A small UK town in the East Anglia region of England will become the twin city of Amritsar as it celebrates the 125th death anniversary of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, with a two-week-long Punjabi festival.
Thetford in Norfolk was home to Duleep Singh and the organisers of the Festival of Thetford & Punjab believe the town has strong resonance with the lush fields, intense farming activity and livestock grazing of the Indian state.
“Elveden Manor in Thetford was home to the last Maharaja of Punjab for many years and Thetfordians are extremely proud of their unusual resident,” explains Seema Anand, a historian and storyteller behind a special ‘Punjab to Thetford’ film, which will be screened on the last day of the festival on July 21.
“But perhaps Duleep Singh coming to live in Thetford was not just mere coincidence. From his statue in the town centre, which is almost an extract replica of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s statue in Company Bagh in Amritsar, to the landscape of Norfolk, there seems to be an almost karmic connection between the two places,” she said.
The festival, a partnership project between Essex Cultural Diversity Project (ECDP) and Thetford Town Council, is planned as a cultural celebration as well as an exploration of the story of Duleep Singh and his cultural legacy. This includes his family, the political and cultural context of the time he was living in, and how this influenced Thetford and the surrounding area today.
Peter Bance, historian and author of ‘Sovereign, Squire & Rebel: Maharajah Duleep Singh & the Heirs of a Lost Kingdom’, explains: “Thetford and Elveden was where the Maharaja had his most cherished memories, from the birth of his children to the extravagant shooting parties that were once held here.
“It was a place where he was most at home and at peace, away from the politics of Punjab and the puppeteers of Whitehall [British government]. This place was in fact, where he was at his happiest.”
The festival will involve a procession through the town centre as a collaboration between Bhangra and Morris dancers and Dhol Drummers and will include Punjabi food stalls, Sikh martial arts Gatka, henna painting and storytelling activities along the River Ouse, encompassing the town’s annual River Festival.
“The cultural legacy of Duleep Singh is as significant for Thetford as it is for Punjab. The festival provides an opportunity for audiences to learn more about his fascinating story, and get involved in a range of activities, talks and events. It is also a chance for us all to further explore the under-appreciated links between Thetford and Punjab due to this shared heritage,” says Festival Director Indi Sandhu.
The organisers believe that the story of Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who arrived in Britain in forced exile in 1849 during the British Raj, is complex and requires a degree of critical engagement which can be achieved through poetry, readings and talks.
“For the rest of the world, the name of Duleep Singh conjures up the ‘Koh-i-Noor’, ‘British Empire’, stories of imperial occupation. It is imbedded with negative connotations. But for the people of Thetford, he holds wonderful memories,” adds Anand, who will also be coordinating some of the talks at the festival.
Duleep Singh’s former home, Elveden Estate, has an Indian-inspired hall and a churchyard where he is buried with his wife and teenage son. The Festival of Thetford & Punjab is aimed at popularising the history of the place as a site of significance for British Sikhs.