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Sikh Heritage

The Images of Sikh Heritage

The British were intent]y ‘watching the events at the Lahore court and their ‘intelligence reports’ also give information of the prevailing State of affairs. Their report of 7th November 1840 mentioned, This day at 11 A.M. Koonwur Sher Singh arrived by Dak and entered Lahore. Raja Dhian Singh immediately reported the death of Koonwur Nownihal Singh to his mother Ranee Chund Koonwur, and to Sher Singh . When intelligence reached the Ranee, cries and lamentations ensued, and she with the three widows and slave girls of the Koonwur came to the fort, and looked upon her deceased son. A distressing scene ensued. Two of the widows viz., Bhuddourwallee aged 13, and Kuttochwallee aged 15 years cried out that their husband was dead and who would now support them, and that they would burn themselves with his corpse. The Ministers and Koonwur Sheer Singh, tried to dissuade them, and told them they were too young, but in vain. They smiled and desired the ministers and Sheer Singh to desist from such persuasions. The Ministers at last consented. Adorned in their splendid dresses of all colours, while the Ranees themselves looked like beautiful fairies the Koonwur’s corpse was carried to the Huzzuree garden near his grand-father’s tomb, attended by the two suttees, his mother, and the third widow, daughter of Sham Singh of Attaree, and a concourse of all the servants and Chiefs. It was then placed on the pile, the Bhadour and the Kuttoch Ranees also ascended it, placed the head of the deceased on their knees. The Bhadour Ranee then granted a Kulghee or head jewel to the Koonwur Sheer Singh, and both prayed to God for the continuance of the Khalsa Government till the end of the world, and for the happiness of its subjects. The Kuttoch Ranee then advised Raja Dhian Singh to serve Koonwur Sheer Singh with all his heart and soul, and then by permission of the ministers, fire was set to the pile by the Attaree widow. The flames ascended and reduced the Koonwur and the two fairies to ashes. The Pundit suggested the propriety of the observance of the Maharaja’s funeral rites bv Koonwur Sher Singh, and those of the deceased Koonwur, by his widow of Attaree, and this was permitted by the Ministers. After this melancholy ceremony was over, all went to bathe in the Ravee, and Rannee Chund Koonwur, with Sham Singh’s daughter, the widows of the late Maharaja Runjeet Singh, the slave girls, all returned to the Summonboorj with shrieks of lamentation. No words can fully and adequately describe the State of the general mourning in the town. Nothing is to be heard but heart-rending cries. Some persons ascribe these calarnities to the violent proceedings of the Koonwur and of Raja Golaub Singh. The one, they say, had ordered a general demolition of Mosques, Thakurdwaras, and Shuheed Gunges, places sacred to the Hindus as well as to the Mahomedans, and the Raja struck off Cheit Singh’s head with his own hands, in the presence of Maharaja Khurruck Singh. It is proposed to proclaim the accession of Koonwar Sheer Singh to the Khalsa Guddee, in the city of Lahore this evening. The official British statement, issued by ‘T.H. Maddock, Secretary to Government of India’ on 18 November 1840 at Fort William, was more laconic. Official information having been received of the untimely demise on the 6th Instant of the late Prince Nao Nehal Singh, heir to the Lahore sovereignty, from the effects of an accident sustained while issuing from the palace at Lahore for the performance of the funeral obsequies and the ceremonial of accession to the throne of his father the late Maharajah Khurruck Singh, the Governor General of India in Council in testimony of his sympathv in a calamitv so deeply affecting a family with which the British Government has long been bound in close alliance is pleased to direct that the honors due to the memory of a reigning Prince shall be rendered on this m’elancholy occasion. Twenty-two minute guns corresponding with what is believed to have been the number of the years of the late Prince’s age will accordingly be fired on this date from the ramparts of Fort William.

Maharaja Sher Singh

Ranjit Singh held his court together through a system of personal loyalties and a strong hand, though he was not a cruel despot. Such was his authority that even during his crippling paralysis towards the end of his life the affairs of the state ran effortlessly in his name. Once he died, in 1839, there was considerable anarchy for a decade till his empire finally collapsed.

There were a series of intrigues, deaths and murders which wiped out the leading figures. Sher Singh, Dhian Singh and Pratap Singh were brutally murdered by Ajit Singh Sandhawalia in September 1843, who in turn was killed by Hira Singh a few days later; Hira Singh was killed in September 1844; Jawahar Singh, the brother of Rani Jindan, was executed by the Sikh army in September 1844; Rani Jindan was exiled by the British in August 1847 and, perhaps, if she had been restrained some years earlier from imposing her intrigues on the Sikh kingdom its history might have been different. Prior to his death Kharak Singh had been deposed by his own son Naunehal Singh in October 1839. With the collapse of the Lahore court in 1849 and the anarchy that had gripped it in its last decade, and its coming under direct British rule, a semblance of tranquillity descended on Punjab till the next upheaval, which was the Mutiny of 1857. Ironically, the sketches made by European artists like Emily Eden and August Schoefft were converted into lithographs and paintings and reached Punjab after the deaths of their subjects. In fact when Schoefft first reached Punjab in 1841 he had already missed out on Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Kharak Singh and Naunehal Singh, who had already passed into history.

Maharaja Kharak Singh

Emily Eden’s ‘Portraits of the Princes and People of India’ was published in 1844, August Schoefft’s’ famous painting ‘The Court of Lahore’ was finished much after 1850. Even Osborne’s book ‘The Court and Camp of Ranjit Singh’ was published after the Maharaja died. Soltykoff’s magnificent images were published in 1858. The European artists, therefore, did not have an immediate effect on the preferences of the Lahore court though instances are recorded of their making and presenting some paintings to their subjects during their visits. The last Maharaja, Dalip Singh, was fortunate to have been portrayed in all mediums – miniatures, water colours, oils, photographs, and was even sketched by Queen Victoria herself, whose favourite he was. Comparing his initial miniature paintings with the photographs it appears that the painters’ efforts were quite realistic. There was often a caricature effect in the paintings. For example, the painters accentuated Daleep Singh’s large, sad, eyes, Hira Singh’s wiriness, Sher Singh’s grace and vitality, Kharak Singh’s weaknesses, the wiliness of the twin-thumbed Dhian Singh and his brother Gulab Singh. Daleep Singh in particular became the icon of nostalgia and Aijazuddin succinctly sums up his predicament. Dalip Singh’s life was not his fault. History condemned him to a role in Punjabi politics that he was neither old enough nor competent enough to turn to his lasting advantage; his fellow Sikhs converted him into a symbolic sceptre of power; his mother alternately used and abused him; the British professed a fiduciary and paternal responsibility before betraying him; his adopted religion failed his expectations by rendering him in the ultimate analysis unacceptable to his Christian equals; and finally his immature vacillation and re-conversion destroyed the remnants of a frayed self-respect.

S. Sham Singh Atariwala


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