In the 19th century, the only area in the Indian subcontinent which was not under British rule was the Kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He was a consummate ruler and had built an indomitable fighting machine known as the Sikh Army or the Khalsa army. He was both feared and respected by the British. His youngest wife, the mother of Maharaja Duleep Singh, earned a special mention in the history of that era.
Khushwant Singh, in his book, aptly describes this strikingly beautiful lady as “She was the envy of all women and dream of all men”. Words could not describe her beauty. However, there was a lot more to this young Maharani than her appearance. She was cocky, clever, complex and tough. She was the steely Jind Kaur; the woman who terrified the British empire and the one to stand up against the British till her very end.
Jind Kaur was born in1817 in a village called Chahar in the Sialkot district of Punjab. She was the eldest of three sisters and two brothers. Her father’s name was Manna Singh Aulakh, who was a kennel keeper in the palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
When Jind Kaur turned eighteen, her father Manna Singh Aulakh persistently pleaded the Maharaja to take her as his wife. Her ravishing beauty soon caught the attention of Punjab’s greatest ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh and in 1835 Jind Kaur got married to the then fifty-five-year-old Maharaja.
Jind Kaur popularly known as Jindanwas the youngest of the five wives of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Her son Duleep Singh was the youngest of the seven sons of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and was born on 6 September 1838. During Duleep Singh’s birth, there was a conspiracy in the palace that he might not be Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, and to this, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had publicly claimed Duleep Singh as his own and elevated Jindan’s position to that of one of his senior wives. Thus started the meteoric rise of Maharani Jindan within the kingdom.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s excessive consumption of alcohol led to a stroke, and he died on 27th June 1839. The practice of Sati was not prevalent in the Sikh religion, but the senior wives of the Maharaja went through this ritual and laid down their lives. It was Maharani Jindan who refused to commit Sati as she insisted on looking after her nine-month-old son Duleep Singh.
After Maharaja Ranjit Singh, his elder son Kharak Singh ascended the throne, but very soon he was poisoned to death. The Lahore Kingdom was in turmoil, as all his sons were constantly plotting against one another and finally were either poisoned, stabbed or bludgeoned to death.
In 1843 five-year-old Duleep Singh, the only surviving heir came into power with the assistance of his maternal uncle Jawahar Singh, the brother of Maharani Jindan. Jawahar Singh appointed himself as a Prime Minister of Lahore and Maharani Jindanas the Regent, took care of day to day matters with Maharaja Duleep Singh by her side on the throne. In essence, she became the de-facto ruler of Punjab, “The Land of Five Rivers”. Another interesting fact of the times was the absolute power wielded by the leaders of the Sikh Army who fully supported the five-year-old Duleep Singh and proclaimed him as their Maharaja but were unhappy with Jawahar Singh and killed him soon.
With all this continuous jostling for power, the Kingdom of Punjab was in turmoil and the British were watching these events with great interest and awaiting an opportunity to expand their hold on this region. During the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a treaty was settled upon on the 25th April 1806 between Ranjit Singh and Charles Metcalfe. As per this treaty, Punjab was impregnable for the Britishers, and in return, the Britishers were safe from the attacks of the fierce Sikh Army.
Maharani Jindan in her twenties was inexperienced in dealing with the power centres within the Sikh Army. The Sikh Army, also known as the Khalsa Army, was nurtured and built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was thus very strong and powerful. Jindan was continuously fearful that the Sikh Army will takeover of the state and minimise her authority, which led to her to plan the first Anglo Sikh War that happened in 1845.
As Captain Amarinder Singh sums up in his book ‘The Last Sunset’, “A war with the British was a scheme that Maharani Jindan Kaur finally settled upon....if the British won, the army’s constant threat to her and her son would be over. She assumed that the British would permit her to stay on as Regent with Duleep Singh as the Maharaja... if the Sikh Army won, they would plunder the whole of India, leaving her in peace. This would also make her a very powerful ruler, and she thought she had a win-win situation either way.”
In November 1845 on Maharani Jindan’s order, the Sikh Army was dispatched to the borders of the river Sutlej to confront the British, who were camped provocatively on the southern border. The plan devastatingly failed as her two generals – commanders in chief Tej Singh and Lal Singh had betrayed the Sikh Army and sold themselves to the British.
In this disastrous war, the Sikhs suffered defeat, and this effectively broke the Sikh Army forever. British forces entered Punjab and took over the once impregnable Kingdon of Lahore. Maharani Jindan was imprisoned within the Lahore Fort, and she wielded no power.
The Treaty of Bhyrowal (1846) was made, in which Maharani Jindan received an allowance of Rupees 150,000 per year and the British would protect Maharaja Duleep Singh until he reached the age of sixteen and at this stage, the British would leave as friends, and the Kingdom returned to Duleep Singh.
Though imprisoned, Jindan was still active and interfering with the plans of the British. Much to her chagrin, the British planned to reward, Tej Singh by making him the Raja of Sialkot. Jindan prevailed upon young Duleep Singh not to bless Tej Singh causing embarrassment to the British.
Maharani Jindan’s attitude was becoming far too rebellious and threatening to the British interest in Punjab. She refused to cooperate, and the Britisher’s could no longer tolerate her intrigues within the durbar. Soon after that, upon the then Governor-General Lord Dalhousie’sorders, the eight-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh was separated from his mother.
On 20th August 1847, Maharani Jindan was forcibly removed from Lahore, pulled away from her son and incarcerated in Sheikhupura fort on an allowance of Rupees 48000 per year. She was also given a stern warning to keep away from interfering in the affairs of Punjab. In the same month of August 1847, Maharaja Duleep Singh was sent away from the Lahore and placed under the guardianship of Doctor John Spencer Login.
Later on, 16 May 1848, Maharani Jindan was exiled further away to Chunar Fort in Benaras, and her annual pension was further reduced to Rs 12000 a year. With all her freedom, regal finery and jewellery taken away, she wrote letters to the British, pleaded for mercy and be reunited with her son. The British ignored all her requests.
Under the care of Logins, the young impressionable Maharaja Duleep Singh was effectively brainwashed. The British absorbed him into their culture and converted him to Christianity. At that time, with no one to counsel this eleven-year-old maharaja, he also signed away his kingdom, his fortune and his family to British.
On 19th April 1849, around midnight, Maharani Jindan, dressed as a beggar escaped from Chunar Fort. The defiant Maharani threw money on the floor of her cell with a note of explaining that she was paying for their hospitality. She successfully escaped to Nepal, where Maharaja Jung Bahadur agreed to shelter her but on condition that she did not make any contact with her son. She was closely watched by one Colonel Ramsay who was continuously reporting about her to the British empire.
Maharani Jindan stayed in Nepal for the next twelve years. She was continuously hoping and planning to meet her son. Over these years, with ill health, grief and disappointment; she had gone weak and partially blind.
On the other hand, at the age of fifteen Maharaja Duleep Singh was taken to England and when he turned sixteen, demanded his Kingdom back as originally promised in The Treaty of Bhyrowal. He also wanted to bring back his mother from Nepal. The British suggested that he should wait until he is 21 before they return his Kingdom to him.
In 1861 the young Maharaja was adamant to visit India for tiger hunting and also meet his mother. Arrangements were made for the son and mother to meet in Calcutta at Spence’s hotel as neither Maharaja Duleep nor Maharani Jindan was allowed to enter Punjab.
On 16th January 1861, Maharani Jindan met her son after thirteen years. The Sikh Army came to know about their reunion, and started gathering in thousands outside their hotel with cries of ‘Bolo So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal!’. This perturbed the British who ordered Duleep to return to England immediately.
Duleep Singh noticing his mother’s condition and wanted to buy her a house in Calcutta, but she insisted on not leaving the sight of her son anymore. So, Maharaja Duleep Singh decided to take his mother back to England and asked for permission from the British.
The British reluctantly agreed, thinking that this frail and blind Maharani no longer posed any threat, and returned some of her jewels along with providing her with an allowance of 3000 pounds.
Once in England, with the help of Login, a separate house was made available for the Maharani. Staying close to her son brought her strength back. They spent most times together, and she started reminiscing about the former glories and splendours of the Sikh Empire. This prompted the young Maharaja to again raise with the British, the Treaty under which his empire was to be returned. Britishers felt that the arrival of the Maharani Jindan in England and being closer to her son was a miscalculated step, as she had reawakened her son’s royal heritage and inspired him to take back his lost kingdom.
In June 1862, Duleep Singh on the advice of his mother wrote a letter to Login that he has decided to return to India and requested Login to make the necessary arrangements. While Maharaja Duleep Singh was away on holiday in Scotland, Maharani Jindan on 1st August 1863 breathed her last at the age of forty-four. That same day in the morning Maharaja Duleep Singh had written the letter to Login saying that his mother had seemed better since her arrival in London and both wanted to return to Punjab. Maharaja Duleep Singh was inconsolable about his mother’s death and suspected foul play.
During those days, cremation was illegal in Britain and the maharani's remains were kept in the chapel for nearly a year while Duleep Singh arranged for transportation of her mortal remains to India. But neither her body nor her ashes were permitted to enter Punjab. Maharani Jindan’s cremation took place at Nasik in Central India.
Maharani Jindan’s impact was profound on Maharaja Duleep Singh. This brave woman, before dying, made her son remember who he was and where his kingdom was. After that, Maharaja Duleep Singh re-embraced Sikhism. It was finally on 17th March 1924, that Maharani Jindan’sgranddaughter Princess Bamba, bought her ashes from Nasik and interred them in the memorial of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Maharani Jindan died and with her died the story of this indomitable lady. She was the last Maharani of Punjab, a true legend, and a woman who courageously stood up, eye to eye with the British until her very end.