Over 100 dazzling artworks and objects tell the story of a cosmopolitan Sikh empire that almost ended British rule in India….writes Riccha Grrover
London is hosting a major exhibition telling the story of the last great native kingdom which challenged the British for supremacy of the Indian subcontinent. ‘Empire of the Sikhs’ will be on view at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS till 23 September 2018.
The Sikh Empire (1799–1849), which spanned much of modern day Pakistan and northwest India, was forged by the ‘Napoleon of the East’ Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839). He became known as Sher-e-Punjab, the Lion of Punjab, over his forty-year reign during which he established a powerful military meritocracy that included many European officers. The one-eyed king of Lahore was a trusted ally of the British but also a potentially formidable opponent and his empire offered a crucial buffer between them and incursions via the Khyber Pass.
The inevitable clash with the came in the form of two bitterly fought Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845–46, 1848–49) in which British pre-eminence hung in the balance as they came within hours of a total surrender. But through treachery, victory was turned into defeat for the Sikhs whose territories, treasury and fighting men became incorporated into British dominion.
A source of great interest to western visitors to the Sikh royal court prior to annexation was the Koh-i-nûr diamond, which was wrested from Afghan hands in 1813. The fabled jewel was eventually presented to Queen Victoria on 3 July 1850 in the armlet that Ranjit Singh had specially made for it. Fitted with a rock crystal replica of the original, uncut Koh-i-nûr, it is now preserved as part of the Royal Collection and will be one of the highlights on display along with a stunning array of over 100 objects and works of art from leading private and public collections.
Among them will be glittering jewellery and weaponry from the Sikh Empire including personal items that belonged to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the most famous of his thirty ‘official’ wives, Maharani Jind Kaur. They were the parents of the deposed boy-king Maharaja Duleep Singh and grandparents to prominent suffragette (and goddaughter to Queen Victoria), Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.
The UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA), in association with the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, are delighted to announce the most dazzling exhibitions to be held on South Asia in recent years. It reveals the remarkable story of the cosmopolitan Sikh Empire, including the European and American adventurers who served it, and which almost ended British rule in India.
Queen Victoria & the Mountain of Light
The empire of the Sikhs was the last great native kingdom which challenged the British for supremacy of the Indian subcontinent. A source of great interest to western visitors to the Sikh royal court was the Koh-i-nûr diamond. The fabled jewel was eventually presented to Queen Victoria on 3 July 1850 – on the East India Company’s 250th anniversary – in the armlet that Maharaja Ranjit Singh had specially made for it. Fitted with a rock crystal replica of the original, uncut Koh-i-nûr, it is now preserved as part of the Royal Collection and will be one of the highlights on display.
Speaking before the exhibition, Chair of the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA), Amandeep Singh Madra OBE said: UKPHA are excited to tell the story of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the briefly-lived but hugely influential Sikh Empire. When today we hear of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, that is ultimately a result of the empire’s expansion into those mountainous regions.
Equally the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, previously known as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) under the British – is one inherited from Sikhs’ conquests over Afghan territories.
When we speak of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the eponymous gilding is also a result of
the lavish patronage of the maharaja and others at a time when Sikh arts and culture flourished and the lavish Court of Lahore rivalled any in the world.
The riches of the empire’s treasury included the much contested Koh-i-nûr diamond that now sits, albeit in a much reduced form, in the Queen Mother’s Crown. That such treasures are now considered integral to the British state, whilst others were sold off in auction, is part of the legacy of the rise and fall of the Empire of the Sikhs – a fascinating story that resonates strongly to this day.
A registered charity, UKPHA is a highly-regarded heritage body with a proven track-record in major exhibitions, publishing and publicly-funded outreach projects. It is run almost entirely on a voluntary basis and comprises a predominantly London-based network of committed volunteers with a passion for their Punjabi and Sikh heritage. The organisation was founded in 2001 by published historians Amandeep Singh Madra OBE and Parmjit Singh and attracts a wide range of audiences globally.
Tuesday to Sunday 10.30 – 17.00, Thursdays late until 20.00, closed Mondays. Admission to ‘Empire of the Sikhs’ is free.
For more details see www.empireofthesikhs.com.