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posted on: 31 Jul, 2022
Professor Puran Singh - A mystic Sikh Chemist [1881 to 1931]

A hustling Sikh Scientist of the 20th Century with a mystic poetic personality


Early life


On February 17, 1881, Professor Puran Singh was born in a mud hut in the Pathan village of Salhad, which is situated in Abbottabad (now Pakistan). His father, Kartar Singh was a revenue official. His mother, Param Devi, was a deeply devout Sikh practitioner. His early years were spent among the village's many waterfalls and lakes. Due to his father's profession, his family used to travel frequently [1]. They made their home in Abbottabad, a hill town with a 3000-foot sea level. In the village of 'Havelian', a mosque served as his first school. At the age of twelve, he successfully completed his Anglo-Vernacular examination at a school in Haripur. The family later relocated to Rawalpindi where Puran Singh finished his high school studies [2]. His mother pushed him to pursue his education because she wanted him to work for the government, as "a government officer on whose doors many men wait." He attended D.A.V. College in Lahore for four years before passing the F.A. Exam in 1899 in disciplines of English, Maths, Sanskrit, and Chemistry [1].


First Voyage & Educational Journey


Bhagat Golak Chand, his distant relative and a high school teacher, made the decision to send a few talented kids to Japan. Golak Chand saw him as a young child with a lot of talent and was eager to help him carve out a promising career. Puran Singh decided that he will go to Tokyo University in Japan to study Pharmaceutical Chemistry, but the family was in no position to bear the expenses [1]. Therefore, Puran Singh sought help on his merit & awards by writing to all the Sikh elites of Rawalpindi, who agreed to contribute for his fee & travel. When his family learned of his plan to leave, they were devastated since they believed he would never come back. But he persuaded his parents of his desire to study and assured them that he would come back and end their poverty.


Damodar Singh, a close relative in the family, who also wanted to study, decided to major in electrical engineering and agreed to go with Puran Singh. The students took a ship that moved to Hong Kong and then to Singapore before arriving in Tokyo. Along the way, they had a lot of intriguing encounters and learned a lot. One most affecting incident which Puran Singh records in his autobiography [1] is when they had to eat half-boiled mutton with uncooked fat that stuck to it, or choose an unseasoned beef, and bitter coffee. Prior to arriving in Singapore, Puran basically went without food for ten days. On the last leg of his journey from Singapore to Tokyo, Puran Singh tried to settle with an option of eating chewy chicken and undercooked chapatis. 


They landed at Yokohama in 1900 and were received by Mr. Ray and other Indian students. He studied at Imperial University, Japan, where he learned Japanese and German, as the medium of instruction was German. He graduated with a degree in Industrial Chemistry for Pharmaceutical Sciences in 1903 and then decided to go back to India [2].


Student Life in Japan


Puran Singh was a highly emotional man who adored everyone who came into contact with him. His upbringing helped him become empathetic. He was greatly influenced by nature and vegetation. He loved seeing the cherry blossoms in Japan, that brought him great delight and filled his heart with love. It would not be incorrect to label Puran Singh as an experimentalist who was easily influenced by new information and knowledge. He first converted to a Bhuddist monk (Bhiku) in Japan after being love-struck with Japanese culture, and then, after meeting Swami Rama Tirtha, he became a Vedantin in 1902 [1]. Finally, he returned to India and attended the 5th Sikh Educational Conference conducted by Chief Khalsa Diwan, becoming a Sikh mystic under the influence of Bhai Vir Singh in 1912 [2]. 

Puran Singh had changed dramatically during his three years in Japan. He acquired his knowledge of science and business in Japan's academic and technical labs, which were primarily modeled after the German system. He also absorbed the Japanese artistic spirit. It was in Japan, that Puran Singh was drawn more deeply to poetry and was religiously practising the styles and norms of authors like Okakura Kakuzo and Walt Whitman. Puran Singh spent his days immersed in nature, poetry, japanese culture, music and art. His obsession with nature and mystic philosophies made him wander for knowledge and peace in all directions.


Return to India, Personal Affairs & Indian Revolution


Puran Singh brought back to India, a collection of blueprints for pharmaceutical and distillation equipment in 1903 from Japan [7]. While studying in Japan, he started an Indo-Japanese club, which helped solidify relations between India and Japan. But his close associations with various revolutionaries like Mr. Kulkarni and Rama Kant Roy led to his arrest upon returning to India. 


DISCLAIMER: Although the evidence is not clear, but facts below cannot be proven or disproven, as much of Puran Singh's life history is unaccounted by others.

Puran Singh was a member of the Oriental Club in Japan in 1900 and 1901. He gave numerous powerful speeches in support of Indian independence. He delivered a stirring lecture upon his return to India in 1903, for which he was sentenced to three months in prison. Despite being in the government, he supported Indian independence. His activist landlord kicked him out because he didn't enjoy the visits by revolutionaries like Ramaknat Rai. According to his wife, he also interacted with Lala Hardayal, Mr. Chatterjee, Kulkarni Maratha, and Dr. Khudadad. Due to the explosive nature of his lectures, Lala Hardayal fled India and later created the Ghadar party in America [11]. With assistance from other Indians, he launched the Ghadar newsletter in San Francisco. Kartar Singh Sarabha oversaw its publication later.


In an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Viceroy, Reshbihari, Puran Singh's lab assistant, stole picric acid from the facility and assembled a bomb with it. He later escaped to Japan, but Puran Singh had to pay his repercussions. He was facing a pretty strong case. 

His supporters worried that he will be honest and admit his connection to Reshbihari, the person who orchestrated the assassination attempt. But Puran Singh struggled against his conscience and lied in court after being convinced by his friends and family. As a result, another person Shri Amir Chand received the death penalty while Puran Singh was spared. Puran Singh was devastated by Amir Chand's passing and he addressed an open letter to Sir John Simon in response against the establishment of the Simon Commission in 1928. He was very vocal in his criticism of it and his full letter can be seen here [10].



Puran Singh was set free following his arrest on return to India (due to his speeches in Japan), and was immediately taken to Lahore by his parents, who paid hefty bail money and assurances on his behalf. On March 5, 1904, just six months after his homecoming, he wed Maya Devi, upon the wishes of his dying sister [13]. Maya Devi was a grounding support in his life. His dedication to her in his poem 'Seven Baskets of Prose' reads: "To my companion of these flying days on this earth, Shrimati Maya Devi Ji, in grateful acknowledgement of the priceless love she offered and with which she soothed me in my troubles on the life's path by her daily crucifixion for me in the noble silence of her soul." [7] 

Puran Singh had 1 daughter and 3 sons. Gagri was the name of his daughter, who was born in March of 1905. Additionally, they had three sons [8]: Madanmohan Singh (1 August, 1907), Satwant Singh (1 January, 1910) and Raminder Singh (15 September, 1913).


First Research Paper & Scientific Achievements


Puran Singh wrote his first paper and gave a discussion on "The Future of Cutch and Katha Manufacture" at the Punjab Forest Conference in Lahore in January 1908, and it was published in the Indian Forester Bulletin in Volume 35, Issue 2, February 1909. He went into great detail about the drawbacks of traditional methods (and that proposed by Dr. Warth - a prominent chemist in the west) for producing cutch or dark catechu, also known as Katha. Puran Singh proposed innovative methods that could be used in the manufacturing to maximise profit with minimal waste [6]. Dr. Leather, an agricultural chemist working for the Indian government, got in touch with Puran Singh to adopt Dr. Warth's discovery to improve it and set out to put it to the test. Puran Singh then conducted a rigorous analysis of both recommendations in his 4th subsequent paper and came to the conclusion that Dr. Leathers' approach is better suited for the production of katha. In addition, Puran Singh tried using methyl alcohol as a solvent rather than water to extract catechin. He explained the novel combined ways of producing Cutch and Katha in his study paper's conclusion, as well as the combined use of water and wood spirit in Cutch production [5].


Puran Singh published his second paper on the utilisation of Khair Forests in Eastern Bengal and Assam (1908). 

His third paper was on the manufacture of Ngai Camphor (1909).

Other notable papers include:

- Manufacture of Pure Shellac (1909) [12]

- Chemical investigation of the constituents of Burmese Varnish (1909)

- Tanning materials and the manufacture of tanning extracts in India, presented at the All-India Industrial Conference in December 1909

- Bleaching of some Indian coloured woods (1909)

- Analytical Constants of pure shellac, lac, resin & lac wax (1910)


Overall, Puran Singh wrote over 53 piece of novel scientific works, including papers, notes, conference articles and books (See end of this page for the full list). His last published scientific work is a note on the 'Preparation of Turpentine, Rosin and Gum from Boswellia serrata (Roxb.) gum-oleo-resin. This was co-authored by R.S Pearson and was published in the Indian Forest Records (1919).


While employed as a sugar chemist in the Sardar Nagar Sugar factory run by Sri Sundar Singh Majithia during 1923–24, it is believed that he received a patent for a brand new technique for decolorizing raw sugar without the use of bone charcoal [9].

Diverse Career & Employment Positions


Puran Singh was a multipotentialite and was not afraid to speak his mind. He took many positions and career options, as his work ethics and principles often contradicted with imperialist & capitalist mindsets of his peers.

To being with, in Lahore's Anarkali Bazar, Puran Singh started a distillation company to pay off his parents' debts, which they had racked up as a result of borrowing money from the neighbourhood to pay for his son's education. He produced essential oils of geranium and citrus with great success, using locally accessible tools like clay pots and metallic vessels. However, it failed as a result of his partners' conflicts about money which made Puran Singh furious and he broke the distillation equipment before storming away from the shop in anger [3].

Following this failure in business, Puran Singh took up work in the Victoria Diamond Jubilee Hindu Technical Institute was chosen as its principal in 1904. He retired in 1906 after two years of service to the college [2]. 

When the Imperial Forest Research Institute was established by the government in 1907, Puran Singh was chosen as chemical advisor. He began his career as a chemist in 1908 at the Dehradun-based Forest Research Institute's (FRI) department of chemistry for forest products [2]. He was the only person of Indian origin to be posted in one of the six research positions in FRI. He also led the chemistry division from 1906 - 1919, which is a 13-year long term [4]. His studies were greatly facilitated by the upgraded facilities, which also allowed him to publish 53 research papers in the Indian Forester and Forest Bulletin. He concentrated on isolating and analysing the essential oils extracted from oils of camphor, geranium, wintergreen, sandalwood, and khus. 

Puran Singh also created a novel extraction condenser for camphor oil. He vigorously advocated for the industrialisation of the extraction of essential oils and their application in the medical field. He recommended enhancing the methods for extracting, distilling, and clarifying turpentine oil. He concentrated all of his efforts on advancing the essential oil industry after leaving FRI [3].


At the Indian Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, an English chemist was hired directly in 1916, and Puran Singh was asked to help him and operate under his direction. When he discovered that the Englishman was not up to par with his abilities and had only been appointed because of his white privilege, he was furious. However, he was asked to help him. In response to this display of disdain, Puran Singh resigned.


He was employed by the Maharaja of Gwalior, Madhav Rao Scindia, to create eucalyptus and rosha grass essential oils that were later shipped to England. He would only agree to work for him in exchange for a deposit of two lakh rupees and 25,000 rupees for the education of his children. He was given access to a vehicle,a bungalow, and a chauffeur. After a disagreement with Raja, he returned to Dehradun by the next train. The raja wrote him four letters to persuade him to return, but he didn't budge. In the end, the Raja paid a full one-year salary to Puran Singh [14]. 

Puran Singh was then employed by Sundar Singh Majithia during 1923–24 for purifying sugar and he then attempted another business opportunity for his own agricultural endeavour.

In 1926, Puran Singh was given 15 squares (Morabbas) of agricultural land on lease in the Sheikhupura district by the British Government to grow and export Rosha grass. But regrettably, he had to give up on this enterprise after his crops in Punjab were ruined by a flood in 1928 [3].

Literary Work as a Poet


Puran Singh experimented with fiction, poetry, prose, theatre, translation, critique, scientific, and religious essays. He was a trendsetter in Punjabi literature. He was known as the Punjab's Tagore. C.V. Raman, Tagore, and Iqbal were close friends of his.

He started a paper from Lahore, The Thundering Dawn, and edited it for a year. In 1906, he wrote a comprehensive introduction to his works, collected and published by Master Amir Chand [7]. He published four Hindi novels in the span of six years (1912–1918). He also wrote biographies of Guru Nanak Dev ji and Guru Gobind Singh ji.


He was a particularly talented and prolific writer who could write equally well in Punjabi and English. Some of his literary works were published in London and some in India. The remaining unpublished works were later made public by Panjab University in the years following 1960. 

His London published works include "The Sisters of the Spinning Wheel and Other Sikh Poems, Original and Translated” (1921), followed by “Unstrung Beads” (1923), and “The Temple Tulips” (1923), besides “Nargas: Songs of a Sikh” (1924), which included Punjabi poems written by Bhai Vir Singh. Next, he published The Story of Swami Rama: the Poet Monk of the Punjab (1924), which described the life of the first guru in prose. He also wrote “The Spirit of Oriental Poetry” (1926)in which he emphasised what true poetry should be. 

His book, “The Book of the Ten Masters” (1926), introduced ten Sikh Gurus to his English readers [13]. He also translated Tolstoy's Resurrection in a mere eighteen days and published it as “Moyan Di Jaag”—as his wife wrote in her book [13]. 


His autobiography, “On Paths of Life,” is a work of art. He reminisced about his childhood with such fondness and described his childhood spent in Pothohar. He talks about his closeness with his mother, her mother's religious outlook, and the plight of his sisters. He vividly tells us about his experiences during his Japan travels and all the hardships he faced while living there. He was awestruck by Japanese mannerisms and culture and took great joy in participating in them. He also wrote an essay, Walt Whitman and the Sikh Inspiration, in 1928. His other works include Prakasina: a Buddhist Princess, The Spirit Born People, which was published in three volumes by Panjab University on his birth-century [12]. 

Note: - There are several unrecognised & unreferenced works of Puran Singh in poetry, especially in Punjabi language, that is unknown to general readers.


Awards & Positions held

1. Chemical Advisor at Dehradun's Imperial Institute of Forestry (1907).

2. Imperial Forest Chemist in the Forest Research Institute's department of chemistry for forest products in Dehradun (1908).

3. Head of Chemistry Division, Forest Research Institute Dehradun (1906 -1919) - (apparently awarded Professorship during this term but records missing)

3. Sugar Chemist at Sardar Nagar Sugar Factory (1923 -1925)

4. Member of the Chemical Society of Japan [9]

5. Member of Royal Chemical Society of London [9]


End of Days


In November 1930, he got infected with tuberculosis after meeting an acquaintance [2]. On March 31st, 1931, Punjab lost one of its multifaceted personalities as Puran Singh took his last breath at Dehradun after suffering from galloping phthisis [7]. 


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1. Autobiography: On Paths of Life by Puran Singh, see excerpts here -

2. H. S. Virk-Life and works of Puran Singh by 

3. Ramchadran Tiwari-Adhyapak Puran Singh.

4. Science and Modern India: An Institutional History, c.1784-1947: Project of History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Volume XV, Part 4

5. Puran Singh-The Future of Cutch and Katha Manufacture-Indian Forester Bulletin Volume 35, Issue 2, February 1909

6. H. S. Virk (Jan 1998)-Professor Puran Singh (1881-1931): Founder of the Chemistry of Forest Products in India

7. Balbir Singh - Puran Singh

8. Navratan Kapoor-Professor Puran Singh

9. D.P. Singh, Ph.D.-The Genius of Prof. Puran Singh

10. Baldev Singh-Professor Puran Singh’s Open Letter to Sir John Simon in 1928-Foretold the Fate of Minorities and Have-nots After the End of British Rule Over India

11. Lala Hardayal

12. Puran Singh-The analytical constants of shellac, Lac-Resen and Lac-Wax

13. Christopher Shackle—After Macauliffe: The Wondrous Liberty of Puran Singh

14. Singh, Maya Devi Puran (1993). Puran Singh: A Life Sketch, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.



Full List of all 53 Scientific Papers of Prof. Puran Singh


1. A note on the analysis of cutch and preparation of pure catechin by Puran Singh, Indian Forest Mem, (1908), Vol. 1, Pt 1. 

2. Note on the Utilisation of Khair Forests in Eastern Bengal and Assam by Puran Singh, Forest Pamphlet,(1908), No. 1. 

3. Note on the Manufacture of Ngai Camphor by Puran Singh, Indian Forest Rec. (1908), Vol. 1, Pt III. 

4. A paper on the Future of Cutch and Katha Manufacture by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1909), Vol. XXXV, No.2.,Pt I. 

5. A note on the Manufacture of Pure Shellac by Puran Singh, Indian Forest Mem. (Chemistry Series) Vol. XXXV, No. 2.,Pt II. 

6. A Chemical Investigation of the Constituents of Burmese Varnish (Melanorrhoea usitata, Sup). By Puran Singh, Indian Forest Rec. (1909). 

7. Paper on some tanning materials and the manufacture of tannin extracts in India (Read at All-India Industrial Conference in India held in Dec (1909)

8. Report on the bleaching of some Indian coloured Woods by Puran Singh, Appendix. to Indian Forest Mem., (1909), Vo. II, Pt 1. 

9. Analytical Constants of Shellac, Lac, Resin and Lac Wax by Puran Singh, J. Soc. Chem. Ind., (1910), Vol. XXIX, p. 1435. 

10. Note on Calorimetric Tests of some Indian woods by Puran Singh, Forest Bulletin, (1911), No. 1. 

11. Memorandum on the oil-value of Sandal Wood by Puran Singh, Forest Bulletin, (1911), No. 6. 

12. Note on the Chemistry and Trade Forms of Lac by Puran Singh, Forest Bulletin, (1911), No. 7 

13. A Preliminary note on the use of Nickel Hydroxide in Tannin estimation by Puran Singh . Soc. Chem. Ind., (1911), Vol. XXX, No. 15. 

14. Note on the best season for collecting Myrobalans as tanning material by Puran Singh. Indian Forester (1911); Vol. XXXVII, No. 9. 

15. Method of distinguishing powellized and the unpowellized woods by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1911), Vol. XXXVII, No 10. 

16. Note on Resin-value of Podeophyllum emodi and the best season for collecting it by Puran Singh, Forest Bulletin (1912), No.9. 

17. Podophyllum emodi by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1912), Vol. XXXVIII, Nos. 4 and 7. 

18. A short preliminary note on the suitability of dead wood of Acacia catechu for Katha making by Puran Singh. Indian Forester (1912), Vol. XXXVIII, No.4

19. A short Note on the earth eating habits of the Indian deer by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1912), No. 7. 

20. Note on the preparation of tannin extract with special reference to those prepared from the bark of Mangrove (Rhizophora muocronata) by Puran Singh, Indian Forest Res, (1912), Vol.III, Pt IV.

21. Note on Distillation and Composition of Turpentine oil from chir Resin and clarification of Indian Resin by Puran Singh. Indian Forest Rec. (1912), Vo. IV, Pt 1.

22. Note on Turpentine of Pinus khasya, Pinus merkusii and Pinus excelsa by Puran Singh, Forest Bulletin, (1913), No. 24. 

23. The Cultivation of drugs in Indian Forests by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1913), Vol. XXXIX, No. 3. 

24. Memorandum on the oil value of some Forest oil seeds by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1913), Vol. XXXIX, No. 6. 

25. Analysis of Gutta made from latex of Palaquium ellipticum by Puran Singh. Indian Forester (1913), Vol. XXXIX, No. 8. 

26. The composition of Ceara Rubber from Coorg by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1913), Vol. XXXIX, No. 8. 

27. Indian Oak barks as materials for manufacture of tannin extract by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1913), Vol. XXXIX, No. 9. 

28. Terminalia tomentosa bark as a material for the manufacture of tannin extract by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1913), Vol. XXXIX, No. 9. 

29. Some mineral salts as Fish Poison by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1913), Vol. XXXIX, No. 11. 

30. A further note on the Calorimetric test of some Indian woods from Belgaum (Bombay) by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1914), Vol. XL. No. 3. 

31. Preservation of the Latex of Ficus religiosa by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1914), Vol. XL, No. 9. 

32. A Plea for the distillation of the Pine Needle oil in India by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1914), Vol. XL, No. 10. 

33. Nickel Tannates by Puran Singh. J. Soc. Chem. Ind. (1914), Vol. XXXIII, No. 4. 

34. The Cus-Cus Oil in India by Puran Singh, Chem. Drugg. (1914), Vol. LXXXV. 

35. A Further Note on the best season for collecting Myrabalans as Tanning material by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1915), Vol. XLI, No. 1. 

36. Note on Arwal (Cassia auriculata) Benth from Marwar by Puran Singh. Indian Forester (1915), Vol. XLI, No. 1. 

37. A Further Note on the Oil value of some Sandal woods from Madras by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1915), Vol. XLI, No. 8. 

38. The Camphor content of Cinnamomum camphora grown at Dehra-Dun by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1915), Vol. XLI, No. 8. 

39. Note on the effect of Age on the Catechin content of the wood of Acacia catechu by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1915), Vol. XLI, No. 12. 

40. Note on Indian Sumach (Rhus continus Linn.) by Puran Singh, Forest Bulletin (1915)., No. 31. 

41. Note on the Addition of fat to tannin extract by Puran Singh, J. Soc. Chem. Ind. (1915), Vol. XXXIV, No. 5. 

42. Note on the Differentiation of Inn and Kanyin Species of Dipterocarpus timber of Burma by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1916), Vol. XLII, No. 5. 

43. Note on the constants of Indian Geranium oil (Motia) by Puran Singh, Indian Forest Rec. (1916), Vol. V, Pt. VII. 

44. Note on the Burmese Myrabalans or Panga Fruits as tanning material by Puran Singh, Forest Bulletin (1916), No. 32. 

45. A note on the use of Nickel Hydroxide in tannin estimation by Puran Singh and T.P. Ghose, J. Soc. Chem. Ind. (1916), Vol. XXXV, No. 3, p. 159. 

46. (i)Note on the Eucalyptus Oil Industry in the Nilgris.

       (ii)Note on the Distillation of Geranium Oil in the Nilgris.
       (iii)Note on the manufacture of Wintergreen Oil in India by Puran Singh, Indian Forest Rec. (1917), Vol. V,  Pt VIII.

47. Note on the Galls of Pistacia integessina by Puran Singh. Indian Forester (1917), Vol. XLII, No. 8. 

48. Charcoal Briquettes by R.S. Pearson and Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1918), Vol. XLIV, No.3. 

49. Effect of Storage on some Tanning Materials by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1918), Vol. XLIV, No. 3. 

50. A Preliminary Note on the manufacture of wood-tar by Puran Singh, Indian Forester(1918), Vol. XLIV, No. 4. 

51. Walnut Bar by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1918), Vol. XLIV, No. 8. 

52. A Note on the Economic Values of Chinese Tallow Tree by Puran Singh, Indian Forester (1918), Vol. XLIV, No. 9. 

53. Note on the Preparation of Turpentine, Rosin and Gum from Boswellia serrata (Roxb.) gum-oleo-resin by R.S. Pearson and Puran Singh, Indian Forest Rec. (1918) Vol. VI, Pt VI.