The splendid panoply of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

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The Sri Darbar Sahib as it would have appeared in the Days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

PANOPLY would seem to be an odd word to use when talking about Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The word Panoply is an ancient Greek word which probably traveled with the Greek language into the Panjab with the early conquests of Alexander the Great. It is derived from the simple roots of pan (all) + hopla (arms, armor). It is the plural of Hoplon (weapon); ancient Greek warriors were called hoplites (weapon bearers).

Somewhere in time the meaning of the word Panopoly evolved to mean a complete and impressive array or display.

Ranjit Singh Gujranwala was born with a relatively small worldly inheritance, little more than a few villages precariously held in the turbulent days of the late 18th-early 19th centuries. During his lifetime he parlayed his early weapons training and village holdings into a complete and impressive array or display. From his simple roots he became an accomplished soldier, military strategist and leader who built a kingdom resplendent with luxury and opulence that exceded those of royal families of much older origins.

Love for pomp and grandeur

There could be no better example of the Maharaja's love of magnificence and eclat than the wedding he staged for Nau Nihal Singh, his grandson. When Nau Nihal Singh was sixteen years old he had already shown his ability as a soldier having taken part in several military campaigns. It was during one such campaign that Sham Singh Atarivala, a leading Sikh sardar, pledged the hand of his daughter to Nau Nihal Singh.

The wedding was one of the most lavish celebrations in the history of the Panjab. Ranjit Singh had nearly half a million people assembled to receive charity on the occasion and gave away in a single day a sum of twenty lakhs of rupees.

Invitations were sent to the British Governor General; the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Henry Fane; his old friend, Sir Charles Metcaife, then Governor of Agra and the rulers of a number of Indian Princely states. The rulers of Patiala, Faridkot, Kapurthala, Naraingarh, Nabha, Jind, Malerkotia, Kalsia, Mandi and Suket responded to the invitation. Sir Henry Fane, the Commander-in-Chief, with Lady Fane and staff, attended on behalf of the Governor General.

As Sir Henry crossed the Sutlej at Harike on 3 March 1837, he was met by Sher Singh. The guests were impressed by the host's good nature and quiet and gentlemanly manner. The young prince at once made friends with Sir Henry Fane, who came to see him in his tent on the following day. He had with him an artist, who, standing in front of the two leaders, made a likeness of Sir Henry. The guests admired the furnishings of Sher Singh's camp, especially his dressing room which was filled with perfumes from France and other European luxuries of toilet.

The Grand Marriage ceremony

The Commander-in-Chief, accompanied by Sher Singh and his train, left for Amritsar. Three kilometres from the city, they were met by Kharak Singh, father of the bridegroom. Sir Henry Fane was presented with a zidfat (entertainment) of five thousand rupees.

He entered the city under a salute of guns fired from the Fort of Gobindgarh. Upon reaching his camp, he had a salute of twenty one guns fired in honour of the Sikh ruler. Then he came to visit the Maharaja who was staying in his garden house, the Ram Bagh.

Ranjit Singh wore a green turban and had a row of pearls round his neck. The canopy under which he sat was made of beautiful Kashmir! shawls, inlaid with silver. It had silver poles to support it. The dresses and jewels of the Maharaja's court were of the richest quality. Hira Singh, son of Dhian Singh, was one mass of jewels.

Ranjit Singh received Sir Henry with his usual geniality. Some of the many questions he asked him were about the size of the East India Company's army, the number of battles he had been in and the methods the English used to cast their guns.

In the evening the ceremony of presenting offerings to the bridegroom was held. Sir Henry presented eleven thousand rupees, Dhian Singh one lakh and twenty five thousand and Gulab Singh, Suchet Singh and Misr Rup Lal fifty one thousand each. Other chiefs and guests made offerings according to their rank and position. The presents altogether were valued at fifty lakhs of rupees.

Wedding party goes to Harimandar Sahib

The wedding party set out for the bride's place on elephants richly equipped and decorated. Passing through the streets of the city, the procession reached the Harimandar Sahib where blessings were sought for the bridegroom. The Maharaja put the bridal crown of the rarest pearls, hung on gold thread, on the forehead of Nau Nihal Singh.

The party formed a gorgeous procession composed of silk clad men, mounted upon stately elephants. Unique was the splendour and bustle of the occasion. Hundreds of thousands of spectators, who had come from all parts of the country, lined up on both sides of the road from Amritsar to Atari, the bride's village. All around, there were crowds of men cheering the wedding party.

Ranjit Singh had ordered bags, each containing coins worth two thousand rupees, to be placed at the disposal of the guests. The money was being showered on the spectators. Ranjit Singh, the members of the royal family and the more prominent guests cast handfuls of gold mohurs instead of silver coins. At the head of the cavalcade was a moving throne, decked out in handsome style, on which music and dancing continued all the way.

Sham Singh Atarivala, the host, had made equally elaborate arrangements for the reception of the guests. The passage to his mansion was spread with velvet and brocade. The guns and fireworks were let off as the party arrived. The Maharaja was received with an offering of one hundred and one gold mohurs and five horses, Kharak Singh with fiftyone mohurs and a horse and the other princes with eleven mohurs and a horse each. The guests were then conducted to the top floor of Sham Singh's castle.

Maharaja wore the famous Koh-i-nur

The bridegroom sat between the Maharaja and the British Commander-in-Chief, under a canopy embroidered with silver and gold. Ranjit Singh wore on his arm the celebrated Koh-i-Nur. After nine o'clock began the religious ceremony. The air became thick with the holy chants and with felicitations for the Maharaja from all sides. A display of fireworks was subsequently held in the centre of the large enclosure where camps had been laid out for the Maharaja and Sir Henry Fane and other guests. The entertainment and gaiety went on far into the night.

The next day, Ranjit Singh surpassed himself for bounty. The multitude of poor people who had gathered for alms and other spectators were assembled into a space of about eight kilometres in circumference, surrounded by soldiers. No one was allowed to emerge except at the eighty exits where officers were stationed to distribute money. Each one was given butki, worth five rupees. As a person received his butki, he was sent out of the circle and not allowed to enter again. A sum of twenty lakhs of rupees was distributed in this manner.

The Maharaja and the guests witnessed the sports which comprised wrestling bouts, elephant fighting and contests in lancing and swordsmanship. In the afternoon the bride's dowry was displayed. It consisted of eleven elephants, 101 horses, 101 cows, 101 buffaloes, 101 camels, all fully caparisoned, hundreds of gold and silver utensils, five hundred pairs of shawls, ornaments, jewels and silk and brocade dresses worth lakhs of rupees. Sham Singh also gave presents to the Maharaja and the guests.

The party goes on for days

After two days of feasting and merriment, the party left for Lahore. The festival of Holi being near, the Maharaja would not let his guests depart immediately. In the evening, he wanted to give a banquet in the Shalamar Gardens, but, since the water required for the fountains had not yet come from the Ravi sufficiently far down the canal, the entertainment was postponed until the following evening.

The Shalamar Gardens were brilliantly illuminated with rows of small earthen lamps, placed at regular intervals on the building and down the sides of the walls and tanks. At every ten or twelve yards were placed coloured lamps. The fountains playing in the light of these lamps produced a charming effect. The English ladies were allowed to see the fireworks and a special tent was erected for them on the top of a house. The Maharaja looked after the guests' comfort personally. The festive eve was prolonged to the small hours of the morning.

On the third day, Ranjit Singh visited Sir Henry in the camp. While passing through the troops which had been drawn up in his honour, he stopped to see the King's 16th Lancers. He had met these troops at Ropar at the time of William Bentinck's visit.

Sir Henry gifts presents to the Maharaja

Ranjit Singh turned the formal occasion into a pleasant function by his natural and easy manner and by his well informed questions and conversations. He asked the Commander-in-Chief if the Russian interest was doing the English much harm in Persia and whether Persia could give Russia any useful aid in the event of their advancing towards India.

Sir Henry took him into another camp and showed him the presents he had brought for him. Among these were an elephant, eight horses, a double barrelled gun and a brace of pistols. The Commander-in-Chief apologized that the presents had been collected in a hurry as he had not had sufficient warning of the visit.

Sir Henry saw a review of Ranjit Singh's troops on the bank of the River Ravi. They were all very well turned out and armed in the European fashion. The Commander-in-Chief praised their skill and discipline. Ranjit Singh was present at a similar review of the Commander-in-Chiefs escort. One day the guests were invited to see the court jewels. Ranjit Singh's toshdkhdnd contained a vast variety of stones, armlets, bangles and necklaces, each of excelling cost.

The Koh-i-Nur, of course, was the centre of attraction. Then the guests went to a grand entertainment given by Ranjit Singh in honour of the English ladies. The ladies were also taken inside to meet the Maharaja's wives. The senior Maharani, with her entourage, received them, Mrs Ventura and Mrs Allard acting as interpreters.

Guests celebrate Holi

As the festival of Holi for which the guests had been detained arrived, the Maharaja invited them all to his camp. They were provided with baskets full of red powder balls, large bowls of yellow saffron and gold squirts. As soon as the guests were seated, the Maharaja poured colour on Sir Henry's bald head, while Dhian Singh rubbed him all over with red powder. This was a signal for general colour splashing and ball throwing. The worst sufferer in the rejoicing was the Afghan ambassador who had come from Kandahar.

After a fortnight's stay in Lahore, Sir Henry asked leave to depart. A farewell darbar was held and presents were brought forth for him and his party. Ranjit Singh shook each of the guests by the hand and wished him goodbye. Prince Sher Singh came as far as the Sutlej to see off the guests. On the bank of the river, Sir Henry held a darbar in his honour and presented him with a buggy and horse.

In honour of Nau Nihal Singh's wedding, Ranjit Singh started an Order of Merit which was known as Kaukabi-Iqbali-Punjab, Star of the Prosperity of the Punjab.

The Order had three grades, each having its own medal. The medals bore the effigy of Ranjit Singh on one side and had silk ribands of gold and scarlet colour. They were in the shape of a star and were meant to be worn round the neck. The firstgrade medal was ornamented with one diamond. It was meant for the members of the royal family and those chiefs who had shown exceptional devotion to the person of the Maharaja and his family. The secondgrade medal with a diamond and an emerald set in it, was bestowed on royal courtiers and sarddrs. The third contained a single emerald and was open to the civil and military officers who had rendered some special service to the State.

Implications

Today the lavish weddings put on by many wealthy Sikh parents have at times seemed to be modern day, albeit poorer, versions of the wedding of Nau Nihal Singh. Few people today have the deep pockets of a Maharaja or the love of a regal show exhibited by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Today many people have linked such lavish spending on weddings to the problem of female foetacide a crime even reported to have been demanded by a millionaire who wanted to avoid the lavish costs of a wedding for any daughters. Recently the Gurwaras of Delhi have called for the simpler Sikh weddings of the Past.


References

1. Fane, H.E., Five Years in India, 2 vols. London, 1842