THE MESSALINA OF THE PUNJAB
Queen Valeria Messalina, Empress Consort of the Roman Empire was the notoriously famous wife of Emperor Claudius, to whom the British compared the Queen of Punjab. Although the Queen of Punjab and the Queen of Rome had nothing in common, the informal title given by the British speaks volumes about how they trapped her and tried to spoil her royal and clean image so they could rule Punjab.
We are talking about Maharani Jind Kaur (aka Rani Jinda’n), daughter of Sardar Manna Singh Aulakh, and mother of the last King of Punjab Maharaja Duleep Singh. She was married at the age of 18 to Sarkar Khalsaji, Sher-e-Punjab, Maharaja Sardar Ranjit Singh in 1835 (who was 55 years old then). Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed away on June 27, 1839, leaving behind the throne to his eldest son Kharak Singh, who within a month of his coronation, was taken prisoner and poisoned to death. Then came Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh, his 19 year old son, who while returning from his father’s cremation (and was supposed to be crowned the next day), had a gate he passed through falling on him, killing him on the spot. Many other such claimants to the throne all died mysteriously over a span of just a few months. The only person left was Duleep Singh, youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and Maharani Jind Kaur. In September 1843, at the age of 5, he was crowned and made the Maharaja of Punjab. Being a minor, his mother Maharani Jind Kaur, became the regent and de-facto ruler. She ruled over roughly 4 lakh square kilometres of land, called the “Punjab”.
The British were unable to possess Punjab. So they decided to sign a treaty with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, according to which, they would keep trade relations with Punjab, and provide protection. In case of the Maharaja’s demise, his sons would be legal heir, but if there is no heir left, the British will take over. The seed of the insidious conspiracy was set. When Maharaja Duleep Singh acceded to the throne, the Anglo-Sikh war broke out. It started as a small skirmish between Sikh forces, which was instigated by the British. After the British had bribed some chiefs and nobles in the Sikh army, they entered into the battle field. Long story cut short, the end result was that by December 1846, Maharaja Duleep Singh went on a hunting trip and never returned to Lahore. At same time, Maharani Jind Kaur was secretly arrested and sent on exile.
The British brought serious charges against her, and proved in the Khalsa Durbar of Lahore that Jind Kaur was the mastermind behind the Punjab mutiny. And since she was already kidnapped and imprisoned, she could not appear before the Khalsa Durbar to prove her innocence, and many wazirs of the Khalsa durbar had already sold themselves to the British. Hence, a resolution was passed declaring Queen Jinda’n guilty. The British, who were waiting for this day, declared the imprisonment of Jind Kaur. First she was kept under house arrest for 10 days in the Samman Burj of Lahore Fort. Then she was moved to Sheikhupura Fort. Then there were other incidents of Mutiny, which were all blamed on Maharani Jind Kaur in prison. British proved that while she was still under tight security and heavy watch, she can still contact her loyal nobles, so must be taken away from Punjab so that the region can be in peace. Hence, she was taken to Chunar, 45 Kms away from Varanasi. This fort was used by the British for political prisoners and it was said that no prisoner left this fort alive. By this time, Maharani Jind Kaur was stripped of all her jewellery and valuables. Even the Koh-i-Noor Diamond was taken away from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s treasury, which he willed to the Jagannath Temple of Odisha. Jind Kaur, who was living with two of her servants in a small prison room, dressed herself as a servant one night, and somehow managed to reach the gates of fort. With help of a loyal soldier, she was able to step out of the fort and ran for 3 miles upto the banks of River Ganga. There she left her utensil and an extra cloth as a telltale clue to show she had died while bathing. She then advanced to Varanasi, where according to plan her other servant who had escaped few days ago was waiting for her. Both of them met in the free after so many years, but dressed as beggars.
The British had raised an alarm of prisoner escape and search parties started looking for her, even as these two ladies started their trek towards Nepal. The king of Nepal, Shri Teen Maharaja Jung Bahadur Rana, used to be in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh along with his maternal uncle when he was young. Jind Kaur was of the hope that Jung Bahadur will help her. En route to Nepal, they were recognised by an agent who reported them to the police, but they were able to escape that situation. Begging for food walking from village to village, they made headway living under the open sky. Police search parties closed in on them as they reached the Himalayas. They tried hiding themselves in a cave occupied by a sadhu. The Sadhu quizzed them about who they are, because they did not look local and did not look like beggars either. Jind Kaur asks the same question to the Sadhu, who looked like no Nepali of Pahadi either. After a brief conversation, Jind Kaur decided to tell that Sadhu the truth. She said… “I am Queen Jind Kaur, daughter of Sardar Manna Singh and wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. I have been hiding from the British”
At this, the Sadhu said: “Raajmata, I am a soldier of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and am hiding as a sadhu in this cave since his death. The British are trying to hunt down the loyal soldiers of the Khalsa army. I am not in a position to fight for you because of my old age, but I will do anything to fulfil my duty as your loyal servant.” That night, the cave was filled with emotions and painful memories of Lahore. Next morning, these three disguised as Sadhu and Saadhvis started their journey to Kathmandu. A little before Kathmandu the Sadhu got sick with double pneumonia and died, and the ladies started crying. Suddenly, a cavalry unit reached and asked them what happened. Jind Kaur recognized the soldier’s uniform and told them everything. The soldiers were guards of Maharana Jung Bahadur, who was hunting in that forest. When news reached him, he sent for a palaki and Jind Kaur once again sat in the royal palaki to reach the tents of the Maharana. Though being the Queen of Punjab, she fell at the feet of Maharana and begged for shelter and asylum. Maharana Jung Bahadur got very emotional and built her a small refuge-palace next to river Vishnumati. She spent next 11 years in this palace, hiding from the outer world. During this period, she lost her eyesight as well.
Meanwhile, Maharaja Duleep Singh was put under the care of Dr. John Login, who converted him to Christianity at his exile palace ‘Fatehgarh’. The then Gov. Gen. Lord Dulhousie later sent him to England in 1854. He was given exposure exclusively to English Literature and everything about Punjab was kept from him. But after the 1857’s mutiny, his pension was reduced and several restrictions were imposed on him. He met a person from Surat who was working in his residence at Reohampton, from whom he learned about his origin and his being a Sikh. He also learned that he was the rightful heir to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He also learned that his mother is still alive, and some Sikh soldier knew where she is. He then planned a journey to Calcutta. He wrote a letter to her which reached her after one year. When the letter was read to Jind Kaur, she became emotional and asked Maharana Jung Bahadur for permission to meet her son. Rana said that if she leaves Nepal, everyone will come to know that she was hiding here and it will become a risk for him. So she will have to slip away secretly and never to return to Nepal. She agreed and left Nepal forever, to meet her son Duleep Singh in Spencer’s hotel in Calcutta. The day Jind Kaur reached Calcutta, Duleep was waiting for her. She could not see him because of her lost eyesight but when she placed her hand on his head, she was shocked to realise that he did not have a turban. Moreover, his hair were no longer like Sikhs. Her shock and pain became worse when Duleep took her to Britain, where Queen Victoria ordered her to be kept in a separate exile and not let her son or anyone meet her. She was kept in a small house near Lancaster Gate and denied frequent meetings with her son. Then she was shifted to Mulgrave Castle and later to Abingdon House, Kensington, where she died peacefully on 1st August 1863. Her final wish was: No British shall touch my body and when I die, my eyes should not be closed because when you close a dead body’s eyes, a drop of waterfalls from eye and I don’t want my tears to fell on this sinful land. And make sure that I am cremated next to my husband in Lahore. Duleep Singh tried very hard to get her body to Lahore. Till 1864, her body was kept in Dissenters’ Chapel in Kensal Green Cemetery. When Duleep got permission, he hurriedly brought the body to Bombay, from where he had arranged for travel to Lahore for the cremation. But when his ship reached the dock, he was handed over a telegram from Queen Victoria, stating that he should cremate his mother in Bombay only and return to England immediately. He cremated his mother at Panchvati, near Godavari River. Later, his daughter Princess Bamba visited the place in 1924 and arranged for the remains to be shifted to Lahore as per her last wish. Her remains now rest in Lahore next to her husband. Her son, the last Maharaja of Punjab, died as a Christian in France on 22 October, 1893. Punjab was later divided between Pakistan and India.