“Ghosts are not evil. Baba’s ghost is pious and we worship him,” quipped Dorji Lingpa, as he steered our car through the narrow loops on the Nathula Pass. At 4,310 MSL, the pass was a major trade corridor on the ancient Silk Road that connected the eastern state of Sikkim in India to Tibet. I gazed at the majestic panorama of mountains, gushing waterfalls, multi coloured shrubs, enjoying the drive on one of the highest motorable roads in the world. As, I imagined what the good old days of the ancient civilization would have looked like, I was interrupted by Dorji’s relentless talk.
“A trip to Sikkim is incomplete, without a visit to the Baba’s temple.” Sensing my reluctance to visit some random local saint’s abode’, Dorji said, “You know, if you go and offer your prayers at the shrine, I will tell you the story of a ghost solider who walks Nathula Pass every day!”
At that moment, not wanting to call for an unpleasant situation, I got off and started towards the ‘Babaji ka Bunker.’
As we moved closer to the temple complex, I saw a gathering of Indian soldiers, offering prayers and conducting arms worship. Cries of. “Harbhajan baba ki Jai,” filled the air. Looking at my muzzled look, Dorji clarified, “Soldiers passing through the area generally stop at the temple to pay obeisance to Baba. Not doing so is supposed to bring bad luck. You know, Harbhajan baba was a late sepoy of the Indian army.”
Legend says that baba was enrolled into the Punjab regimen in 1966. Born in the Kapurthala village of Punjab, he enlisted in the army at a very young age and found himself posted at the India-China border near Nathula Pass. In 1968, the area witnessed vicious floods. One fine day, while escorting a mule caravan from his battalion headquarters, he fell in a flowing stream. Massive search parties to find this armed solider fell flat as his body could not be found. Inclement weather further convinced the army to abandon the search efforts.
Few days after, a soldier from Harbhajan Singh’s unit reported of a bizarre dream. Many thought it was just a manifestation of his grief for a colleague’s loss. Another sepoy, soon reported that Harbhajan Singh appeared in his dream to hint at the whereabouts of his remains. Harbhajan further declared in the dream that he would continue to service his motherland. Suspicions aroused. It seemed an incredible coincidence that two soldiers, could dream of same sequence of events and nail the dream down to the last detail. Soon, reports of an unidentified man patrolling the area at nights started flowing in. Forces on the other side of the border confirmed the news of the ghost rider. At that moment, a search party was launched again to the spot, that was described in the dream and Harbhajan Singh’s body was discovered. Later, he was cremated with full military honours at the very spot, his temple stands.
Over the years, soldiers in the area began seeing Harbhajan Singh in their dreams where he instructed them of loopholes and unprotected areas from where the Chinese could attack. His instructions generally proved to be accurate and the legend of Baba Harbhajan Singh grew. Realizing his growing following, the Indian Army promoted him to honorary captain. He continued to draw a salary cheque and he would also be offered an annual leave, when he would disappear to visit his family. Soldiers would pack his trunk with basic essentials and ‘Capt. Harbhajan’ would be accompanied by two soldiers all the way to Kapurthala by train and brought back after a month the same way. This tradition continued for years until he retired a few years back.
Today hoards of pilgrims, across the country, flock to the shrine. Many tourist agencies in Sikkim offer exclusive one day trips to Nathula Pass, where travellers visit the Harbhajan Baba temple at a mere cost of Rs. 500/.
It’s difficult to ascertain the origins of the story as the Chinese seem to be equally in awe of the baba. Some soldiers, I met at the temple said that at the monthly flag meetings, between the two nations at Nathula, the Chinese set a chair aside for the baba. In a country that breathes in tradition and is seeped deep into superstitions, nothing can be passed easy.
Perhaps, the red flag bespeckled with stars flaps in the icy wind next to the tricolour, a lone figure, stands and watches- ever alert, ever watchful, ever zealous, and ever protective of his country’s honour.
“Who knows?” a silent voice in my head, muttered as I bowed down at the shrine and moved back for our return to the hotel.
Note: This article is my entry to the National Geographic Travel Writing Competition for Amateurs 2015.