Historian Priya Atwal delves deep into Sikh history to unveil a fascinating story of the women who built up Ranjit Singh and the agonies they faced in a male-dominated society
Who doesn’t know Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the Sher-e-Punjab who presided over the rich and powerful Sikh Empire for 40 long years (1799-1839)? His heirs remained in power for another decade. After the decline of the Mughals, Ranjit Singh’s kingdom was one of the most spectacular success stories in the subcontinent.
However, not many are aware of the critical role played by many women in Ranjit Singh’s rise and after he died in 1839. Historian Priya Atwal delves deep into Sikh history to unveil a fascinating story of the women who built up Ranjit Singh and the agonies they faced in a male-dominated society.
Atwal challenges the popular notion that Ranjit Singh was a good ruler but his successors were mostly bad. Beginning from his mother-in-law Sada Kaur, a large number of female relatives helped in Ranjit Singh’s empire building. Many of his wives as well as their sons and heirs were increasingly on the frontline of empire construction. Indeed, Sikh women acting as regents of a ‘misl’ – a Sikh warrior band claiming to protect and control a swathe of Punjabi territory –played a key role in providing stability and continuity in wider political and social relations.
The Maharajah’s women ‘aides’
Ranjit Singh was only 10 years old when his father Maha Singh passed away in 1790. His mother, Raj Kaur, first took on the responsibility of managing matters on his behalf. But his exceptionally powerful ally and mentor was his mother-in-law Sada Kaur who helped Ranjit Singh in raids to expand territories. Not only did she set about establishing political control over newly conquered inhabitants but she tutored the young Ranjit Singh to act as a gracious victor. When her son-in-law was cash-strapped, Sada Kaur graciously gave away her gold bangles to pay the soldiers. But in the long run, the two fell apart, with Ranjit Singh relegating her to effective house arrest for the rest of her life.
At least some of Ranjit Singh’s marriage alliances – he and his heirs had at least 43 women between 1795 and 1842 – were contracted for the sake of territorial gains. Some of his hastily arranged marriages were meant to proclaim the power, wealth and grandeur of the Sukerchakia dynasty (to which Ranjit Singh belonged) as the rulers of Punjab. Besides Sikh women, he married Hindus and Muslims too. Ranjit Singh’s wife Mai Nakain and her son Kharak Singh, who succeeded his father, led the conquest of Multan, a major strategic post. Atwal says the combined force of the queens and princes was the very foundation of the Sikh Empire’s rise.
By the middle of Ranjit Singh’s reign, his sons, although young, were expected to host receptions for foreign dignitaries independently and to cover all expenses from their own income. Ranjit Singh was unabashed about actively using his sons and wives as ambassadors. He also used the court and household as a platform to build new connections.
The Maharajah’s successors
How did Ranjit Singh’s family manage to stay on the throne of Lahore for another decade after the all-powerful king died in 1839? His son Kharak Singh ruled only for just under a year and a half. He lost power to his son Nau Nihal Singh and Ranjit Singh’s former ‘vazir’ (prime minister), Rajah Dhyan Singh. After Nau Nihal Singh too died, it was Chand Kaur, the seniormost wife of Kharak Singh and Nau Nihal Singh’s mother, who took charge of the government. After a palace intrigue, Chand Kaur decided to rule independently, effectively prompting a civil war. Her enemies had Chand Kaur killed. Chand Kaur’s relatives avenged the death by killing Sher Singh, the king who ordered her death, his son Prince Partap Singh and the ‘vazir’, sparking more bloody revenge.
As Ranjit Singh’s once-powerful kingdom began to crack up within, the British kept a careful watch on the fast-moving developments, fearing clashes one day with the increasingly unpredictable Sikh forces. After a series of bloody convulsions, Ranjit Singh’s youngest wife, Jind Kaur, the daughter of a court kennel keeper, became the Regent in December 1844, on behalf of the young prince. But she was much less politically experienced than her female predecessors. However, she grew in confidence, developing her own personal style of politics. After the Khalsa Army was defeated in the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1846, the British for all practical purposes and intent virtually took over the truncated kingdom but let Jind Kaur and her young son Duleep Singh remain rulers under stressful conditions.
Relations, however, soured with the British, who imprisoned Jind Kaur at the Sheikhupur Fort, separating her from her son. After a Sikh revolt in Multan, Jind Kaur was exiled from Punjab. Duleep Singh was also sent on political exile after the East India Company annexed Punjab. Jind Kaur, however, escaped from custody and trekked all the way to Nepal intending to continue the struggle in Punjab. Eventually, the British sent both the mother and son off to England where Duleep Singh became a baptized Christian at age 14 and finally died in a Paris hotel in 1893.
Atwal says: “To the very end, then, the tale of the last Maharani and Maharajah of the Sikh Empire is also a story of survival and ingenuity… Whatever their mistakes and losses, the royal family deserves to be remembered in all of their rich complexity: as shrewdly creative individuals who crafted and ran a kingdom beyond their ancestors’ wildest dreams; and who never quite admitted defeat.”
Yes, Ranjit Singh was undoubtedly a great king, but Atwal doesn’t want people to be swayed by colonial descriptions of his numerous successors as morally and politically weaklings although they were no match for the Sher-e-Punjab.
(Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire; Author Priya Atwal; Publishers HarperCollins India; Pages 287; Price Rs 799)
(The reviewer is a veteran journalist who writes on diplomacy and politics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)