Lahore Darbar

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Lahore Darbar, the Sikh Court at Lahore, denoted the government of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his successors (1799-1849). However, the Persian chroniclers refer to this government as Sarkar Khalsaji, and the term "Lahore Darbar" is not used even in British records until after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

The composition of the Lahore Darbar was highly diversified. In the direction of all State affairs, political, foreign and domestic, it was completely subservient to the will of the Maharaja. Highly personalized, the Lahore Darbar was a creation of the Maharaja, a devout Sikh; he in theory at least publicly proclaimed that he was "the drum of the Khalsa" and that his government was based on the ideals of the Khalsa or the commonwealth of Guru Gobind Singh, but in actual practice it was totally secular. It comprised councillors, ministers, advisers of all denominations Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. The Jammu brothers Gulab Singh, Dhian Singh and Suchet Singh were Dogra Rajputs; Jamadar Khushal Singh, Tej Singh, Sahib Dial, Ganga Ram, Dina Nath, Bell Ram, Ajudhia Parshad, who controlled the financial, diplomatic and military affairs of the Darbar, were all Brahmans. The Faqir brothers 'AviyudDin, the foreign minister, NurudDin, the governor of Lahore, and Imam ud-Din, the governor of Gobindgarh fortress were Muslims, and Allard, Court, Avitabile and Ventura, the architects of the Europeanized wing of the Darbar's army were Christians.

The Splendour of the Darbar

The Lahore nobility presented a very picturesque aspect. The Jatt Sikh of the ruling class with his commanding figure and his handsome beard and turban was the adornment of the court which excelled in oriental pageantry and splendour. Personally, the Maharaja was not given to ostentation. He was usually dressed in simple white, wore no ornaments but a single string of pearls and, on special occasions, the celebrated Koh-i-Noor diamond on his arm, which the Maharaja, in a bit of famous 'horse-trading' had returned to India. "My sword," he once confined to Baron Charles Hugel, "procures me all the distinction I desire; I am quite indifferent to external pomp." But he liked to be surrounded by magnificently robed ministers and finelooking sardars majestically accoutred and armed. "The dresses and jewels of the Rajah's court were the most superb that can be conceived," observes H.E. Fane. "The whole scene can only be compared to a gala night at the opera." Indeed even the Maharajas horses and elephants were splendidly decked out in diamonds, rubies and gold. A good portion of the Maharajas treasures were looted from the treasury after Ranjit Sing's death by the Dogras. Most of what was left, including the Koh-i-noor, was later taken by the British. The British, well aware of the legendary curse associated with any males who wore India's most famous gem, had the Koh-i-Noor mounted in the Queen Mum's crown.

Heir apparent Kharak Singh, Kanvar Sher Singh and Raja Hira Singh were the only individuals privileged to sit on chairs in the Darbar. Golden pillars covered three parts of the Darbar hall; rich shawl carpets embroidered with gold and silver and inset with gems covered the floor. Behind the Maharaja invariably stood the Raja Kalan Dhian Singh; all others ministers, officials, courtiers and sardars stood with folded hands and lowered eyes at places according to their ranks and status. Yellow and green were court colours and most of the officials were clothed in yellow garments of Kashmir silks or woollens. There being no rigid classification or gradation of rank, the status of courtiers was normally determined by the degree of trust reposed in them by the Maharaja. Titles conferred upon officials were usually honorifics, but many favoured sardars held them along with lucrative jagirs.

The Lahore Darbar treated all foreign visitors with decorum and hospitality. Strict protocol was observed according to the status of the visitor. Moorcroft, Wade, Charles Hugel, Mohan Lal, Shahamat 'Ali, Fane and others tell us of the generous hospitality they received from the Darbar. The visitors were on arrival met by protocol officers especially appointed, their lodgings were fixed according to their status, and funds in cash and kind were provided for their entertainment. When Baron Charles Hugel visited Lahore, "Aziz udDin, the foreign minister, received him and over 50 bearers made their appearance with presents of sweets and fruit, wines and a bag of 700 rupees. He was given accommodation in General Ventura's palatial residence and an allowance of 6,000 rupees per month was fixed for hospitality. The magnificence of the Lahore Darbar was unmatched on diplomatic and ceremonial occasions. As for instance, the reception of the GovernorGeneral Lord William Bentinck at Ropar in 1831, of Governor General Lord Auckland at Firozpur in 1838, and of the Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Fane in 1837 at the time of the marriage of Kanvar Nau Nihal Singh. Full regalia and military might of the Darbar were then on display.

Musamman Burj

The Lahore Darbar transacted State business in the buildings inside the Lahore Fort called the Musamman Burj. A public court was held in the morning till noon in the Diwan-i-Am or the Hall of Audience, attended by princes, ministers, nobles and civil and military officers. The Maharaja sat crosslegged on a golden chair, clad in plain clothes. High civil and military appointments were made; reports from the provincial satraps and kardars were read out and royal orders given orally to be transcribed for final approval; tributes and nazaranas were accepted and supplicants dismissed gracefully with khillats (robes) and cash awards. When on tour or on expedition, business was conducted by the Maharaja on horseback or under the shade of a tree. He dictated orders to the provincial governors while inspecting troops or fighting a battle. Alexander Burnes, who visited Lahore in February 1831, testifies to the expeditious manner in which work was transacted by the Maharaja in the Darbar:

"I never quitted the presence of a native of Asia with such impressions as I left the man; without education and without a guide, he conducts all affairs of the kingdom with surprising energy and vigour, yet wields his power with a moderation quite unprecedented in an eastern prince."

The waqa'nawis (news writers)

The Darbar kept itself fully informed of what was happening in the farflung territories and in the neighbouring countries. The waqa'nawis (news writers) in the subas (provinces) sent to the royal court newsletters at regular intervals. Vakils (agents) of foreign countries were attached to the court on a reciprocal basis. The Darbar had newswriters in Afghanistan and vakils in some of the cis-Sutlej Sikh states and in the British territory, Vakils of the cis Sutlej states, Rajputana, the Maratha country and Nepal frequently came on complimentary missions. The Lahore Darbar also had in its employ numerous European officers. About four scores of such feringhee officers; English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, American and Russian adorned the Maharaja's Darbar. Among these foreigners were Jean Francois Allard, "the Suleman Bey of Ranjit Singh," Jean Baptistc Ventura, "the baron of the FaujiKhas," Paolo di Avitabile who became a civil administrator and judge, and Claude Auguste Court, "the architect of Lahore Darbar's artillery." However, Maharaja Ranjit Singh kept the Europeans under strict control and discipline. They were encouraged to domesticate themselves by marriage and settle down in the Punjab and were bound to wear turbans and grow beards like the Sikhs and not allowed to eat beef or smoke in public. The court nobility, which also included members of the royal family and the collaterals, lived in style in palatial haveUs, wore costly garments and rich jewellery. Some of the royal princes and the Raja Kalari Dhian Singh were permitted to hold their miniature darbdrs. None were allowed to lead a life of indolence. The Maharaja continued to send out princes and sardars on military expeditions and on diplomatic and political duties.

Festivals observed

The main festivals observed by the Darbar were Baisakhi, Dussehra, Basant, Holl and Divali. The day of Baisakhi was deemed blessed and was celebrated at the court with disbursement of money, gold, silver, cows, horses, elephants, gold bangles and foodstuffs to the Brahmans and to the poor. The festival of Basant, (spring) was celebrated with great enthusiasm. Troops paraded in yellow uniforms and court officials and sardars, also clad in yellow, offered nazars to their sovereign who granted khill'ats (robes of honour) to each according to his rank and status. The court assembled at Amritsar for the celebration of Dussehra (Rama's victory over Ravana/good over evil). On this occasion a muster of the jagirdan troops was taken and parades inspected by the Maharaja. Both Basant and Dusshera were both historical Hindu festivals which were part of Punjab's culture long before the coming of Islam to India.

The Lahore Darbar under Ranjit Singh had become a byword for grandeur. To have established such precise standards of regal usage and dignity was remarkable for one born to a small worldly inheritance. Ranjit Singh's patrimony did not amount to more than a few villages precariously held in those turbulent days, and his authority then scarcely coincided with any recognizable or settled geographical demarcation. He carved out sovereignty for himself in his own lifetime after a protracted and bitter struggle and set up a unique tradition of noble pomp and glory.

There is, perhaps, no better example of the splendor of Ranjit Singh's Court than the account given in the page The Wedding of Nau Nihal Singh/ The Splendid Panoply of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, as recounted in H. E. Fane.s book, Five Years in India, 2 vols. London, 1842