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Bhai Kahn Singh & His Great Encyclopedia of Sikh Literature



He did not go any school or college, but was well-versed in various languages of the subcontinent, including Hindi, Braj Bhasha, Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian, English and of course, Punjabi.

He was steeped in Sikh lore and wrote the first definitive encyclopedia in Punjabi, the Gurshabad Ratnakar Mahankosh ("Encyclopedia of Sikh Literature"), one of the earliest works of its kind ... and acclaimed as the twelfth such tome in the history of world literature.

Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha was, indeed, one of the towering intellects of the 19th century, whose writings and actions left a deep impact on the region and the religion he belonged to. His imprint is to be seen in the literature he produced, as well as the actions of his student, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, who led the reform movement among the Sikhs, sponsored the Anand Marriage Act and steered the legislation for the management of the Sikh Gurdwaras, which eventually led to the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.)

Baba Narayan Singh, Bhai Kahn Singh's father, was a landowner and a deeply religious man. Bhai Kahn Singh studied at home and then went to Delhi and to Lahore in 1883. Upon his return to Nabha, he served the Nabha State and in 1887 was appointed tutor to Tikka ("heir apparent") Ripudaman Singh.

Bhai Kahn Singh was given several administrative and judicial positions, such as the Maharaja's Private Secretary and a Judge of the High Court. He also served briefly in Patiala.

He travelled to England thrice (in 1907, 1908 and 1909) to supervise legal matters for the Nabha State. Eventually, he resigned and devoted most of his time to writing.

Bhai Kahn Singh was also a good shot and knew how to wield arms, having learnt the art from Nihangs. He was a student of music under the tutelage of Mahant Gajja Singh, a famous musician. He played the sitar and the dilruba.

His granddaughter, Hardarshan Kaur, describes him as "always immaculately dressed to suit the occasion, a very integrated personality. He spoke softly in a well-measured tone and invariably gave full consideration and respect to the views of others."

A typical day in his life started very early when, after prayers, he went for a long walk. After breakfast, he would work till noon. A short siesta, and he worked again until late afternoon, then attending to visitors from various walks of life.

He spent 14 long years writing the Mahan Kosh which is a clear, succinct and wonderful exposition of the history, religion, culture and literature of the Punjab and the Sikhs.

This reference book was published through the patronage of the Maharaja Bhupendra Singh of Patiala and is a standard reference text, still in print. It is considered an authentic and definitive interpretation of the Sikh ethos.

An important facet of Bhai Kahn Singh's life is his association with Max Arthur Macauliffe, whom he met by fortuitous chance in 1885 in Rawalpindi. Bhai Kahn Singh explained the Guru Granth Sahib to the Englishman and also helped him with the research of his monumental work, The Sikh Religion, which was published in six volumes by the prestigious Clarendon Press, an imprint of Oxford Press, in the UK in 1907.

Bhai Kahn Singh contributed to the book in various ways, and even accompanied Macauliffe to England. The author later transferred the copyright of his book to Bhai Kahn Singh.

Significant Works by Bhai Kahn Singh

Raj Dharam (1884)
Nanak Bhavarth Dipika (1888)
Ham Hindu Nahin - ("We Are Not Hindus") (1898)
Gurmat Prabhakar (1898)
Gurmat Sudhakar (1899)
Guru Chand Divakar (1924)
Gur Sabad Alankar (1925)
Gur Gira Kasauti (1899)
Sharab Nikhedh (1907)
Gurushabad Ratanakar Mahan Kosh (1930)


Jaimant Assamedh (1896)
Visnu Purana (1903)
Sadu and Chandi di Var (1935)


Gurmat Martand (2 volumes) (1962)
Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha de Aprakshit Safarnaame (1984)


Overall, the social situation in Punjab at that time was one in which excesses of the ruling classes had led to decay in moral values.

Bhai Kahn Singh and other reformers sought to reaffirm the uniqueness of Sikh thought and it was in this spirit that the book Ham Hindu Nahin ("We Are Not Hindus") was written in 1898. The title was provocative and it brought about quite a reaction, so much so that Bhai Kahn Singh eventually submitted a translation of the book in English to the British officials to clear the air.

Bhai Kahn Singh practiced what he preached.

He advocated inter-caste marriages and his son's marriage was such. His niece, a widow, was remarried, in accordance with his wishes. Overall, he lived the life of an erudite country squire. He lived in Nabha, where his great-grandson, Major A. P. Singh, resides now.

Bhai Kahn Singh would retire to the hills of Solan and Simla in the summers, and was also known as a good tennis player. He contributed financially and otherwise to the Khalsa College, Amritsar, and presided over the Sikh Educational Conference in 1931, a singular honour.

In 1932, the British government gave him the title of Sardar Bahadur. In 1933, he was presented a sword by King Nadir Shah of Afghanistan, where he had gone for research.

Bhai Kahn Singh passed away on November 23, 1938, leving behind a rich legacy. Many generations have passed, but this extraordinary scholar still lives through his works.




The Mahan Kosh consists of meanings of around 64,000 Gurmat and Gurbani related words, along with definitions of thousands of other terms which relate to ancient South Asian history, medical science, music, ancient Indic scriptures, and many ancient languages. 

The original Mahan Kosh was prepared in 1926 and first published in 1930 in four volumes. Even though it has been more than a century since its first publication, the Mahan Kosh remains unrivaled by any other attempts made to create an encyclopedia in Punjabi or any other Indian language.

The English translation of this monumental work  - The Encyclopedia of Sikh Literature - has now been completed by Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab.

Vice Chancellor of Punjabi University, Swarn Singh Boparai, who played a major role in the translation, explains that the project took more than two years to complete.  Twenty-four translators took part in the translation process, along with the help of various linguistic experts.  The editorial board consisted of many renowned professors, such as Dr. Gurkirpal Singh and Dr. Tejwant Singh, both of whom are retired English professors from Punjabi University, and Dr. Prem Singh from Delhi University.

Dr. Dhanwant Kaur, head of the Punjabi Language Development Committee of Punjabi University, was a coordinator for this project. She expresses gratitude towards the late Bhai Gurmukh Singh, whose work in the area of Punjabi to English translation proved to be most useful in the completion of the task.


[Courtesy: The Tribune]

December 13, 2008

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Bangalore, India), December 13, 2008, 10:07 AM.

To stimulate Punjabi language from it slumber, I feel all the major books in the world should be translated into Punjabi so that our future generations can enjoy reading the great authors of the world in their own mother-tongue. It could be done if all Sikh scholars make it a mission of their lives to translate at least one book in their life time. Imagine, within 50 years, we would have umpteen Punjabi books in our library. After all, we Sikhs are the People of the Book. Maybe, even our Ardas could incorporate such a goal in our daily prayer.

2: Raj (Canada), December 13, 2008, 7:09 PM.

I wonder how many Sikh intellectuals of that calibre exist today. The patronage of the Sikh Maharajas doesn't exist in the S.G.P.C. or the Badals of today.

3: Harinder (Bangalore, India), December 14, 2008, 12:59 AM.

Punjabi University Dept. of Languages should set up Chairs of different languages and cultures, such as a German Chair /Italian Chair/Persian Chair/Turkish Chair/Egyptian Chair/British Chair/Greek Chair, etc., etc.

4: Jora Singh Brar (Guelph, Ontario, Canada), February 26, 2009, 2:13 PM.

"Mahan Kosh" by Kahn Singh Nabha is a great publication which every intellectual should keep at home. I have found it very useful whenever I need to look for the meaning of any Punjabi word. Keeping this publication in a visible place at home is a source of inspiration for youngers, and rightfully honours the writer.

5: Dalip Singh Khalsa (Abohar, Punjab), January 22, 2010, 3:37 AM.

Bhai Kahn Singh ji was a true gurmukh who spent all his life for Sikhi in researching and teaching the doctrines of gurmat. It is now our duty to follow his footsteps in carrying on the research, study and dissemination of the true philosophy of gurbani. This will be our best tribute to this great soul.

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