Friday, December 09, 2016
Gateway to Sikhism
In the period after the death of Maharaja Ranjit the chief personality who came outmost profitably was Gulab Singh of Jammu Sitting quietly in the comers of paintings, he always played his cards right at crucial points of history. He later bargained with the British for Kashmir, which he obtained after paying with money obtained from his former ruler Ranjit Singh's treasury. On the death of Naunehal Singh he and his brother Dhian Singh had bargained hard with Sher Singh and Naunehal's mother. In the process Sher Singh got the Lahore throne and the Koh-i-nur diamond, Dhian became chief minister for life, and Gulab Singh struck a fortune and rode away considerably richer. Sixteen carts were filled with rupees and other silver coins, while 500 horsemen were each entrusted with a bag of gold mohurs, and his orderlies were also entrusted with jewelry and other valuable articles. The costly pashminas, and rich wardrobes, and the best horses in Ranjit Singh's stables, were all purloined by Gulab Singh on the occasion of his evacuating Lahore, an event which took place on the night following the cessation of hostilities (Latif). According to Smyth, Gulab Singh exercised the most ruthless barbarities, not in the heat of conflict or in the flush of victory only, nor in the rage of an offended sovereign against rebellious subjects; he deliberately committed the most horrible atrocities for the purpose of investing his name with a terror that should keep down all thoughts of resistance to his cruel sway With all this he was courteous and polite in his demeanour, and exhibited a suavity of manner and language that contrasted fearfully with the real disposition to which it formed an artfully designed but still transparent covering. He would be all things to all men, and displayed a readiness to adapt himself to the circumstances even of the humblest of his subjects that would have won all hearts, had not the tiger-nature that crouched beneath this fair-seeming exterior rendered him an object of distrust and terror.

Raja Gulab Singh with Jawahar Singh

There were also many interesting foreigners in Maharaja Ranjit Singh's court. Dr. Martin Honigberger was from Transylvania and came to India in 1829 as a doctor in the Sikh Army. Maharaja Ranjit Singh initially did not give him full respect but when he cured him from a serious illness in 1839 he was extremely pleased with him and gave him shawls and gold bracelets. He was also made a part of the drama after Naunehal Singh's death when Raja Dhian Singh delayed matters, awaiting the arrival of Raja Sher Singh. Honigberger wrote, The prince was on his bed, his head most awfully crushed, and his state was such that no hope of his recovery existed. With that conviction I left the tent, and whispered to the minister, in so low a tone that no one else could here it, Medical art can do nothing to relieve the unfortunate prince; upon which, the minister requested me to wait there while he re-entered the tent, and, after a short stay therein, he came out, addressing me loud enough to be heard by all the assembly, who listened attentively, asking whether they might give some soup to the Koonwar Sahib (royal prince), he wishing to have some. Whereupon I answered. Of course; he is in need only of parsley - a proverb applied to those dangerously ill, and not expected to live. Honigberger was later dismissed during Hira Singh's time but re-appointed by Jawahar Singh. After the collapse of Ranjit Singh's kingdom the British pensioned him.

Kanwar Naunihal Singh (right)

Francis Henri Mouton joined Ranjit Singh's cavalry in 1838 and returned to France after fighting for the Sikhs at Firozshah and Sobraon. De Ia Roche, who joined Ranjit Singh in 1838, was a cavalry commander and also performed some other functions. l.F. Allard was a senior officer under Napoleon Bonaparte and along with Ventura reached Lahore in March 1822, and Ranjit Singh was quick to give these experienced officers employment. Allard looked after the cavalry and lancers, as well as training recruits for Ranjit Singh's army. He returned to France in 1834 and died in 1839 on a visit to Lahore. Before that he had been awarded the Legion of Honour by France and the Bright Star of the Punjab by Ranjit Singh. He had married a Chamba girl who settled down in France. J.B. Ventura was an Italian by birth and experienced army duty in the Battle of Waterloo. Coming to India he joined Ranjit Singh in 1822. After Ranjit Singh's death in 1839 he returned to France leaving behind his wife and fifty female slaves. P.B. Avitabile was an Italian who came to India via Persia in 1827. In addition to army duties he also was given civilian charges. He was discharged from army duty in 1843 and as Aijazuddin writes, Avitabile retired to Agerola near Naples, his birthplace, and was soon married to a young niece by his scheming relatives, keen on sharing his spoils. Before long, however, the bride and her lawyer paramour were able to accomplish a feat which the fierce Kurds in Persia, the Sikhs in Wazirabad, and the Peshawari Pathans had all admitted was impossible. The ageing General was disposed of silently, it was rumoured, from the combined effects of a poisoned meal and asphyxiation in a gas-filled room. He died in March 1850, aged fifty nine. Foulkes joined Ranjit Singh's army in 1836 and died in service at Mandi in 1841. De Ia Font entered Ranjit Singh's service rather late in 1839 and served under General Ventura. H. Steinbach, a Prussian, entered Ranjit Singh's service in 1838 but did not have a very happy tenure and returned to Europe in 1843. H.C. Van Cortlandt joined Ranjit Singh in 1832, was appointed Governor of Dera Ismail Khan and later on joined the British in India, retiring as the Commissioner of Multan. C.A. Court, after serving for Napoleon came to India via Persia. He had a tough time in the chaos which prevailed after Maharaja Ranjit Singh's death. He married a Kashmiri girl whom he took back to France. Court was a scholarly man and was also interested in numismatics and archaeology. All these officers have been portrayed in August Schoefft's classic painting 'The Court of Lahore' and, in his book, Aijazud din has painstakingly pieced together their itinerant biographies.

Maharaja Gulab Singh on elephant

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