Emperor: A Serialized Hiistorical Novel
Duleep Singh & The Company
by T. SHER SINGH
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One night, during the week that the Punjab meetings were being held at Fort William, not long after the trip to the great banyan tree, Lord Auckland stumbled into Hajji Pasha and his friends, sitting cross-legged on the floor, huddled in a circle.
They had moved back the furniture and cleared space on the carpet to do so.
His Lordship hovered over them, motioning to them not to get up, but trying to get a peek into what they were up to.
It was an odd sight: the tall, prim and impeccably dressed figure that his Lordship always was, even though he was in mufti, was quite a contrast to the rag-tag collection of malangs -- mendicants -- creating a ruckus on the floor. It could very easily have been a verandah off the Anarkali bazaar in Lahore.
What made this apparition markedly different was that the malangs were talking to each other in a mixture of accents from the British Isles, ranging from the almost impenetrable fog of the Scottish brogue to the clipped cockney of London’s streets to the sing-song from the Welsh hills.
The crowd parted a bit, just enough to let his Lordship see the focus of its attention: a chess board.
But, it wasn’t the usual shatranj that I had seen played on the palace grounds in Lahore. It looked like chess, yet it wasn’t.
The board wasn’t chequered. All the squares were of the same colour.
And the pieces were of four different colours, not just two. It appeared that four of the men were playing, instead of the usual two.
His Lordship pulled up a chair and ensconced himself next to them, throwing questions at them every now and then. In spurts, it was revealed that they were playing Chaturanga - a four-part version of chess. Each player had eight pieces to play with, though the moves were similar to the popular game. But each with only a king, an elephant, a rook, a boat … and four pawns.
What seemed to intrigue his Lordship the most was that any of the four players could opt to ally with another, and thus gang up on the other two.
The game went on well into the night.
I thought it was good to see him relaxing thus. He seldom did. It was always work. Being unmarried -- I never knew why, because he never wanted to talk about his personal life -- he had no familial distractions. I remember, even when Lady Eden, his sister, had been visiting, he tended to be aloof and seeking his own company.
Therefore, I didn’t know what to make of it when, a couple of weeks later, he sent me on a mission into the city. He showed me some of the paintings he had picked up from street vendors in Kalighat: of Hindu gods and demons, multi-armed, ferocious and unforgiving, hydra-headed and equipped with an array of weapons. All in simple lines and bright colours, yet strong and expressive. All in all, pleasing to the eye.
“Amir Singh,” he said, “I want you to find a wood-carver in Kalighat who will make me 32 chess pieces. For a board of Chaturanga.”
That wasn’t all. He wanted each piece to be two feet high. All of them kings -- variations of the fierce faces of their deities - but decked in native fineries. Yet simple, in the forms and colours of their paintings. Each different. But in four groupings of eight each, each lot identified by a colour: red, blue, green and orange.
Then, I was to find a tailor who would put together a large board for the pieces to sit on. It was to be of fabric, a dark velvet -- “deep red, even maroon, if possible!“ -- with gold strips outlining the 64 squares. Each, a two-foot square.
“And one more thing,” he added, as I digested it all, while wondering all the time what had got into him. Suddenly, he was ready to play games?
“Each figure should be holding a flag in his hand. The flags themselves should be of parchment. Large triangles, six inches long, things I can write on. And I’ll need lots of them, not just 32, so that I can replace them at will.“
I rode into Kalighat the next day. It took me a while but I did find the right artisans.
It took me a few trips and a lot of back and forth with samples, and a couple of times when his Lordship himself had to ride into town to inspect the work in progress. It wasn’t until the following year, though, that it was finally ready.
An odd piece of work it was: a small platoon of warriors in regal glory, they would silently bask in the sun when his Lordship would ask me to spread out the velvet ‘on the lawn in the evenings. He would walk amidst them and, every now and then, lift a piece from one square and place it on another. Then another. And so on.
Whatever he was playing, only he knew the rules. And he was the sole player.
There was one clue, though.
I had been asked to bring the boxes that stored the whole set along with us when he headed for the Simla hills with the first intimations of summer.
One day, he asked for the little kings to be laid out amidst the roses in the rear lawn. He was standing amongst them, towering over them like a greater deity. I noticed he had been writing on the flags. Some of them already had captions.
One group, huddled in a corner -- the green ones -- had four captions already: Dhyan Singh, Gulab Singh, Suchet Singh, Hira Singh. One name to each flag.
At the next corner, three of the orange ones read: Kharak Singh, Naunihal Singh, Sher Singh. He was working on a fourth when I interrupted him with his drink.
He stood up and admired his handiwork. He looked at me, almost as if he wanted me to say something.
“You know, Amir Singh,” and he pointed to the red group clustered at another corner …
Their flags had been cut down into rectangles, and they had red markings on them, instead of the black lettering on the others. A red cross on the top left hand corner, and red horizontal stripes covering the rest of the space. I recognized it, of course: it was the flag that flew wherever his Lordship went; and at Fort William, in Ferozepur, here in Simla … it was the flag of the Company.
“You know, Amir Singh, did you know that it’s the very same flag that the Americans first flew over Washington’s headquarters on the first of January in 1776? The irony! The East India Company ensign was the first American ‘Grand Union‘ standard!”
I had no idea what he was talking about. He went back to his toys, I to my chores inside the lodge.
* * * * *
The raid into Kharak Singh’s palace late last year had been led by the three Dogra brothers. Dhyan Singh. Gulab Singh. And Suchet Singh.
Gulab was the eldest. A Rajput Hindu from Jammu, he was the first of the three to arrive in Lahore, looking for work.
As soon as he was hired as a mounted servant in Runjeet Singh’s army, he sent for his brother Dhyan and helped him enlist as well.
Young, energetic and intent on helping each other eke out a living, they managed to attract the attention of the Emperor himself one day. For him, merit was the only criteria he used for governance … remember, the one eye? He hired them as his running footmen.
Seeing their stars rise, the two sent for their youngest brother, Suchet. They finagled his employment as the Emperor’s cupbearer.
Pulling each other up wherever they went, they realized that they could go far if they worked together, and if they allowed no moral compunctions to hinder their careers.
It didn’t take them long to learn the ways of the court. They further endeared themselves to the Emperor by taking on the name “Singh”, of growing their beards long and keeping their hair unshorn, of wearing the turban at all times -- all the external indicia of the Sikh faith to which the Emperor belonged and which was close to his heart.
Dhyan Singh was the sharpest of the three. He weaseled his way into making sure he was always in the right place at the right time. When Runjeet Singh’s chamberlain - a dear and childhood friend of his -- fell out of favour, Dhyan Singh was at hand and quickly filled his shoes.
Gulab Singh made a name for himself as a soldier in the outposts of the empire.
Suchet Singh, a dandy, liked the ostentations of the royal court, and learnt to ingratiate himself with the Emperor who took great delight in seeing his courtiers adorn themselves like peacocks.
Assessing the resourceful Dogra trio as useful to the conduct of his government as the other trio he had favoured, the Muslim Fakir brothers, the Emperor gave them his bounty as freely as he did any who showed both merit and loyalty.
Dhyan Singh began to wield phenomenal power as the Master of the Entry.
Then, he discovered a new ally: his 12-year-old son. A cute child, he also gravitated to things effeminate, which proved a great combination. He appeared in court bedecked like a courtier -- in matching silks, jewels, a mini-sword, a turban crowned with pearls and a plumed aigrette -- and instantly dazzled the sovereign with his precociousness.
Runjeet showered the child -- Hira Singh -- with a tray full of precious stones and an armful of the finest shawls from Kaskmir, and asked him to appear before him again in his new fineries.
Young Hira did, and amidst the ’wah-wahs’ echoing around him, was given a seat at the feet of the Emperor.
Thereon, he became a court mascot, his sole job … to look pretty and remain seated in a chair a short distance away from the Emperor every time the latter received visitors.
With the elder Gulab fighting in distant lands and the youngest Suchet relegated to the secondary role of a dandy, Dhyan had found in his son a direct line into the heart of Runjeet Singh.
Dhyan Singh made himself indispensable. One by one, each of the three brothers was granted the title of Raja -- prince -- which gave them the unique honour of being allowed to sit in chairs, below the podium of the Emperor, while the rest of the court had to stand in his presence.
Hira Singh too was named a Raja before long.
The four were the only rajas in the kingdom of the Maharaja.
Gulab Singh was named Raja of Jammu.
It was but a natural progression that when Runjeet Singh was dying, he automatically turned to Dhyan Singh to name him the new emperor’s chief minister.
* * * * *
Not long into the reign of Maharaja Kharak Singh, Dhyan Singh realized that his influence was quickly slipping away as the former closeted himself in his private apartments, surrounded by a new, upstart coterie of sycophants.
And he, Dhyan Singh, the ambitious vizier who had far greater dreams, was not going to see it all disappear before his very eyes.
He summoned his brothers and the crown prince Naunihal Singh, consulted with the latter’s mother, the Empress, and then led the raid into the palace on October 8, 1839.
Dhyan Singh vented his rage on the man he saw responsible for his own loss of power by disemboweling him in the very presence of the Emperor. The raiders tore through the rooms, found each of the courtiers, and killed them there and then.
Naunihal Singh was proclaimed the new emperor. Kharak Singh, allowed to be the sole survivor of the massacre only in deference to his wife and son, was exiled.
Dhyan Singh was back with a vengeance, the power behind the throne that now seated the third Emperor of Punjab.
Gulab Singh returned to Jammu, Suchet Singh to his life as the ‘gay cavalier’. Neither was entirely happy with the shooting star that Dhyan had become. Rifts between the three were rumoured.
The Company’s emissaries in the Sikh Court sought out each brother and gave them advice and support and guidance. The Company, they said, had only one wish: that there be stability in the land.
* * * * *
I have heard Lord Auckland refer to Kharak Singh as a Richard the Second … both unfit and unwilling to bear the burdens of the crown thrust upon him.
I don’t know much of English history or about their medieval king, but I do know -- having seen him several times in his father’s court, and from all that I have heard from those who knew him better -- that Kharak Singh was not cut out to be a ruler of men.
He knew early in life of the burden that awaited him. He also knew that his father did not think him worthy. He withdrew into idle pursuits, which invariable led to the use and abuse of intoxicants.
Dhyan Singh was not going to take any chances, even though Kharak Singh had been reduced to powerlessness. He had monitored him closely, having surrounded him with his own retainers, whose primary job was to pump him with increasing doses of opium and keep him stupefied.
Kharak Singh could sense his disgrace, though, even through his haze, and tried to flee the city and get far away from the court. His escape was thwarted. But the attempt highlighted for Dhyan Singh that it was a problem he needed to deal with a finality.
It is an open secret in Lahore now that the opium doses proved to be an easy camouflage for administering progressive dosages of poison.
Kharak Singh finally succumbed. His death on the morning of November 5, 1840, was described a result of a high fever. He was 39.
* * * * *
Kharak Singh was given a royal funeral. He was cremated at the same site where his father had been -- past the Roshnai Gate, just short of the shrine to the martyrdom of the Fifth Sikh Master.
As you emerge from the main gate of the fort-palace, you enter a quadrangle which stands skewed from the Fort itself. The north face of the latter is a haphazard arc, shaped by the vagaries of the street flowing out of the nearby bazaars.
But the quadrangle is a perfect geometric shape, and aligned exactly with the four cardinal directions. Intentionally.
Because right across the courtyard, its gardens and the pavilion built there by Runjeet Singh as a waiting area for those who came to petition him, is the sprawling royal mosque of the Mughal kings. Being a Muslim place of worship, it faces West. Four towering minarets demarcate its grounds, two of them facing the entrance of the fort.
Running eastwards from the north-eastern minaret is a towering wall topped with a crenellated parapet, which runs all way to the gate that sits midway, and past it, towards the fort.
The gate, facing north towards the nearby bank of River Ravi, is the Roshnai Gate - the Gate of Splendour. It earned its name because it is brightly lit, unlike the 12 other gates of the ancient city: it is frequented by courtiers and royal entourages who enter the city through it if coming from the river, to either go to the mosque on the right, the 12-arched pavilion straight ahead if they seek an audience with the Emperor, or to the fort-palace on the left.
Compared to most of the other gates, the Roshnai enjoys an extended height and width … to accommodate elephant caravans coming to the city. The actual gates which are closed at night are heavy and reputed to be impregnable. The entire span of the wall and gate is heavily guarded by royal sentries at all times.
Above the gate itself are a dozen merlons, behind which guards can survey the river through the slits meant for archers and matchlocks.
Kharak Singh’s funeral procession made its way to the cremation site through this very gate.
Once the rites were completed, the royal entourage, led by Emperor Naunihal Singh, headed back through the same gate to return to the palace.
The Emperor’s horse had barely entered the gate when pieces of stone and masonry fell from above, crushing the Emperor.
He was rushed to the palace. He seemed to have a minor injury on his skull when he was brought in.
Hours later, he was found amidst a pool of blood.
Thus, Emperor Naunihal Singh had been killed within a few hours of his father’s death, mere minutes after the funeral had been concluded.
Back at the gate, a son of Gulab Singh too succumbed to injuries received in the same incident. Dhyan Singh had been there too, but escaped with minor injuries.
The Company’s records describe the incident as an accident.
The Roshnai Gate was part of the fortress. Never before had such sudden crumbling of its structure been noticed or reported. Or since.
* * * * *
I was summoned by Lord Auckland.
He had been meeting with a courier who had arrived that morning from Firozepur.
I found his Lordship on the lawn outside, as I often did nowadays, playing with his chess pieces.
“Ah-h, Amir Singh, there you are,” he said, “I need you to do something.”
“Ji, Sahib,” I said, and waited.
He lifted the flags off two of the orange figures, and handed them to me. “I’m done with these,” he said. One read ‘Kharak Singh‘, the other ‘Naunihal Singh‘.
“I don’t think we’ll need them anymore,” he added. I turned to dispose of them, but he stopped me.
“No, no, that’s not why I called you. What I need you to do, Amir Singh, is go into town and see if you can find a wood carver. Take one of these pieces with you … an orange one. And see if he can carve me another one, similar, but …“
He paused for a moment, and then continued.
“Only, this new one should be of a female figure. A woman.“
To Be Continued ...
December 12, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Navi Singh Deol (Taylor, Michigan, USA), December 12, 2012, 1:04 PM.
This is amazing. I love reading these chapters on the Duleep Singh saga. I am learning so much from this. Thank you, sikhchic.com.
2: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), December 12, 2012, 3:44 PM.
Totally agree with comment #1. I hope to see these chapters in a book with photographs that I can treasure and share with my family.