A Maharaja in the Raj days

 The preface gives every biography’s plot away. If it praises the person to the skies, you can be sure the book will be hugely subjective, it will blow out of all proportion the person’s achievements and ignore the darker side. You can be sure, ten times out of ten, that such a book will be thoroughly unreadable.

As I scanned the preface of Empire of the Sikhs, that sinking feeling set in rather quickly. Within minutes, it was very clear that for Patwant Singh and Jyoti M Rai, Maharaja Ranjit Singh is the ultimate hero. Singh has written a score of books on Sikhs and his adulation of the Maharaja is well known. The preface even compares him with Alexander, especially his magnanimity towards the enemies he defeated in the battlefield!

A thousand questions came to mind: Will the book deal with “uncomfortable” issues or sweep them under the carpet; will it talk about his love for the good life, his inability to build worthy successors, his political and military cunning?

By the time I had read the next 300-odd pages in three sittings spread over two days, my fears had dissipated. Well, alt all. Empire of the Sikhs tells the complete story of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It does not shy away from the controversies that dogged Sher-i-Punjab right from his childhood.

The young Ranjit Singh, it is said, had killed his mother after he suspected her of an illicit liaison after his father had died — a story the authors refuse to believe. And this is how his mother-in-law came to have a hold on him. Of course, once her ambitions overtook her, the Maharaja cut her to size.

In his own lifetime, he married a score of women including some Muslim courtesans, the t famous of them was a doe-eyed Kashmiri girl called Moran. Some of them even sat on his funeral pyre to end their lives. This included the daughter of Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra, whose kingdom he had taken and added to his own in return for driving away the Gurkhas from his doors. It was also an open secret that some of his heirs were not sired by him. But he disowned none of them.

His appetite for potent drinks with crushed pearls was as legendary as his love for horses. While his guests could not take more than a swig or two, Maharaja Ranjit Singh would be in full control even after he had downed several. This cut his life short and he died at 59 in 1839, having ruled over 40 years.

None of this takes away from the man his greatness. At its prime, his kingdom extended over all of Punjab north of the Sutlej, Kashmir, Ladakh, the hill states as well as the wild tribal areas of the North West — an area even the British could not hold for long. Peshawar, for long the bastion of Pathan pride, was inside Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom and so were the imposing forts of Derajat.

Much of his success was because of his army — the artillery, cavalry and infantry. At his time, it was said to be the best in Asia after the East India Company. It was commanded by resourceful leaders, native as well as mercenary foreigners. It had Gurkhas on its rolls as well as a special contingent of fanatic Sikhs called the Akalis. It was these Akalis who raided forts of enemies with good effect after the Sikh artillery’s cannons made a breach in the walls.

One question that has bothered Indian historians is why Maharaja Ranjit Singh never went to war against the British, though he was aware of their designs. Singh and Rai say this was because he was acutely aware of his limitations. With aggressive Afghans on his northern boundary, Maharaja Ranjit Singh could have ill afforded to open a new flank in the south against the British. This way, the Maharaja was able to keep the British out of his designs. He was, by any measure, a very pragmatic ruler.

No story of Maharaja Ranjit Singh can be complete without a mention of the fate that befell his sons and grandsons. The unkindest cut of all fate had reserved for his last son, Dalip Singh, born just a year before the Maharaja’s death in 1839. After the Sikh empire had fallen to British forces, the young Dalip Singh became a Christian, with some gentle persuasion from his captors, and was exiled to England.

Till he died in Paris in 1893, Dalip Singh was allowed to come to Punjab only twice and that too on brief visits — once to take his ailing mother and next to immerse her ashes in the sacred waters of the land. And when he tried to steal away, he was caught at Aden and sent to Paris. That was a sad end to the great house that Maharaja Ranjit Singh built.

Empire of the Sikhs is a well-researched and well-told take on a great leader of men.

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EMPIRE OF THE SIKHS
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MAHARAJA RANJIT SINGH

Patwant Singh and Jyoti M Rai
Hay House India
Rs 500; 371 pages

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