Maharaja Ranjit Singh: The Real Maharaja

The Fakir memoirs tell us that Ranjit Singh ruled as a true Sikh. We are celebrating the Prakash parv of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh: The Real Maharaja
Ranjit Singh gave Punjab 40 years of peace, prosperity and progress.

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan,

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was born 1780 in Gujranwala, undivided India and became the Maharaja of Punjab at 21. He founded the Sikh kingdom and led it from 1801 to 1839. He lost sight in his left eye after, as a child, he contracted smallpox. Loss of eyesight and a lack of education did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest strategists of his times. He was adept at martial arts and was well groomed in the Sikh tradition of fighting. He fought his first battle at the age of 10, alongside his father and went on to fight many battles against the Afghans. Heir to one of the many fiefs that had emerged on the ruins of the Mughal empire, he rose to rule over a Kingdom ranging from Tibet to Sind and from Khyber Pass to the Sutlej River.

On 12 April 1801, which was Baisakhi Day, Ranjit Singh won the title of ‘Maharaja’ after uniting many fringe Sikh groups into one state. The Punjab that he inherited was a waning confederacy, riddled with factionalism of various clans pressed by the Afghans and the Marathas and ready to submit to British supremacy. He consolidated the numerous petty states into a Kingdom, pushed back the Afghans, wrested the most famous of their provinces, and did not give an inch to the British. Such was the chequered history of the times that the deposed Afghan prince Shah Shuja turned to Ranjit Singh to help him win back his throne and in return gave him the Kohinoor.

Ranjit Singh was a secular leader and his army included Hindus, Muslims and European warriors and generals. He hired European mercenaries to train his army. The first modern Indian army was called the Khalsa Sikh Army, which helped prevent the British from colonizing Punjab during his lifetime. In battle, he was always seen at the head of his troops and foremost in combat. It was only after his death that the British were able to invade Punjab. Ranjit Singh was a ‘thorn’ that they could not pluck while he was alive.

History is replete with tales of his conquests and palace politics, but the intimate memoirs written by Faqir Syed Waheeduddin entitled The Real Maharaja Ranjit Singh: a family memoir is class apart. It is based, among other things, on the accounts left behind by his worthy ancestors, the three Muslim brothers who were given vital positions in the Sikh court in recognition of their qualities of head and heart, of probity, loyalty and integrity. They were able to serve the durbar even after the Maharaja’s death in 1839. The book also serves as an important source to the study of Punjab’s history. It has been updated by Waheeduddin’s son Fakir Syed Aijazuddin.

Of the three brothers, Fakir Syed Azizuddin was the Foreign Minister, Fakir Syed Nuruddin Home Minister and his personal physician, and Fakir Syed Imamuddin, his administrative officer and chief custodian of the crucial Gobindgarh Fort in Amritsar. With their help Ranjit Singh consolidated his kingdom on a firm footing. They were as valuable to him on the scene as behind it. These documents also testify to the sheer respect and admiration that the Maharaja commanded in their eyes. Once when asked by the British Governor General George Eden which of the maharaja’s eyes was missing, Fakir Azizuddin replied that the splendour of one eye was so great that it blinded him from looking at the other. Ranjit Singh never partook of any food unless it was cleared by Fakir Nuruddin. Nuruddin was also one of the regents of child Duleep Singh. Fakir Azizuddin had a place of his own, remaining constantly by the maharaja’s side till the last day. After the third stroke in December 1838, it was Azizuddin alone who could decipher and interpret every twitch or movement of Ranjit Singh’s body.

If these memoirs are to be believed, a wizened man had instructed Ranjit Singh quite early on in his life to do the following four things: to say his prayers every morning;to never sit on the throne of the Mughals; to treat his subjects equally; to respect and befriend Fakir Syed Ghulam Mohiuddin of Lahore, whose above mentioned sons went on to serve him faithfully. The quiet sway and influence of the three brothers remained unchallenged even by the closest family members. Ranjit Singh bestowed on them the title of Fakir, as one holy and beyond greed.

Ranjit Singh never wore a crown when he sat on his throne since everyone is considered equal before God in Sikhism. It was not a throne in a literal sense that he sat on. He held Durbar sitting cross legged on a low-lying chair or even in a more informal manner on a carpet on the floor. He dressed simply in plain silk or cashmere and for a person who owned the Kohinoor was equally modest in wearing jewelry. While receiving foreign visitors he wore a string of pearls or diamonds, and the Kohinoor came out only on some very important state occasions. Despite his slight frame, he exuded an aura of natural majesty about him which put all others to shade and commanded respect. He loved to surround himself with gaiety and beauty, though.

The book deems Ranjit Singh as a true Sikh who would not take any major or minor decision without invoking the benediction of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib. Much as he revered all the Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh was his beau ideal. He was a Sikh in the tradition of the founder of Sikhism: ‘there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim’. He also remembered the words of the 10th Guru: ‘He is in the temple as He is in the mosque; He is in the Hindu worship as He is in the Muslim prayer’. Ranjit Singh set up historic Gurudwaras-Takht Sri Patna Sahib where the 10th Guru Gobind Singh was born and Takht Shri Nanded sahib, where the Guru breathed his last. The gold and marble work of the iconic Golden Temple in Amritsar was also done under his patronage.

He revered other religions and religious men as well; he would step down from his throne and show reverence to holy men by brushing away the dust from their feet with his long flowing beard. Upon being reprimanded by the Akal Takht for desecrating a holy cannon, he bared his back in a gesture to receive the whip.Once he bought on the spot the manuscript of the Holy Quran which otherwise was being taken to Hyderabad to be sold there. He had one of the faqir brothers read out some of its contents, upon which he remarked that the Guru Granth Sahib said the same thing. He said that God intended him to look at all the religions with one eye that is why he took away the other!

He never imposed Sikhism on anyone. What one gathers from the family memoir is that there was complete religious harmony in his kingdom. In deference to his participation in all religious festivals and state patronage to all shrines, Ranjit Singh’s name was taken by all religious faiths in their prayers for his continued good health, for his victories in battles, including his last illness, his death and cremation. It is from the Fakir brothers he learnt to count the beads of the rosary inwards for seeking God’s grace, and outwards to ward away the evil. The true meaning of Azaan has also been brought out anecdotally in the book.

Ranjit Singh’s court lacked formal protocol to remain accessible to the people and nobles alike. He ran his government not in his own name but always referred to it as the Khalsa Sarkar. Neither did he mint coins in his name, always in the name of the Guru. It signified that he was the founder of an entirely new kingdom which derived its legitimacy from PanthKhalsaji, the mystic entity in which resided all sovereign powers, and not from the Mughal emperor who had long ceased to exist for Punjab. It was this which made him acceptable to the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike. In appointing people to both high and low offices he took care to represent all communities.

Ranjit Singh was known for his piety. Though he ruled with an iron hand, except in open warfare he was not known to take anyone’s life, which set him apart from his contemporaries elsewhere in the world. Any cry of distress from a human or animal evoked his immediate response. Once when stopped by an old widow on the way he filled her pot with gold coins. A captured tiger cub was released upon Ranjit Singh hearing its mother’s moans.

Despite being a Maharaja, he remained simple at heart. Visitors were often ushered into his presence while toddlers crawled over him or when he would be feeding birds with his own hand. The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar sent him fantail pigeons and dancing monkeys which were received with as much alacrity as costly jewellery.

His impartial critics acknowledge ‘never perhaps was so large an empire founded by one man with so little criminality’. Even those deposed by him were provided for, not only the Sikh ruling houses but also those from the other faiths. He was both impersonal and considerate in collecting money for the durbar. He was known among his subjects as a kind and generous master and one of the best princes that ever-reigned India. Outside of the battlefield he never put anyone to death even for even the most heinous crime, yet he managed to keep his feisty people in perfect subjection.

Ranjit Singh gave Punjab 40 years of peace, prosperity and progress. He not only unified it, but he also took a personal interest in promoting arts and crafts. It became fashionable for the nobles to wear Multan silk sashes and scarves. The industries of Lahore and Amritsar also flourished under him. He patronized centers of higher learning and donations to religious institutions promoted basic education. Painting flourished under his patronage and a new Sikh school of painting emerged combining Mughal methods with the vivid colours of the Kangra school.

Known as Sher e Punjab for his liberal patronage, it is for the human qualities so graphically brought out in the latest memoir that Ranjit Singh still lives very large in the imagination of people.

The Fakir memoirs tell us that Ranjit Singh ruled as a true Sikh. We are celebrating the Prakash parv of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. In doing so we also celebrate the consolidation of the Sikh panth at the hands of the successive Gurus. In the founding of the Sikh kingdom of Punjab, Ranjit Singh helped realise the dream of the line of the Sikh Gurus, which without the consummate power of his genius would not have been fulfilled.

(The author is a former Indian Ambassador. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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