I finished reading the book ‘The Last Sunset’’ by Captain Amarinder Singh on 27 June 2017, which happened to be the 178th death anniversary(27.6.1839)of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Shere-E-Punjab (the Lion of Punjab) which will now remain my reference book on the history of Punjab and on matters military. ‘The Last Sunset’ essentially is a close crystal gazer into the history of Punjab — a story of the rise and fall (1849 annexation of Punjab) of the Sikh Empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This by no means can be a book review after a second print in 2014 but is an attempt as a keen student of history especially military history to share with others what I have learnt from the book. All do not have the inclination or the patience to read or have the time to read books as the younger generation is more glued to their mobiles.
Captain Amarinder Singh by virtue of his Army background (2 SIKH and was an ADC to the Western Army Commander during the 1965 war),understanding history being part of it himself and as a military leader has in depth successfully researched historical facts, remains away from glorifying his ancestors. The author has without bias, acknowledged Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s weaknesses and must be admired for his honesty to highlight the heroic brave acts of the British officers — the ones who annexed the Sikh empire of his ancestors. Capt Amarinder Singh is a writer on matters military and has written a number of books.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was illiterate, could only sign but had a brilliant mind and was an outstanding military commander. He created the Sikh Khalsa Army, organised and armed on the lines of the French Army and at par with the British East India Forces. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Army was acknowledged as the best in undivided India in the nineteenth century and was considered as one of the best in South Asia. By 1825, the Sikh empire had annexed eastern Afghanistan in the west and going well into Tibet in the east (Taklakot near Mansarovar Lake). End of Napoleonic wars saw soldiers looking for soldiering and 39 European officers (6 Generals & 3 doctors) were in Sikh Army service by 1839.
The two Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845 and 1848 have been put in a chronological order and covered in minutest detail. Description of the wars for the students of military history gets them close to the first-hand knowledge of the battle grounds, the formation of the forces, the commanders and the kind of weapons deployed for the war. The narration appears as if the writer himself was part of those wars fighting along with the front line soldiers as a military reporter. The ORBAT, sketches and positioning of the opposing forces on the various battle fields is unmatchable. The book narrates in detail how the English by treachery annexed the Sikh empire. Direct reference and reproduction of material from the letters, dispatches and excerpts of discussion between the parties make an excellent easy relaxed reading of the serious ongoing battles.
Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 and the subsequent decline of the Lahore Durbar, gave British the opportunity to stake their claim on the Punjab region and the state was finally annexed (1849) with Maharaja Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh put under the protection of the Crown and deported to England having embraced Christianity.
Latest Hollywood picture’The Black Prince’ on the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire Duleep Singh’s life: My personal take on him was that by no imagination other than the titular title of the Maharaja there was no significant contribution to the Sikh Empire. In fact his actions had a negative influence on the Sikh populace at large of that time. May be one can be sympathetic to the circumstances because of the ambitious clever moves of Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India which resulted into the ultimate annexation of the Sikh Empire. Calling Maharaja Duleep Singh as ‘Brave’ in some reviews would be carrying it too far, and would be akin to putting the ‘The Braves’ to shame as he never fought a battle nor killed an enemy soldier of the British East India Company. He only killed while engaging in hunting — the favourite sport of the Maharajas and the Gaura sahibs. I wonder if Maharaja Duleep Singh ever had the opportunity to lift the sword other than supporting it with his ceremonial regalia; whatever he did in the end was more for his self interest as his life style was crumbling for want of money. He staked claims on his ancestral properties including the Kohinoor (coaxed by his mother Maharani Jinda Kaur who in her last 2 years was in exile with him in England). He went to the extent of seeking the support of the Russian Czar and requested the people of Punjab to collect money so that he could start a revolution, claiming that he had the support of the other Kings and Princes of India! Fact needs to be verified by Historians. However, in the end he while kneeling down before Queen Victoria (also Godmother to his children) apologised and sought mercy for his deeds. He died in his small hotel room in Paris. ‘The Last Sunset’ provides adequate coverage to the life of Duleep Singh and it is advisable to read this book before seeing the film ‘The Black Prince’ to have a balanced view on the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire Maharaja Duleep Singh.
Some must know interesting facts about the Sikh Empire:
- The author brings out references to show that the English never had to pay such a high price for annexing any other Indian kingdom as they had to pay for subduing the Sikhs. The English lost so many officers and Generals in those battles while they charged through the cannonade fire on the front lines (including a GOC, Brigadiers, Cols and many young officers). Acts of individual bravery in all actions. They must not have lost that many officers even during both the world wars and others combined.
- Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the most secular. More than half the ministers in his Durbar – Court – were Muslim or Hindus and many of his Generals were Europeans who modernised his army (Infantry Gorkhas & Dogras, Cavalry- Sikhs and Artillery- Muslims). Similarly he married Hindu, Sikh and Muslim girls.
- Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s father Maha Singh died at a young age of 28 years.
- Ranjit Singh’s mother, Mai Malwan is believed to be having affairs with various paramours (PM Lakhpat Singh, Laik Missar). Finding Laik Missar in his mother’s apartment he killed her as he had also lost confidence in her.
- Maharaja Ranjit Singh had 20 marriages: 10 traditional (5 sikhs, 3 hindus, 2 muslims) and 10 by chaddar ceremony (7 sikhs & 3 hindus). He had 23 ladies in his harem.
- Sati on Ranjit Singh’s pyre was done by the four Maharanis, Senior most Mehtab Devi d/o Sansar Chand of Kangra, Hardevi d/o Mian Padam Singh of Nurpur, Chand Kaur and Ishar Kaur- favourite Dancing girl Kaulan and 7 slave maids.
- His own concocted wine was strongest of the prevailing spirits mixed with excessive alcohol and crushed pearls — the cause of his early death on 27 June1839 at the age of 59.
- Within 7 years of his highness Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death, three of his descendants Kharak Singh, Naunihal Singh, Sher Singh, Maharani Chand Kaur, four PMs and 29 other leading figures were assassinated. Entire leadership built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh ceased to exist.
- Desire to acquire the beautiful Persian whitehorse. For a beautiful horse, or a beautiful woman, Maharaja Ranjit Singh would go to any length, once it got into his head. This legendary horse led to a full scale war between Punjab and Afghanistan. In the battle, Budh Singh and hundreds of his soldiers were killed, but the Lahore Darbar won the battle. In the end it cost him “rupees 60 lakh and 12,000 soldiers. Lali horse had the honour of wearing the Koh-i-Noor diamond around its neck on special occasions! Lali was also the last horse the Maharajah ever rode.Getting Kohinoor from Shah Shuja-ul-Moolk of Afghanistan by deceit ultimately surrendered to the queen of England by Mahraja Duleep Singh.
- For the present generation of officers and soldiers including veterans like me it is hard to believe men and Ghorchharas (horsed cavalry) directly charging into direct cannonade fire of the roaring guns. Artillery and horsed cavalry were always ahead in battle and then only the infantry charged after the target was softened by cannonade fire. Soldiering as a Gunner or cavalry man compared with present standards was much tougher. They were always in close combat assaults unlike today where in most of the time they are in support.In 1846, Rani Jindan was deposed as ‘Regent’ and banished to Sheikhupura near Lahore and Maharaja Dalip Singh dethroned and expelled to Fatehgarh fort in Uttar Pradesh, and then to London.
- From Sheikhupura jail, Rani Jindan was exiled to Benares and then transferred to the old red-stone fort of Chunar in the district of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. She escaped disguised as a sanyasin from the Chunar fort walked 34 days to reach Nepal. Prime Minister Jung Bahadur granted her asylum in spite of the objections raised by the British. Duleep Singh came to Calcutta to meet her. Both of them met after over 13 years and were advised to sail to England as the Britishers were still scared of the soldiers who had returned from the China war and were in Calcutta. Rani Jindan died in England and was cremated in Nasik for fear of repercussions in Punjab.
To maintain the interest and to coax youngsters to go through the book some interesting facts especially in house Lahore Durbar manipulations, rumblings, happenings and politics have been left out. The views and comments other than the excerpts from ‘The Last Sunset’ are of the reviewer. The book’s rich material can be an ideal reference for research scholars of history and military history.