Saturday, November 25, 2017
Gateway to Sikhism

Sher-e-Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh

William Osborne was A.D.C. to the Governor-Genera], Lord Auckland. During his stay in India he could spend some time in Maharaja Ranjit Singh's court and wrote an interesting record about the time he spent with him, shortly before he died. In his book, 'The Court and Camp of Runjeet Singh', he gives insights into Ranjit Singh's exceptional character Osborne first saw him Crosslegged in a golden chair, dressed in simple white, wearing no ornaments but a single string of enormous pearls round the waist, and the celebrated Koh-i-nur, or mountain of light, on has arm - the jewel rivalled; if not surpassed, in brilliancy by the glance of fire which every now and then shot from his single eye as it wandered restlessly round the circle - sat the Lion of Lahore The more I see of Runjeet Singh, the more he strikes me as an extraordinary man. Cunning and distrustful himself, he has succeeded in inspiring his followers with a strong and devoted attachment to his person; with a quick talent at reading men's minds, he is equally adept at concealing his own; and it is curious to see the sort of quiet indifference with which he listens to the absurd reports of his own motives and actions which are daily poured into his ears at the Durbar, without giving any opinion of his own, and without rendering it possible to guess what his final decision on any subject will be, till the moment for action has arrived. Though he is by profession a Sikh, in religion he is in reality a sceptic, and it is difficult to say whether his superstition is real, or only a mask assumed to gratify and conciliate his people. He is mild and merciful as a ruler, but faithless and deceitful; perfectly uneducated, unable even to read or write, he has by his own natural and unassisted intellect raised himself from the situation of a private individual to that of a despotic monarch over a turbulent and powerful nation. By sheer force of mind, personal energy and courage (though at the commencement of his career he was feared and detested rather than loved), he has established his throne on a firmer foundation than that of any other eastern sovereign, and but for other watchful jealously of the British government, would long ere have added Scinde, if not Afghanistan, to his present kingdom. Ill-looking as he undoubtedly is, the countenance of Runjeet Sing cannot fail to strike everyone as that of a very extraordinary man; and though at first his appearance gives rise to a disagreeable feeling almost amounting to disgust, a second look shows so much intelligence, and the restless wandering of his single fiery eye excites so much interest, that you get accustomed to his plainness, and are forced to confess that there is no common degree of intellect and acuteness developed in his countenance.

Mian Jai Singh bring entertained by musicians and dancing girls.

Osborne also had the opportunity to record about Maharaja Ranjit Singh's lively banquets. On my return home, I met the Maharajah taking his usual ride. He was very inquisitive as to where I had been, and I never saw him in so good a humour or such high spirits. After a good deal of gossip upon various subjects, he said, You have never been at one of my drinking parties; it is bad work drinking now as the weather is so hot; but as soon as we have a good rainy day, we will have one. I sincerely hope it will not rain rat all during our stay, for, from all accounts, nothing can be such a nuisance as one of these parties. His wine is extracted from raisins, with a quantity of pearls ground to powder, and mixed with it, for no other reason (that I can hear) than to add to the expense of it. It is made for him alone, and though he sometimes gives a few bottles to some of his favourite chiefs, it is very difficult to be procured, even at the enormous price of one gold mohur for a small bottle. If is as strong as aquafortis, and as at his parties he always helps you himself, it is no easy matter to avoid excess. He generally, on these occasions, has two or three Hebes in the shape of the prettiest of his Cachemirian girls to attend upon himself and guests, and gives way to every species of licentious debauchery. He fell violently in love with one of these fair cup-bearers about two years ago, and actually married her, after parading her on a pillion before himself on horseback, through the camp and city, for two or three days, to the great disgust of all his people. The only food allowed to you at these drinking bouts are fat quails stuffed with all sorts of spices, and the only thing to allay your thirst, naturally consequent upon eating such heating food, is this abominable liquid fire. Runjeet himself laughs at our wines, and says that he drinks for excitement, and that the sooner that object is attained the better Of all the wines we brought with us as a present to him from the Governor-General, consisting of port, claret, hock, champagne, etc., the whiskey was the only thing he liked. During these potation he generally orders the attendance of all his dancing girls, whom he forces to drink his wine, and when he thinks them sufficiently excited, uses all his power to set them by the ears, the result of which is a general action, in the course of which they tear one another almost to pieces. They pull one another's nose and earrings by main force, and sometimes even more serious accidents occur; Runjeet sitting by encouraging them with the greatest delight, and exclaiming to his guests, Burra tomacha, burra tomacha (great fun).

Osborne was greatly impressed with Pratap Singh, the young son of Sher Singh, who even at a tender age once escorted him. Pertaub Singh was handsomely dressed, armed with a small ornamented shield, sword, and matchlock, all in miniature, covered with jewels, and escorted by a small party of Sikh cavalry and some guns. His horse was naturally of a white colour, but dyed with henna to a deep scarlet. He is one of the most intelligent boys I ever met with, very good looking, with singularly large and expressive eyes. His manners are in the highest degree attractive, polished, and gentleman-like and totally free from all the mauvaise bonte and awkwardness generally found in European children of that age. He is young and a very interesting friend. He expressed his thanks in graceful terms on receiving my present of a gold watch and a chain, and on parting said You may tell Lord Auckland that the British Government will always find a friend in the son of Sher Sing. Then, mounting his horse covered with plumes and jewels, he gracefully raised his hand to his forehead and galloped off with his escort, curvetting and caracoling round him in circles till he was out of sight. At that time he was only eight years of age! In Emily Eden's lithograph he indeed looks like a bright child. (see painting of Kunwar Partap Singh in part 1)

Two years later, introducing his journal which was published after Maharaja Ranjit Singh's death, he critically wrote about Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Brought up but not educated in the idleness and debauchery of a zenana, by the pernicious influence of which it is marvellous that the stoutest mind should not be emasculated, he appears from the moment he assumed the reins of government to have evinced a vigour of understanding on which his habitual excesses, prematurely fatal as they proved to his bodily powers, produced no sensible effect. His was one of that order of minds which is destined by nature to win their way to distinction and achieve greatness. His courage was of that cool and calculating sort, which courted no unnecessary danger, and shunned none, which his purposes made it expedient to encounter; and he always observed a just proportion between his efforts and his objects. Gifted with an intuitive perception of character. and a comprehensive knowledge of human nature, it was by the overruling influence of a superior rnind, that he contrived gradually, almost insensibly, and with little resistance, not only to reduce the proud and high-spirited chiefs of his nation to the condition of subjects, but to render them the devoted adherents of his person, and the firm supporters of his throne. With an accurate and retentive memory, and with great fertility both of invention and resources, he was an excellent man of business without being able to write or even to read. As insensible to remorse and pity as indisposed to cruelty and the shedding of blood, he cared neither for the happiness or lives of others, except as far as either might be concerned in the obstruction or advancement of his projects, from the steady pursuit of which no consideration ever diverted him. His success, and especially the consolidation of his power, are in great measure attributable to the soundness of his views, and the practicable nature of his plans. He never exhausted his strength in wild and hazardous enterprises, but restraining his ambition within the limits of a reasonable probability they were not only so well timed and slulIfully arranged as generally to ensure success, but failure (in the rare instances when they did fail) never seriously shook his stability, or impaired his resources. He seems to have had a lively, fanciful, and ingenuous mind, but the ceremonious forrus of Indian etiquette and the figurative and hyperbolical style of Oriental intercourse, are not favourable to the development of social qualities. Runjeet, however, had a natural shrewdness, sprightliness and vivacity, worthy of a more civilized and intellectual state. He was a devout believer in the doctrines, and a punctual observer of the ceremonies of his religion. The Grunth, the sacred book of the Sikhs, was constantly read to him, and he must have been familiar with the moral precepts it inculcated. But nothing could be more different than the precepts of Nanak and the practices of Runjeet. By the former were enjoined devotion to God and peace towards men. The life of Runjeet was an incessant career of war and strife and he indulged without remorse or shame in sensualities of the most revolting description. Nor did the excesses over which he was at no pains to throw a decent veil either detract from his dignity or diminish the respect of his subjects; so depraved was the taste and so low the state of moral sentiment in the Punjab. It is no impeachment of the sagacity of Runjeet that he was a believer in omens and charms, in witchcraft and in spells. Such superstitions only prove that early impressions were not eradicated and that his mind did not make a miraculous spring beyond the bounds of his country and his age.

An excellent painting of the Maharaja. (Original by an unknown artist)

Vigne, a geologist, sketched Maharaja Ranjit Singh and wrote about him, The diminutive size of his person, and the comparative simplicity of his attire -consisting of a turban, usually large only over the forehead, with the end hanging down the back, folded a la Sikh; a kind of frock or tunic, padded so as to give an extraordinary breadth to his naturally wide shoulders; the kumerbund tied round his waist; and pair of close-fitting trousers, of the same colour, yellow or pea-green; and all of Kashmirian manufacture - did not prevent anyone, who entered the durbar for the first time, from instantly recognizing the Maharajah. The contour of his face was square; his complexion was a light olive, his forehead was wide and Napoleonlike: his right and only eye, large and prominent, for he had lost the other by the smallpox, with which he was slightly marked, was incessantly roving; his nostrils expanded and contracted, as his conversation became animated; and decision and energy were pre-eminently imprinted on his thick but well-formed lips. A grey moustache, blending with his white beard, added character to the very expressive countenance of this extraordinary man.

Baron HugeL an Austrian traveller, also visited Ranjit Singh's court during his later years, when he was partially paralysed. I must call him the most ugly and unprepossessing man I saw throughout the Punjab. His left eye, which is quite closed, disfigures him less than the other, which is always rolling about, wide open, and is much distorted by disease. The scars of the smallpox on his face do not run into one another, but form so many dark pits in his greyish-brown skin, his short straight nose is swollen at the tip and his head, which is sunk every much on his broad shoulders, is too large for his height and does not seem to move easily. He has a thick muscular neck, thin arms and legs, the left foot and the left arm dropping, and small well-formed hands. He will sometimes hold a stranger's hand fast within his own for half an hour, and the nervous irritation of his mind is shown by the continued pressure on one's fingers. His Costume always contributes to increase his ugliness, being in winter the colour of gamboge. When he seats himself in a common English armchair, with his feet drawn under him, the position is one particularly unfavourable to him; but as soon as he mounts his horse, and with his black shield at his back, puts him on his mettle, his whole form seems animated by the spirit within, and assumes a certain grace, of which nobody could believe it Susceptible. In spite of the paralysis affecting one side, he manages his horse with the greatest ease. If nature has been niggardly to him in respect of personal appearance, she has recompensed him very richly by the power which he exercises over everyone who approaches him. He can in a moment take up a subject of conversation, follow it up closely by questions and answers, which convey other questions in themselves, and these are always so exactly to the purpose, that they put the understanding of his respondent to the teat. With a voice naturally rough and unpleasant, he can assume a tone of much fascination whenever he wishes to flatter; and his influence over the people of northern India amounts to something like enchantment.

The Maharaja's favourite horse, Laili, with an attendant will strive to be most comprehensive directory of Historical Gurudwaras and Non Historical Gurudwaras around the world.

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