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Maharani of Lahores Gravestone UnveiledDate: Wednesday, 12 March, 2008

Gravestone of a Sikh queen finds honour in a British museum
By Jerome Taylor/ London

Nearly 6,400km away from the baking plains of Punjab, the English country town of Thetford has become a place of pilgrimage for the world's 25 million Sikhs.

In a churchyard on an elaborate country estate just outside Norfolk town is the grave of Sir Duleep Singh, the last maharaja of Punjab. Duleep's proud Sikh empire (including the famous 105-carat Kohinoor diamond which is now in the Crown Jewels) was annexed by the East India Company in 1849 when the young ruler was just 10 years old. Taken into the care of a dour colonial surgeon, he swiftly shed his Punjabi customs, converted to Christianity and moved to England to live the life of a respectable country squire, shooting grouse on his estate and hosting decadent parties for Britain's Victorian elite.

Towards the end of his life, the Black Prince-as he was often called-grew bitter at the way his kingdom and people had been taken from him, and began concocting notions of recapturing his homeland, even travelling to Moscow disguised as a Fenian Irish nationalist to try and persuade the Tsar to join his hopeless cause. He died penniless and heartbroken in a Paris hotel room, his dream of regaining Punjab shattered and his reputation among his colonial masters ruined.

It is not unusual to see Duleep's grave within the grounds of Elveden Hall, or his equine statue in the centre of Thetford, strewn with bright orange marigolds and gifts brought by Sikh families who want to pay tribute to their unfortunate last ruler.

Thetford has acquired a new gravestone that until recently lay hidden under tonnes of rubble in a West London cemetery. This gravestone shines a light on Duleep's mother who fostered his latent Sikh nationalism despite being forcibly separated from her son for 13 lonely years.

Visitors to Thetford's Ancient House Museum can now gaze upon the white marble tombstone which temporarily lay on the grave of Jind Kaur, the maharani of Lahore, who despite leading a life of open rebellion against the British in India, spent her final two years in London. Uncovered in the catacombs of the Kensall Green's Dissenters Chapel, the tombstone once rested on the maharani's coffin while her son made preparations to return her body to India for cremation.

Historians say it is an astonishing hidden relic. "It's an amazing find because Jind was buried in Britain for little over a year and yet someone took the trouble of creating this very ornate gravestone for her," said Peter Barnes, a specialist in Anglo-Sikh history who helped pay for the restoration of the stone. "The inscription is partly in English and partly in the Sikh Gurmukhi script, and what makes it unusual is that very few people in Britain at that time would have been able to translate Gurmukhi, let alone carve it into marble."

Jind, the beautiful daughter of the Royal Kennel Keeper at the Sikh court in Lahore, was the favourite wife of Punjab's greatest ruler, the one-eyed Ranjit Singh. After Ranjit's death in 1839 his empire split into rival warring factions and Jind became regent of Duleep who was just nine months old at the time of his father's death.

Concerned about the instability, Britain began preparing for annexation of Punjab, goading the Sikh armies into two disastrous wars that led to the disappearance of an indigenous Asian empire that stretched from the Khyber Pass to Kashmir. To the British, Jind was instrumental in organising the Sikh resistance, rallying her generals to return to battle and plotting rebellion once the British finally took over Punjab in 1847. That year, in order to halt her influence on young Duleep, Punjab's new colonial masters imprisoned her. At the same time the British press began a smear campaign against the maharani, labelling her the "Messalina of Punjab", portraying her as a licentious seductress who was too rebellious to control. In a final act of defiance Jind escaped her gaolers dressed as a slave girl and trekked 1,300km to Nepal where she was given begrudging asylum and a place in Sikh folklore as a national hero.

But without her beloved son, who was bundled off to England to be re-educated, she was a broken woman. As Duleep learnt how to shoot and behave like an English country gent, Jind went steadily blind in Kathmandu. When in 1861, almost 13 years after their separation, Duleep asked to bring his mother to England, the British government decided the last queen of Punjab no longer posed a threat and gave him permission.

Duleep's mother only spent two years in England before she died. But many historians believe it was her influence that reawakened her son's desire to regain his territory. "In a way she had the last laugh," said Harbinder Singh, director of the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail. "When you look at Duleep's life, it was immediately after rejoining with his mother that he began to rebel against Britain. Jind reminded her son of who he was and where his kingdom really lay."

Harbinder believes the discovery of the gravestone will encourage many more Sikhs to pay a visit to the Norfolk countryside. "Thetford has become a place of cultural pilgrimage for Sikhs, it's an incredibly emotional place," he said. "I've seen men reduced to tears staring at the graves of the last maharajas of Punjab as they wonder how it came to pass that the last remnants of a once great empire lie buried in a Norfolk churchyard."

Article from The Week published on April 6th 2008

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