Ranjit Singh’s story though is apocryphal, yet continues to be told by the Punjabis to this day because it has the answer to the questions why Ranjit Singh was able to unite Punjabi Mussulmans, Hindus and Sikhs and create one and the only kingdom in the history of the Punjab.
Another anecdote, equally apocryphal and even more popular, illustrates the second reason why Ranjit Singh succeeded in the face of heavy odds: his single minded pursuit of power.
It is said that once his Muslim wife, Mohran, remarked on his ugliness—he was dark, pitted with small pox and blind of one eye [‘exactly like an old mouse with grey whiskers and one eye’—Emily Eden]. ‘Where were your Highness when God was distributing beauty?’ ‘I had gone to find myself a kingdom,’ replied the monarch.
MAHARAJA RANJIT SINGH
EMBODIMENT OF SECULAR SIKH RULE
by Khushwant Singh
On this auspicious occasion [of Baisakhi] when Sikhs from all corners of the globe would converge on a beautiful gurdwara in Hassan Abdal – the holy place where the miracle of rock took place, here is what Khushwant Singh writes on the life and time of the man who ordered construction of this most beautiful and the second holiest shrine of Sikhism in Pakistan.
The famous Indian author in his book ‘Ranjit Singh’, Maharaja of the Punjab, depicts the persona of this man in following words:-
A calligraphist who had spent many years making a copy of the holy Koran and had failed to get any of the Muslim princes of Hindustan to give him an adequate price for his labours turned up at Lahore to try and sell it to the Foreign Minister, Fakeer Azizuddin. The Fakeer praised the work but expressed his inability to pay for it. The argument was overheard by Ranjit Singh who summoned the calligraphist to his presence. The Maharaja respectfully pressed the holy book against his forehead and then scrutinized the writing with his single eye. He was impressed with the excellence of the work and bought the Koran for his private collection. Some time later Fakeer Azizuddin asked him why he had paid such a price for a book for which he as a Sikh, would have no use. Ranjit Singh replied: ‘God intended me to look upon all religions with one eye; that is why he took away the light from the other.’
The story is apocryphal. But it continues to be told by the Punjabis to this day because it has the answer to the questions why Ranjit Singh was able to unite Punjabi Mussulmans, Hindus and Sikhs and create one and the only kingdom in the history of the Punjab. Another anecdote, equally apocryphal and even more popular, illustrates the second reason why Ranjit Singh succeeded in the face of heavy odds: his single minded pursuit of power. It is said that once his Muslim wife, Mohran, remarked on his ugliness—he was dark, pitted with small pox and blind of one eye (‘exactly like an old mouse with grey whiskers and one eye’—Emily Eden). ‘Where were your Highness when God was distributing beauty?’ ‘I had gone to find myself a kingdom,’ replied the monarch.
Ranjit Singh has been poorly served by his biographers. Hindu and Sikh admirers deified him as a virtuous man and a selfless patriot. This academic apotheosis reduced a full blooded man and an astute politician to an anemic saint and a simple minded nationalist. Muslim historians are unduly harsh in describing him as an avaricious freebooter. English writers, who took their material largely from Muslim sources, portrayed him as a cunning man (the cliché often used is ‘wily oriental’), devoid of moral considerations, whose only redeeming feature was his friendship with the English. They were not only averse to picking up any gossip they could (every oriental court has always been a whispering gallery of rumours), but also gave them currency by incorporating them in works of history.
Ranjit Singh however was neither a selfless patriot nor an avaricious freebooter. He was neither a model of virtue nor a lascivious sensualist. Above all he was too warm and lively a character to have his story told in a lifeless catalogue of facts, figures and footnotes.
As a political figure Ranjit Singh was in every way as remarkable a man as his two famous contemporaries, Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Muhammad Ali of Egypt. He rose from the status of a petty chieftain to become the most powerful Indian ruler of his time. He was the first ruler in a thousand years to stem the tide of invasions from whence they had come across the North-West frontiers of Hindustan. Although he dispossessed hundreds of feudal landholders to consolidate his kingdom, he succeeded in winning their affection and converting them into faithful courtiers.
In the history of the world, it would be hard to find another despot who never took life in cold blood, yet built as large an empire as Ranjit’s. He persuaded the turbulent Sikhs and Mussulmans of the Punjab to become the willing instruments of an expansionist policy which brought the Kashmiris and the Pathans of the North-West Frontier under his subjection and extended his sphere of influence from the borders of China and Afghanistan in the north to the deserts of Sindh in the south.
The Tomb of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore
His success was undoubtedly due to his ability to arouse the nascent sense of nationalism amongst his people and make them conscious that more important than being Muslim, Hindu or Sikh was the fact of being Punjabi. His Sikh and Hindu troops subdued the Sikh and Hindu Rajas of the Punjab. His Mussulman Najibs rejected the appeals of their Hindustani, Afghan and Pathan co-religionists to crusade against the ‘infidel’ and instead helped to liquidate the crusaders. The year Ranjit Singh died, it was his Muslim troops led by colonel Sheikh Basswan that crossed the Khyber pass and carried Ranjit’s colors through the streets of Kabul in the victory parade. And a couple of years later Zorawar Singh, a Dogra Hindu, planted the Sikh flag in the heart of Tibet. These events were the high water mark of Punjabi imperialism which had carried Ranjit Singh to the heights of power and which subsided soon after his death.
Khushwant Singh (born 2 Feb. 1915) is an Indian novelist and journalist. Singh’s weekly column, “With Malice towards One and All”, carried by several Indian newspapers, is among the most widely-read columns in India.
Note: Picture on top is a rare and historic painting of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The portrait is likely to have been painted during his lifetime. It was possibly the study for a lithograph that it was widely reproduced in various publications including Bibliotèque Universelle, Voyages en Asie, 1836.
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