Ranjit Singh’s Lahore
The partition of India in 1947, didn't just divide the land. It ripped the nation and also drove a deep wedge in our history, throwing a thick veil over chapters of our shared heritage, with what is now Pakistan. Take the ancient city of Lahore. Legends trace the origins of this city to the Indian epic, the Ramayana. Much more recently, at the turn of the 19th century CE, Lahore was the grand capital of the Sikh Empire from 1799 CE to 1849 CE. Today there are just fragments left of Lahore’s Sikh past. If the monuments that still stand there could speak, what stories they would tell!
The city of Lahore has ancient origins. Mythology and folklore trace it to ‘Lavapuri’ or the city of Lava or Luv, the son of Lord Ram. Ptolemy, the noted Egyptian astronomer and geographer, in his text Geographia written in 150 CE mentions the city of Laboca, which is believed to be a reference to Lahore. However, the current walled city dates back to the Mughal times, when it reached the height of its glory. It was during the Mughal rule between the 16th to 18th centuries CE that some of the grandest monuments were built in Lahore. But the decline of the Mughal authority and successive Afghan invasions, in the 18th century CE, meant that the city was ravaged, many times over.
It was at this time of deep decline that Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the great Sikh ruler, resurrected Lahore. He conquered the city in 1799 CE and made it the capital of his fast expanding Sikh empire. In the 18th century, Punjab was divided into small principalities called misls, which kept fighting among themselves. It was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who united these misls into a powerful empire.
While Lahore was at the heart of the Sikh empire, its inner core was still the Badshahi fort built by the Mughals. Within the fort, Maharaja Ranjit Singh used the Shah Burj, an old Mughal palace, for his office and the Sheesh Mahal as his private residence. His private apartments were lavishly furnished and never failed to amaze European visitors. One such visitor was British explorer and traveler Alexander Burns, who was granted an audience with Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1831 CE. In his book –Travels into Bukhara, A voyage up the Indus to Lahore and a journey to Cabool, Tartary and Persia, he gives a fascinating description of the Maharaja’s private apartments –
‘In one end of the room stood a camp bedstead which merits descriptions of the frame-work, posts and legs were covered entirely with gold and the canopy was one sheet of the same precious metal. It stood on footstools raised about ten inches from the ground, which were also made of gold. The curtains were of Kashmir shawls, near around it stood a chair of gold and in one of the upper rooms of the palace, we saw the counterpart of these costly ornaments. The little room in which we sat was superbly gilded and the side which was next to the court was closed by a screen of yellow silk.’
The upper floor of Sheesh Mahal, used by the Maharaja as a bedroom has collapsed and very little remains of the Shahi Hammams or the royal baths. However, connected to the Sheesh Mahal is a building called Athdara or ‘house with eight doors’, which served as Ranjit Singh’s Court of Justice. The watchtower adjacent to Athdara served as the Maharaja’s private shrine where the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs was kept.
Within the fort is the Moti Masjid, which was used as a treasury during the Sikh times. While the Kohinoor and Timur Ruby were said to be kept at Gobindgarh Fort in Amritsar, the Lahore treasury too had a fabulous collection. It is believed that more than eight crore rupees worth of silver coins, a fabulous collection of jewels and some 48,000 extremely rare Kashmiri shawls were kept in this treasury.
The Badshahi mosque at Lahore was used as an ammunition depot by the Sikh army. A large number of arms and ammunition were stored here and it was connected to the Lahore Fort by a passage.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh used the Hazuri Bagh, next to the Lahore Fort as his summer residence. Built in 1818 and supervised by Maharaja’s foreign minister and confidant Fakir Azizuddin, it was one of Ranjit Singh’s favourite retreats. In the center of its marble pavilion was an open hall with glass ceilings where the Maharaja held court. During hot summer months, Ranjit Singh lived in the underground chambers of Hazuri Bagh.
Around the Lahore Fort were the great havelis and mansions of Sikh nobility. Sadly, hardly any of them survive today. Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed away in the Lahore Fort on 27th June 1839 at the age of 58. His body was kept lying in-state at the Dewan-i-Am of Lahore Fort. Four of his wives and seven concubines committed Sati on his funeral pyre.
Just west of Hazuri Bagh lies the samadhi or tomb of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Work on the tomb was started in 1839, the year of his death, by his son and successor, Maharaja Kharak Singh but was completed only in 1851. In the samadhi, there were lotus shaped marble urns, which contained the ashes of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and four of his wives.
After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Lahore durbar descended into a cesspool of intrigue. His son and successor Maharaja Kharak Singh lived in his own haveli inside the Lahore Fort. It is here that he died - he is said to have been poisoned on 5th November 1840, by courtiers. Kharak Singh’s haveli is now used as an office of the Archeological Survey of Pakistan.
The next in line to the Sikh throne was Prince Nau Nihal Singh, the favourite grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. But in a twist of fate, he died after a stone slab fell on him as he was returning from his father’s funeral. This happened under the Roshnai Darwaza of Lahore city that still stands in the city today. Nau Nihal Singh’s old haveli is now a girl’s school. It is the grandest surviving havelis in Lahore city.
The next ruler of the Sikh empire was Maharaj Sher Singh, the surviving son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who too was assassinated in 1843 CE. This meant that the throne passed on to the five-year-old Duleep Singh, the last ruler of Punjab. It was his mother Rani Jindan who served as the regent. The haveli of Rani Jindan located in the Lahore Fort can still be seen today. This is where Rani Jindan lived with her son Duleep Singh, before being exiled to Churnar near Benares (Varanasi) in 1848 CE.
With the annexation of Punjab in 1849 CE Lahore came under British rule. A number of buildings and havelis belonging to the Sikh courtiers were converted into British offices. However, the greatest destruction happened in two waves, first during the Partition of 1947, when Hindu and Sikh properties were occupied by Muslim refugees from India. And the second was in 1992 when a large number of temples, baradaris and samadhis were destroyed by fanatics as a retaliation against the Babri Masjid incident in India.
Sadly today, the Sikh legacy of Lahore is ignored. It has slipped between ignominy- the Muslims of Lahore look towards it as a dark era of ignorance and its geographical separation from India has meant that it has never gotten its due here as well.