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Maharani Jindan Kaur: ‘One of the most remarkable characters of 19th century history’

Maharani Jindan Kaur, the last wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, waged an unending struggle against the British.

Maharani Jindan Kaur, the last wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, is in news for the auction of some of her jewellery at Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art sale in London earlier this week.

“As the only surviving widow of Ranjit Singh, Jindan Kaur (1817-1863) led a spirited resistance to the encroachment of the British into the Punjab, but was eventually forced to surrender. More than 600 pieces of her jewellery from the legendary treasury of Lahore were confiscated, and she was imprisoned before escaping to Nepal in 1848,” notes Bonhams, in reference to the jewellery.

Who was this feisty queen who waged an unending struggle against the British? Read on.

Who was Rani Jindan?

She was the youngest wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire, whose boundaries stretched from Kabul to Kashmir and the borders of Delhi. She was also the mother of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last ruler of the empire, who was raised by the British.

Born at Chachar in Gujranwala in 1817, Jind Kaur Aulakh was the youngest of three siblings. Her father Manna Singh Aulakh was the overseer of the royal kennels. It is said that impressed with Manna Singh’s description of his daughter’s beauty and intelligence, Maharaja Ranjit Singh married Jindan in 1835 when she was all of 18. She gave birth to Duleep Singh in 1838, a year before the death of the maharaja.

When did she become the regent?

Duleep Singh was five years old when he was placed on the throne in 1843 after the death of two heirs to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Since he was just a child, Maharani Jindan was made the regent. Not a rubber stamp, she took an active interest in running the kingdom, introducing changes in the revenue system.

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Dr. Ganda Singh in his work on the private correspondence relating to the Anglo-Sikh War has quoted Lord Ellenbrough (Nov. 20 1843) as saying, “The mother of the boy Maharaja Duleep Singh seems to be a woman of determined course, and she is the only person apparently at Lahore, who has courage.”

When did the British imprison and exile her?

The British declared war on the Sikh empire in December 1845. After their victory in the first Anglo-Sikh war, they retained Duleep Singh as the ruler but imprisoned Jind Kaur.

Prof Indu Banga, a Chandigarh-based historian who specialises in the history of Punjab, says the British tried hard to vilify Jindan as she tried to rally forces against them, but “unlike many others, she did not give in.”

The British campaign against her was vicious, describing her as a prostitute, seductress and the ‘Messalina of the Punjab’, a reference to the promiscuous third wife of Roman Emperor Claudius.

Jindan believed that if united, Indian rulers could oust the British. She was in touch with Bhai Maharaj Singh, who tried to rebel against the British after the annexation of the Sikh empire. Banga says, “With many historians counting the Anglo-Sikh battles as the first war of independence, Jindan has now become a heroic figure.”

William Dalrymple and Anita Anand have also written about Jindan in the book, ‘Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond’, in 2016.

Describing her dramatic prison break on April 19, 1849, from Chunnar Fort in Uttar Pradesh, the book says: “Dressed in beggars’ rags, she fled under cover of darkness, taunting her British captors as she went.”

“Scattering money on the floor of her cell, Jindan scrawled a note for the guards to find: You put me in a cage and locked me up. For all your locks and your sentries, I got out by magic… I had told you plainly not to push me too hard – but don’t think I ran away. Understand well, that I escape by myself unaided… don’t imagine I got out like a thief.’’...

...Christy Campbell, author of ‘The Maharajah’s Box,’ a book about Duleep Singh, says Jindan was “one of the most remarkable characters of 19th century history, let alone Indian or Sikh history”.

Jindan was buried in west London as cremation was illegal in Britain during those days. In 1997, a marble headstone with her name was uncovered during restoration at the Dissenters’ Chapel in Kensal Green, and a memorial to the Maharani was installed at the site in 2009.

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