BHAGAT LABHA MALL : A true follower of Guru Nanak Dev

Gursharn Singh Randhawa

     Keeley is a small village in the district Shekhupura of Punjab province of Pakistan. Before August 15, 1947, this area, rather the entire Pakistan, was a part of undivided India. The village Keeley is situated 52 km north of Nankana Sahib, the place where the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev, was born in 1469. Two canals, namely, Lower Chenab Canal (constructed in 1892) and Qadirabad-Balloki Link Canal (constructed in 1967), running in parallel, are present on the western side of Keeley; the latter canal runs just adjacent to the village. If one travels from Hafizabad to Shekhupura by road, just after crossing the bridge on canals, one finds this village on both sides of the road. In the last decade of nineteenth century, Keelay was slightly smaller than its present size and had about 500 houses. About 65% inhabitants of the village were Muslims and the rest were Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. At that time Khushabi Mall Chawla, a Hindu, and his family were living in this village.

      Khushabi Mall had six sons, namely, Barkat Ram, Sohna Mall, Dyal Mall, Daulat Mall, Kashi Ram and Bhag Mall and a daughter Gurdai, who was the second child. Khushabi Mall owned a shop and some agricultural land but the family was living from hand to mouth. As the sons of Khushabi Mall grew up, they opened four more shops in the village and also became partners in a brick kiln located near the canal bridge. Daulat Mall started a shop in Lunda village which was at a distance of 6 km from Keeley and Kashi Ram opened a shop in Chattam village which was at a distance of 1.5 km from the Chawla home. With these developments, the economic condition of the family became better. The marriages of the sons and daughter of Khushabi Mall were solemnized at their appropriate ages. Even after their marriages, all the sons of Khushabi Mall lived together as a joint family in a single home. The husband of daughter Gurdai died after one year and she came back to Keeley. She spent the rest of her life in her father's home as a widow. The Chawla family owned three horses, four oxen, six buffaloes and four cows and it was considered to be a prosperous family of the village. The people in the village addressed Chawla family members as 'Shahs' meaning rich persons.

      The village had a religious place known as dharamshala in which Guru Granth Sahib and Bhagwat Geeta were kept. No separate gurdwara or temple existed in Keeley. All the Chawla family members regularly visited dharamshala and paid their regards to the religious books kept there. Some of them used to recite regularly Japji Sahib, the sacred writing of Guru Nanak. At that time many Hindu parents in North India were proudly raising one or two of their sons as Sikhs and Hindu-Sikh marriages were quite common. Hence, some members of the Chawla family were also Sikhs. Every year, after the wheat harvesting, the Chawla family was visited by two special guests - Baba Gurbachan Singh Bedi and his younger brother, who lived in a village named Kotli Bawa Faqir Chand, located 22 km south of Sialkot city. These persons, who claimed to be the descendents of Guru Nanak, used to stay in the outer part of the house ("baithak") of Chawla family for one to two months. During this time, they sang Gurbani (the writings from Guru Granth Sahib) everyday and explained its meanings. They also read out the life stories of Guru Nanak from the 'Janam Sakhi'. The Chawla family members and some other interested persons from the village listened raptly to these stories. On auspicious occasions, Khushabi Mall's family members visited Gurdwara Sacha Sauda, situated at a distance of 18 km from the Keeley village towards the southern side. At this place in the fifteenth century Guru Nanak fed hungry saints with food which he bought with the money given by his father to start a business. Some of the Chawla family members also visited Nankana Sahib Gurdwara.

      Dyal Mall, the third son of Khushabi Mall, was blessed with a daughter, which was named as Inder Kaur. About four years later a son was born and he was given the name Labha Mall. No written record of the birth year of Labha Mall is available but it is believed that he was born in the year 1912. When Labha Mall was only eight months old, his mother died. Under these circumstances his aunt ("bhua") Gurdai and his sister Inder Kaur took care of him. As Labha Mall grew up, he started, as per the family tradition, visiting dharamshala. Soon he began reciting Japji Sahib daily in the morning. Every year, during the visits of Baba Gurbachan Singh and his brother, he was getting a good exposure to the teachings of Guru Nanak and Guru Granth Sahib. He also started visiting Gurdwara Sacha Sauda on auspicious occasions. The story related to this Gurdwara, as his later life revealed, seems to have left a great imprint on him. He often recited the writings of Guru Nanak while doing work in the shop and the fields.

      Labha Mall was married to Kartar Kaur in 1931 and the married couple was blessed with four sons, namely, Banarsi Lal, Amrik Chand, Darshan Lal and Satish Kumar, and a daughter, Sujata. In 1944, Labha Mall's brother-in-law (husband of his only sister Inder Kaur), his eldest uncle Barkat Ram and his father Dyal Mall died of illness within a period of few months. These deaths created a big vacuum in his life. But the tragedies did not end here. He was destined to face more terrible realities of life. In June, 1947, when partition of India appeared to be a reality, Labha Mall, along with his cousin Khajan Chand (the son of Daulat Mall), moved to Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan to explore an alternative living place for the family. At the time of partition of India in August, 1947, Chawla family members had to suddenly leave their home because of communal riots. They could carry only a bicycle with them. The riots spread in many areas and dead bodies were lying everywhere. Labha Mall and Khajan Chand walked, under dangerous circumstances, from Sri Ganganagar to Amritsar hoping that the family would arrive by train. At Amritsar railway station they got news from a refugee that their family members have been murdered. They started crying but did not lose hope. They spent a week at the railway station and ran towards every train that arrived during this period only to get disappointed. Weeping day and night, their eyes became red and swollen. Finally, after about a week of agonizing wait, a freight train meant to carry coal in open wagons arrived full of refugees. In one of the wagons of this train, Labha Mall and Khajan Chand found their family members. On meeting the family members gave news to Labha Mall that during riots, his two uncles ('chachas'), namely, Daulat Mall and Kashi Ram, were brutally murdered and his eldest son Banarsi Lal narrowly escaped death thrice. In fact all the refugees in that train narrowly escaped being massacred on the way.

      Homeless, penniless and deeply pained with the murders of his uncles, Labha Mall searched several places for a shelter. Finally, out of helplessness, he, along with his family, took refuge in an abandoned mosque in Karnal city, about 130 km north of Delhi. Their shelter place was very small (15 feet long and 8 feet wide) and had no doors. Hungry and devastated, Labha Mall and his family had to start a new life with almost nothing with them. Labha Mall began working in the newly started grocery shop of his brother-in-law. Banarsi Lal, the eldest 14-year-old son of Labha Mall, started selling candies ("toffees") at the Karnal railway station. Young Banarsi was also moving from street to street with washing soap and washing soda on his head, loudly calling people (giving 'hoka') to buy these items from him. For a short time, Banarsi also became a street vendor to put up "kali"(metallic coating) on brass utensils and repair umbrellas. Unfortunatley, after few months, Labha Mall became ill with jaundice and his health deteriorated since a 'hakeem', by mistake, prescribed a wrong medicine. As a result of prolonged and serious illness, he had to leave his grocery shop work. This was a tough time for everybody in the family. At this stage the only earning member of the family was young Banarsi, whose income was not enough to buy the required quantity of food for the family members. On several occasions the family ate chapaties ('rotian') with pickle or 'chatni' (crushed onions) only. Soon the innovative teenager Banarsi started putting lids on used tins and then sold these as storage containers. With the income from this work he became able to feed all the family members. Labha Mall took medicine from another 'hakeem' and recovered soon. After complete recovery he opened a cloth shop, jointly with his brother-in-law, in Purani Mandi. Banarsi Lal and Amrik Chand together started making and selling "trunks" (metallic suitcases). The collaborative business of two brothers brought good income and they were able to save some money. They bought a 70 ft X 60 ft plot in Model Town for Rs. 3, 100. Then by taking a loan of Rs. 6, 300, they could build a house on this plot. On the auspicious Dussehra day in 1956, the Labha Mall family shifted into the new house. This was a new colony and no other house was near the newly constructed house. But Labha Mall's family had to shift to this house since they had to vacate the mosque shelter.

      One day in 1957, at a distance of about 1 km from his house, Labha Mall met a saint, Nikka Singh 'Virakat,' who was sitting under a small shelter in an agricultural field outside the city. The saint gave him his blessings. Nikka Singh was a 'Virakat' saint (not attached to materials and places) moving from place to place. He was always making his stay under a small shelter outside a village or a city; he never touched money. Labha Mall used to visit the saint quite often. Sometimes, out of devotion, Labha Mall carried some eatables with him for the saint. The saint Nikka Singh had a thorough and deep knowledge of Vedas and Guru Granth Sahib. He had studied for several years Sanskrit and Vedas at Kashi (Banaras). He explained to Labha Mall the philosophy of Guru Nanak. Since his childhood, Labha Mall had been reciting Japji Sahib daily in the morning but now he learnt the meanings of this sacred writing and the other writings in the Guru Granth Sahib. He got a desire to live his life according to the teachings of Guru Nanak and Guru Granth Sahib.

      Soon the financial condition of Labha Mall family started improving. Like Banarsi Lal and Amrik Chand, the two younger sons of Labha Mall, namely, Darshan Lal and Satish Kumar, also entered into business. All the four brothers got miraculous success in their work. Suddenly money, materials and fame came in plenty. They got everything they aspired for. The eldest son Banarsi Lal became the first in Asia to set up an automobile tyre factory with an indigenous technology and his "Super Tyres" became a big success making him a prominent businessman of North India. The other three sons of Labha Mall also became well-established businessmen.

      Labha Mall's personality had a tremendous influence on his family members. Like him, all his sons became the followers of Guru Nanak and Guru Granth Sahib. They imbibed the teachings of Guru Nanak in their lives and carried out business with utmost honesty. When the eldest son, Banarsi Lal, was at the peak of his professional career, he was offered many awards but he did not accept any of these. All the sons of Labha Mall neither organized social parties nor participated in such gatherings. Despite their enormous wealth, they remained humble and modest.

      As per the teachings of Guru Nanak, Labha Mall lived a very simple life. He wore white clothes and ate simple food. Though his sons owned many cars, yet he was going to different places in the city on his bicycle only. As more wealth came to the family, he became more humble. The marriages of his four sons and daughter were solemnized by simple ceremonies. Invitation cards were not printed and reception parties not organized. No gifts were accepted. Even band and decoration were missing in these marriages. During the marriages of his elder sons, Banarsi Lal and Amrik Chand, the marriage parties consisted of about 15 persons. When his third son Darshan Lal got married, the marriage party had only four persons (the bridegroom, the father Labha Mall and two elder brothers). At the time of the marriage of his youngest son, Satish Kumar, the marriage party was made up of only two persons - the bridegroom and his father. Similarly, all the next generation marriages were conducted with simple ceremonies only.

      When his sons started earning very well, Labha Mall, at the age of about 45 years, decided to devote his remaining life totally to spirituality and service of humankind. With the help of some other like-minded persons, he decided to build a spiritual place, Nirmal Kutia, in Karnal at the place where he had met the saint Nikka Singh for the first time. The person, who owned this land, donated it for building the spiritual place. But the land was not enough. The sons of Labha Mall donated money to buy the adjoining land. Finally, a spacious and beautiful building of Nirmal Kutia became a reality. Guru Granth Sahib and Bhagwat Geeta were installed in the new building. In the beginning Labha Mall used to visit Nirmal Kutia from home but after a few years he started staying at Kutia day and night. He organized many religous functions at Nirmal Kutia. The most prominent was the one in which 251 simultaneous recitations ('Akhand Paths') of Guru Granth Sahib were completed in 1992. In the Nirmal Kutia, everyday Labha Mall would get up at 1:00 AM, take bath, sit on an old jute sac ('purani bori') and meditate. Around 3:30 AM, he would break coal, light the furnaces ('angithis') and prepare tea. The lines on his hands became permanently black because of breaking of coal daily. At 4:00 AM, he would serve tea to all the visitors who stayed for night at the Kutia. During the day he listened to the recitations of the Holy Books. He devoted some of his time to listen to the problems of poor and needy persons visiting Nirmal Kutia. He always tried his best to solve their problems. Most often he used to sleep at about 9:00 PM. His wife, Kartar Kaur, also joined him in some of the above activities, particularly preparing food for the visitors. Labha Mall followed the above schedule in the last 40 years of his age. Seeing his devotion to spirituality and service to humanity, the saint Nikka Singh started calling him "Bhagat Ji"and subsequently others also began to address him with this name.

      In 1983, the saint Nikka Singh left his mortal remains in Nirmal Kutia near Goraya (Punjab). Bhagat Labha Mall and other followers brought the remains to Karnal and performed the last rites in the Nirmal Kutia. Fourteen years later, in 1997, Bhagat Labha Mall breathed his last, at the age of about 85 years, in the Nirmal Kutia. He was cremated at a place very near to the place where the saint Nikka Singh was cremated. After this, Bhagat Labha Mall was not present physically but his legacy continued and is still continuing in his family members.

      Banarsi Lal Chawla, the eldest son of Labha Mall, after doing tyre manufacturing successfully for more than two decades, left his business and home (total worth of all the property was more than 100 crore Rupees). After leaving Karnal, he completed 213 recitations ('Sahaj Paaths') of Guru Granth Sahib while being at different places in India and abroad. In 2004 he took shelter in a single room in the Nirmal Dham which was built by his younger brother in 1999. For the last 10 years he has been helping in the social work being done in the Nirmal Dham. He also visits educational institutions to spread the inspiring messages of his late renowned daughter.

      Amrik Chand Chawla, the second son of Labha Mall, set up a trust, Sant Nikka Singh Public School Trust Society, in 1999 in the name of his mentor. All the money was contributed by him. The trust runs an old age home, an orphanage, three schools and one vocational institute. The main place of the trust has been named Nirmal Dham in which shelter, food, and medical facilities have been provided to 200 old persons and about 40 orphan children. The educational institutions of the trust admit children of only poor families and at present about 4000 such children are getting totally free quality education. The trust provides shelter and education to needy persons, irrespective of their religion, caste, creed, colour, region and language. In 2009, Amrik Chand donated his all property and money, which as per newspaper reports were estimated to be about Rs. 125 crores, to the trust and became a saint changing his name to Amrik Dev. He lives in a single room in the Nirmal Dham and devotes all his time to reading Holy Scriptures and doing social service. It is important to note that the trust does not accept donations from anybody in any form.

      The other two sons of Labha Mall, Darshan Lal Chawla and Satish Kumar Chawla, are also very spiritual persons and have contributed generously for setting up Nirmal Kutia. Darshan Lal gets up daily at 3:00 AM in the morning and reads Gurbani till 7:30 AM.

      Vaneet Chawla, the son of Amrik Chand (now Sant Amrik Dev), set up a trust (Bhagat Labha Mall Kartar Kaur Charitable Trust) in the name of his grandparents. He donated an amount of about 50 crore rupees to this trust which does work for the welfare of poor and needy persons, irrespective of caste or religion.

      Sunita Choudhry and Deepa Dhawan, the two daughters of Banarsi Lal Chawla, are working for protection of environment. Both are associated with organizations doing work for social causes.

      Kalpana Chawla, the youngest daughter of Banarsi Lal Chawla is known to everybody as the first Indian woman to go in space but very few know that she was a Nature lover and almost like a saint. She spent very little on dresses and shoes, washed her clothes herself, never bought a washing machine, cooked her own food, bought almost no furniture, always slept on floor, never did any makeup, never wore any ornament, never bought a new car, and spent almost all her salary on imparting education to poor children, irrespective of their caste, religion, colour and country, and never told anybody about it, not even her parents. She willed US $ 3, 00, 000 (about Rs. 150, 00, 000) to American National Audubon Society which is involved in the protection of birds. This society donated a part of this money to Bombay Natural History Society for bird protection in India.

      It seems that the legacy of Bhagat Labha Mall will continue among his descendents for a very long time in future. He was indeed a true follower of Guru Nanak.

      (The author is a Professor in the Department of Biotechnology, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, Uttarakhand, India; E.mail : SHARNFBS@IITR.ERNET.IN)