Saturday, June 15, 2002

A Yankee in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Darshan Singh Maini

MAHARAJA Ranjit Singh’s reputation as a man and monarch has given his image a meaning that subsumes both his secular and religious energies. What’s more important, his vision, his sense of history, his valour, his wit, amongst other virtues, made him a supreme ruler. He had many a human weakness, many a physical disability, but in the end, he remains a great leader of men, and his magnanimities of hand and heart have become a part of the Punjabi folklore. The Sikh historians, in particular, have touched generously on his dynamic personality. Some British and French historians too have, on the whole, assessed him as a sui generis ruler, far above his contemporary Indian kings and princes in mettle and military skills.

However, my story here is based on an obscure 63-page, incomplete volume entitled The Fall of Sikh Empire, a story whose manuscript was edited by a British officer, Sir Richard Temple, and published well after its author’s bones were gathered with the Kashmir grasses. That author happened to be the only American who came to know and see Maharaja Ranjit Singh from close quarters. The memoirs reveal a great deal about the monarch directly, though the American soldier of fortune is wary enough to leave much to the imagination of the reader.


Amazingly enough, his lucid and picturesque prose shows strongly the American’s uncanny eye for significant detail. His miniature portraits of the warring royalty, and of the treacherous vazirs and courtiers would do any writer proud.

So this watcher of the great scene becomes now an important, unique chronicler of the Maharaja’s court — of its scandalous intrigues and mutual slaughter. He was, at the same time, an outsider and an insider, and this gave his perspective a balance, and his narrative an admirable flexibility.

Since I owe the title to Mark Twain’s celebrated dark romance and fantasy, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it may be in order to dramatise Gardner’s story as a Yankee who, unlike Twain’s Hank Morgan, remains a Yankee only in name. At the end of his journey, he died in Srinagar at the ripe old age of 90, as a Sikh-Dogra grandee, full of wit. He was a reconteur whose wander-lust had brought him to the Lahore Darbar just when the ailing Maharaja was losing hold over his vast empire. He never saw the monarch in full power and glory. His arrival at a crucial period in the fate of the Empire gave his pragmatic American imagination enough energy to portray the "Jacobean" tragedy unfolding in front of him.

Gardner was born in 1785 in a place on the Lake Superior, and he had a respectable Scottish and British ancestry to boast of. How he managed to reach Czarist Russia, and from there to Afghanistan is a tale that a retired great soldier may well narrate to his grand-children — a tale crowded with events, his daring exploits, encounters en route. It was from Herat that he finally made it to the Sikh King’s court with the help of his Afghan masters. He had heard much about "the Lion of the Punjab", an unlettered chieftan who had had a meteoric rise, thanks to his ability to sieze the moment, and fulfil his historic mission. Gardner had also been told that the Maharaja highly valued foreign military experts, and that the French and Italian generals in his army had licked the Sikh troops into the best fighting force this side of the Sutlej. Well, he could, thought Gardner, find his right place after his long and arduous peregrinations.

The day he was presented to the Sikh monarch in the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, an interesting and amusing incident involving the Maharaja’s shrewdness as a swift evaluator of new-comers took place, and Gardner describes it with his characteristic ease and aplomb.

"A certain Nand Singh, an officer of the Maharaja’s cavalry, rode his horse intentionally against me and endeavoured to joust me into a ditch which was deep and filled with wabe. I touched the rein of my steed, gave him half a turn, pressed, and in an instant Nand Singh and his horse were rolling on the ground. I calmly expressed the hope that the fallen man was not hurt, and was treated with much civility during the remaining time I was kept waiting." Gardner’s narrative starts on a sudden note as though the memoirs had been put to pen and paper in a kind of urgency. There’s no past landscape, no backward glance. All we understand is that for want of time perhaps, he was in a hurry to reach the heart of the matter. And he plunges straightaway into the twilight days of the Sikh Empire. He describes with restraint events of a sensitive nature, but with gusto where the scene demands a lavish treatment.

Like most Americans, Gardner was a skilful artisan and could design and construct items of military hardware. One of his strangest contraptions was a paddle-boat for the Maharaja which was humorously described by some around as "the only steamer built for the Sikh army". The events of foul-assaults, assassinations and Dogra treachery follow in rapid succession, and he paints the gory theatre of betrayals in heavy oils. Gardner, it may be added, fought on the Sikh side along with the select troops in the First Sikh War, and later was eye-deep in the events of blood-bath during "the defence of Lahore." Prince Sher Singh now crowned the realm’s king after the Maharaja’s cease is described as an ugly, ruthless, lawless person who had given a licence to his marauding soldiery for the loot and pillage of his own people. At this time, Gardner was already a colonel in Gulab Singh’ forces.

In the chapter entitled "Horror on Horror’s Head," an obvious echo from Shakespeare tragedy, Macbeth, we learn how an Empire built in moments of the ascendency of the Sikh spirit was lost in a matter of seven years or so through a tragic flaw in the character of the feudal Sikh chieftans — the perennial lust for power which, incidentally, continues to plague the Sikh polity even today, Gardner’s story tells graphically the fate of the guilty and the faithless, of the biter bitten, of the killers killed, a mayhem of such proportions as to agonise "the imagination of distastor", to recall a Henry James phrase.

In this tale of royal "horrors" in which revenge is the refuge of all renegades, in which the shameful act of sati is carried out without compunction, or a twitch of conscience, there is a plateful for the palates of the depraved and the degraded.

He has also a few trenchant strokes to display in his hurried sketch of that ravishing charmer, Rani Jindan, mother of Prince Dalip Singh, but he seems to use discretion in adding colour to the outline. However, he does not spare the great betrayers: "Harem Quislings" like Lal Singh and others are stripped and shown with their native cunning and cowardice. This is the battle of Mudki:

"Lal Singh ran at Mudki; he preferred the embraces of Venus at Lahore to the triumph of Mars; and was, as all Brahmins are, held in the highest contempt by the Sikhs. He fled, hid himself in an a haystack and skulled off from the army..."

Gardner’s wonderful gallery of the portraits in the Hall of Shame comes to an abrupt close here.