As the sun set on the mighty Mughal empire in India and the last two ceremonial emperors, Akbar Shah II and Bahadur Shah II, remained largely confined to the Red Fort in Delhi under the protection of the British East India Company, a new Sikh power was emerging in Lahore under a strong leader – Maharaja Ranjit Singh. At its peak (1799–1849), his domain included most of the Punjab, extending up to the Khyber Pass, Kashmir in the north, parts of Sindh in the south and of Tibet in the east. Yet the Sikhs constituted barely 17 percent of the population of a realm that had a 70 percent Muslim majority.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh has, over the years, acquired a legendary status. The book Rulers of India, published in 1898 and edited by Sir William Hunter, a member of the Indian Civil Service, describes the awe in which the Sikh ruler was held:
“It was strange indeed to observe how complete was his ascendency, even when he had become feeble, blind and paralyzed, over his brilliant court of fierce and turbulent chiefs. Fakir Azizuddin, who had been sent on a mission to Lord Bentinck at Simla in 1831, was asked by an English officer which eye the Maharaja was blind. ‘The splendor of his face is such’, said the Fakir, ‘that I have never been able to look close enough to discover’.”
When the Maharaja died at the age of 59, four of his twenty wives and seven of his concubines burned themselves alive on his funeral pyre, following the ancient custom of sati.
Victoria adored Duleep Singh, noting he was “extremely handsome” and spoke “perfect English”
While much has been written about Ranjit Singh, his daring conquests and his skilled administration, far less is known about the life of his surviving son and grandchildren. Now, the recent book Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, authored by Anita Anand, exquisitely records their lives and the vicissitudes of Prince Duleep Singh’s career path. Divorced from their cultural roots in India, their improvident lifestyle ultimately condemned them to an unhappy existence in a foreign land.
The book provides some fascinating details of the transfer of Punjab from Sikh to British sovereignty. Reminiscent of the fratricidal succession battles waged by the Mughal princes, the death of Ranjit Singh set off an internecine war of succession. At the end, the five-year-old Duleep Singh remained to succeed his father as the king, with his mother, Maharani Jindan Kaur, installed as the regent. Jindan Kaur was a highly assertive woman, having married the aging Ranjit Singh when he was 55 and she only 18.
The disarray at the Lahore court did not escape the attention of the East India Company, a growing imperial power that sensed a potential opportunity to annex Punjab and the territories of the Sikh kingdom. Following two Anglo–Sikh wars, the Sikhs were decisively defeated in 1849, but the victorious British adroitly created the illusion of continued Sikh sovereignty by keeping the infant Duleep on the throne. However, when the Maharani showed stirrings of independence, she was removed from the court and imprisoned. Duleep was then maneuvered into relinquishing his kingdom in exchange for British protection and, in the process, ceding to them the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which had been carted away to Iran by Nadir Shah in 1739 after the defeat of Mughal emperor Mohammad Shah.
His kingdom gone, Duleep Singh was removed from the Punjab and transferred to Fatehgarh in present-day Uttar Pradesh. He was placed in the care of a Scottish couple that tutored him in classical English literature, gave lessons in cricket and instructed him in Christianity. In time, the prince, who was blessed with exceedingly good looks, started to behave and dress like an Englishman and willingly converted to Christianity.
Half a world away in England, Queen Victoria, deeply fascinated with the Indian princely rulers, was watching the makeover that the Sikh prince was undergoing and was delighted that he had adopted the Christian faith. As he turned 15 in 1854, Duleep Singh left for England, fulfilling a long-held dream. He would never again set foot on Punjab’s soil. He was permitted two brief visits to India, once to meet his aging, blind mother in Calcutta and take her back to England, and another to bring her ashes back to scatter in Bombay.
Late nineteenth-century England was a very different country from today. Only a few aristocratic Indians were able to travel and visit it. On arrival, Prince Duleep Singh was greeted with enthusiasm, especially by Queen Victoria who adored him and commented: “He is extremely handsome and speaks perfect English.” Dressed in ceremonial costume, with gold embroidered shirts and a jewel-decked sword hanging by his side, the teenage Maharaja became a sought-after guest at high-society events. He led a luxurious life. On a generous government allowance, he proceeded to transform an old stately home, the Elveden estate, into a showpiece of opulence, blending the splendor of a Mughal palace with English architecture, with a private zoo and church attached to it.
The Maharaja married his first wife, a simple but strikingly handsome girl, Bamba Müller, in Cairo; she was part-German and part-Coptic Christian. Together, they had six children and their youngest daughter was named Sophia. The good times did not last and Duleep Singh’s fairytale life came to a sorry end. His profligacy, numerous love affairs, a growing disillusionment with his life in exile and his desire to return to India to reclaim his ancestral kingdom and faith led to a contentious relationship with the British government. He died unceremoniously in 1893 at age 55 in a seedy Paris hotel – a broken, forlorn man. By that time, he had reverted to Sikhism.
Of Duleep Singh’s six surviving children, Sophia achieved the most fame and recognition. Like her sisters, she never became fully reconciled to her dual identity; she remained a woman brought up in England, who was keenly conscious of her royal Indian lineage. She and her sisters visited India in 1902, planning to attend the Delhi Durbar hosted by Lord Curzon to celebrate the accession of King Edward VII as emperor, but received no official welcome. Undeterred, they visited Delhi and Lahore and were profusely greeted by the rulers of the Sikh princely states. Sophia’s most enduring contribution was her dedication to the women’s suffragette movement in Britain, designed to secure the right to vote for women. During the First World War, she volunteered as a nurse and tended to wounded Indian soldiers in particular. The princess died in 1948 at the age of 72, but had lived long enough to see British women receive the right to vote in 1928.
The author, Anita Anand, is a successful TV and radio journalist based in the UK. Sophia is her first book. Although it focuses on the princess, the most interesting and readable chapters relate to her father, Duleep Singh, and her grandfather, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Unfortunately, the narrative is burdened by needless and often monotonous details of India’s freedom movement and the problems associated with the country’s partition – subjects that distract from and are largely unrelated to the overall theme of the story.