Baba Santa Singh: A Small Memory of a Departed Chief

A remembrance by photographer Nick Fleming...

The announcement of Baba Santa Singh's death was met with little surprise but greeted with much sadness. With his health ailing for some time now, and since January of this year a long term patient in Patiala hospital, Baba Santa Singh finally passed away on Thursday 8th May. His long anticipated death has been marked by a protracted and sometime violent and unseemly tussle for the right to succeed him. The disputed right to the leadership of Budha Dal has soured the collective spirit of the Nihang family and left a weary dissonant note reverberating in its ranks. However, what is not in doubt is that this illustrious Nihang Singh, Jathedar and revered religious figure will be acutely missed for his steadying hand, reasoned wisdom, leadership and his steadfast championing of the Nihang traditions and way of life.

I met him briefly in 1999 in Anandpur Sahib during the tercentenary celebrations and although he must have been 80 years old he was sprightly, interested and fitted my image of the archetypal aging warrior chief. Although of course he was approaching the twilight of his long life the man himself still commanded the respect of his men; they were fiercely protective of him and touchingly affectionate towards him. As his personal sevadars attended to his needs he welcomed the many visitors waiting to seek his blessing with a ready quip, and a more solemn aside. It was obvious to me that here was a man who held a position of great prestige and was enormously comfortable with that fact. He was, amongst his own people, an avuncular figure radiating benevolence but maintaining a steely air and a strong powerful presence. My lasting memory of him is sitting surrounded by his Nihangs as he watched a gatka display in Anandpur Sahib. The light was fading. It had been a long day and the tent pegging display had finished. An impromptu and enthusiastic demonstration of sword play suddenly began. Baba Santa Singh insisted on staying to see the mock fight rewarding the performers with a hearty show of approval.


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