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The Multifarious Faces of Sikhism throughout Sikh History
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Sanatan Singh Sabhias

Time of origin: 1873

As British annexed Punjab in 1849, they opened the floodgate to Christian missionaries, who poured into the Punjab to gain Christian converts. This rocked the ‘Sanatan’ (traditional) Sikh world. C. W Forman and John Newton lead the Ludhiana Mission’s surge into the Majha region of Punjab. They set up their center in Lahore, and began coordinating the Christian proselytizing activities. English and vernacular schools, as well as hospitals and orphanages, were quickly established in the Punjab. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Methodists, Moravians, Episcopalians, Salvation Army etc. all vied with each other in gaining converts to Christianity.

Lahore Railway Church
Established during the British Raj, circa 1871 (printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons, 1905)

When the Church of England sent it’s two missionaries to the Punjab, on their departure from England they were instructed thus:

Though the Brahman religion still sways the minds of a large proportion of the population of the Punjab, the Mohammedan of another, the dominant religion and power for the last century has been the Sikh religion, a species of pure theism, formed in the first instance by the dissenting sect from Hinduism. A few hopeful incidents lead us to believe that the Sikhs may prove more accessible to scriptural truth than Hindus and Mohammedans.’
‘Stories from Sikh History Book IX’, by Kartar Singh and Gurdial Singh Dhillon, Pa. 73-74

Thus, Christian missionaries began to single out Sikhs, and it was not until 1873, when four young Sikh students of Amritsar Mission School decided to convert to Christianity that the Sanatan Sikh elders within the community decided to consider this movement a threat. These elders began to meet in gatherings that came to known as ‘Singh Sabhas’ (meaning ‘a meeting of Singhs). The first official Singh Sabha came into existence in 1873 in Amritsar.

A view of Baba Atal Gurdwara, Amritsar, circa late 19th century

It was headed by the Udasis, Nirmalas and Bedi Sikhs, and was founded by Baba Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia, a Sikh aristocrat. Sandhanwalia’s family had close ties to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s family for he was the cousin of the deposed and exiled King, Maharaja Duleep Singh.

Baba Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia

Born in 1837, and was only 12 years old when Maharaja Duleep Singh lost his empire to the British

Another leading figure of this Sabha was Baba Khem Singh Bedi, who was the grandson of the famous Sikh holy man, Baba Sahib Singh Bedi. The secretary of the Singh Sabha was the noted historian, Giani Gian Singh Nirmala. Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot was the patron of the Sanatan Singh Sabha. In addition to the four, many other Nirmala, Udasi and even Akali Nihang Singhs contributed to the success of this Sabha. The four youths at the Amritsar Mission School were persuaded by the Singh Sabha from converting to Christianity.

Damdama Sahib Singh Bedi

The mausoleum of Baba Sahib Singh Bedi, circa 1910

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