The man with 20 wives

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 7.03.10
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Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s personal life was in accordance with the times. His consumption of alcohol mixed with crushed pearls was excessive and would contribute to his early death. Emily Eden (sister of Lord Auckland, the then governor general of India) wrote, “Ranjit produced some of his wine, a sort of liquid fire, that none of our strong spirits approach and, in general, Europeans cannot swallow more than a drop of it.”

He had 20 marriages — 10 of these were by traditional ceremony and included five Sikh, three Hindu and two Muslim ladies. A further 10 marriages had taken place by the chaddar ceremony, which included seven Sikh and three Hindu ladies (Maharani Jinda being one of them). In addition to this, his harem contained 23 other ladies, taking the total to 43 in all.

The two senior maharanis were Mehtab Kaur Kanhiya and Raj Kaur Nakkai, his son Kharak Singh’s mother. During the Gurkha invasion of Kangra, Ranjit Singh provided assistance to Raja Sansar Chand, once his great adversary, who now required his assistance to defeat the Gurkha General Amar Singh Thapa. Having defeated and pushed the Gurkhas out of Kangra, he sealed the alliance by marrying two of the raja’s daughters — the elder Mehtab Devi, also known as Guddan, who would later commit sati on her husband’s death, and the younger one being Raj Banso. (One of the) two Muslim ladies he married (was) Moran, who is better known in Sikh history as the lady whom Ranjit Singh went to see on arrival in Amritsar, rather than first paying his respects at the Darbar Sabib, as a consequence of which he had to face the wrath of the jathedar of the Akal Takht. The second story associated with this incident is that Akali Phula Singh, the then jathedar of the Akal Takht, castigated Ranjit Singh on his marriage to a Muslim lady. Which of these two versions is correct is a matter of conjecture for this story has been passed down the years by word of mouth. If it is the latter, then it is difficult to comprehend how, a few years later, Ranjit Singh married Gul Bahar, another Muslim. Both these ladies were from Amritsar. Gul Bahar lived the longest, dying in 1863 at Lahore, after the annexation of Punjab. She lived on an annual income of Rs 12,380 provided by the British government, as the maharani of the late Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Fakir Azizuddin, an ancestor of Fakir Syed Waheeduddin and a minister of Ranjit Singh’s, asserts that Moran, a young courtesan whom Ranjit Singh married in 1802, a year after he became the maharaja of Lahore at the age of 21, was his favourite. She was the only one in whose name a coin was struck, with a picture of a peacock symbolising her name. Ranjit Singh, on her request, also built a mosque, which still stands near the Mati Chowk at Lahore and became a great centre of learning. She was also very popular with the people of Lahore as she had a kind and benevolent disposition, and as a consequence, earned the affectionate title of Moran Sarkar rather than the more official one of Maharani Sahiba.

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Ranjit Singh, being fond of dance and music, kept 150 dancing girls, mostly from Kashmir and the Punjab hills. Apart from entertainment in private or for his guests, they were an integral part of the proceedings of the durbar. The girls were in the age group of 12 to 18. After they reached 18 they were given away in jagirs, or given jagirs to live on. One of the girls called Kaulan (Lotus) was given seven villages as jagir, but despite this wealth she was one of the ladies who committed sati on Ranjit Singh’s pyre.

Carried away by the lifestyle of Lahore, General Ventura, one of the foreign commanders of Ranjit Singh’s army, too kept 50 dancing girls!

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Ranjit Singh’s quest for the best went beyond acquiring women. His desire for owning the best drove him to unacceptable behaviour with the once deposed, and soon to be Saddozai Amir of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk, for example. He first invited the amir to Lahore in 1813 as his guest, then kept him and his family and entourage under house arrest, and released him only after he had been forced to give up what Ranjit Singh wanted, the famous Kohinoor diamond — a flawless egg-shaped diamond, an inch and a half long, an inch wide with a half-inch depth, valued… in 1838 at Rs 4.5 crore.

He attacked his own Barakzai governor at Peshawar, Yar Mohammad, in 1929 when he refused to sell him a beautiful Persian horse, Liali.

After his defeat and death, the horse, hidden elsewhere, was not found. He then made Sultan Mohammad Khan, the younger brother of the deposed governor, the ruler of Peshawar and demanded that Liali be found and given to him. After much hesitation Liali was finally “presented” to Ranjit Singh and carried in triumph to Lahore by Sher Singh and General Allard. Baron Von Hugel says that ‘He (Ranjit Singh) spent Rs 60 lakh and the lives of 12,000 soldiers to get this horse’. This was the cost of the campaign.

The one aspect of Ranjit Singh that can be considered remarkable in those times is that in his 41 years at the helm of affairs, no death penalty was ever awarded, no matter how heinous the crime, in the civilian or military field. Alexander Burns, in his book Travels into Bokhara, writes about this as follows:

“The most creditable trait in Ranjit’s character is his humanity, he has never been known to punish a criminal with death since his accession to power… Cunning and conciliation have been the two great weapons of this diplomacy.”

When news reached Ranjit Singh that General Avitabile, his governor at Peshawar, had executed some Muslims who were attempting to foment trouble, he was soundly castigated. In another incident, when “the maharaja heard of the excesses carried out, also in Peshawar, by Sham Singh Peshoria, a leading landowner, he was summarily dismissed from the durbar and put in chains”. Dr Honigberger, Ranjit Singh’s doctor, recalls the maharaja telling him, “We punish but we will not take life.”