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The Real Ranjit Singh

A Review by S Gurcharan Singh*

Author : Fakir Syed Waheeduddin
Publisher: Punjabi University, Patiala
2nd Edition 2001,
Price Rs 300/- ; pp 166

There is no book like this book, which portrays Maharaja Ranjit Singh as a human being, a person of flesh and blood, and not merely a man of history.

The author’s ancestors, the Faqir brothers were the men nearest to Ranjit Singh in public and private life. They have left valuable accounts of his day-to-day life in court as well as behind the scenes. The book is based upon these facts.

There is a legend of a mysterious apparition appearing before Ranjit Singh addressing him not to sit on the Mughal throne, and to rule all subjects impartially – which he did throughout his life. Ranjit Singh, though a devout Sikh, had profound reverence for all that was holy and spiritual. He gave liberal grants and donations to shrines of all faiths, and paid tributes to holy men of all religions. There is a story of a calligrapher carrying with him a beautiful manuscript of the Holy Quran, and finding no buyer for it in Punjab, on way to Hydrabad. Ranjit Singh immediately ordered Faqir Azizuddin to pay him Rs 10 thousand, asked by him, from state treasury, so that the talent does not go un-rewarded. He literally saw everyone with one eye and his subjects, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, equally reciprocated his warm interest in their faiths by remembering him in their prayers on important occasions such as new campaigns, victories, or when he fell ill, and finally during his last illness.

When Ranjit Singh assumed the throne of the Punjab, there was no throne in literal sense. He sat on a chair or on a carpet as he did when he was a chieftain. He said, “I am a peasant and a soldier, and do not care for external pomp. My sword is enough to win for me all distinction, I need.” This ascetic indifference to personal adornment was all the more remarkable for his keen sense of delight in beauty, colour and gaiety. The men around him, his councellors and courtiers and military officers were among the best looking and most magnificently dressed men of their times.

He had a passion for beautiful horses and beautifully decorated elephants. He adored jewllery and loved to see it on people around him. There was utter lack of vanity about his power. He gracefully accepted disadvantage of his looks with pitted face, one blind eye, diminutive figure which nature had inflicted on him. He never tried to improve these. His mind was intent on bigger things. His lack of looks was more than made up by his simplicity, an intelligence of higher order, a disarming frankness of speech punctuated by long intervals of tactful slience, an easy informality which yet commanded respectful and correct behaviour in his presence. There was an aura of natural majesty which threw his fine looking courtiers into shade, and made them proud of serving him.

In early days, Ranjit Singh liked to be addressed as “Singh Sahib”. Older Sikh Chiefs called him “Brother”. Later, “Maharaja” became the usual form of address. He was often at pains to impress that the true ‘king’ was the ‘Guru’, he was only the Guru’s humble servant. The government was always ‘Sarkar-e-Khalsa’ and derived all sovereign powers from ‘Panth Khalsa’, the mystic entity in which all powers were enshrined by the Guru.
He was so conscious of his subjects’ rights that two orders issued by him show this: one decrees that no person in the city should practise high handedness and oppression on the people. The second is in regard to security of the town. Even if a prince or a minister commit any inappropriate act the incharge commander should bring it to the notice of His Highness. Daily reports should be obtained from the Kotwal and petitions intended for him be forwarded to him promptly. The orders were models of royal draftsmanship by any standards – ancient or modern.

His reign was humane and no capital punishment was awarded even to the worst offenders.

I have left out some chapters narrating Ranjit Singh’s rise of power, his consolidation of position in Punjab, relationships with the English, the Afghans, his conquests of Multan, Kashmir, Peshawar. These are though important part of history and reflect his genius as a leader, a strategist and potential king, I have mainly confined to his life as an individual and as a family man.

Ranjit Singh’s father Maha Singh rose to head the Sukerchakya Misl and by marrying Raj Kaur, daughter of Chief of Jind, Gajpat Singh, made a powerful alliance. He was opposed to Kanahyas. In a battle with them, son of the Kanahyas chief got killed. This brought about a truce and the Chief’s grand-daughter Mehtab Kaur was married to young Ranjit Singh. Later Ranjit Singh's mother-in-law Sada Kaur became the Kanahya Chief. After Maha Singh, Ranjit Singh became head of Sukerchakya Misl. Sada Kaur, in the beginning, saw him an upcoming daring leader and supported him to drive out Pathans, later on the Bhangis, from Amritsar and Lahore. But her self-interest was stronger. She wanted him to rise to advance her own power. She did not get on well with Ranjit Singh’s mother and interfered in their internal matters. As a result, Ranjit Singh’s relations with his wife Mehtab Kaur were estranged. Sada Kaur took her daughter Mehtab Kaur away with her, where two princes Sher Singh and Tara Singh were born, who thus lived away from their father. This marred relations further and frittered away what could have been a stronger alliance.

There is a story of Fateh Singh Ahluwalia who always stood by Ranjit Singh and became his brother by exchanging turbans. Some body created misunderstanding between them causing him to flee. On knowing the background, fortunately he came back and old affections were restored. There are many such examples of Ranjit Singh’s magnanimous nature.

There was a peculiar relationship between Ranjit Singh and Phula Singh and his band of Akalis. Their cherished dream was to see a Khalsa kingdom established, though they were not well organized and equipped for that. They saw in Ranjit Singh the stuff they were looking for, and they helped him to win many battles where fanatical energy was required. But they were difficult to deal with. Pious and humble and serving the gurdwaras on one hand, they thought they were entitled to extract from the community anything they needed for their up-keep. It was an article of faith with them to defy and prey on the powerful and the rich, while serving the poor and the weak, with whom they were popular. Ranjit Singh had a good deal of patience and tolerance to have them accept in royal service, though, on occasions, they embarrassed him with their irritant pranks.

Prince Kharak Singh was Ranjit Singh’s eldest son from his second and favourite wife Raj Kaur. He was utterly lacking in ambition and worldly sense. Though he was trained as heir-apparent and was sent on some military expeditions, his real interest lay in reading the Granth and sitting in the company of holy men. He gave his father great anxiety as a future successor. Ranjit Singh's death-bed decision to entrust him his kingdom with Dhian Singh as the Prime Minister did not work. Within months he was imprisoned and poisoned to death. Faqir Azizuddin spoke of this with profound sorrow.

Ranjit Singh’s passionate love for horses can be judged from the fact that he had more than 1200 horses in his stable, 1000 reserved for him personally. Riding was his favourite exercise. Whenever he was burdened with private or state matters, he would abruptly call for a horse, saddled, bridled and go for a long ride. The vanity he lacked about his own appearance was made up in appearance of his horses. They were decked in most expensive and gorgeous trappings. Famous were Gauharbar, Sufaid Pari, Laili – all of Persian breed. There is a fairy tale-like story about Laili for which many expeditions were made and it cost him sixty lakhs of rupees and 1200 soldiers! He used to take pride of this possession and exhibit to his foreign visitors.

Another marvel was his bungalow on wheels – decorated, furnished and pulled by eight elephants. This was for royal children and their playmates for a journey on festive occasions. He was fond of children specially the good looking and intelligent ones. His most favourite was Raja Dhian Singh’s son Hira Singh, handsome with ready wit and fine bearing. Compared to him, his own sons Kharak Singh and Sher Singh were mediocre. Kharak Singh was utterly dull, Sher Singh, though manly in appearance, lacked courtly wit or wisdom.

Maharaja’s pets were pigeons and domestic fowls. Sometimes, visitors were surprised to be ushered to his presence where he was surrounded by these pets as he was feeding them. He was humane even during hunting. It was more for his own exercise and his greyhounds, and not for slaughtering. There is an incident of a young tiger cub being caught by his shikaris. When Ranjit Singh came to know that its mother was stalking in the dark and moaning all night, he ordered it to be released to join the tigeress.

Ranjit Singh’s harem consisted of 46 women, nine Sikh wives, nine widows adopted as per custom, seven courtesans and remaining concubines. He was susceptible to feminine charms as a man, but not as a ruler. There were no public scandles involving him or his officials. His first wife Mehtab Kaur was haughty and did not like him. On the other hand, he received affection and warmth from the second wife Raj Kaur, later mother of Prince Kharak Singh. In beauty, two daughters of Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra Guddan and Bamso, famous courtesan Moran were well known. Moran was Ranjit Singh’s most favourite, and used to appear unveiled in public with him.

Between public life and private life, he had his own diversion of wine, song and dance once a while. But there was little of debauchery. These were displays of art and sometimes banter exchanged, never orgies or dissipation. He was always on guard against lapses from royal standards; on the other hand, the dancing girls had their own vigorous code of etiquete.

In March 1837, Maharaja’s grandson Nau Nihal Singh was married. Maharaja told his Ministers and Sardars that he wanted the wedding to be remembered and talked about. So it was a most lavish affair, attended also by the British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Fane. The festivities, various ceremonies, the costly gifts exchanged, entertainment and honour given to the visiting dignitaries are best read in the original. It is most amazing and glamorous. In regard to expenses, as if the floodgates of the royal treasury were opened.

Death came to the Lion of the Punjab on 27th June, 1839, after frequent attacks of fever and dysentry. Earlier he had a few strokes of paralysis from which he recovered every time but weakend. Faqir Azizuddin was always in attendance and did more than a son. Maharaja asked the Faqir to make a formal proclamation of Prince Kharak Singh as successor aided by Raja Dhian Singh as Prime Minister. Many Sankalps – ceremonial offerings of gifts including elephants, horses, costly jewllery, clothing, gold vessels, coins were made to Brahmins. A gold and silver bier costing Rs 10 lakhs was prepared for the last journey. There was weeping and crying all round and recitation of Gita and Guru Granth Sahib continued. Four ranis led by Rani Katochan with seven maidservants readied themselves to sit on the pyre with the Maharaja’s body. Dhian Singh showed as if he also wanted to join them but he was prevailed upon by entricaties from various quarters. On the pyre, Rani Katochan made Raja Dhian Singh and Prince Kharak Singh promise to stand by each other to carry on faithfully the affairs of the kingdom. Lastly, Prince Kharak Singh lit the fire. Thus ended the reign of the Lion of the Punjab.

Thus ends the story told by the author. But perhaps some thing more ought to have been said. How did Ranjit Singh view his great generals like Hari Singh Nalwa and Dewan Mohkam Chand; what did he think of Cis-Sutlej rajas who forsake him and took shelter under the British; what kind of services of Dhian Singh Dogra and his brother impressed him that they rose so high so soon; what made him agree to place persons like Jem Khushal Singh and others of his like to occupy the most sensitive positions of security of his palace which created problems for his successors; near the end of life how is that un-Sikh rituals like Sankalps to Brahmins and after his death burning of his ranis became so unavoidable and compulsive; etc. These the author has tactfully avoided for reasons known to him.

The book is clearly typed and well bound. A foreword by Lord Hailey and a preface and introduction by the author give the background of this work. There are many coloured photos of the Maharaja, his ranis, Princes, Ministers, Generals and others which add colour to the text. Most interesting work on the personal life of the Maharaja, indeed, for all readers including scholars.

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ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2007, All rights reserved.