The Maharaja’s American visitor

The Maharaja’s American visitor

Just a few days ago we observed the 175th death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ and one of the only Indian sovereigns the British ever feared. His legacy, however, is still contested. While the Maharaja is the primary icon for Sikhs and modern day Indian Punjab, he is not much of a hero in Pakistani Punjab, even though most of the region he ruled -- from Peshawar to Lahore, Multan to Attock -- is now in Pakistan.

This ambivalence towards Ranjit Singh is primarily due to the fact that he was not a Muslim -- and in the current Pakistani narrative non-Muslim rulers simply cannot be ‘good,’ but also because his attitude and relations with the Muslims were not always cordial. We do know that his prime minister, Fakir Azizuddin, was a Muslim and that the Fakir brothers had great influence over the king, but the general state of decay of Muslims religious establishments in the Punjab portrayed another picture.

While the debate over Ranjit Singh’s rule continues, what has recently intrigued me are the observations and views of foreign visitors to his court. Of course these memoirs give only a particular view, but their first hand experiences do give us a good glimpse of life at the time.

Lately while researching the history of Forman Christian College -- where I teach -- I came across the memoirs of Rev’d John C Lowrie, the first American Presbyterian missionary in the Punjab. Lowrie came to the Punjab in 1834 and settled in Ludhiana. However, very soon he was invited by Maharaja Ranjith Singh, as the Maharaja was very much interested in setting up an English school in his country, and wanted Rev’d Lowrie to spend some time in the Punjab to set it up. Lowrie kept a journal of his month long visit to Ranjit Singh’s court and presents a very interesting picture of life in the Punjab. As a missionary, and not a political or military person, Lowrie’s impressions and assessments therefore are different, and in some ways, more accurate than the observations of other visitors to the court. The below is based on Lowrie’s journal.

On January 28, 1835 the Rev’d Lowrie set out with a company of ‘…about sixty person, including myself, munshi [interpreter], horseguard, and our respective domestic servants; as also tent-pitchers, attendants for the elephants, horses. Passing by Paghwarah, Jhalandar, Kaphurtalah, and Amritsir, Lowrie reached Lahore on February 6, 1835. His first impressions of Lahore were:

"At two or three miles distance, we entered the ruins of the Old city. A great many mosques, temples, palaces, and tombs, are seen in every direction, and in every stage of dilapidation. Some are almost entire; but most are greatly injured…These ruins are very extensive; so that Lahor may be termed the Delhi of the Punjab…"

The Muslims did seem subdued but there was no outwards sign of dissension and indeed the foreign relations of Ranjit Singh portrayed a very secular outlook. Under Ranjit Singh Lahore again regained some prominence, but not equal to the one under Akbar or Jahangir.

Indeed the ravages of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had left Lahore, once the capital of the Mughal Empire, a declining provincial city at best. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh took over Lahore in 1799, the ruins of its illustrious past reflected its glory. Most Mughal monuments were in a state of decay, the city had receded within its gates, and the writ of the rulers of Lahore did not carry much beyond its boundaries. It was only under Maharaja Ranjit Singh that Lahore again became a capital of an empire and developed. However, the priorities of the Sikhs and the sheer mass of Mughal monuments meant that much of the older parts of the city gave a ruinous appearance. Lowrie, pleasantly impressed by the main city, noted:

"The present city presents a good appearance at a distance; as it is compactly built, and has several lofty towers, and brick houses of considerable height. We were conducted to an extensive garden of orange trees, in which a French officer had erected a large summer residence. This place has been assigned for our lodgings, and is all that I could wish for…"

That same afternoon, Fakir Nuruddin, brother of the Prime Minister Fakir Azizuddin, came to see Lowrie and presented gifts etc from the Maharaja. Lowrie noted that the Fakir ‘…introduced the subject of an English school in a very skilful manner; inquiring successively, how I, who understood so little of the native language, could teach the English; how I could act, if different pupils wishes to learn different branches; who should decide…’ The next day Prime Minister Fakir Azizuddin arrived carrying gifts, and informed Lowrie that the Maharaja would receive him the next morning. Lowrie’s first encounter with Maharaja Ranjit Singh is recounted below verbatim:

"We went, about 9 o’clock, to pay our respects to the Maha Rajah. He was seated in an open hall on the highest ground in the enclosure where his palace is erected, and was surrounded by about a dozen of his chief men, all dressed very richly, and sitting on very rich crimson cushions. After being seated on the floor like the rest, and after exchanging the usual compliments, I presented the English Bible and Gurmukhi Pentateuch I had brought with me for that purpose. He then asked, without any further introduction, "Where is God?" "It would be as easy to answer the question, Where is he not?" "Well, if you don’t know where God is, how can you worship him?" Inferring from what I saw, it was their intention to make a trial of my skill in such subjects, I answered more fully: "We do know that God is everywhere present; though he specially reveals himself in heaven; that he can see us, though we cannot see him; and that he has made known in his holy word, (pointing to the Bible I had presented,) how we should worship him."

Lowrie was as much impressed by the Maharaja as Ranjit Singh was by him, and the very next day the prime minister brought two young boys -- the sons of ministers -- to receive English instruction from Lowrie. In Lowrie’s estimation, the Maharaja ‘…is certainly a man of superior mind, and of no ordinary character. All his measures, and all his conversation, evince great sagacity, prudence, and acquaintance with the strong points of the subject under consideration. He is much superior to many of the prejudices and jealousies so common…and seems anxious to imitate those things in the policy or the customs of other people which are better than his own.’

While in Lahore, Lowrie spent several days sightseeing in the city. Being one of the very few foreign visitors to have resided in the city during that time, his observations give us a rare glimpse into the conditions of the city. Repeatedly, Lowrie notices the bad state of repair of most old monuments in the city, and the general lack of cleanliness -- a major British preoccupation later -- together with some pockets of development. He noted:

"The first was a large mosque, to the top of one of whose minarets there is an extensive view of the city and country around. It is in a bad state of repair, and contains nothing worthy of notice…Next day, we went to see the mosque built by the great Akbar [sic], at the north extremity of the city. It has three domes,   faced on the outside with white marble, and its four large and lofty minarets, faced with a fine red sandstone…but now all is in a state of ruinous decacy, the whole place being used as barracks for a company of infantry…The palace of Akbar contains one tolerably good hall of audience, open on three sides, supported by graceful marble columns…But in what a changing world we live! In the hall where suppliant princes once knelt in the great emperor’s presence, Ranjit now keeps picketed among the marble columns some half a dozen horses!…[In the city] a sewer, containing black, filthy mud and water, runs in the middle of every street, threatening defilement, unless a person is elevated too high…The streets, moreover, are all so very narrow that two elephants cannot pass, nor even a camel and an elephant…The houses are from three to five stories high, and nearly all built of bricks that have been dug out of the ruins of the old city….They are built very densely together, the narrow bazaars are crowded, and the streets are full of people; so that the population seems to have very great, and not diminishing…The walls of the city, and its mosques, and the fort, certainly do present the appearance of decay. But that seems to be owing to the Maharajah’s neglect. He takes more interest in building up Amritsir. The population of Lahor cannot be less, I should think, than one hundred thousand; yet the present city is a mere village compared with the ancient…"

Lowrie even accompanied Ranjit Singh on two hunting expeditions in the country where he was amazed to see the importance and the seriousness with which the Maharaja and the retinue treated the sport. Lowrie also attended to the Maharaja in court and noticed the ‘…half-business, half-conversational manner of their proceedings. As each item was mentioned, something was said by him [Ranjit Singh] either of approbation, or to modify it -- which was assented to by the courtiers seated around, who had hardly ventured even to make a suggestion.’

Lowrie remained at Ranjit Singh’s court for about a month and then took his leave after being presented with a Khilat [ceremonial robe] and other presents by the Maharaja.

The journal of Lowrie, from which the above is extracted, sketches a rather complicated picture of the Punjab. Lahore was indeed in a state of decay, but Amritsar was flourishing. The Muslims did seem subdued but there was no outwards sign of dissension and indeed the foreign relations of Ranjit Singh portrayed a very secular outlook. Under Ranjit Singh Lahore again regained some prominence, but not equal to the one under Akbar or Jahangir. It would have to be the aftermath of the British conquest in 1849 for Lahore to again expand and develop.

The Maharaja’s American visitor