At the age of 15, in 1853, the then rightful heir of the kingdom of Punjab received a gift from the Viceroy of British India, a book that would forever change the course of his life — The Bible. Maharaja Duleep Singh was thrust into power at the age of five by the death of his father, Ranjit Singh, who left behind a kingdom both feared and courted by the British. What followed was a tragic journey that, in the eyes of many Sikhs living in Europe, has still not ended, even 124 years after his death.
It is a bit of a mystery as to why it has taken over a century for Duleep Singh’s tragic life to come into mainstream narratives. Director Kavi Raz, whose film The Black Prince, the first feature film on Duleep Singh’s life, set to release in July, believes it is down to the belated interest in Sikh ancestry and the quest for identity through history. “The Khalistan separatist movement may have fuelled the fire and aroused interest in the mighty kingdom of Punjab or the Khalsa raj. It was the last stronghold against the encroaching British Empire and it was stolen from the Sikhs by the political manoeuvre of divide and rule,” says Raz.
The Bible that Lord Dalhousie gave to army surgeon John Spencer Logan to hand over to his ward, Duleep Singh, marks a significant moment that altered the history of not only the kingdom of Punjab, which was soon annexed by The East India Company, but that of colonial India as well. After winning the First Anglo-Sikh War, the British had imprisoned Maharani Jind Kaur, but retained Duleep Singh as the nominal ruler. The young prince was separated from his mother and taken far away from the kingdom’s seat of influence in Lahore. He lived in exile in Fatehgarh, in present-day UP, in a camp built specially for him, under Logan’s guardianship. In April 1853, Duleep Singh set sail for the United Kingdom, having converted to Christianity. He was promised an elite education and a noble life in the Queen’s court, as well as a standard pension in exchange for his treasures, including the famed Kohinoor, that he had been forced to bequeath to the crown. Duleep Singh never returned to the land of his birth, and in having the young boy convert to Christianity and shipped to the Britain, Dalhousie had achieved what he brazenly remarked in a letter to a friend: “it destroys his influence forever”.
Upon arrival in mainland Britain, and especially in the courthouse of Queen Victoria, the young Maharaja found himself at the centre of attention. A young boy, adorned with jewellery, a talwar (sword), a pagdi (turban), a rajah like no one had seen in Britain, Duleep Singh was the first Sikh to step on the Raj’s home turf, and also the first one to never return.
Even before Duleep Singh was lifted off his homeland, his image of an enigmatic, young and handsome prince had grown within English circles. In 1852, artist George Beechey, painted the first ever “foreign” portrait of the young king. It depicts Singh, clad in royal jewellery, looking regal and unlike a prisoner, which he was. Before Beechey came along, Duleep Singh had been painted on canvas and carved in stone, like any other prince in the land. His earliest known portrait dates back to the year 1843. But when the squint-eyed, yet innocent-looking prince arrived on the shores of the British mainland, it aroused in the people a certain curiosity. As early as 1854, Queen Victoria commissioned a portrait of the young Maharaja, done by in-house artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter and so began the Maharaja’s tryst with attention and objectification that would eventually contribute to his downfall.
By the time the young Maharaja came to terms with the way the world looked at him, he had begun to grow disenchanted with his gilded life. As early as 1857, Duleep Singh, having heard of the rising number of mutinies back in India, expressed his desire to go back to his homeland. But in line with Dalhousie’s initial plans, the Empire acted in acknowledgement of what it would mean to those fighting against the British if the true heir of the kingdom of Punjab were to return. The young, disillusioned king remained under the Queen’s watch. Part of the reason why he could never fight his way out or rebel was his relatively lavish lifestyle that he was allowed to afford from a young age. But that would change, when the young Maharaja would meet his mother Jind Kaur after 13 years abroad, a meeting that Raz says is “the most powerful moment in his life and in the film.”
The story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, despite being so vital to India’s colonial history, remains relatively unknown in India. It was the same for about a hundred years after his death in the UK as well, until in 1993, the Maharaja Duleep Singh Centenary Trust was formed, and as its first order of business, it commissioned a portrait of the Maharaja by British artist Anthea Durose. In a phone interview, Harbinder Singh Rana, chairman of the trust, says, “We commissioned the portrait because we wanted to claim him from the British. In 1997, we also commissioned a sculpture of him that stands in Elveden in Suffolk where he lived. It is an attempt to reclaim from the empire what is an important part of history of the Sikh community, not just in the UK, but related to India as well. There have been a number of events over the years that the trust has done to remind people of his legacy”.
Like Rana, historian and writer Peter Bance has been on the trail of the Maharaja’s story for almost 17 years now. “You need to understand that this was a young boy — a delusional young prince that the Queen presented or displayed like a trophy. He was bound to have an effect on the British. People started to talk about him in elite social circles, and even though he neither had his kingdom, nor its glorious riches, what he did have was the attention of the English folk and a lavish lifestyle that he couldn’t really complain about,” says Bance, when we meet in Delhi.
Bance, a Sikh whose family shifted to the UK in 1936, and who released a book on the Maharaja, Sovereign, Squire and Rebel, five years ago, says that his own first encounter with the little known legacy of Duleep Singh, was accidental. “I was driving through Elveden (between Norfolk and Suffolk) with some friends when we heard of this ‘Black Prince’. When I saw his home and the museum in Thetford, a few miles from his estate, where the painting by Durose was hung, I was stunned. He was one of us and I did not know of him. It prompted me to start inquiring about him,” he says. Bance began collecting information on him, talking and writing to people in and around the community in Elveden. Soon, letters and information started to pour in. In no time, he had turned collector and now owns nearly half of the available visual evidence of the Maharaja’s life in Britain.
In 1861, Duleep Singh, then 22, was finally allowed to travel to Calcutta to meet his mother, who came from Kathmandu, where she had been living in exile. The meeting between the son and his ailing, nearly blind mother, Bance believes, was the turning point in Singh’s life. “Jind Kaur was a woman proud of her history and she despised the British. She was shocked to see that her son had become one of them, and it is safe to say that she let him know how delusional his new avatar was. Imagine meeting your son after 13 years, and not being able to identify with the boy you gave birth to. When Sikhs who were serving in the army around Calcutta learned that the Maharaja was in town, they gathered around the premises where he was staying, and raised slogans in his support. Duleep Singh felt, at least momentarily, that he belonged. His life would never be the same again,” says Bance.
The Maharani accompanied her son to the UK, but died a couple of years later in 1863. Though the British wanted to give her a Christian burial, dissenting Sikhs within the British ranks — the Maharaja included — ensured that she was cremated in Bombay.
The Maharani had left her mark on her son. However, Duleep Singh’s actions were never decisive. During his trip to India to cremate his mother, Singh stopped in Cairo, Egypt, where he regularly visited the missionary schools. He met and married his first Bamba Muller, daughter of a German merchant there. They settled in England, but Singh was torn between his life there and fulfilling his mother’s wish to return to his homeland and reclaim his throne.
“The pension that was promised to him was never fully paid. When he got married and had children, he got more and more delusional. Financial constraints stopped him from revolting outright. He was balding, growing fat and losing his influence. He kept churning the pot through bureaucracy — writing letters to rajas back in India, to kings in Russia, seeking help. But that was never going to be enough,” Bance says. By the 1870s, the Maharaja was growing old and had lost his influence in the British community. An 1871 caricature of him by Spy in an issue of Vanity Fair shows a Maharaja on the decline, at least physically.
Eventually though, the son in him got the better of the family man, and he announced that he would return to India. In 1886, the Maharaja tried to escape to India, but was stopped. He was forced to return from Aden in Yemen by the British. A defeated and resigned Duleep Singh did not return to England. He lived on quietly in Paris until his death in 1893.
But before he went to Paris, Singh had allegedly converted back to Sikhism, an act that has given rise to the debate on whether his body, buried in Suffolk, should be exhumed and returned home for a proper Sikh cremation. “I would love to see Maharaja Duleep Singh receive a proper cremation according to Sikh rites, but the question that troubles me is that who will be in-charge of this, if it were to happen — the Punjab government or the government of India or even Pakistan? Where will he be cremated? Where will the mausoleum be built to honour his memory?” asks Raz. Bance disagrees with the idea of exhumation. “His will clearly stated that he wanted to be buried. Why would you then disturb a grave? He is buried beside his son and wife. What will be done about them? Besides, Punjab was partitioned long after Duleep Singh died. Technically, he was the King of Lahore, so are you going to distribute the ashes in half? I think it is a little pointless, and, maybe, politically motivated,” he says.
In 2009, Liverpool-based Rabindra and Amrit Kaur, popularly known as The Singh Twins, were commissioned by The National Museum of Scotland to draw the Maharaja again. The painting was a landmark, not only for its brave depiction of the things that were taken from the Maharaja — including the Kohinoor — but because it was the first portrait to be drawn by artists from within the Sikh community. “Duleep Singh’s life is a fascinating tale of tragedy, political intrigue, manipulation and struggle. It has all the ingredients of a great drama that is compelling and appeals emotionally to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. It makes his story a perfect subject and inspiration for artists, writers and filmmakers. But, it is also inextricably linked to key aspects of Anglo-Sikh relations and the global history of colonialism, as well as the wider story of British migration and multiculturalism,” they say. Such has been the potential of this compelling material that the Maharaja made his debut in popular culture in 2016 as part of the popular video game Assassin’s Creed: The Last Maharaj.
Bance largely concurs with the Twins on the belated interest in the Maharaja. Duleep Singh’s story, Bance says, has resonated with third generation Sikhs in Europe, primarily because their previous generations were too busy settling down and making a living. “The Sikh diaspora probably identifies with him a lot more than Sikhs in the homeland because they feel equally displaced by the idea of home. As for India, it is probably a sad case of people thinking that he betrayed the Punjabis and fled to Britain,” he says.
In the eyes of the Maharaja Duleep Singh Centenary Trust, however, the story still has a missing last chapter, one that Rana believes they will help write. “We have proof that he converted to Sikhism before he died. His last rites, therefore, have simply not been performed. It was his right to be cremated with honour back in India and we are doing every thing to get it done. Bureaucratic hurdles will be there, but we are preparing ourselves for the long haul,” he says.
Manik Sharma is a Delhi-based freelance writer.