teaching? A real mahatma never fights. “As I leave, some say Ram Singh ji did a 25-year-long penance before setting up the dera.

I drive along the meandering roads to reach Dera Dhakki Sahib at Maksudra village of Payal tehsil in Ludhiana. Baba Darshan Singh, 43, a resident of Gharuan village in Ropar district, founded the dera in 1987, and has remained controversial all along. Three years ago the CBI indicted him and 18 followers for opening fire and attacking the villagers, who resisted the dera’s encroachment on public land. Darshan Singh’s supporters used to carry arms and flaunt their political connections. He himself flew in a helicopter to preach all over Punjab. And in the political battle between Akali stalwarts Parkash Singh Badal and the late Gurcharan Singh Tohra a few years ago, he is said to have sided with Tohra. An angry Badal jailed him when he became chief minister last time. Once mobs torched his dera. The starting point of Dhakki Wale Baba [Darshan Singh] may have had a lot to do with the forest land on which the dera has come up. The dera is lush with trees and scores of devotees visit the eco-friendly huts, which house the darbar sahib, the langar, and a guest house.

Darshan Singh’s aide Gurdeep Singh explains that Dhakki comes from the dhak tree that grows abundantly in this forest. The dera’s private areas are sealed off with a grille fence. Built in the centre of an enormous earthen mound, the two-storied house has a cave-like entrance, which gives it the look of a sadhu’s abode. Notices on trees exhort people to respect all religions. Darshan Singh does social work by helping poor girls get married, conducting de-addiction programs and teaching Gurbani.

Says Gurdeep: “Baba tells his devotees to be honest and to serve the poor. His is the role of a teacher. People are not allowed to touch his feet, or bow before him. They can do so at the darbar sahib.” The controversies surrounding Darshan Singh have apparently not affected his followers. Many have traveled from distant places, unmindful of the scorching heat. Apparently many deras are unsure whether the Akal Takht wants their closure or just the winding up of Dera Sacha Sauda of Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh. At Dhakki Sahib, there is an undercurrent of fear as they are not on good terms with Chief Minister Badal.

My next destination is the Dera Baba Mastanaji Maharaj near Mandi Ahmedgarh. Its Sant Baba Karnail Singh, 31, assumed the gaddi of the 18-year-old dera one and a half years ago. For 14 years, Karnail Singh was the general secretary of the Youth Shiromani Akali Dal and a trusted lieutenant of the Badals, particularly Shiromani Akali Dal working president Sukhbir Singh Badal. “My family in Canada was very devoted to Baba Mastanaji Maharaj and I used to visit this place from childhood. Eighteen months ago, he took me to the bank and made me the nominee of his assets. That night he told the sangat that I would be the spiritual inheritor of his teachings, his dera, and he passed away,” says Karnail Singh as he supervises the kar seva (voluntary work) of his devotees. Karnail Singh, clad in a white pyjama-kurta, tells the sangat to stop kar seva for a while because of the heat. The doors are opened, and the people rush in. They are told not to touch his feet. After listening to their burden of woes, he comforts them and hands out prasad-a small plastic pouch of puffed rice and a tablet. “These tablets help these people a lot,” says Karnail Singh showing a plastic basket full of strips of Avil and Duragesic. One is an anti-allergy pill and the other is a combo of diclofenac sodium and paracetamol.

The prasad and his comforting words seem to work wonders on the devotees.Says Vimala Rani, who is in her 50s: “I had a severe eye ailment and had to undergo two surgeries in Ludhiana. But the pain continued. Three months ago, my daughter’s mother-in-law told me to come here. I have been coming ever since and now I have much relief.” Jasmeet Kaur, another devotee, says: “The old Maharajji knew our problems on his own. Even when doctors gave up, his cures worked. That jyot is with this young Baba, he’s a true inheritor,” she says

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