Sunday, December 04, 2016
Gateway to Sikhism
As can be seen, Ranjit Singh excited extreme feelings and emotions in all European travellers who met him. They either liked or hated him, but invariably respected his achievements. Burnes wrote about him in 1832: Nature has, indeed, been sparing in her gifts to this personage; and there must be a mighty Contrast between his mind and body. He has lost an eye, is pitted by the small pox, and his stature does not certainly exceed five feet three inches. He is entirely free from pomp and show, yet the studied respect of his court is remarkable; not an individual spoke without a sign, though the throng was more like a bazaar than the court of the first native Prince in these times A conversation could not, of course, conclude without his favourite topic of wine; and, as he first sat down, he remarked that the site of his tent was an agreeable one for a drinking party, since it commanded a fine view of the surrounding Country. He enquired of the doctors, whether wine was best before or after food; and laughed heartily at an answer from myself, when I recommended both. Burnes also witnessed the celebrations of the Basant festival at Ranjit Singh's court and found them impressive. The troops of the Punjab were drawn out, forming a street of about two miles long, which it took upwards of thirty-five minutes to traverse. The army consisted entirely of regular troops - cavalry, infantry~ and artillery; and the whole corps was uniformly dressed in yellow, which was the gala costume of this Carnival. The Maharaja passed down the line, and received the salute of his forces. Our road lay entirely through the ruins of old Lahore, over irregular ground, which gave the line a waving appearance that greatly heightened the beauty of the scene. At the end of this magnificent array stood the royal tents, lined with yellow silk. Among them was a canopy, valued at a lac of rupees, covered with pearls, and having a border of precious stones. Nothing can be imagined more grand. At one end Runjet took his seat, and heard the Grunth, or sacred volume of the Seiks, for about ten minutes. He made a present to the priest; and the holy book was borne away wrapped in ten different covers, the outside one of which, in honour of the day, was of yellow velvet. Flowers and fruits were then placed before his Highness; and every kind of shrub or tree that produced a yellow flower must have been shorn of its beauties on this day.

A camp of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Emily Eden got on well with Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1838 and along with sketching him wrote in her book: Another of Runjeet's topics was his constant praise of drinking, and he said he understood that there were books which contained objections to drunkenness, and he thought it better that there should be no books at all, than that they should Contain such foolish notions. He is a very drunken old profligate, neither more nor less. Still he has made himself a great king; he has conquered a great many powerful enemies; he is remarkably just in his government; he has disciplined a large army; he hardly ever takes away life, which is wonderful in a despot; and he is excessively beloved by his people. I certainly should not guess any part of this from looking at him. He retained a perfect simplicity or rather plainness of appearance, while his chiefs and Courtiers around him wore the most brilliant draperies and a rich profusion of jewels.
His manners were always quiet He had a Curious and Constant trick, while sitting and engaged in conversation, of raising one of his legs under him on the chair, which he used in compliance with the customs of his European visitors, and then pulling off the stocking from that foot. He had the use only of one eye, which age and a hard life of exposure and excesses had dimmed at the period now spoken of, but it still retained the traces of the vigour and penetration for which he was remarkable. Of Sher Singh and his son Pratap Singh she recounted, To our horror, Shere Singh offered himself again for dinner yesterday. We had four strange officers as it was, and this promised to be an awful dinner; but it turned out very well. He brought his little boy, Pertab Singh, seven years old, with eyes as big as saucers, and emeralds bigger than his eyes; and he is such a dear good child! G. gave the little boy a box containing an ornamented pistol, with all sorts of Contrivances for making bullets, all of which Pertab knew how to use. We accused Shere Singh of having taken a watch that had been given to his little boy; and he pretended to put this pistol in his sash, and it was very pretty to see the little fellow's appeal to G.; but in the middle of it all, he turned round to his father and said - But you know, Maharaj Gee (your Highness), what is yours is mine, and what is mine is yours; I will lend it to you whenever you like. Shere Singh thought the child was talking too much at one time, and made him a sign, upon which the boy sunk down in the eastern fashion, with his legs crossed and his hands clasped, and he fixed his eyes like a Statue. None of us could make him look or hear, and we asked his father at last to let him play, as we were used to children at home. He said one word, and the way in which Pertab jumped up was just like a Statue coming to life.

A street scene of Lahore painted by the Russian Painter Soltykoff.

Maharaja Sher Singh

 

Jacquemont, a French botanist and traveller was in Punjab for three years (1829-32) and met Maharaja Ranjit Singh a number of times. He is a thin little man with an attractive face, though he has lost an eye from smallpox which has otherwise disfigured him little. His right eye, which remains, is very large, his nose is fine and slightly turned up, his mouth firm, his teeth excellent. He wears slight moustaches which he twists incessantly with his finger and a long thin white beard which falls to his chest. His expression shows nobility of thought, shrewdness and the biography of Ranjit Singh might possibly be amusing but it abounds in facts impossible to write down in the vernacular, which would require to be put in Latin notes. Yet in spite of all that is reprehensible in Ranjit, do love him a little for my sake. I have spent a couple of hours on several occasions and his conversation is a nightmare. He is almost the first inquisitive Indian I have seen, but his curiosity makes up for the apathy of his whole nation. Like all persons of quality in the East he is a malade imaginaire, and since he has a large band of the liveliest girls of Kashmir and sufficient means to pay for a better dinner than anybody else in this country, he is particularly annoyed at not being able to drink like a fish without getting drunk, or eat like an elephant without choking.Women no longer give him any more pleasure than the flowers in his garden, and for good reasons, and that is the most cruel of his ills.
He had the decency to refer to those functions of whose weakness he complains as his digestion. But I know what the word stomach signified in the mouth of the King of Lahore, and we discussed his malady exhaustively, though in veiled terms This model Asiatic king is no saint: far from it. He cares nothing for law or good faith, unless it is to his interest to be just or faithful; but he is not cruel. He orders very great criminals to have their noses and ears cut off, or a hand, but he never takes life. He has a passion for horses, which amounts almost to a mania; he has waged the most costly and bloody wars for the purpose of seizing a horse in some neighbouring State which they had refused to give or sell him. He is extremely brave, a quality rather rare among Eastern princes, and though he has always been successful in his military campaigns, it has been by treaties and cunning negotiations that he has made himself absolute king of the whole Punjab, Kashmir, etc. and is better obeyed by his subjects than the Mogul emperors were at the height of their power. A professing Sikh, though in reality a Skeptic, he goes to Amritsar every year to perform his devotions, and, oddly enough, visits the tombs of various Moslem Saints as well; yet these pilgrimages do not upset any of his more strait-laced co-religionists. One knows that Orientals are debauched; but they have some shame about it. Ranjit's excesses are shameless. The fact that this gray beard has had and has a number of catamites is nothing shocking in this country; but, apart from this, he has always consorted publicly with the women of the bazaar, whose patron and protector he is. At the great festivals there are hundreds of them at Lahore and Amritsar, whom he makes dress up in the most ridiculous way, ride on horses and follow him; on such occasions they form his bodyguard. He always has some of them in his camp, and they follow him everywhere riding upon his elephants. One of his pastimes when he has nothing better to do is to watch their flirtations with the young men of his court.
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