A cosmopolitan court with fortune seekers from all over — France, Belgium, the UK, and even the United States — the splendour of the Lahore Durbar attracted many. Sikh chiefs, Gurkhas, Dogras, Muslims, collaterals and other rivals, ranis and their families — their interaction contributed to a rich mosaic that the author has mined for this collection. Josiah Harlan, a Quaker from Philadelphia, wound up in Lahore, and served the Maharaja as a Governor, before leaving in ignominy, largely brought about by his hubris and greed. The chapter, The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, tells his story and paints a vivid picture of the court. The intertwined lives of the Afghan and Sikh rulers and their vassals, and the dynamics of their relationship with each other, are fascinating, and far more layered than just the famous Kohinoor story, which again is not quite as it is popularly recounted.
The author has felicity with the pen. His meanderings into the history of the region evoke nostalgia as these flesh out many narratives that are woven around the narration of Punjabi heritage — the plunder by Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Durrani's attacks, the Maratha and Sikh attacks on his forces and Durrani's retribution, the inevitable infighting in the Afghan court after Durrani's death, and the rise of the Sukerchakia Misl.
The Maharaja often managed to eclipse the Singh in the Emperor, but then there was always Akali Phula Singh to keep him in check. The man who refused to bow before anybody other then the Almighty is often remembered by the Sikhs, and he is brought to life in the story, The Timeless Warrior.
Then there is the account of Moran, the dancing girl who became the Majaraja's favourite. He was even ready to pay the price of being chastised by Akali Phula Singh at Akal Takht for his transgression, but his love for the woman who won his heart remained undiminished. Maharajas have their harems, and here, too, Ranjit Singh was not found wanting. Most of the marriages were alliances, and then there were the dancing girls.
The Maharaja's mother-in-law, Sada Kaur, helped him consolidate his power, but also fell victim to her own intrigues, and of those inimical to her, to find herself imprisoned, her estates confiscated, near the end of her life. The Maharaja, she found, could be as cruel as he was generous.
The unwinding of an empire is never pretty. Murder Most Foul deals with the assassination of Maharaja Sher Singh, and his son Partap Singh exposes the underbelly of the arrangement that had been put into place to create Maharaja Ranjit Singh's empire.
The reign of Maharaja Sher Singh had been short, and the most important members of the court had been killed by the time the throne was given to Maharaja Duleep Singh, an infant at the time. In the absence of a sturdy binding force, the empire weakened, and the rapacious British were, naturally, all ready to swallow it, which they did.
The book lightly touches on many aspects of the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his times. It has some tantalising references that leave the reader wanting for more. This would not disappoint the author since his stated intention is to ignite more attention, written or audio-visual, to the topic. The Story of the Sikhs, a podcast by the author, is well regarded. The book adds to the body of work on the Maharaja.
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