By Hafizur Rahman
Of the many books available on Maharajah Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh empire that extended from the Sutlej to Kabul, none is as delightful as Fanny Eden’s book of memoirs, Tigers, Durbars and Kings.
Fanny and Emily Eden were the unmarried sisters of Lord Auckland, and had come out to keep house for their bachelor brother in Calcutta on his appointment as Governor General of India. The vignettes of Ranjit Singh are taken from that part of her book which deals with Lord Auckland’s stately march to Punjab in the winter of 1839 to consolidate British-Sikh friendship.
The first encounter with an aspect of Ranjit Singh’s personality took place a few miles from Ferozepur. “We came over dreadful roads,” writes Fanny, “I hope Runjeet’s roads will be better, though he thinks road-making is a foolish English custom, since roads only serve to show your enemies the best way into your country.” The lavish style in which monarchs operated is graphically illustrated by Fanny’s comments on Ranjit Singh’s own camp across the river. “Runjeet has sent forward six hundred gardeners to make a garden around his tent, as it is likely that he will be kept there for ten days.”
Before the formal meeting with the Maharajah, his son Kharak Singh called to meet Lord Auckland and the two sisters. Fanny says of him, “Runjeet does not like Kurruck Singh, his heir, which shows his usual discernment, for by all accounts he is little better than an idiot in manner.” History tells us that the prince was somewhat soft in the head.
On November 29, a great darbar for the reception of the Maharajah was held by the governor general. “We received him in the outer tent,” writes Fanny Eden, “and he sat down on the sofa between us with his legs tucked up. He is very small, with a long white beard. He does not wear a single jewel but some of his, favourites are covered with them and their dresses are perfectly magnificent. Emily had painted a picture of the Queen (Victoria) in her coronation robes, which she presented to him. He said when he got to his camp and hung it, a salute of a 100 guns would be fired.”
On December 2, the G.G. and his entourage paid a courtesy call on the maharajah. The river was crossed by elephants going over a boat bridge. “The approach to the tents was beautiful. They were surrounded by a large enclosure of embroidered scarlet cloth, the tents themselves were made of shawls and embroidered cashmere and silver pillars, and all the chiefs covered in jewels. I was a little shy. However, Heera Singh, a son who has great power over Runjeet, and Sher Singh, who is a great soldier and supposed to have an eye on the throne when Runjeet dies, talked very well. I was taken to a silver chair at the entrance of the tent where George (Lord Auckland) and Runjeet were sitting. It was soon filled with chiefs and nautch girls — I was disappointed in their beauty. Then Runjeet served us with wine in gold bottles and cups. What he calls wine is like burning fire, much stronger than brandy, and his great delight is to make people drink it.”
The reader can imagine the maharajah’s naughty delight in this from what he did to Fanny. “He began plying me with gold cupfuls. I got on very well for some time, pretending to drink it and passing it to the cup-bearer. But he grew suspicious, put it to his one eye, looked well into the cup, shook his head and gave it to me back again. The next time he put his finger into the cup to see how much was gone.”
Fanny then asked the ADC to explain to the host that ladies did not drink so much in England, upon which he watched till Lord Auckland’s head was turned away and “passed me a cup under his arm, thinking George was the horrid tyrant who prevented me from drinking.” In the course of the evening Ranjit Singh presented Fanny with diamond bracelets, a large diamond ring, and a long string of pearls which it was a problem putting over her hat. The maharajah was very amused, and as Fanny says, “His countenance lights up and he is very clever. Otherwise he sits like a grey statue. He was still drinking when we came away and were not left with the impression that the Sikhs lead strictly moral lives.”
On December 4, the G.G. was asked to review the large army which the maharajah was sending to Kabul. “It was just the sort of sight that interests Runjeet Singh. Listening to George’s questions and his answers, I was more struck by his cleverness than I had been before. The moment he got near the troops he was like a child with a new plaything. He rode up the whole line of three miles. All our people were in astonishment at their state of discipline and preparedness and very surprised at the way they performed their manoeuvres. I have a notion from what I can gather that our review was a remarkably poor piece of business compared to them.”
The entire food and other provisions for the G.G’s party and the nearly 10,000 troops were provided by the maharajah. This lavish hospitality amazed Fanny but, as she says, “Apparently it is a custom to feed allies entering the kingdom and it would have been a national disgrace otherwise.”
On December 16, Ranjit Singh gave another of his nautch parties. He drank even harder and tried his utmost to make Lord Auckland keep pace with him. According to Fanny, he said, “When a man drinks hard enough he opens his heart and talks all kind of nonsense, and that is right among friends. He then asked if books were really written in England against drinking, and when George replied in the affirmative, he shook his head and said what foolish books they must be.” She adds, “Once he told George how very sad it was that he had not even one wife when Sikhs sometimes had twenty-five. George said in England they sometimes found even one more than they could manage. At which Runjeet answered that troublesome wives are beaten up by the Sikhs. I said I wished he would not tell the Lord Sahib this, which made him laugh violently.” What a character indeed!