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Rebel with a CauseDate: Sunday, 26 July, 2009

By Shrabani Basu

In the light summer drizzle, a group of Sikhs stood under the roof of the Dissenter's Chapel in Kensal Green in West London, waiting for a precious moment from their history to come alive again. Among the crowds were the descendants of Lord Lawrence of Punjab, the governor general during the Anglo Sikh Wars. The occasion was the unveiling of a memorial to Jind Kaur, the Maharani of Punjab, wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and mother of Duleep Singh. A frisson of excitement passed through the crowd as the elderly Sikh historian, Patwant Singh, unveiled the plaque. It was clear that the tragedy of the last ruler of Punjab still managed to touch the hearts of the Sikh community abroad.

It was on August 1, 1863 that the Maharani had died in London, a rebel to the last. Her body had been kept temporarily at the Dissenter's Chapel in Kensal Green Cemetery by her son Duleep Singh, as cremation was illegal in Britain at the time. The Dissenter's Chapel was where they brought the "non-believers" in the nineteenth century. Over six months later, Duleep Singh took her remains to India to arrange for the cremation. The British, however, stopped him from travelling to Punjab and the Maharani was cremated at Nasik near Bombay.

It was only in 1924 that her granddaughter, Princess Bamba Sutherland, dug out the ashes and brought them to Lahore where they were deposited at the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

"It is apt that she was kept here at the Dissenter's Chapel, and that the memorial plaque should go up here," says Sikh historian Peter Bance, who has just published a book, Sovereign Squire and Rebel, Maharajah Duleep Singh and the Heirs of a Lost Kingdom (Coronet Press), with over 150 previously unseen photographs of Duleep Singh and his heirs.

"Maharani Jind Kaur was a dissenter. It was under her influence that Duleep Singh turned rebel and returned to his Sikh roots later in life. She was a thorn in the side of the British establishment," says Bance.

Jind Kaur, renowned for her beauty, had decided to protect her son's position after the death of her husband Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Duleep Singh was declared his successor at the age of five and it was Jind Kaur who ruled as Regent. The two Anglo Sikh Wars followed in quick succession and the British, realising Jindan Kaur's influence in the Punjab separated her from Duleep Singh.

On the night of August 1847, they dragged the Maharani from the Palace of Lahore and incarcerated her in the fort of Sheikhapura. Duleep Singh was also removed from the palace and sent to Fatehgarh. When the British defeated the Sikhs in the Second Anglo Sikh war, annexing the Punjab in 1849, the young Duleep Singh was made to surrender his sovereignty and give up the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Five years later, having converted to Christianity, he was exiled to Britain on a pension and became Queen Victoria's ward.

Meanwhile, Maharani Jind Kaur, disguised as a slave girl, escaped from captivity to Nepal.

In 1860, Duleep Singh, by now living the life of a country squire in England, sought to be reunited with his mother. He was finally allowed to meet her at Spence's Hotel in Calcutta. The ailing Maharani was granted permission to go to England and did so in 1861.

"Right from the first meeting they had after 13 years, Jind Kaur told Duleep Singh about his heritage and destiny," says Bance. "When she came to London she was a major influence on him and in those two years brought him closer to his roots."

Jind Kaur died in 1863. Duleep Singh reclaimed his Sikh heritage, turned against the British establishment, and set out tragically to return to Punjab. He never made it and died a broken man in 1893.

In 1997, during some restoration work at the disused Dissenters Chapel, builders uncovered the gravestone of Jind Kaur. "I got a call saying could I come down and identify the writing," says Bance. "I felt in my bones that this would have something to do with Duleep Singh."

Several coffins had been buried in the catacombs of the chapel in the Victorian era, but the chapel had fallen into disuse in the 1920s. Vandals and looters had broken into the coffins for their lead and iron and body parts lay everywhere. Yet the Maharani's marble headstone had survived. The Gurmukhi script on it clearly identified it as the gravestone of Jind Kaur, Maharanee of Punjab. The stone was subsequently taken to the Museum of Thetford Life in Norfolk, near Elveden Hall, where Duleep Singh used to live and where he is buried in the local church.

Obsessive about history, Bance has spent the last 13 years researching Duleep Singh and his descendants, uncovering a wealth of material from Britain and Europe, and collecting memorabilia.

"I put advertisements in the local papers in Norfolk, asking if anyone knew anything or had any material on Duleep Singh's children. The response was phenomenal. I got over 400 letters. Many families remembered Prince Frederick (Duleep Singh's son). They gave me photographs and letters."

In 1993 a group of Sikhs travelled up to Elveden, 90 miles from London, and wept silently at the grave of Duleep Singh to commemorate the centenary of his death. What was born then as the Duleep Singh Centenary Trust has now gathered strength and become The Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail.

Set up in 2004 to keep the Sikh heritage and history alive, the trust has patrons like Prince Charles and supporters like filmmaker Gurinder Chadha. It organises talks in historic places like the Tower of London, Osborne House and the Wallace Collection. Round the year, Sikhs from all over the world flock to Elveden and leave flowers for the ruling family of Punjab who lie buried there. So keen is the interest in Duleep Singh that a marble bust of his fetched £1.7m at an auction in London in 2007, bought by a private collector.

"Until the lions tell their own history, history will always glorify the hunter," said Harbinder Rana of the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail, quoting an African proverb. Wise words indeed. Today, the story of the rebel king of Punjab - the "Black Prince" who lived in Elveden - enthrals anyone who cares to listen.

Article from The Telegraph, Calcutta, India - Sunday 26 July 2009


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