Sardarni Sada Kaur
One of the most remarkable women in the history of Punjab Sardarni Sada Kaur, mother-in-law of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, breathed her last at Amritsar in December 1832.
“On her death in 1832, at Amritsar, where she had been held as closely confined prisoner, funeral ceremonies were performed by Prince Nau Nihal Singh [son of Maharaja Kharak Singh]. Maharaja Ranjit Singh came to Amritsar to condole her death.
“Thus fell, after having figured prominently in Punjab politics for about thirty years, the high spirited Sada Kaur, one of the most remarkable women in the history of Punjab. She had been the mainstay of Ranjit Singh’s power, the ladder, whereby that monarch had been enabled to reach the summit of greatness.” (Muhammad Latif, History of Punjab, pp 459, 424)
Daughter of Sardar Dasaundha Singh Dhariwal, Sada Kaur, was born in 1762. She was married to Gurbakhsh Singh, tall and handsome son of Sardar Jai Singh, Chief of the Kanahiya Misl. She gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Mehtab Kaur, in 1782.
In February 1785, she was widowed, when she was only 22.
Her husband, Gurbakhsh Singh died in a battle, defending an attack by Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, which was sponsored by Mahan Singh Sukkarchakkia.
At one time, relations between the Kanahiyas and Sukkarchakkias were very cordial. Along with the Bhangis they were the dominant forces in northern Punjab. But, in 1784, a dispute had arisen between the former two, over sharing the booty of a crore of rupees, from Jammu, which was ransacked by Mahan Singh Sukkarchakkia. Jai Singh, conqueror of the formidable fort of Kangra, wanted a share, but Mahan Singh was not willing.
Those were the days of ‘grab-if-you-can’. Alliances of convenience were made and broken, by Sikh Sardars, to gain or hold territories, belonging to erstwhile friends.
Jassa Singh Ramgarhia was driven out of his territories in October 1778, jointly by the Ahluwalias, the Bhangis and the Kanahiyas. He was passing his days in Malwa, south of Satluj.
In 1784, after a quarrel between Jai Singh Kanahiya, and Mahan Singh Sukkarchakkia, Mahan Singh offered Jassa Singh Ramgarhia help in recovering his territories from Jai Singh.
In February 1785 Jassa Singh launched his attack. Jai Singh stayed at Batala, and sent his son, Gurbakhsh Singh to meet the enemy, at Rampura, near Batala. 26-year-old Gurbakhsh was fatally wounded by a gunshot.
Stunned by the tragedy, Jai Singh agreed to restore Jassa Singh’s estates to him.
In the words of Khushwaqt Rai, Gurbakhsh Singh was a very handsome, tall, brave, generous and a promising young man. (Ahwal-i-Firqa-i-Sikhan, p 91)
Heart broken, Jai Singh, father of Gurbakhsh Singh, declined swiftly down the path of his fortunes.
Born at a time when the star of their family was in ascendance, Sada Kaur could not accept shattering of her dream.
The following year, 1786, she happened to meet Mahan Singh’s wife, Raj Kaur, at Jwalamukhi. She thought of swallowing her bitterness and patching up relations with the Sukkarchakkias. She proposed to Raj Kaur, marriage of her beautiful infant daughter, Mehtab Kaur, with latter’s 6-year-old son, Ranjit Singh, who had earlier been stricken by small pox, resulting in loss of his left eye. Raj Kaur accepted the proposal, smoothing the path of reconciliation between the two families – the Kanahiyas and the Sukkarchakkias.
In 1790, Mahan Singh fell ill, and before his death gave the hand of his only son, Ranjit, in the hand of Jai Singh Kanahiya – the boy’s would-be-grandfather-in-law.
At the time of accession to the throne of his father, Ranjit Singh, was only 10 years old. His mother Raj Kaur, and his would-be-mother-in-law, Sada Kaur —both widows — took it upon themselves to run the affairs of his state, with the help of Mahan Singh’s Diwan, Lakhpat Rai.
In 1795, Mehtab Kaur’s marriage was solemnized with Ranjit Singh.
The same year, 80-year-old Jai Singh, before his death, bequeathed Batala, Mukerian and a few other places, to his daughter-in-law, Sada Kaur. (He gave Hajipur and Sohian, to his wife Raj Kaur, mother of Nidhan Singh, 7, and Bhag Singh, 2).
Self confident Sada Kaur maintained her own army, to defend her interests and rule with dignity– and to rise in power in time.
In July 1799, encouraged by Sada Kaur, young Ranjit Singh decided to capture Lahore. The combined forces of Sukkarchakkias and the Kanahiyas entered the city on July 6, and got the fort evacuated from Chet Singh Bhangi on July 7.
To Ranjit Singh’s wife, Mehtab Kaur, ‘glitter of gold and galloping of horses, running from place to place, did not matter as much as love of budding youth’, and self respect of a daughter of a brave and independent lady. She did not appreciate harsh words of a husband, who was not only a king but was over ambitious, to acquire more and more. After all, he was not much to look at, and she was mehtab (moon). Besides, he had taken another wife – Raj Kaur, sister of Bhagwan Singh and daughter of Khazan Singh of Nakai Misl.
Unhappy Mehtab spent much time in her mother’s home at Batala. Maharaja used to visit her there from time to time.
In 1801, a son, Kharak Singh was born to Maharaja’s second wife, Rani Raj Kaur. Sada Kaur, saw one of her dreams slipping away. Kharak Singh would be the heir apparent. Sada Kaur tried to bring Mehtab Kaur closer to Ranjit Singh, but with not much success.
In 1802, Ranjit Singh married Moran (Mauran), a beautiful Muslim dancing girl from Multan. Ranjit Singh had established his reputation as a secular prince – at the same time he considered himself the Maharaja of the Sikhs, and his government as Sarkar-i-Khalsa.
Moran retained her religion, as she should have, but, what, if a son were born to her? What would have been the future of Sikh kingdom?
In 1803, Ranjit Singh annexed all the territories of his second wife’s brother, Bhagwan Singh Nakai. Sada Kaur felt her own territories threatened. She kept on trying to bring Ranjit Singh closer to her daughter, Mehtab Kaur.
In 1804, Sada Kaur felt happy, when a son was born to Mehtab Kaur. Thanking God (Ishwar) the child was named Ishar Singh. But the baby passed away, before he was a year and a half old.
In 1807, twin sons were born* to Mehtab Kaur. They were named Sher Singh and Tara Singh. But, the Maharaja’s mind was poisoned by rumour mongers, that she had given birth to a girl, and the male babies were acquired from ‘menial’ workers — one a carpenter, and the other a weaver.
Sada Kaur was extremely upset, when the Maharaja refused to acknowledge them as his own sons.
In 1808, the 12-yearly Kumbh Mela was held at Hardwar. Maharani Mehtab Kaur also went there for ‘pilgrimage’, along with her mother. This was the first time that the Hardwar Kumbh was held, under supervision of the British. It was managed by young Charles Metcalfe, an assistant in the Delhi Residency.
According to Bhagat Singh, History of the Sikh Misals, Sada Kaur happened to meet Samru Begum there. As a token of sisterly solidarity they changed their scarfs (dupattas), just as men used to exchange turbans to pledge brotherly relationship.
Rightly or wrongly, this gesture was interpreted as Sada Kaur’s plan to gain power through help of others.
Also in this Mela was a British spy, Mr Mathew.
Ex-Captain Mathew’s spy mission had been authorized by the Fort William Council, Calcutta, on February 29, 1808. He was required to operate as a tourist, in territories of Sikh Chieftains, especially of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The objective was to gather information from the military angle.
When Mehtab Kaur was returning, Mr Mathew joined her caravan, and made acquaintance with Maharani’s staff, to get references and smoothen his passage through Punjab.
When he met Sada Kaur, most probably at her palace in Batala, she smelt a rat. Her grievances against Ranjit Singh, who had not yet acknowledged her grandsons, must have surfaced. It is believed, from the events that followed, that she shared her dreams with the English spy.
On May 4, 1808 Captain Mathew wrote from Batala, to his contact officer, Adjutant-General, Major General, G H Fagan, that Sada Kaur desired alliance with, and protection of, the British, in replacing Ranjit Singh at the top, for which she was willing to pay to the British six annas from every rupee of the net revenue of the State.
“In Conclusion, I can, with confidence, assure you that should it be any part of English policy or interest, to possess this country now, or during the life of Ranee, it could be done without trouble or bloodshed by acting in conformity to her measures.”
Later that month, Mathew met Ranjit Singh. The Maharaja was shrewd enough to understand, or must have received intelligence, that he was no innocent traveler. He not only let Mathew overhear a side remark to one of his aides, that the English would not relish the taste of his sword, if they carry out their evil designs, if any. At the same time, he asked Mathew to forward a khareeta (private communication) from him to the Governor-General. When the khareeta arrived in Fort William, Calcutta, on July 6, 1808, Captain Mathew was recalled.
Governor- General’s reply to Ranjit Singh was delivered, later that year, by Charles Metcalfe, when he came on his Mission, to negotiate an alliance – supposedly against France, who might invade India alone or together with Turkey, or Persia. Negotiations got bogged down over the question of boundary between the two powers – river Jamuna or river Sutlaj.
In November 1808, the negotiations reached at the brink of war. Sada Kaur offered Metcalfe use of her fortress Atal-garh, if her possessions, which had been usurped by the Maharaja, were restored to her. Metcalfe regretted that he could not negotiate with her.
Maharani Mehtab Kaur died in 1810. Maharaja absented himself from the cremation and other ceremonies. Finally, he was persuaded by Diwan Mohkam Chand, to go to Sada Kaur’s place and participate in the ceremonies for his deceased wife.
According to Cunningham, “Sada Kaur perceived that she could obtain no power in the names of the children, and the disappointed woman addressed the English authorities in 1810, and denounced her son-in-law as having usurped her rights, and as resolved on war with his new allies. Her communications received some attention, but she was unable to organize an insurrection, and she became in a manner reconciled to her position” (History of the Sikhs, p 158).
In February 1812, Prince Kharak Singh was married to Chand Kaur, daughter of Sardar Jaimal Singh Kanahiya. An intelligence report sent to the British from the deorhi of Ranjit Singh, on February 7 showed that Maharaja missed his mother-in-law, and her grand children:
“The Noble Sarkar inspected papers…from Rama Nand Sahu, wherein something like two lakhs of rupees had been spent on the marriage and remarked that by the grace of God the ceremony of marriage had been celebrated in the best possible manner quite according to his desire, except that Rani Sada Kaur, his mother-in-law, did not take part in it, nor did her grand children, because their ideas seemed to be quite far fetched and different.”
Sada Kaur then arranged the marriage of her grandson, Sher Singh. She adopted a conciliatory attitude towards the Maharaja. Sher Singh’s marriage took place in December that year, but with not that kind of pomp and show, as was witnessed at the time of the marriage of Prince Kharak Singh.
After this reconciliation, armies of Sada Kaur, Sher Singh and Tara Singh were included in military campaigns.
After the debacle of Kashmir campaign, in 1814, Ranjit Singh started reminiscing and realizing the advice and help of his mother-in-law that had pushed him up on the ladder of success, in his earlier years. An intelligence report sent to the British on August 25, 1814 says:
The Noble Sarkar held a private conference with Diwan Muhkam Chand and Rani Sada Kaur, his mother-in-law, and said that the province of Kashmir had remained out of the hands simply on account of the troops of Bhayya Ram Singh the traitor, that in the expedition lakhs of rupees had been spent and a great deal of disgrace and insult had been incurred by him from the view-point of the rivals, and that at that time he had no other sympathetic friend beside them. They replied that they were prepared to make all sacrifices for him, even including their lives and property.
On September 17, 1814 Sada Kaur heard the good news that Ranjit Singh had told her grandsons, Sher Singh and Tara Singh, that they would soon get Jagirs.
But instead of giving fresh jagirs, in 1820 Ranjit Singh sent a firman to Sada Kaur asking her to set apart half of her estate for maintenance of her own grandsons. She was in his camp at that time. She had no alternative but to sign the deed. But soon after that she escaped from the camp, in a covered palanquin. Vasakha Singh, an old Kanahiya family retainer, secretly informed Ranjit Singh, who sent Desa Singh with a contingent to bring her back. She was brought and committed to close confinement, first at Lahore, and later at Amritsar.
Not contented with this punishment, Runjeet ordered a division of the army to march and sequester all her wealth and territory; and this was effected after a resistance of a few weeks, by one of her female attendants, who were in charge of Attul-gurh, her principal stronghold. (Murray/ Prinsep, History of the Punjab, II, p 59, London: 1848)
The end of this sad saga of Sardarni Sada Kaur came with her death in 1832, while still closely confined by Ranjit Singh, who had risen to pinnacle, on her shoulders, from where he never looked back