PINGALVARA. A unique institution of its kind in the Punjab enlisting a wide variety of humanitarian work is the creation of a single, dedicated individual, Bhagat Puran Singh. Born into a Hindu family of modest means in 1904, Puran Singh was led in his early youth for self discovery by a vision of the Holy Grail. Attending a religious divan, as a small boy, he had witnessed scenes of a fabulous charisma at the Fatehgarh Sahib annual festival.

He had been enthralled to see the bejewelled and resplendent Sikh Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, ruler of the princely state of Patiala, and his team of equally tall, stalwart and upstanding A.D.Cs. The young boy, then shaven, could not take away his eyes from that bewitching scene.Reaching home he told his aged mother that he must become a Sikh sporting a big colourful turban and long uncut hair. Pirigalvara, literally, an abode or asylum for cripples (pingale, in Punjabi), houses several hundred inmates suffering from all kinds of diseases. There are among them deserted women and abandoned children, admitted without consideration of caste or creed.

Another building close by accommodates about 100 patients including some mentally sick or retarded youth. Next are the premises reserved for patients of tuberculosis and other infectious and contagious diseases Officially run by a registered body, All India Pirigalvara Society, the Pirigalvara owes its existence to a highly compassionate and philanthropic genius. All inmates, whatever the condition or stage of their disease or disability, were tended personally by Bhagat Puran Singh with extraordinary loving care.

He truly lived for his patients. They were his family. He was willing to do the humblest chores for them. Without flinching he would suck into his open mouth their bleeding wounds and will be willing to receive their secretions on his palm. He thought nothing of changing or washing their soiled clothes.A more self abnegating individual did not live in this world. Bhagat Puran Singh was born in the village of Rajeval in Ludhiana district of the Punjab.

He took a vow of celibacy and went to Lahore where he engaged himself in sevd at Gurdwara Dera Sahib, sacred to the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Arjan (1563-1606), who too had established a lepers` home during his time. Following the partition of India in August 1947, Puran Singh came to Amritsar, and established a social service camp. In July 1952, he shifted to a building allotted by the Rehabilitation Department of the Punjab Government.

By this time Puran Singh and his Pirigalvara had become widely known and public donations started flowing in. On 6 March 1967, Pirigalvara received formal recognition as the AllIndia Pirigalvara Society was registered with the Registrar, Cooperative Societies, Punjab. The state government and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee also started giving financial assistance. Voluntary donations from private individuals as well as from civic bodies and charitable institutions multiplied. Paid fund collectors began to be employed to collect donations in small coins from sundry sources such as rail and bus passengers.

Pirigalvara set up its own printing press which churned out materials for use by its workers. All these measures helped to muster funds to meet the ever increasing expenditure as a result of rising costs and expanding activities of the institution. From an expenditure of barely 100,000 rupees a year, it rose to over 21,00,000 rupees for the year 1976-77. There were more than 400 patients, permanently disabled persons and destitute women and children, staying at the Pirigalvara in 1978.

They were given free meals and clothing by the institution and free medical aid through local hospitals. Bhagat Puran Singh died on 5 August 1992, mourned by a vast multitude of admirers and inmates of the Pirigalvara which he had reared so lovingly and with such single minded zeal.