In The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, Sarbpreet Singh writes about the colourful world of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's court

In triumph do the armies march  

To beat of mighty kettle drum

Elephants and steeds proclaim

Their glory in the fearsome thrum

Mighty kings there are today

And many more are sure to come

Godless will they all depart

Hands bereft of even a crumb.

These words, spoken by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, are a cautionary tale about the ephemeral nature of temporal power. Dynasties, powerful beyond imagination have risen and fallen, but this truth endures. This is the story of four great dynasties, the Mughals, the Sadozais and the Barakzais of Afghanistan and the Sukerchakias of Punjab; some of these were in decline, others in ascendancy and some were yet to emerge, when our story begins.

Sarbpreet Singh's The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia dives into the intriguing world of the 18th century Sikh leader, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and his fascinating court, Lahore Durbar. The book is an anecdotal account of a "young upstart" who rose to power, and the myriad characters that peopled the court of this Sikh monarch.

 In The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, Sarbpreet Singh writes about the colourful world of Maharaja Ranjit Singhs court

Maharaja Ranjit Singh seized power in Punjab following the decline of the Mughals and the reign of Ahmad Shah Abdali and proclaimed himself the King of Lahore. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In this historical non-fiction book, the writer sinks his teeth into the legendary conquests and foibles of the unlettered king. He explores, in great depth, the treasons endured by Ranjit Singh's regime, and how the empire he built crumbled upon his death, falling into the lap of the East India Company.

The book — largely dominated by the officers and traders serving Ranjit Singh — also prominently features the remarkably courageous Sikh and Afghan women, who were key stakeholders in the politics of the early 1800s. Furthermore, the book also traces the lives of the courtiers who aided in the rise of Punjab's Sukerchakia dynasty, but wound up as mere footnotes in the pages of history.

Singh's riveting tale of war, power, and greed is revelatory of the time it is based in, while beautifully humanising the protagonist for his readers. In an interview with Firstpost, Sarbpreet Singh shares his thoughts on Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the nature of his governance, and the relevance of his policies in light of the current political climate. Excerpts:

While it was the students in your Sikh history class that prompted you to dig deeper into Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign, what made you turn your research into a book that tells his story?

Being somewhat familiar with the romance and tragedy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign, I was well aware that it could form the basis of a very compelling television series, perhaps in the same vein as the Turkish work, Magnificent Century, about the life of Suleiman the Great, which I really enjoyed. The desire to eventually see such a work be created was the impetus for The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia.

Could you elaborate a little on the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the consolidation of Punjab under his reign, and what made him a legendary ruler?

This topic deserves a book in itself but let me try to respond succinctly.

After the collapse of the Mughal empire, Punjab had descended into anarchy. The repeated incursions of Ahmed Shah Abdali further weakened the hold of the Mughals over Punjab. The only resistance Abdali encountered was from the Sikhs who had consolidated into 12 bands or Misls (the Sikh confederacies assembled for military purposes that were later transformed into administrative units in Punjab) who were constantly jockeying against each other, but would unite in the face of an external threat.

Ranjit Singh came from one of the smallest and weakest Misls, the Sukerchakias. Aided in no small part by his brilliant and visionary mother-in-law, Sada Kaur, who was married into the once powerful Kanhaya Misl, the young upstart was able to seize power and get himself crowned the King of Lahore, which had been the capital of Mughal Punjab.

One of the early master strokes of his reign was a treaty with the East India Company, which enabled him to secure his eastern border and continue expanding elsewhere.

His rule was marked by peace in the territories he controlled and while he ruled with an iron hand and was an absolute monarch, he was known to be scrupulously fair, never tyrannical and generous to defeated foes.

A section of the book also talks about the Kohinoor. What do the repeated acquisitions of the diamond, coveted by the nobles and later by the East Indian Company, represent?

To me, the whole Kohinoor saga is just a testament to human avariciousness. Nothing more. Neither the Mughals, nor Nadir Shah, Ahmed Shah Abdali, Shah Shuja, Maharaja Ranjit Singh or the British who lusted after it and acquired it, ever really gained anything.

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...Sohan Lal Suri, the official biographer in Ranjit Singh’s court, documents that Wafa Begum, deeply distressed at her husband’s imprisonment, petitioned Ranjit Singh and requested that a campaign be launched to rescue him. In return she offered the Kohinoor, the only thing of great value that was still in her possession...

...It was indeed a strange twist of fate! The most fabulous diamond in the world; the pride of the mighty Mughals; taken unceremoniously by Nadir Shah, the Persian conqueror; seized by Ahmad Shah who became the mighty king of Afghanistan, and then surrendered by his grandson to the upstart Maharaja of Punjab, who had risen from unprepossessing beginnings and become the master of the lands that all these conquerors had ruled in turn!...

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Of Ranjit Singh’s courtiers and his zenana, who would you say are some of the most interesting characters and are also among your personal favourites?

I have always been drawn to Sada Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s visionary mother-in-law who played an outsized part in his success. In a time when women were oppressed in a centuries old patriarchal system, Guru Nanak had boldly proclaimed the equality of the sexes. Through Sikh history there were many Sikh women who were inspired to lead in difficult times. None was more impressive than Mata Sada Kaur.

Sarbpreet Singh's The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia

Sarbpreet Singh's The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia

What kind of perspective can we draw of the period and of the monarch himself, in light of his several marriages and concubines?

It was a time when powerful men indulged their appetites with abandon in full view of society. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was no exception. His various marriages, as was common during the period, were carefully designed to further his political goals and did indeed pay dividends.

However, it is also well documented that the monarch was a passionate man with a beating heart, which would not be restrained even when his amorous escapades brought him opprobrium.

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It was not, however, smooth sailing as her daughter and son-in-law had anything but a harmonious marriage. Mehtab Kaur was beautiful and haughty and Khushwant Singh speculates that she was probably not very well disposed towards her husband because the death of her father at the hand of his father was a wound too deep to heal. The marriage did not produce heirs for a while and Sada Kaur must have been devastated when Ranjit Singh took a second wife, Raj Kaur, the daughter of the Nakai Chief Sardar, Ran Singh. In his work, The Real Ranjit Singh, Fakir Syed Waheedudin writes that Raj Kaur brought ‘sweetness and light into Ranjit Singh’s life and provided for him a focus of interest in his home’. Sada Kaur left Ranjit Singh’s side and returned to her home in Batala, taking her daughter with her, her plans to secure the future of her daughter and the Kanhayas in tatters!

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In the chapter 'The Dancing Girl of Lahore', you mention how the Sikhs were republic in their ideals. Which are some of the features of Ranjit Singh’s reign that denote that the king and his rulers were rooted in their republican ideals?

Ranjit Singh’s rise was antithetical to the republican ideals of the Sikhs. The emergence of a centralised power emasculated the Misls and had the indirect consequence of creating a power vacuum, which had dramatic consequences after the demise of the monarch.

After the death of Ranjit Singh and his two older sons, the republican antecedents of the community re-emerged as the grassroot level leaders of the Sikh army gained power at the expense of nobles and courtiers.

What are some of the lessons that can be drawn from Ranjit Singh’s court, which might be relevant to present day politics and policy-making?

We live in a world where on the one hand, the notion of ‘secularism’ is vilified by the right, as it flexes its muscles and tries to establish a religious hegemony, and on the other is used by centrist-left politicians for vote bank politics. Ranjit Singh’s court exemplifies the virtues of governing in a truly secular manner.

His key generals, Hari Singh Nalwa and Akali Phoola Singh, were Sikhs, but also prominent in the military ranks were Hindus such as Diwan Mohkam Chand and the Dogras, as well as the likes of Jean Baptiste Ventura and Jean François Allard.

His chief diplomat was Faqir Azizuddin, who was Muslim. Indian leaders of today have much to learn about the benefits of real secularism from the court of Ranjit Singh.

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On 29 March, 1849 the court of Lahore convened for the last time. A proclamation was issued, declaring the end of the Sikh empire. Maharaja Duleep Singh handed over the Kohinoor to the British conquerors and stepped down from his father’s throne, never to sit on it again ...

Duleep Singh was exiled from Punjab and was sent from Lahore to Fatehgarh under the care of Dr. John Login, who remained his mentor for many years. Severe restrictions were placed on who could meet him. As a matter of British policy, he was anglicised in every way possible and in 1853, he renounced the Sikh faith and converted to Christianity with the enthusiastic approval of Lord Dalhousie.

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Sarbpreet Singh's The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia has been published by Tranquebar/Westland Publications Limited.

The excerpts in this article have been published with due permission from Westland Publications and the author.

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Updated Date: May 30, 2019 10:09:10 IST