SHAM SINGH ATARlVALA (d. 1846), a general in the Sikh army, was the grandson of Sardar Gauhar Singh, who had embraced Sikhism in the early days of Sikh political ascendancy and joined the Jatha or band of Gurbakhsh Singh of Roranvala. He soon established his rakhior protection over an area around Atari, a village he had founded some 16 miles from Amritsar. His son, Nihal Singh, was known for his martial prowess and for his personal loyalty to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Nihal Singh`s son, Sham Singh, entered the service of the Maharaja in 1817 and, in 1818, took part in the military campaigns of Peshawar, Attock and Multan. He also fought in Kashmir in 1819.

He led Sikh forces against Sayyid Ahmad of Bareilly who had during the years 1826-31 carried on in the transIndus region a relentless crusade against the Sikhs. Sayyid Ahmad was overcome and killed on 6 May 1831, along with his chief lieutenant, Muhammad Ismail. At the Darbar, Sham Singh Atarivala acted on occasions as Chief of Protocol. In that capacity, he received Sir Alexander Burnes when he had in July 1831 brought from the King of England presents of horses and a carriage for the Maharaja. He was charged with protocol duties at the Ropar meeting in October 1831 between Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General of India, and Maharaja Ranjit Singh, as also at the Firozpur meeting in November 1838 between the Maharaja and Lord Auckland.

Sham Singh`s influence at the court was further enhanced by the marriage of his daughter, Bibi Nanaki, to Maharaja Ranjit Singh`s grandson, Prince Nau Nihal Singh. In the cold season of 1844, Sham Singh led a punitive expedition to Jammu against Raja Gulab Singh and secured the surrender of Jasrota. His troops led the insurrection against Dogra dominance in Lahore which ended in the assassination of Hira Singh and his favourite, Pandit Jalla. For his influence over the Khalsa army and for his qualitites of courage and forthrightness, Sham Singh was nominated to the council of regency set up by MaharaniJind Kaur on 22 December 1844 for the minor sovereign Maharaja Duleep Singh.

In March 1845, Sham Singh led another punitive expedition against Gulab Singh of Jammu who had refused to surrender to the Lahore government the treasure of Hira Singh amounting to 35,00,000 rupees which he had carted away from Jasrota to Jammu. The army under Sham Singh reached within 10 km of Jammu and obtained from Gulab Singh the undertaking to indemnify the arrears of the tribute, pay nazaranas and return to the Lahore government Hira Singh`s treasure. At the outbreak of the first AngloSikh war, Sham Singh was at Kakrala, south of the Sikh frontier, for the wedding of his second son, Kahn Singh. As he heard the news, he rushed back to the Punjab.

The defeat of the Sikh forces at Ferozeshah led the Queen Mother, MaharaniJind Kaur, to summon him from Atari. Sham Singh immediately repaired to Lahore. He chided the commanders, Misr Tej Singh and Misr Lal Singh, who had fled the field, and himself crossed the Sutlej swearing an oath on the Guru Granth Sahib that he would lay down his life rather than return in defeat. The battle was joined at Sabhraoh on 10 February 1846. Dressed in white and riding his white steed, the greybearded Sardar Sham Singh moved from column to column calling upon his men to fight to the last.

As the battle was in a critical stage, Misr Tej Singh fled across the Sutlej and sank a part of the bridge of boats after him. Sham Singh, far from disheartened by this, rushed into the thick of the battle. He made a desperate charge along with his fifty men against the advancing enemy. Within minutes he was overpowered and he fell to the ground dead. In the evening as the battle was over, his servants swam from across the river to recover the body. On 12 February 1846, Sham Singh was cremated outside his village. A samadh raised on the site now honours his memory.

References :

1. Suri, Sohan Lal, `Umdat ut-Twarikh. Lahore, 1885-89
2. Ganda Singh, Sardar Sham Singh Atarivala. Amritsar, 1942
3. Griffin, Lepel and C.F. Massy, Chiefs and Families of Note in the Punjab. Lahore, 1909
4. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983
5. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. II. Princeton, 1966