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Noblemen & Kinsmen


NOBLEMEN AND KINSMEN: History of a Sikh Family, by Preminder Singh Sandhawalia. Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1999. 108 pages. Rs 250.


All families have history; in the case of certain prominent ones, it is worth recording. Documentation of histories of families has largely been an oral tradition in which generations of family bards (marasis) recited family history on important occasions. Such accounts were, more often than not, hagiographic.

A family history requires a certain definition of "family" and also objectivity that history demands. As the author of this book says, he faced problems in defining "family"; he settled for the "root and the branches" model of a family tree, in trying to present a credible account.

He traces the root of the Sandhawalia family tree to Didar Singh, who moved from Sukarchack village to Sandhawala village in 1780 to found a new lineage.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a Sukarchakia, who belonged to the same ancestral stock as the Sandhawalias, but did not share a direct line of descent with them.

Documenting 300-plus years of history of the Sandhawalias is a daunting task, because the canvas is a wide one. When you look at the vicissitudes that families go through, the rise-and-fall theory (a la Arnold Toynbee), has a powerful attraction.

If we look at the Sandhawalias, you have Budh Singh who consolidated the presence of his family and "in defiance of the Mughal law enforcers, rode far and wide, carrying off cattle and resorting to other predatory acts. He was baptized a Sikh and changed his name to Budh Singh."

It is this refreshing frankness that is quite attractive about the book. The writer manages to present various happenings about his ancestors in an objective way. Treating the history of the land as a backdrop, he touches on the advent of Sikhism, the dying days of the Mughal empire, the rise of the Sikh empire and its fall (1790-1839), the short tenure of the child Maharaja, Duleep Singh, the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy (1919), World War II, Partition, the more contemporary events such as the 1962 Indo-China War and the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars, as well as Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi in 1984.

The Sandhawalias either had a role to play in such events, or were affected by them. We get to examine their changing fortunes, we see the rise of the family till 1844, its hour of glory for the next three years, its decline, until it rallied in 1908 by becoming "less feudal and more progressive and pragmatic".

Many of the prominent family members had a larger than life presence in the Punjabi polity, even though they were forever to stay in the shadow of their cousin, Ranjit Singh, and remain contented with being his noblemen rather the rulers.

The Sandhawalia Sardars, as they were called, were "an ambitious lot. Their competitive character, their past successes in the internecine warfare and the meteoric rise of their collaterals, the Sukarchakias, fuelled in them an ambition, which when unbridled, caused the family a fair amount of distress."

They were honoured and utilised in the court of Ranjit Singh, often as commanders who distinguished themselves. They included Amir Singh Sandhawalia; Budh Singh Sandhawalia; and Lehna Singh Sandhawalia, who distinguished himself at Attock. At the same time, they were not able to consolidate their position because of various reasons, including the erratic and even errant behaviour, for example, of Amir Singh who once unslung his gun and primed it as Maharaja Ranjit Singh was preparing to mount his horse (1803). Or, when Budh Singh plotted to seize power while the Maharaja fell ill (1825).

After the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, there was a tussle for the control of the Sikh kingdom that turned into a struggle between the Jammu Dogras and the Sandhawalia Sardars. The latter lost the struggle, which involved its usual quota of intrigue and bloody assasinations (the murder of Maharaja Sher Singh, and his son Pratap Singh, for example).

Thus, in becoming contenders for power after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sandhawalia Sardars had a significant, though short-lived impact on the Punjab polity.

A period of ignominy followed, in which they hunkered down and became feudal lords again. The Sandhawalias, however, gained prominence again because of Thakur Singh Sandhawalia (who was also the first president of the Singh Sabha movement in Amritsar). He later played a key role in reviving Maharaja Duleep Singh's quest for the return of his kingdom and was appointed Prime Minister by the exiled Maharaja. Thakur Singh set up his headquarters in the French colony of Pondicherry and became a thorn in the side of the British Empire for a while.

The canvas is rather broad, and condensing the hundreds of years of the history of the Sandhawalias into a 100-page book is quite a challenge, especially since the author says he had no precedent. He writes with remarkable brevity and gives us an overall picture of the rise, fall and recovery of the family. He says that the book was a journey in exploring his family history, with which he had not been acquainted before he began his research, since he had not lived in Punjab till his retirement as an international civil servant.

Preminder Singh has engineered a readable family history. He has a nice turn of phrase and often says a lot between the lines. Some readers may want more details on various people who come on the stage during the course of the Sandhawalia saga.

But, if it has whet our appetite for more, the book has certainly done its job.

[Courtesy: The Tribune]


Bottom image: The Sandhawalia haveli, currently in the process of being renovated.

Second from bottom: Thakur Singh Sandhawalia. 

Third from bottom (and detail on Home Page, Thumbnail): "Maharaja Ranjit Singh & the Princes",  by Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh. Copyright: The Singh Twins. Courtesy: 

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