Saturday, June 8, 2002

Mangla — the keeper of royal seal
Manjit Singh Cheema

BORN and brought up in a poor family in the remote Kangra hills, Mangla rose to be "one of the most considerable persons in the state" and emerged as "the confidante and counsellor of royalty during the days of anarchy in the kingdom of Lahore that followed the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Writing to Frederick Currie, Secretary to the Governor-General of India, the British political agent at Ludhiana, Major Broadfoot, observed on January 26, 1845, that Mangla "is the minister of pleasure and state. All government documents except those connected with the British, bear the seals of the Ranee and her brother, these seals are now entrusted to Mungela who carries them at her girdle and affixes them to whatever she pleases."

One Peeru and his wife eked out a living by collecting firewood from the jungle and selling it at Kangra. They had three children — two sons and a daughter. To supplement their meagre income from the sale of firewood, they developed contacts with slave traders and helped them procure young girls. Their modus operandi was to assist poor helpless parents in getting their unwanted daughters disposed of for pecuniary gains.


The girls thus purchased were then taken to major towns of the Punjab, where they were sold to pimps. In spite of this liaison with slave-traders, Peeru lived in abject poverty. In a moment of utter helplessness caused by a financial crisis, Peeru sold his 10-year-old daughter Mangla to an itinerant doom (mirashi) for about Rs 25. The doom further sold her to a pimp. The new owner patiently initiated her into the art of becoming a courtesan. She spent four years at Kangra, entertaining guests and gratifying her master. She mastered her profession and learnt how to exploit her grace and charms to advantage. At Kangra she fell in love with a munshi called Jassa and eloped with him to Nurpur and then they went to Lahore. Soon she developed contacts with the pimps of the city and began to exploit her charms on a wider scale. About the year 1834, one Topi Mashki fell in love with her and took her to his house where Mangla soon developed intimacy with Topi’s nephew Gulloo Mashki, a favoured attendant of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Meanwhile, Jassa munshi lodged a complaint with the Maharaja that Gulloo was keeping Mangla forcibly at his house. As a result, it was ordered that Mangla should be produced before Ranjit Singh. The Maharaja was struck by "her hazel eyes and an easy, winning carriage and address." The munshi was dismissed with a suitable gift and Mangla was asked to serve Rani Jind Kaur. They were of the same age and Mangla very soon won over the confidence of the Rani.

When Mangla got herself acquainted with the ways of the Lahore aristocracy, their sordid intrigues and secret love affairs, she decided to make best of her charms and her position as the confidante of the Rani. She used her skill "as the active and willing minister" of the pleasures of her mistress. Major Carmicheal Smyth observed, "The slave girl at length attained such an influence over her mistress that the Ranee could not act or decide for herself in the most trivial or the most important matter."

After the forced withdrawal of Raja Suchet Singh and Rai Kesri Singh from Lahore in December, 1843, Missar Lal Singh took the charge of Rani Jindan’s establishment. According to Dr Hari Ram Gupta, intimacy between Lal Singh and Rani Jindan had existed ever since the days of Maharaja Kharak Singh, but "now it developed into a scandal so much so that on March 24, 1844, the panchayat of the Sikh army in the open darbar demanded the surrender of Lal Singh." Referring to the affair, Major Smyth has observed, "This intrigue was favoured and forwarded by Mungela with all her power, her object being to secure to herself the gifts in money, jewels, etc... Lal Singh then having charge of one of the toshakhanas or treasuries."

Raja Hira Singh was the wazir of the kingdom of Lahore from September 1843 to December 1844. During the period, Pandit Jalla was his chief adviser. They had little regard for Rani Jindan and humiliated her in numerous ways. Rani Jindan "retaliated in a womanly way and soon became the centre of all intrigues against the ministers." The principal conspirators against Hira Singh and his adviser were Rani Jindan, her brother Jawahar Singh, Lal Singh, and Mangla. In November, 1843, Jawahar Singh openly revolted against the authority of Hira Singh. He was captured and remained incarcerated for some time. He, however, was freed through the intervention of General Gurdit Singh and Colonel John Holmes. Thereafter, Jawahar Singh swore vengeance on the Dogras. "While he was at Umritsar (Amritsar) sowing the seeds of disaffection and rebellion among the punches (Army Punches) and the troops, Mangla was busy at Lahore using all her arts to induce Mai Chunda (Rani Jindan) to instigate the Khalsa to rise against the enemies."

Jawahar Singh was formally installed as the wazir on May 14, 1845. During his wazarat, Mangla got about Rs 3000 a year from public money for the ‘services’ rendered. After Jawahar Singh’s death on September 21, 1845, "she became virtually the sole manager and controller of all the toshakhanas, out of which she of course helped herself most liberally. She had both Ranee Chunda and Raja Lal Singh entirely at her command and thus, through them she moved the wheels of the government as best suited her own views and interests."

After the first Anglo-Sikh war, the British resident at Lahore became the virtual ruler of the Punjab. Maharani Jind Kaur was deprived of all powers; she was to receive as a solatium an annuity of one and a half lakh rupees. Thereafter, the fortunes of the Rani rapidly declined. All her servants, except twentytwo female attendants, were discharged. Mangla was among those discharged. Rani Jindan bemoaned, "Manglan ki taqsir keeto unho bhi kadh ditta" (what was the fault of Mangla that she too has been turned out?) The appeal fell on deaf ears and the mistress and her maid never saw each other again. From a poor woodcutter’s daughter to a queen’s confidante, from a slave girl to a prime minister’s concubine, from a prostitute to the keeper of royal seal — that was Mangla.