(Written by Sudeep Mahajan)
Growing up, back in school, we were only taught that Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a great king who ruled over a kingdom that bordered Afghanistan and Tibet. I vividly remember our history lessons emphasising that he was a fair man and viewed everyone in the same light. However, after re-acquainting myself with the Maharaja and his life, through the book authored by Capt Amarinder Singh, titled “The Last Sunset, the Rise and Fall of The Lahore Durbar”, I found that he was much, much more dimensional than what our school text books would have us believe. To put it succinctly despite being completely illiterate, he was endowed with military genius, which, combined with his ability to take extreme risks and cunning and ruthlessness, yielded to him a huge empire, that even the British thought would be best left alone, at least so long as the Maharaja was alive. However, when he desired something, he would not care if he had to cheat, coerce or even steal to obtain what he wanted.
Ranjit Singh died on June 27, 1839. Four of his Maharanis declared that they would immolate themselves on Maharaja’s pyre. Seven slave girls also came forward to immolate themselves in order to be available to serve their master in his afterlife. The author here paints a very poignant scene of Maharaja’s cremation. All four maharanis, led by Maharani Mehtab Kaur, ascended the pyre in plain clothes, and sat around the head of their deceased husband. Mehtab Kaur took the head of the Maharaja in her lap. The seven slave girls including the famous dancing girl, Kaulan, sat by Maharaja’s feet. The Holy Gita was then placed on Maharaja’s chest as the hymns of varied shades were chanted. Kharak Singh lit the pyre. The author writes, “Not a single lady uttered a word, nor was there any murmur or cry of agony. They sat motionless till mercifully death finally engulfed them”.
Unlike this write up, the book does not merely focus on Maharaja Ranjit Singh, rather the main focus of the book is on the Sikh wars with the British, and on extremely tragic end of all his successors, of which the book gives remarkably graphic accounts. The life story of Maharaja however does raise a few questions. Could he have done more to make the plight of women, at least, in his palace, a little better? The book does not address this question and we, I guess, will have to draw our own conclusions on this and on certain other aspects of his life. There is no gainsaying though that except for Ranjit Singh, no other son-of-the soil, from the Mughal period till today, has been able to rule the vast territories of the original Punj-aab and beyond, on his own strength.
The author is an advocate at Punjab and Haryana High Court and former Additional Advocate General, Haryana
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