Kids Corner


Duleep Singh & I





My interest in Maharaja Duleep Singh began slowly, about 15 years ago.

I received “The History of the Sikhs” by Khushwant Singh as a gift from my mother. I would intermittently read through the book, often skipping directly into the chapters on Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

I knew that the Sikhs had a great empire. I knew that the emperor was Ranjit Singh, but that’s about where my knowledge stopped. I would look for other books but there was very little material available. Remember now, this is the earliest days of the Internet.

As time went on, I became curious about Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s family. What happened to them? Are there any descendants around today?

I read about a son, Maharaja Duleep Singh. I asked family and friends about him. The response usually revolved around a coerced conversion to Christianity and that he died in Europe. That was pretty much it.

I wondered about Maharaja Duleep Singh’s children. Did he have any? I wondered how he had lived and where he had lived. I just wanted to know more about him. As time went on, I was able to purchase more books on the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and Maharaja Duleep Singh. Eventually, the Internet gave me access to the British Archives, Google, etc.

But, again and again, the information was fundamentally the same. Basically, the British said, he died in France, in diminished circumstances due to what they described as an excessive lifestyle. That was repeated over and over again. But, I always felt something was amiss. How could he have died a bankrupt?

The Maharaja of Kapurthala, Jagatjit Singh -- I had read -- had jewelry alone worth more than £ 8 million in the early 20th century, about 20 years after Maharaja Duleep Singh died.  He had so much wealth that he had built a clone of the famed Palace of Versailles in Kapurthala for himself!

Then, there was Maharaja of Patiala who was driven in a motorcade of 20 Rolls Royce cars from his personal fleet.

I didn’t know much more about either Kapurthala or Patiala, but knew that they were but two of the Sikh kingdoms that were far smaller than Ranjit Singh’s great Sikh Empire.

If those two relatively smaller Maharajahs were this affluent, how then -- and why -- did Maharaja Duleep Singh of the great Lahore Darbar end up being destitute and died alone in a Paris hotel room?

On his arrival in England, he had received rock-star status. Queen Victoria had quickly become enamoured by him, mother-like, and he was welcomed as a regular visitor to her palace-home. Also frequently noted in Queen Victoria’s letters were Duleep’s kindness and good nature. He wasn’t wild or angry as he was described at the end of his life.

I also wondered why she didn’t help him. I soon realized that the United Kingdom was a constitutional monarchy, and the Queen held minimal direct power. In 1861, when Maharaja Duleep Singh was 23, her husband, the Prince Consort died. Queen Victoria was devastated and went into self-imposed isolation from the public. She rarely went to London in the following years.

Eventually, Maharaja Duleep Singh did decide to leave England and go back to Punjab. What would force a gentle and kind person to “act out“, as the Brits described him? Did he act out as harshly as was described?

I read a quote by Prince Albert (husband of Queen Victoria) that the Maharaja was “extremely handsome, [with] a graceful and dignified manner”. He also personally went to Maharaja Duleep Singh and offered him a “Coat of Arms” that he had specifically made for the Maharaja.

Victoria went further, offering to make one of the Maharaja’s sons a Marquis and the other an Earl. Maharaja Duleep Singh refused all, due to principle. Albert commented later that he had never seen truer dignity.

Maharaja Duleep Singh didn’t sound like a person who was concerned with having excessive wealth or had poor judgment. He seemed proud, honest, and dignified. Something was definitely amiss.

I slowly started collecting letters and other artifacts from auctions, and private sellers. I read original letters written by Maharaja Duleep Singh, John Login, Lena Login, Queen Victoria and other important players of the day. I read more books from the time of Ranjit Singh, noting the terms of the second so-called Anglo Sikh War. 

Eventually, I read every book that I was able to get my hands on that mentioned Duleep Singh, multiple times. 

Most of the available literature, all British, portrayed him as someone who died angry and bitter.

Also, he had multiple pictures taken and portraits painted, but none at the end of his life.

All this didn’t make sense. As I was trying to put this puzzle together, I realized a few things. Simply put, he was very kind and generous (and other good adjectives) when he was young and agreeable to the treatment by the British. When he started inquiring about his kingdom and what was promised to him, he was described as wild and angry, again by the British.

I also knew that he re-initiated into Sikhism formally in 1886 in Aden.

Was there a painting or photograph of him as a full-fledged Sikh? There had to be. He was photographed or painted roughly a 100 times in my estimation. I searched for years but no luck. I asked people I knew, e-mailed experts in Sikhism. Usually, I got no reply, but the few times I did get a reply, I was told no such image exists … or, at least, is known of.

On a discussion with my dad, I asked him about “making” such a painting. Unfortunately, I’m not an artist.

So I started contacting portrait artists about commissioning this project.  I had no idea where to start, so I just started calling portrait artists.

I finally decided on two. Firstly they were both local, and secondly I really liked their work. But, I couldn’t decide between the two, so I hired them both. We reviewed many pictures and paintings of Maharaja Duleep Singh, Maharani Jind Kaur, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and other family members. We reviewed images of Maharaja Duleep Singh as a child, a young man and as an adult. 

Maharaja Duleep Singh with a turban and without a turban, with a full beard and those with a clipped one, a shaved one. We discussed his story, and I told the artists to paint him the way they felt he would have looked. But, we met frequently and re-evaluated the emerging images regularly.

I wanted to keep the artists’ interpretation intact but also representing the image I had in mind. He was heavier as he grew older, and age did take a toll by the late 1800’s. I wanted to keep his unique turban intact because that is all we had from his various existing portraits. I didn’t think he would change that.

The first image thus envisioned demonstrates our collective hope and expectation of what he would have looked like.

Is this a true painting of him? No, it’s not.

The great thing about art is that it allows one to live reality through fiction. But, to me the story is now complete. He wasn’t wild or angry. He was proud, dignified and most of all, content. He was in “chardi kalaa”. That’s how he should be remembered, because it is a lot closer to the truth than the story that has been told.

The second painting is in the works, and hopefully will be ready in the next few months.


[The author is a practicing physician with an interest in Sikh History. The artist is Ma Ly.]

June 25, 2013 

Conversation about this article

1: Simran Kaur (Bahrain), June 25, 2013, 9:01 AM.

Your article made me more curious to know about Maharaja Duleep Singh. You've done good research, so please keep on sharing it.

2: Irvinderpal Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), June 25, 2013, 10:00 AM.

Our zest for Sikh life, from the Maharajas in history to present-day life is intact, fabulous and international! Many have been icons in the past, many continue to be icons today, and the future generation is safe, sound and prosperous across the world. We have a better safety mechanism and network today than before. Let's carry on with more of such research and explorations. Thank you.

3: Gurmit Singh (Unionville, Ontario, Canada), June 25, 2013, 1:58 PM.

The commissioned work turned out fantastic. I applaud the effort in taking your Duleep Singh interest to the next level.

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 25, 2013, 7:15 PM.

Indeed a fine addition to the fund of biographies of Duleep Singh by Dr. Sandeep Singh ji. After being tricked into converting to Christianity as a child, and then being exiled to England, the young Emperor soon adapted himself to Queen Victoria' Royal household. He was looked upon almost as an adopted son. His handsome, princely appearance coupled with his quaint native ways were the source of much pride and joy for the royal family. In the end, the injustice and perfidy of the British and their inability to keep their promises led the Maharajah into the arms of foreign meddlers. He died alone in poverty in a hotel room in Paris in 1893. This was the last sunset of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's vast empire.

5: Dya Singh (Melbourne, Australia), June 25, 2013, 10:51 PM.

Very touching, Sandeep ji. It is important for us to keep our history alive. The Jews have made an art-form of it. They never forget. Duleep Singh must be remembered and our future generations must not forget. A visit to Elveden in England - to his grave and commemorative statue is a very moving experience. It should become a 'must' for any Sikh visiting England.

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