Museum welcomes piece of Sikh history

JindanThe Maharani's headstone after it was unveiled at Ancient House Museum, Thetford.

For decades, it gathered mould under tonnes of rubble and human remains at a derelict London chapel. But a broken Victorian headstone that marked the temporary resting place of an Indian Queen was unveiled at a Norfolk museum yesterday to add to the region's rich Anglo-Sikh heritage.

Tourism chiefs said they hoped the installation of the restored marble gravestone of Maharani Jindan Kaur – mother of the Maharajah Duleep Singh – at Ancient House, in Thetford, would help the area to wake up to the huge economic potential of promoting its Sikh connections.

Thousands from across the country already visit west Suffolk and the south Norfolk town every year to pay homage to the last Maharajah of the Punjab and Britain's first Sikh settler, who lived at Elveden Hall, was buried at the village church and has a statue in nearby Thetford.

Harbinder Singh, director of the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail, yesterday said the gravestone of the Maharajah's mother, who died in London in 1863, would add to the town's popularity among the UK's Sikh community. “East Anglia, and in particular Thetford, is well represented on the heritage trail, but the economic potential for the area remains to be realised. It evolves with time and I think we are getting to that time. The interest will carry on cascading for centuries,” he said.

Mr Singh added that the chance discovery of the Maharani of Lahore's headstone in the catacombs at Kensal Green Dissenters Chapel, northwest London, during a restoration project in 2006 had stunned historians and was “highly significant” for Anglo-Sikh heritage.

Oliver Bone, curator of Ancient House, said the 2ftx2ft stone was a fitting addition to the museum because the building owed its existence to the Maharani's grandson, Prince Frederick Duleep Singh, who gave the Tudor townhouse to the people of Thetford in the 1920s.

“It [the stone] is important because the Maharani was not in Britain very long and there are very few traces of her existence,” he said.

Maharani Jindan Kaur was the beautiful wife of the one-eyed “Lion of the Punjab”, Maharajah Ranjit Singh. She gave birth to Duleep Singh in 1838, who at the age of six became Maharajah of the Punjab.

But when the British annexed the region in 1849, the t powerful woman in northern India was sent into exile and her son was shipped off to England to live the life of a British aristocrat.

The proud woman who was known as the “Messalina of the Punjab” was eventually reunited with Duleep Singh in 1861 and was permitted to enter England. She died two years later in Kensington, London.

She was entombed at the old chapel at Kensal Green until her son arranged for her body to return home in the spring of 1864 and was cremated at Nasik in Bombay.

The Maharajah Duleep Singh, who was a favourite of Queen Victoria, bought Elveden Hall, near Thetford, in 1863. He died 30 years later in Paris.

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