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THE REFUGEE QUEEN - NEPAL'S SIKH CONNECTION


Jindan Kaur, last queen of the Punjab
The last queen of the Punjab had finally reunited with her son in England. Reclining on her divan in the balcony of her Lancaster Gate residence she squinted at the hazy expanse of Kensington Gardens sprawling before her and reflected on the dizzying cycle of kismet she had encountered in life. Daughter of a kennel keeper of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Jindan Kaur was a classic beauty with brains and had in course of time climbed up the proverbial ladder of the court and ended up in the bed of the king. She had been proclaimed a maharani and a son born of her would be in the line to the throne! After Ranjit Singh's death and a few years of instability her son eventually had been crowned the king of the Punjab in 1843 A.D. at a tender age of five and she, Jindan, had been proclaimed the Queen Regent. After this crowning glory of her life however her ascendant fortune had started to unravel quickly.

Duleep Singh by artist Winterhalter
commissioned by Queen Victoria
The East India Company was hell bent on annexing her kingdom and in one pretext or another had started two wars with the Sikhs and both times bested her armies due to traitors in her ranks and finally annexed her kingdom in 1849 A.D. and deposed Maharajah Duleep Singh, her ten year old son. The world famous Koh-i-Noor diamond was seized. Maharani Jindan Kaur had been deemed a dangerous trouble maker, "Messalina of the Punjab" Governor-General Lord Hardinge had called her alluding to the ruthless and promiscuous third wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, and she had been imprisoned in one place or the other until finally she had been moved to the high security historical Chunar Fort near Varanasi. She thought it ironical that now she was in England and her erstwhile enemy was her protector!

Her eye-sight was going and she always felt a permanent cold in her bones that would probably only get worse in wet and dreary England. She remembered the biting cold of Kathmandu Valley during winter that had progressively ruined her health and dried and wrinkled her beautiful complexion. She was still good looking in spite of all those years spent as a refugee in Nepal but the striking beauty that had enraptured the aging Maharajah was all but gone. She could not blame her present plight solely on those terrible years in Nepal, away from her son and her court, her bountiful Punjab since she was eternally grateful to Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana for giving her refuge against the wish of the mighty Company. She marveled at the pluck of the Nepalese ruler and frequently compared his courage to that of her husband Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab! But the allure would fade, she sighed.

Fort where Regent Queen Jindan was held
It was back in 1849, after 2 years of imprisonment in the formidable Chunar Fort, that she had tried a ruse and escaped right in front of her gaoler and his gora saheb. She had wrapped herself in the poor sweeper's khadi sari while decking the protesting woman in her maharani garb, bejewelled and all, and left her in the cell shivering from fear while she veiled herself and walked out to her uncertain future beyond the walls of the fort. She had nowhere to go but her faith had commanded her to go to the Himalayas, the very place where the first guru of the Sikhs Guru Nanak himself had gone to find solace in meditation. She had heard those stories at the court. A Nepalese king of the Malla dynasty had not been sound of mind and he had come to India seeking the healing powers of Guru Nanak. Cured of his affliction the grateful king had invited the guru to come and establish a 'muth' in Nepal and the guru had accepted and accompanied the king and his royal entourage to the kingdom.

Footprints of Guru Nanak at Balaju, Kathmandu
Guru Nanak Muth, Balaju, Kathmandu
After a formidable journey across the raging Ganges, her tributaries and the dense jungles of the Nepalese foothills abounding in dangerous predators and infested by malaria, Queen Jindan Kaur arrived in Kathmandu Valley as a guest of the Thapathali Durbar of Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana. She would remain there eleven long years until 1860 A.D. Jung Bahadur had given permission to build a small Gurudwara in her compound at the Thapathali Durbar complex and her initial years were spent in prayers and charity. The Nepalese had affectionately given her a local nickname, Chanda Kunwar, in recognition of her contribution. However her longing for her beloved Punjab and her son Maharajah Duleep Singh, already living in England since 1854 A.D., gnawed at the very fabric of her being. She wanted to act, she wanted to raise another army and fight the British but in the confines of Thapathail Durbar she was helpless. She pleaded with Maharajah Jung Bahadur to join her in the task of liberating her homeland but to no avail. Then in 1857 A.D. came the cruelest blow to her long held determination to one day get rid of the British: Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana had decided to assist the British during the Sepoy Mutiny instead of siding with the Indian freedom movement. Maharani Jindan Kaur felt betrayed and she was shattered. She started to lose her eye-sight.

She was reasonably happy today reflected Maharani Jindan Kaur as providence had made her unite again with her son in Calcutta and she was allowed to set sail for England with him in 1861 A.D. She was living comfortably in London with her privy purse restored but she was in poor health and nearly blind. She did not have long to live. She longed to return to India but the British would not allow it. In her heart of hearts she knew that she would not see her beloved Punjab ever again.

Maharani Jindan Kaur 


Comments

  1. What a wonderful story! Thank you Subodh.

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  2. Indeed a great story. One of the most fascinating parts of the story is her journey from India to Nepal. The story is good enough to be made into a movie.

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  3. Thanks, Subodh - send it to William Dalyrimple (if you have not already).

    cap miller sj

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  4. A great story. One of the hidden stories, I may dare to say, that people ought to know.
    Thank You

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  5. great story.. searched it after reading Premchand's story "Jugnu ki chamak"

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  6. Amazing sikh history

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  7. Enjoyed reading it but why did Jung Bdr give refuge to the queen? I suspect the British really wanted her here away from India where she could cause trouble.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Govind for commenting. Jung Bahadur was a remarkable person; he gave refuge not only to the Sikh Queen but also to the Avadhi Queen and the youngest wife of Nana Sahib of the Marathas after the quashing of the Mutiny. He was friendly to the British but not totally subservient. He stood his ground and risked his neck. There is a remarkable letter Dr. Oldfield's wife wrote to her husband (Surgeon at the Residency in Kathmandu) who was in England at the time after attending the wedding ceremony of Crown Prince Trailokya and the eldest daughter of Jung Bahadur in 1857. She was absolutely enamoured of J.B. He was quite a charmer!

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