How Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s wife escaped British prison and led two wars against them
Maharani Jindan Kaur, the widow of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the last Sikh ruler of Punjab, is once again enjoying a revival in popular imagination.Updated: Aug 02, 2018, 10:14 IST
Over 155 years after her death on August 1, 1863, Maharani Jindan Kaur, the widow of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the last Sikh ruler of Punjab, is once again enjoying a revival in popular imagination, thanks partly to a movie and a book.
Today many young Punjabi women are fired by the bare-knuckled courage of the woman, who was forcibly separated from her son, Duleep Singh, and imprisoned by the British. She not just escaped but also led two wars against the British and refused to bow to their decree until the end of her rebellious life.
Though American filmmaker Michael Singh wrote and directed the award-winning ‘Rebel Queen, 37 minutes’, in 2010, it attracted international attention only when it was screened in the United Kingdom in February this year. A writer and director, Singh is currently editing ‘Riding the Tiger: The Sikh Massacres of 1984’, which he witnessed as a young man.
But the credit for the film goes to Bicky Singh, an IIT Delhi graduate, who runs an IT company in southern California, and is known for his collection of over 500 turbans. Fascinated by the maharani’s story, Singh funded the production of the film with over $25,000 in 2010.
Speaking to Guardian, Michael Singh said he thought the tragic story of Jindan also carried a strong message of self-esteem for women. The film, which was screened outside the United States at the Bradford Literature Festival this year, is an interplay of history and the present-day reality through interviews.
Prof Indu Banga, a historian, attributes the renewed interest in Jindan to the present phase in Punjab history when historians no longer take the British account of the maharani at face value. “The British did not paint Jindan in a kind light and tried to demonise her by accusing her of treachery. But now new evidence has emerged to the contrary. If you read British history between the lines, you find that they tried to keep her away from Duleep Singh because they were afraid of the influence she might wield on him.”
Dwelling on the fight put up by Jindan against the British, Banga says she was in touch with Bhai Maharaj Singh, who tried to rebel against the British after the annexation of the Sikh empire. “With many historians counting the Anglo-Sikh battles as the first war of independence, Jindan has now become a heroic figure.”
Jindan also finds a mention in the book, ‘Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond’, published by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand in 2016. Describing her dramatic prison break on April 19, 1849, from Chunnar Fort, the book says “dressed in beggars’ rags, she fled under cover of darkness, taunting her British captors as she went.”
“Scattering money on the floor of her cell, Jindan scrawled a note for the guards to find: You put me in a cage and locked me up. For all your locks and your sentries, I got out by magic... I had told you plainly not to push me too hard – but don’t think I ran away. Understand well, that I escape by myself unaided... don’t imagine I got out like a thief.’’
Christy Campbell, author of ‘The Maharajah’s Box,’ a book about the Maharani’s son, Duleep, says Jindan was “one of the most remarkable characters of 19th-century history, let alone Indian or Sikh history”.
The youngest wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed away on August 1, 1863, two years after she walked into the Kensington Gardens in 1861. She died in her sleep and was buried in west London as cremation was illegal in Britain during those days. In 1997, a marble headstone with her name was uncovered during restoration at the Dissenters’ Chapel in Kensal Green, and a memorial to the Maharani was installed at the site in 2009.