The Great Escape Of The Queen Of The Punjab In The Guise Of A Bairagan

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by Tejwant Singh, Mar 11, 2018.

  1. Tejwant Singh

    Tejwant Singh Mentor Writer SPNer

    Jun 30, 2004
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    by Gurpreet Singh Anand

    It was around 11 a.m. on 19th of April 1849 that a letter was discovered lying at the gate of the
    impregnable fort of Chunar in central India where dreaded criminals were locked by the British .
    .An excerpt from the letter read “ You put me in a cage and you locked me up . For all your locks and your sentries I got out by my magic ....I had told you not to punish me too hard .But don’t think I ran away , understand well , that I escaped by my self unaided ..”

    The prisoner was one who was considered by Lord Dalhousie as a great menace :” Rely upon it, she is worth more than all the soldiers of the state put together , for any purpose of mischief”.The ‘she’ referred to was Maharani Jindan the mother Queen Regent of Maharajah Dalip Singh of the Punjab .She was the daughter of Sardar Manna Singh of Gujranwala employed as Kumedan ( hunting dogs keeper) which gave him access to Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

    One of his daughters ( Kumedan Manna Singh ) , born in 1817 was reputed to be a great charmer and her beauty was extolled by all by calling her Chanda ( Moon ). When she was a mere 11 years old Maharajah was captivated by her looks when ushered to his presence in Amritsar and so he sent her in his zenana .Maharajah married her in the year 1835 in the then prevailing custom of marriage by sending ‘ an arrow and sword ‘ to her village .A Sahabzade was born to her in February 1837 who was named ‘Dalip’. He was nominated as Maharajah at the age of five in 1843 in the wake of killings in the royal household of the Punjab .It was his mother , Maharani Jindan , who effectively ruled in his name in the Punjab, Chunar, near Mirzapur is few kilometres from Varanasi today and sits atop a hill with river the Ganga flowing on one side and is built by red stone bricks dating to the Hindu period .Since the Hindu period every ruler who ruled India also ruled this fort .The British had annexed it 1818 when they planned to take over the kingdom of Benares and since then this was a dreaded prison known for hard labour and torture . None had escaped from this stronghold .The then governor general of India Warren Hastings had built a palatial house in the fort ,not far from the dreaded dungeons that survive to the day.

    Last month I traveled to Chunar Fort to understand more of the logistics of the great escape of a prisoner queen who had been banished here and had been languishing in various prisons since 1847.An hour’s drive it took to reach the fort where this has been under the command of the Provincial Armed Constabulary of Uttar Pradesh Government .After getting my details entered was given permission to visit the fort .

    The prisoner had been given under the charge of Captain Rees the Fort Commandant by Major Macgregor the British Political Agent , of EIC , at Benares who had brought her along with her 17 female attendants on 4th of April 1849 .She had been brought that day in a palki where she had been forcibly placed in Benares with escort of two companies of Infantry and a Rassalagh of an irregular infantry under immediate directions of Lieutenant Nelson .This transfer had been made necessary due to the escape of a maid servant Hargo , of this heavily guarded female prisoner, in Benares.

    The eerie silence in the fort , where the only sounds were of the wind and fluttering trees and birds , was broken that day of a wailing woman passenger of the palki being taken atop by kahars ( palki bearers ) signifying the turmoil of the lady accompanied by her sixteen attendants .

    The Governor Agent had accompanied this dreaded prisoner all the way from Benares to give personal charge to Captain Rees the Commandant of the Fort of Chunar with a warning ‘ to be vigilant and visit her frequently taking care to identify the prisoner by voice” and to verify her presence by exchanging few words with her .This had been necessitated because when the prisoner earlier that day had been asked to take out her hand to show to the Fort Commandant for recognition she had blatantly refused .She had exclaimed that she was a purdah lady .

    This prisoner , this purdah lady , was none other than the Regent Queen Mother of Maharajah Dalip Singh of the Punjab whose kingdom the British were the last to annexe in India by the Treaty of Bhairowal in 1846 . Since the upheavals in the Punjab she had thrown away her veil and used to run affairs of the state unveiled from the Lahore Fort .She was the woman the British dreaded the most post the bloodbath in Lahore Durbar .The much feted and extolled Britisher in the Punjab annals John Henry Lawrence , resident in Lahore writing to his GG in Calcutta on August 8, 1947 states “I do not deceive myself , nor do I wish the Governor General to be ignorant of the fact , that the Maha Ranee is the only effective enemy to our policy that I know of in the country .”

    The letter that was discovered on that day of April 19, 1849 sent shivers down the spine of the empire and all check posts were alerted of the escape .Capt.Rees , under whose command the prisoner had been left earlier some two weeks before ,used to call on the maharani regularly and would send reports to his immediate superiors in Benares .Four days earlier the Captain had reported to his seniors in Benares that the prisoner’s voice had thickened and on enquiry had been told she was suffering from cold .The Commandant was baffled as inside the fort where these prisoners had been locked on 5th April 1849 there were that day still 17 of them languishing sending shivers down his spine .

    He continued with the reading of the letter brought to him by a soldier who had found it lying at the gate .It read further “When I quitted the Fort of Chunar I threw the papers on my Guddee (seat ) and one I threw on the European Charpay( Cot ) and woke your fine European out of sleep , now don’t imagine I got out like a thief .”

    It has never been revealed who the actual writer of this letter was nor who placed the letter at fort’s gate that day in 1849 . The Britishers could only establish that the prisoner had escaped within less than 48 hours after being incarcerated in the dungeons of the Chunar .The ruse of purdah had been successfully employed for close to two weeks by the prisoner .

    A court of enquiry was held the very next day under the Chairmanship of Major C. Troap which could not establish any accomplices amongst the sepoys guarding her except that the prisoner had escaped in the guise and clothes of the water carrier who daily used to bring pot of water from the Ganga for the queen from down below.Having exchanged her clothes with her attendant she had walked out right before the eyes of the sentries posted around and the British soldiers who camped and lived in Fort Chunar .

    Travails of the queen mother Maharani Jindan had started in Lahore Court where the British agent Lawrence had convened a Durbar for investiture ceremony to reward those that had helped the British in the First Anglo Sikh War .So a Durbar was called on 2nd August 1847, on the advise of the court astrologer , where the boy king Maharajah Duleep Singh was asked to do tilak on Tej Singh at 8.17 a.m. and to be proclaimed as a Raja of Sialkot .He was being rewarded by the British for he had established secret liaison with the British and desired their victory rather than that of the army he led. Two divisions under his command hovered around Firozpur when that strategic town could have been stormed and the small British garrison destroyed. At the fiercely fought battle of Ferozeshah (21 December.1845), he kept his army away from the battlefield. When the action was over, he appeared with his army on the morning of 22 December and drove straight into the shattered British cavalry lines. But suddenly his guns ceased to fire. He abandoned the field and took the road to Lahore.

    At Sobraon (10 Feburary 1846), Tej Singh had advised the brave Sikh general, Sham Singh Attariwala, to leave the battlefield. The latter continued the battle determined to fight to the end, but Tej Singh and Commander Lal Singh fled hastily even as the contest hung in the balance. As the battle went in favour of the British, Tej Singh cut out the retreat of the Sikh army by sinking the bridge of boats and the tete de point constructed in front of it. At die end of the war, he made an offer of Rs. 25,00,000 to Lord Harding to buy for himself an independent kingdom like Gulabh Singh had done. However, he retained his position of pre-eminence in the new setup.

    He was nominated president of the council of Regency in December 1846, and was allowed to continue as commander in chief of the Sikh army.

    When the auspicious time came and a plate was presented before the Maharajah containing saffron paste to make a mark on the forehead of the new Raja of Sialkot created by the Resident the little maharajah sat curled up in his chair with folded hands looking nonchalantly straight ahead .All present were dumbfounded at the show of defiance even as the resident nudged the Sikh high priest to hurriedly do the needful . Lawrence being rebuffed immediately wrote to the GG expressing concern on the life of their mole in the Sikh kingdom , Tej Singh , and sought Maharani’s deportation to the exclusion from Maharajah as he felt she had been having detrimental influence on the boy king .Actually the Britishers had been long in planning to debar Maharani from the Punjab , they having through the Dogras already accomplished their plans by removing all claimants of the throne of Lahore Durbar .Hardinge wrote in March 1847 “If a good opportunity must occur , she must be sent away from Lahore.”

    That day’s evening function where fireworks at Shalimar were to be on display and honouring of traitors was to be continued to be celebrated child Maharajah Duleep Singh arrived without change of clothes and sat listless throughout fireworks display without looking at them at all .

    When the matter came up before the Council the day after the incident, the Resident and the Regency agreed that the Maharaja had acted under the influence of his mother the Council recommended that Amir Batch, Hardayal, Jiwan Singh, Hira Singh and a maid-servant Mangla, who were considered to constitute of a mischievous little group 1 , be removed from her service and sent away from Lahore. Thus the Rani” s personal movements were restricted within the 4 four walls of the palace.

    The Resident , Henry Lawrence , now got permission to remove the Maharani from Sheikhupura and under a ‘top secret’ plan on the morning of 19th August 1847 .She was literally abducted by the British agent’s accomplices even as the Maharajah had been weaned away with mechanical toys and when told about her mother’s banishment , the British writers recorded he remarked “But I have this” holding up the toy he had been playing with .

    The Maharani had been shut within the infamous Sheikhupura Fort that had been built by Emperor Jahangir .Maharaja Ranjit Singh granted this fort as “Jagir” to his wife Datar Kaur (died in1838) also known as Raj Kaur or Mai Nakkain, the mother of the crown prince Kharak Singh. She lived here up to her last day. Her allowance was cut from Rs.1,48,00 per annum to Rs. 48,000 by the Resident at this time .All the communications with the outside world were completely out of . A strict guard was placed on her. In reply to her complaints of ill treatment she wan informed on 2 Sept. 1847 that (i) the separation from her son was deliberate act of the Governor- General and would not be revoked (II) that during her Regency she had brought the Government of the Durbar, "to the verge of ruin (lII) that her conduct since 1846 when on her appeal a British force had occupied Lahore was of such a nature that it induced the Governor-General *no longer to entrust that prince (Dalip Singh) to be brought up under her tuition, and (iv) that it now remained for Highness to be resigned to the decision which was irrevocable during the Maharajah 's minority's . Not used to taking things lying down .She wrote letter s to John Lawrence from Sheikhpura. In the letters addressed to the Acting-Resident, Mr. John Lawrence, she referred to the helpless plight of the Maharaja at Lahore and expressed her grief and indignation at having been separated from her son. "It is a matter of sorrow, she wrote to the Resident, "that you did not weigh things before accusing me. You have me on the instigation of traitors.. The treatment that you have given to me is not even given to murderers .” Written in Gurmukhi this letter survives and is preserved in Khalsa College Amritsar .

    An English writer wrote “Thus the evil woman disappeared from the immediate scene of her triumphs , intrigues and humiliations .” In May 1848 a sensational plot was uncovered by the British Commander Wheeler about an attack on the Lahore Fort from Shahdara side .Fredrick Currie ,the Resident , put the blame on Maharani for being the instigator of this plot .Some British officers including Lumsden made a surprise raid on the residence of commandant Khan Singh in the city and seized on his person. Certain of his associates were rounded up the next day and tried for attempting to subvert the loyalty of the troops.On 11th May two main offenders Ganga Ram and General Kahn Singh were hanged , the former being in the service of the Maharani .

    Searches at Sheikhupura revealed nothing about Maharani’s involvement .Currie in a rush to banish her quickly even did not wait for official permission and orders were issued for her removal from the Punjab .A party of the four senior officials of the Court, led by Khalifa Nur-ud-din with one regiment of cavalry was despatched to Sheikhupura to escort the Maharani She was led into the belief that she was being taken back to Lahore, therefore she gladly

    accompanied them when the party reached the suburbs of Lahore instead of entering the city, it took the road to Ferozepur near Kahna-kaoha, Nur-ud-din, made over chargc of the person of the Rani to a mounted escort of Major Wheeler’s irregulars who had been sent to receive her.

    Thus on 16th May 1848 she was secretly removed to Ferozepur and on 23rd May she was sent from there to Benares , consequently of her planned expulsion from the Punjab for ever and to be detained there under the personal supervision of Major Mcgregor, the agent to the British Governor-General. She wee strictly forbidden to communicate with anybody in the Punjab with a warning that, in case she would not abstain from practice and designs of tendency to subvert the administration of the Punjab .Her allowance reduced to paltry Rs.1000/- per mensem .

    Dalhousie , Maharani’s bette noir , was all smiles for the action of Currie and he remarked “ Nothing could have been better planned , more speedily and more secretly or better executed than the removal of the Maharani with the sanction of the Durbar ”.At Benaras she was deprived of her jewels and other personal valuables valued then at over Rs. n She protested to the Governor-General against this high handedness. She even engaged a British 4 lawyer from Calcutta, named Newmarch, under whose guidance sent on 12th October, 1848, strongly worded petition t to the Governor-General protesting at her unlawful confinement . The Maharani enquired from the Governor-General the reasons upon which the British Government were induced first to sanction her close confinement in the Fort of Sheikhupura and afterwards to exile her from her native land, deprived her of her property and subject her to the most strict end jealous confinement .

    The Maharani also asked for an increase of Rs.250/- in her monthly allowance of Rs. 1,000/- on the plea that even on a very modest scale, her expenses including those of her personal establishment amounted to a.2,208/- per mensem , a detailed list of which was appended to the petition. She further demanded a sum of Rs. 500/- per mensem out of her gold and Jewellery that had been deposited at Benaras. The heartless British who had annexed her kingdom stolen her jewellery turned down her request .The Governor General told her ‘ to live within the income provided by the Lahore Durbar’. At Benares Rani's trusted band of servants had always stood her in good stead, and they kept her in touch with the rebels almost to the last. Through them she continued to send letters and messages to Dewan Mul Raj, Sarder Chattar Singh and Raja Sher Singh. Of course, the

    letter which reached Raja Sher Singh at Rawalpindi on 8 March, 1849 is most significant. This letter seems to have been written after the battles of Chillianwala and Ram Nagar. In appreciation of Sher Singh a conspicuous gallantry in these actions, the Maharani wrote, 'A hundred praises on your gallantry. As long as heavens and the earth last, people will talk of your fame. The first thing to be done is to root out the stem and you must continue to effect this by punishing the Ferrangees. Use towards these 'Maleches the same wile and artifice that they have used themselves and manage by some device to expel them from Lahore....” The letter speaks of the mind of the Maharani who was seeing her kingdom being swallowed by the feringhees under one pretext and another .

    Discovery of another bunch of letters and the resident Currie made up her mind to move her from her Benares goal triggered by the escape of her maid servant Hargo , later captured though .

    As I stood outside the newly refurbished PWD guest house where the Maharani it seems to have been interred I looked down on the slopes of the hill atop which this house lay. It is rumoured that not far from here Mughal law enforcers were just putting their thumbs down indicating the prisoner be thrown down the hill to his punishment . And just across ,now though a road cuts across , is the Ganga .

    When the Maharani escaped it was rumoured she was waited in readiness upon by her Punjabi servant at the ghat where a boat lay waiting to ferry her across .From here she went by boat to Ram Nagar where there was already Sikh community’s presence .A maid servant of the Maharani met her in Ram Nagar who informed her that she had been announced as a proclaimed offender and police posts alerted .She had obviously other plans than going to the Punjab where the British lay in wait for her . From Ram Nagar she moved to and onto Jaunpur from where she reached Azamgarh on the banks of river Gomti. Not taking roads to travel to Nepal she used waterways and reached Nepalgunj just across the border where resided Sikh community .From here one of her maids travelled to Kathmandu to seek permission at the court of Rana Jung Bahadur of Nepal .Permission granted she reached Kathmandu on 29th April , 1849 .She was all along dressed in the guise of a bairagan .Nepal Residency Records mention her as having arrived as a kanchi , or a slave girl .

    Nepalese court held her arrival rather unexpected and undesired, but Jung Bahadur after same hesitation , granted her asylum mainly in consideration of the respect for the memory of Late Maharaja Ranjit Singh with whom the Nepalese Government had retained amicable relations. A house on the bank of the Baghmati near his palace in Thapathali was assigned to her with an adequate allowance for her maintenance .

    Her arrival in Kathmandu was also the point at which she was given the news of the annexation of her Kingdom of the Punjab one month earlier .She contacted the British Resident in Nepal who refused to see her .She wrote to the resident requesting permission then to see her son and release of her funds assured .The Resident replied that because of the disclosure of her recent correspondence with Raja Sher Singh and other rebel leaders, her property at Banares had been confiscated as punishment and that furthermore,her flight from Chunar and beyond the British territories had deprived, her of all right to consideration from this Government. She was also informed that no portion of the Maharaja allowance shall be allowed to her as long aa she was residing beyond the limits of the British territories! nor would she be permitted to reside with her son .

    Back in India the news of her arrival in Nepal had been received with a great sigh of relief -that she had herself walked out of giving any more troubles to British in India .The Home Government also expressed great delight at her escape .”The flight of the Rani” Dalhousie was informed , “ is just what you call it rather annoying than important .In some respects it is rather useful than otherwise .You will get and save money by it and be spared of the custody of running, a good for nothing woman .”

    Reference: The Great Escape Of The Queen of the Punjab in The Guise of a Bairagan
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