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Memories of a Dancing Peacock

About 40 km from Amritsar,where lush fields sweep into tall trees in the horizon,stands a memorial to a historical romance.

Written by Rajni Shaleen Chopra |
August 28, 2011 5:30:14 am

A renovated monument in Amritsar brings alive a historical romance — between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Rani Moran,a nautch girl who became his queen

About 40 km from Amritsar,where lush fields sweep into tall trees in the horizon,stands a memorial to a historical romance. This is Pul Kanjari — literally the bridge of a nautch girl. The “fallen woman” was Rani Moran,a dancer so beautiful and talented that one of Punjab’s greatest heroes,Maharaja Ranjit Singh,fell deeply in love with her.

Until a few years ago,the monument seemed doomed to dilapidation,one of the many forgotten relics of the past. Last year,however,Pul Kanjari,now officially called Pul Moran,was restored by the Punjab government,and Spring Dale Senior School,Amritsar,took charge of its maintenance.

Handycam-wielding tourists have discovered the renovated monument,and even groups of children flock around the old sarovar and temple,where a legendary love story once unfolded. Moran was a nautch girl from Makhanpur village near Amritsar in the 19th century. It is said that when she danced,Moran reminded the audience of a dancing peacock (Hence,the name Moran or peacock). When Maharaja Ranjit Singh stopped at the Bari Dari between Lahore and Amritsar,she performed for him and the emperor was captivated.

In 1802,the Maharaja married Moran. Orthodox Sikhs were incensed — Moran was a Muslim,had been a tawaif ,and did not observe the purdah. The Akal Takht,the highest political institution of the Sikhs,ordered that the Maharaja be punished with public flogging. The emperor appeared before the Takht and humbly bared his back for the lashes. Touched by his humility,the punishment was reduced to a fine.

Research reveals that the Maharaja considered Moran among the most beautiful of his queens — he had 46 at the time of his death. She appeared with him in many public events. Some researchers state that the Maharaja even issued coins with her name imprinted on them and inscribed with a peacock feather. He had never issued coins with his own profile. The coins were the origin of the term Moran Sarkar,and were called Moran shahi currency. The Maharaja took to calling her Moran Sarkar as well. One school of scholars,however,debunks this theory and says that the motifs on the coins are not peacock feathers but leaves,linked to fertility.

Near the temple of Pul Moran is a pool that was once fed by a canal,built by Shah Jahan to carry the waters of the Ravi to Lahore to irrigate Shalimar Gardens. According to lore,Moran once lost her silver sandal in the canal. The sandals had been presented by the Maharaja,and Moran refused to dance for him till he had a bridge constructed across the canal. The bridge was named Pul Kanjari,and resulted in a flourishing of trade in the area. Soon,the entire area came to be known as Pul Kanjari.

This bit of history might never have got its rightful recognition had it not been for the research on Maharaja Ranjit Singh by Manveen Sandhu,former principal of Spring Dale School. She resurrected the shadowy,almost-forgotten presence of the nautch girl in the Maharaja’s life in her book,Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Personalitas Extraordinaire in 2007. Her play Moran Sarkar was staged with actors from Indian and Pakistani Punjab. Sandhu died in 2009 in a road accident but her efforts have borne fruit. Kahan Singh Pannu,Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar till recently,says,“I was aware of Sandhu’s passion for Rani Moran,and suggested to the family that they look after the site according to the guidelines drawn up by the state government. The tourism department,too,responded positively.” Together,they have breathed new life into Pul Moran,ensuring that a dancing queen stays alive in memory.

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