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Above: Prince Charles unveils a memorial to the Sikh Emperor in Elveden, Suffolk, England, in 1999. Below, the child Emperor in 1849, before being taken prisoner; and his present grave at Elveden.


Will The Last Sikh Emperor Return to Punjab?
The Roundtable Open Forum # 128






A Sikh group is planning to exhume the body of a Maharaja, the last ruler of a Sikh empire, from his grave in the English countryside and send it back to the Indian state of Punjab.

But how did he come to end up in exile?

This is the extraordinary story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, a boy emperor who was born in Lahore in 1838 to a very powerful ruler.

His father, the Emperor Ranjit Singh, died the following year, which was soon followed by a frenzied power-grab involving the colonizing ambitions of Britain, the greed and treachery of the Hindu Dogras, and the infighting of a motley group of Sikh princes and generals.

At the age of five the boy prince was anointed emperor on the throne of the Sikh Kingdom, although his mother and uncle conducted the state's affairs as regents.

More unrest followed and by the time the so-called ‘Second Anglo-Sikh War’ was concocted by the British in 1845, the latter had bought, schemed and manipulated a perfect opportunity to step in.

In 1849, Punjab was annexed to British India and Maharaja Duleep Singh was removed from the throne.

He was to be the last emperor of the Sikh Kingdom.

The young Maharaja was separated from his mother Rani Jind Kaur (fondly known by Sikhs as Rani Jindan), who was imprisoned, and he was taken away from his home and family in Lahore to Fatehgarh, in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

This had become an establishment for the wives and children of the British officers - almost like a British settlement within India.

Still a child, Duleep Singh was placed under the ‘guardianship’ of army surgeon John Spencer Logan and his wife Lady Logan, and was presented with a bible by the Governor General, Dalhousie.

"He was taught a very English way of life - his language, culture, religion were cut off from him and he became a ward of the British. And here he could be moulded to how the British wanted him to be," says author Bhupinder ‘Peter’ Singh Bance.

Before long, still not an adult, the young Maharaja was coerced into Christianity.

In May 1854, still a prisoner, he was brought to England and was introduced to Queen Victoria who took an immediate liking to him.

"He was that exotic prince and she treated him like a favourite son and he would be invited to every royal gathering. He even holidayed with Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. He became the ideal party piece that every lord and lady wanted at their event," Peter Singh says.

So for a decade, the maharajah simply enjoyed the fruits of his position - he had a very lavish lifestyle, hunting and shooting with the royal family and travelling all across Europe.

In private he had become the quintessential English aristocrat; in public he was still presented as a Sikh Maharaja.

It wasn’t until after 13 years of separation from his mother, that he was allowed to reunite with her, when she was ill and soon to die. 

Now a frail old queen, a prisoner in exile, she was no longer regarded as a threat to the British Empire.

She was permitted to join the maharajah in England and immediately started to remind her son of his lost kingdom and his Sikh identity.

Two years later when she died, Duleep Singh married Bamba Muller, who had been born in Cairo and was a Christian. The marriage had to be approved by the British government; he was strictly prohibited from marrying a Sikh or anyone from Punjab.

The couple went on to have eight children and moved to Elveden Hall, tucked away in the Suffolk countryside. [On the British government's insistence, none of them were allowed to have progeny of their own.]

But by the 1870s, the Maharaja was financially in trouble - bringing up his surviving six children and supporting his lavish lifestyle on the pension he received from the British government meant he was heavily in debt. By this time the British had started to reduce his pension in an attempt to curb his desire to return to Punjab.

He began to question the government about his land and property back in Punjab, claiming the annexation of Punjab had been done in an underhand way.

He wrote endless letters to the government, seeking compensation for his lost kingdom, but without any success. Instead, he was deliberately reduced to virtual penury.

On 31 March 1886, Duleep Singh took his boldest step - he set sail for India along with his family and told the British he would revert to the Sikh faith and reclaim his kingdom.

The British could not risk a possible revolution back in India. When the ship docked in Aden, en route to India, the maharajah was detained and placed under house arrest. His family returned to Britain.

Duleep Singh did indeed convert to the Sikh faith by taking Amrit, but after several frustrated years of wandering, all the while being spied on by the British secret service, he died alone and destitute, in a hotel room in Paris in October 1893. Though refused permission to return to Punjab, he had fled to Paris in his final years and refused to set foot on British soil again.

Says journalist and author Christy Campbell: "In the space of 24 hours [after Duleep Singh's passing] the British foreign secretary was instructed to get the body of Maharajah Duleep Singh embalmed, placed in a coffin and brought back to Britain and back to Elveden. It was given a Christian burial at St Andrew's and St Patrick's Church. For reasons of state, the British government had to make sure he was buried a Christian to claim him forever."

Campbell, the author of The Maharajah's Box, says it is appropriate to exhume the maharajah's body as he should never have been buried in England.

But the exhumation has divided opinion among the Sikh community.

Amandeep Singh Madra says it is something he and his UK Punjab Heritage Association -- a group heavily funded by a British government agency -- will not be supporting.

As far as they are concerned, the last will written by Duleep Singh makes it clear: "I wish to be buried wherever I die."

They say his remains should be left alone.

For others in the Sikh community, the issue is exactly where should the last emperor of the Sikhs be laid to rest?

He was born in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. There are mutterings of returning him to Amritsar, the Sikh holy city, but nothing has been decided.

The Church of England's point of view is expressed by Rev. Paul Tams, from St Andrew's and St Patrick's: "My instinct is he should be left here to rest in peace."

As the Maharaja was given a Christian burial the campaigners will have to get the Church of England on their side before they can lodge their application with the ministry of justice - the government department that deals with exhumations.

But they remain undeterred.

"We would never have gone public with this if we didn't think we were going to be successful," says Jasvinder Singh Nagra of the Maharajah Duleep Singh Centenary Trust.

But for now, the Maharaja remains buried at Elveden.


We invite your thoughts and comments on the proposed return of the remains of Maharaja Duleep Singh to Punjab for proper cremation in accordance with Sikh rites.

[Courtesy: BBC News. Edited for]
July 5, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Oliver Smith (Nottingham, England), July 05, 2014, 6:10 AM.

First question, if it was the Maharaja's wish to be buried where he died, why England? He died in France. Secondly, I will say that he is an important figure in Sikh-British history, in fact the first ever Sikh-Briton. It's wrong that he's been given a Christian burial, he should be re-interred/cremated under Sikh rites, but removing him from England entirely would, in my view, diminish part of the Sikh heritage here. Finally, there's a kind of poetic justice to Maharaja Duleep Singh's presence in the UK. The Crown wanted him to be forgotten, cut off from his heritage and given a Christian burial in some unmarked corner of an English churchyard. Instead, he is beloved to all Sikhs and remembered as one of the countless victims of imperialist oppression. The Crown forbade him the right to grandchildren of his own, but today the British Sikh community are his real progeny. Here the heir of Ranjit Singh lies, right where the heart of the Raj used to beat, his body itself a memorial to the suffering of days gone by and a monument to the multicultural future of this great nation.

2: Manjit Singh (Malaysia), July 05, 2014, 11:30 AM.

Let him remain in England. His remains are better off in England. Let the living live and let the dead rest in peace.

3: Ari Singh (Burgas, Bulgaria), July 05, 2014, 12:29 PM.

It's either Paris or Lahore but none of these cities make sense to the Sikhs any more, so he should be left in peace in England.

4: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), July 05, 2014, 2:13 PM.

I didn't know the Church of England has first "dibs" on bodies forcefully given Christian burials. The Church of England should not be given any weight in a decision to have his body exhumed. This poor soul was denied a return to his homeland during his lifetime, it is quite clear that he wanted to return to Punjab. He should not be returned to his homeland because of his royal heritage, but instead because he is a son of Punjab who should be returned to its soil.

5: Jagjeet Singh Sohal (Birmingham, United Kingdom), July 05, 2014, 3:54 PM.

Well put, Oliver. This is an important part of Sikh-British heritage and needs to remain in Britain. The only support this idea to take 'him' to Punjab has is from a small number of wealthy Indians. The groups in question do not speak for Sikh-Britons or in the interest of maintaining our heritage.

6: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), July 05, 2014, 5:33 PM.

Firstly, the Sikh diaspora needs to resurrect the extraordinary life and legacy of Duleep Singh's father, Ranjit Singh, Sher-e-Punjab, The Lion Of Punjab! The great undefeated Emperor who defeated the Afghans and ended a 1000 years of cruel and barbaric Mughal rule in South Asia! Then the Sikhs need to get back every single Item of these two great men and let the Punjabis see them and reflect on why and where they have gone wrong! Then the Sikhs can question why their State wasn't returned to them in 1947!

7: N Singh (Canada), July 05, 2014, 6:07 PM.

I concur with Oliver Smith. I am also suspect of these so called "Sikh groups or organizations" who suddenly appoint themselves as Sikh decision-making bodies. Who are these people? In my humble opinion the Maharaja should be given a Sikh Ardaas and funeral ceremony but his body should NOT be exhumed. Where are they going to take the body? Indian Punjab? Would he want to be buried in a land which is now occupied by yet another foreign power? How ironic is that! Leave him be. Maybe one day in the distant future our unborn generations will be able to lay him to rest in the Free Kingdom and Republic of the Sikhs. In the meantime start an educational trust fund in his name to keep his memory alive and to honour him.

8: N Singh (Canada), July 05, 2014, 6:18 PM.

I would be extremely cautious of these people and their agenda. Any attempts to remove Sikh historical items and take them to India should be blocked. We still have not recovered the items looted from the Sikh Reference Library in 1984. What makes you think that the Maharaja's remains will be safe? I suspect this is another subtle attempt to destroy Sikh history. Already Sikh historical sites in India lie in disrepair, what makes you believe that his remains will be treated properly? At least in England, his monument is getting the care and attention it deserves. Also, under Sikh funeral rites, would his body not be cremated? How is that going to work? Again I suspect this is the first step and I would not be surprised if these people ask for the Kohinoor next.

9: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), July 06, 2014, 1:25 AM.

Well said, Oliver Smith. Let those concerned Sikhs concentrate their efforts on the return of artifacts stolen from The Sikh Treasury and The Reference Library, both within The Harmandar Sahib, by the Indian Army in June 1984.

10: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), July 06, 2014, 8:20 PM.

The Sikhs need their Punjab of Duleep Singh back right up to the borders his great father Ranjit Singh had spent so much effort in securing from the barbaric tribes who thought torturing and killing human beings on sectarian and religious grounds was a national sport! And today the descendants of these same barbarians Ranjit Singh brought under control are again ready for their favourite pastime! This should be a big priority for the Sikh Nation and then all Sikh martyrs and political victims can rest in true peace!

11: Harcharan Singh (Singapore), July 07, 2014, 5:39 AM.

As a non-Briton, I would prefer his body to be sent back to India where he actually belonged. What's more important is that his grave should be exhumed and he should be given a new Sikh ceremonial prayer and attendance by Sikhs in Britain. If he cannot be settled in India, he should be settled in another part of Britain, but who is going to pay for the new place? Still, this is a good opportunity for us to not only snub the forcible Christian rites imposed on him but also an opportunity to open a new museum where Sikhs can remember him and his and his father's contributions. Same with India; a new place is needed to commemorate his 'cremation' and a museum should be built there. The Sangat of Britain has to take a democratic vote about what to do, not a few individuals or organisations. More importantly, he should be given a Sikh ceremonial observance by the sangat. In the above way, the British and the world will know the misdeeds of the British government too.

12: H. Kaur (Canada), July 07, 2014, 2:00 PM.

Leave his body where it is. It is also good for Sikhs to have it in England. Why try to alter history?

13: H. Kaur (Canada), July 08, 2014, 5:54 AM.

Maharaja Duleep Singh's body I think is safe in England. I doubt it would be in India. Nothing of Sikhs is safe in India. Our history is being twisted, our faith too. His body or visual sign, which his grave is a part of too, is important to Sikhs. The British at least won't lie about who Duleep Singh is. In some generations in India, Sikhs may not even believe his name was Duleep Singh the way the RSS is rewriting history. Let some truth remain by letting this piece of vital history, this body, remain in a land where the people aren't total liars who wish to wipe out peoples by twisting their history.

14: N Singh (Canada), July 08, 2014, 10:25 AM.

@#16: If this so-called Sikh group doesn't see the writing on the wall they are either incredibily naive or incredibly stupid. Alternatively, their allegiance lies elsewhere...

15: Kaala Singh (Punjab), July 08, 2014, 11:15 AM.

The body should not be moved to India. Nothing that belongs to Sikhs is safe in India. It should be remembered how the Indian army destroyed the Sikh Reference Library and looted the Toshakhana, stealing priceless artefacts after the criminal invasion of the Golden Temple. Sikh heritage is safe in civilized countries like England.

16: K Kaur (Canada), July 08, 2014, 4:23 PM.

Interesting that this Sikh group is intent on removing a visual link of Sikh history to Britain whilst at the same time it has been announced that a statue of Gandhi will be erected in London to stand by Winston Churchill.( Very subliminal attempt at PR ... removing the memory of one and highlighting the memory of the other. To be honest, I have come to the conclusion that we Sikhs are in deep trouble. Unlike the Jews there will be no Allied Forces to help us and we have no one but ourselves to blame. What a shame, since we have so much to offer the world.

17: Kaala Singh (Punjab), July 09, 2014, 5:09 AM.

I suspect there is a bigger conspiracy behind this. On one hand there is a move to sever the Sikh connection to England by exhuming the body and moving it to India which is not the "Sikh homeland" as claimed by this Sikh group. On the other hand ,this is an attempt to show the world that the Sikhs are Indian property and anything that belongs to the Sikhs belongs to India. This is the information age, perceptions and public opinion play a huge role. Sikhs should oppose this move and demonstrate to the world that we are a distinct and mature people having a great historical connection to Great Britain.

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The Roundtable Open Forum # 128"

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