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Sikh Heritage

The Images of Sikh Heritage

The dazzle of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court was a great attraction for European artists. The Russian prince and artist Alexis Soltykoff wrote, This morning, the King gave us a state audience. What a sight! I could scarcely believe my eyes. Everything glittered with precious stones and the brightest colours arranged in harmonious combinations. The green garden was decorated by a huge crowd of Sikhs in yellow, red, rose, white, gold, silver, green, lilac and azure, all armed and strikingly arrayed, some of them being in coats of mail In the midst of this bevy was the King, coming to meet us, a big stoutish man of forty, covered with the most beautiful jewels in the world. On his right arm was the Koh-i-Nur, the finest diamond that exists
The dazzle of the Maharaja’s ‘Lahore Court’ captured by artist August Shoefft in this beautiful painting, with Maharaja Sher Singh in the foreground. This painting was in the custody of Princess Bamba Dalip Singh

The other day we were invited to pass the evening with the King whose palace is in a fortress at the other end of the city. The King received us in the open, in the midst of his warriors, in the moonlight in a vast courtyard, surrounded by crenellated walls. There were thirty magnificent horses there, covered with precious stones and illuminated by torches and by a kind of Bengal fire which cast a blue light from the tops of the walls. I might mention that the Punjabis are famous for their fireworks. Seen thus the white horses, with their emerald ornaments, seemed like dream figures, while the black ones, with their ruby decorations, looked like specters from the Inferno, in the dim torchlight. The King, with the simple and unaffected air, which distinguishes him, led us along some narrow corridors, and we soon found ourselves in another court, paneled with marble and hung with beautiful carpets. In the middle was a basin full of waterfowl and fine jets of water filled the air like diamond dust. Around it, thousands of illuminated globes of different colours gave faint, soft light like that of dawn. As we advanced towards some splendid tents of shawls and gold brocade in the opposite comer of the court, enormous red curtains were drawn up slowly one after another by means of cords, like curtains of a theatre, by Sikh warriors armed to the teeth, and as these curtains disappeared we were more and more overwhelmed by the splendour of a new hall which was disclosed to view, the walls and ceiling of which were decorated with green, white, and red crystals framed in gold and looking like a pavement of precious stones upon an enormous ladder. Thither we were conducted by the King, and on entering, we saw, spread out to view on brocade covered tables the royal arms; hundreds of swords, daggers, shields, cuirasses and helmets, all very richly decorated Then the girls arrived, some thirty in all, pretty but small and delicate, in splendid costumes with their little noses so loaded with jewels and their foreheads and eyebrows so gilded that one could hardly distinguish their features. Their feet and hands, adorned with rings and mirrors, were very pretty though dark. The transparent veils that covered them were of gold, silver, or bright colours. Their short coats of velvet or other costly materials and their tight trousers of silk were very pleasing to the eye. These charming girls approached the King one by one and gave him one or two rupees. The King, who was in conversation with the ambassador, turned to them with an air of careless good humour. There is so much that is good natured and straightforward about him that, although his figure is awkward, he is charming and one would say that, in spite of his nervous air, he possesses plenty of pluck in danger. It seemed a curious household. The girls approached without any fear, most of them laughing, and looking about them. Then they sat down together on the ground between the tables. Suddenly a plaintive melody was heard, and two of them began a slow dance, while the others sat, looking like butterflies.

Princess Bamba Dalip Singh

Painting on ivory of Maharaja Sher Singh

The melodrama and nostalgia of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court did not end with his death but came back in waves during later periods also, especially during Dalip Singh’s time, and lingered on right upto the death of the last of his direct family, Princess Bamba Sutherland, in 1957, at Lahore. Born on 29 September, 1869 in London, Princess Bamba, with her younger brother and sisters, was placed on the death of their mother under the care of their father’s Equerry Mr Arthur Oliphant and his wife at Folkstone. She was sent to Oxford for her university education, and later married a Colonel Sutherland. Princess Bamba remained in the United Kingdom for part of her life and finally settled in Lahore, at first in Jail Road and subsequently at 104A, Model Town. A fellow resident recorded her pathetic condition. ‘Old Princess Sutherland, widow of an English army doctor, and last descendant of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was heard complaining that she could not get a seat in the lorry (bus), when all Punjab should have been hers! The old lady spent her days dreaming about her ancestral glory.’ She died at the age of eighty-eight, on Sunday, 10 March 1957. An item appeared in the newspaper the following day, giving a brief obituary and ending with the belief that ‘the arrangements for her burial will be made by the United Kingdom Deputy High Commissioner, Lahore.’ In fact her burial was arranged by her faithful secretary, Pir Karim Bakhsh Supra, to whom she bequeathed her property, including the collection of Schoeft’s painting s, and some Sikh relics. She was laid to rest in the Gulberg Christian cemetery, two and a half miles across Lahore from the Fort. Neither the British nor the Sikhs were represented at her funeral. The Punjab was left to claim its own (Aijazzudin).

Maharaja Kharak Singh

Maharaja Dalip Singh with Ajit Singh & Lehna Singh Sandhawalia

In the immediate family of Ranjit Singh first in line to the throne was Kharak Singh who was born in 1802 by Rani Raj Kaur, who succeeded Ranjit Singh in June 1839 and died in November 1840. Ranjit’s other descendants were – Sher Singh, born in 1807 by Mehtab Kaur, the most genial of Ranjit Singh’s real and accepted sons, who after being the Governor of Kangra was for sometime Governor of Kashmir and Peshawar, became Maharaja on 18 January, 1841 and was murdered in September 1843; Daleep Singh, the doe-eyed son by Rani Jindan, catapulted to the throne when he was six years old but with the Sikhs losing to the British sent to England in 1854, became a Christian from 1853 till 1886, died in Paris in 1893; Naunehal Singh, son of Kharak Singh, born in 1821 , died only a day after his father’s death on 5th November, along with Udham Singh, son of Maharaja Gulab Singh, when they were returning from Kharak Singh’s funeral; Pratap Singh, son of Maharaja Sher Singh, born in 1831, was murdered by the Sandhawalias in September 1843 along with his father, though even in his few years he made a lasting impression on European visitors.The other dramatis personae in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh were the Faqirs Aziz-ud-din , his Foreign Affairs Minister, and his brother Nur-ud-din, Ranjit Singh’s personal physician, who was also given state functions during Daleep Singh’s time; the Attariwala family – the father and son Sher Singh and Chattar Singh Attariwala (Sher was Commander in Chief of the Sikh army during the second Anglo-Sikh war of 1848-49); Ajit Singh Sandhawalia who along with Attar and Lehna Singh Sandhawalia mercilessly killed Sher Singh and his son Pratap Singh, only to be killed some days later by Hira Singh, and be cremated with his next victim Dhian Singh; Dhian Singh, who entered Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s service as a gadvaia (peon) and rose to become the Chief Minister in Ranjit Singh’s court as well as that of Naunehal Singh and Sher Singh; Dina Nath, the Finance Minister, who also signed the first treaty with the British; Dost Mohammed Khan of Kabul who appears in many paintings being feasted by Ranjit Singh; Hira Singh the favourite boy in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court, who could take great liberties with him and even kept sitting in the Maharaja’s presence while his own father Dhian Singh remained standing, eventually becoming Chief Minister to Dalip Singh but killed in 1844 at the age of twenty-eight; Sheikh Imam-ud-din, the Governor of Kashmir who tried to create trouble during Gulab Singh’s take over and was exposed; Jawahar Singh, the brother of Rani Jindan who eventually killed Hira Singh and became Chief Minister of Rani Jindan, executed by the Sikhs in 1845; Shankar Nath Joshi, the chief astrologer to Maharaja Ranjit Siogh, who was from Travancore and returned there when the bloodbaths started at Lahore; Jamadar Khushal Singh, who was actually a Brahmin but became a Sikh later and remained a close advisor to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in spite of Dhian Singh’s intrigues; Lal Singh, a Brahmin who was Rani Jindan’s paramour, who escaped death but was exiled to Benaras; Akali Phoola Singh , a mercurial character, a rebel and an outlaw; Suchet Singh, the younger brother of Dhian Singh, who became chief of the eastern Jammu hills, but later fell out with his own nephew Hira Singh and got killed in March 1844

Maharaja Sher Singh

Akali Phoola Singh


S.Jawaher Singh brother of Maharani Jindan


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