Bibi Sharan Kaur
Sharan Kaur, whose original name was Sharni, was born in a Hindu family in the northwest of the Punjab where more than ninety percent of the population was Pathan or Afghan. Her father was a petty shopkeeper. As soon as she became sixteen years old, she was married to a young man named Jagat Ram, of a nearby village. After a happy marriage ceremony, she along with her groom and the marriage party, left to head to the village of her in-laws.
The new bride
As the bridal procession was passing through a thick forest, a party of armed goondas (robbers, dacoits) attacked the party. They ordered the party to turn over their 'cash', jewelry and other valuables, as well as, the bride. Unarmed and out numbered they gave up their valuables, but begged the dacoits to leave them with the bride. Their request was rejected and they were forced to flee, leaving the bride in her palanquin. She cried and begged them to let her go with her groom. The dacoits dragged her out of the palanquin and presented her to their chief. He said, “Detain her for the time being. I would like to marry such a beautiful and charming young girl.”
The poor groom was disappointed and depressed. He did not want to go to his village where he would surely become the village laughingstock. It was the first half of the nineteenth century when Hari Singh Nalwa was the governor of the Pathan province. He was the bravest general of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Maharaja had bestowed the title of Nalwa on Hari Singh'. There are at least three often quoted stories about how the Sardar earned the title:
- A historical text tells of that he he had cloven with sword the head of a tiger which had seized him. From that day he came to be known as "Baaghmaar" (meaning - the tiger killer), and earned the title of "Nalwa" (one with claws, like that of a tiger).
- Another historical text describes his incident with the tiger differently, telling us that he was already a Sardar when the word "Nalwa" was added to his name after he, "had killed a tiger single-handed on horseback, with the sacrifice, however, of his horse." (Prinsep, 1834: 99)
- A third legend states it was after he had single-handedly killed a Nul (lion in some local dialect?).
Before the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Pathans and Afghans from the west of Punjab had invaded and looted India for eight centuries. It goes to the credit of generals like Hari Singh Nalwa that these invasions were stopped forever. He ruled the rebel Pathans of that region fearlessly, courageously and wisely, but his fabled size, strength and ferocity, lead to Pathan parents using his name to scare their children to keep them quiet.
Back to Bibi Sharan Kaur's story
An idea struck Jagat Ram and he went straight to Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa at Jamrud where he was building a fort. He complained to the Sardar that his bride was forcibly taken away by a few dacoits. As the Sardar was listening to Jagat Ram, he noted that two strangers who were standing near the door of his court and were listening attentively to every word the groom was saying. He suspected that the men might be part of the dacoit band.
Put this coward behind bars!
A plan flashed through the General's mind, as he yelled out loudly:
- “Put this coward behind bars. One who cannot protect his wife deserves no help or mercy. Persons like this fellow are a burden on society and a disgrace to his community.”
Hearing that, the two strangers left at once, no doubt, to tell everything to their chief. Then Hari Singh ordered some Sikh horsemen to get Jagat Ram and secretly follow the two suspicious men, who were now certainly sure that they safe from the wrath of the Sikhs and their general.
Arriving at their camp the men told their leader about the reaction of the Sikh Sardar. They were still talking joyfully and enjoying their safety when the Sikh horsemen surrounded them and ordered them to disarm themselves. The dacoits were taken aback and outnumbered. The Sikh soldiers brought the dacoits, the booty, and the bride to Hari Singh Nalwa. When the Sardar asked the bride her name, she said, “I hate my old name, but for your help I would have committed suicide. Now that I am under your ‘Sharan’ (protection), I would like to be called Sharan Kaur. Her dowry, including her ornaments, was returned to her and she and her groom were escorted to her in-laws. The bride and the bridegroom requested the Sardar to allow them to live there like soldiers, as they did not want to live like cowards among other cowards. They wanted to live and die as brave Sikhs and work for their fellowmen.
In Pathan clothing
On their insistence, they were baptized and allowed to stay at the General's camp. Bibi Sharan Kaur served in the community kitchen and her husband, who was renamed Jagat Singh, after being baptized, was enlisted in the army. The Sardar observed the couple for a few days. One day, he said to his army officer, “Sharan Kaur seems to be brave and intelligent. I think she can become an excellent spy. Train her to become one.” Her training was started immediately and in a few months she had picked up the art of spying.
Once, she was sent to find out the strength of the Pathan forces that were planning to attack Jamrud. Disguised as a Pathan girl, she walked to the camp of the Pathan leader where she complained that the Sikhs had murdered her brother. She asked to see the Pathan chief, saying she had secrets to share about the Sikhs strength and positions. Taken to the personal tent of the Pathan chief, she wept, and told him that the Sikhs had a huge army in the Jamrud fort and they had killed her brother mercilessly.
The chief thanked her for the information and assured the girl to take heart that the Sikhs would be chased out of Jamrud. He bragged about the size of the Pathan force, when suddenly, she leaned forward pretending she was about to faint. As the chief rose to support her, she took out her handkerchief and pressed it to his nose. As he became unconscious, she stabbed him and walked out secretly. She reached Jamrud before the Pathan soldiers could catch her, where she was awarded a medal for her her daring assassination of the Pathan leader, as well as the information on the size of the Pathan force.
The Jamrud area was surrounded by Pathans who were unfriendly towards the Sikhs. Once, Hari Singh Nalwa fell seriously ill at Jamrud. When the Pathans came to know that Nalwa was seriously ill and could not take part in the battle, they rebelled against his rule and surrounded the fort. To show that he was hail and hearty, the general appeared at the upper story of the fort so that people could see him. Seeing him, the rebels withdrew, but one version of the fabled Sardar's death tells us that before joining his comrades, one of the Pathans took aim at the General and fired a shot.
Dark and dangerous trip
Unfortunately his shot rang true, Nalwa was hit badly and died the next day on April 30, 1837. His death was kept secret, but everyone in the fort was depressed and tense as there was no one to replace Nalwa. Sharan Kaur did not lose heart and encouraged the Sikh army. She said, “This is not the time to be scared or worried. Let us face this critical moment bravely. Drop me behind the fort by a long rope. I shall disguise myself as a Pathan woman and reaching Pashawar, I shall see that the news is conveyed to Maharaja Ranjit Singh as early as possible.”
Brave Sharan Kaur reached Peshawar by walking and running the whole night through the dense forest. Quickly she took a few horsemen and rode with them to Lahore as fast as they could. She reported the whole story to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was very sad to learn the news of the death of his best general, who had strengthened the Sikh Empire. Seeing that the situation was serious, he at once left to punish the rebels. As soon as the rebels came to know that Maharaja Ranjit Singh had reached with a huge reinforcement, they surrendered and promised to behave. Sharan Kaur, with her husband, returned to Lahore with Maharaja Ranjit Singh where he bestowed honor on her. This was the most glorious moment in her life.
The shy helpless bride, Sharan Kaur, was transformed into a brave saint-soldier after her baptism. She is known as the bravest woman in the Sikh history. Her bravery saved the Sikh kingdom from being dismembered. She will always be remembered for her selfless service and excellent espionage.