Born on the ashes of the declining Mughal dynasty, the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh enjoyed a dazzling period of glory. The king successfully united the warlike Sikhs who had consolidated themselves into Misls or confederacies for the purpose of resisting invaders and preserving their autonomy.
Despite making common cause when threatened by the Afghans or the British, these were given to much infighting and petty quarrels.
Though he belonged to the Sukerchakia clan, believed to be one of the weaker Misls, Ranjit Singh managed to rise to absolute power, and brought peace to the realm in troubled times, earning renown as a wise and canny ruler who was strict but fair.
More importantly, he knew when to bare his steel and when diplomacy was called for. Having concluded a treaty with the East India Company, he secured his eastern boundary, giving him the freedom to expand his kingdom in other directions.
Sarbpreet Singh’s The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia: Stories from the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is a tasty treat for history buffs and all who nurse a passion for the glories of India’s complex past.
Filled with colourful characters who made their mark in Ranjit Singh’s famed Lahore Durbar, the juicy stories provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the one-eyed monarch with his zest for power, life and the pleasures both afford. It is a captivating narrative, allowing the reader a bird’s eye view of the intrigues, scandals and plots that rocked his court.
Mata Sada Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s mother-in-law, with whom he shared a complicated relationship is a remarkable figure. It was she who was responsible for propelling the young Ranjit Singh to power by boldly speaking up in a time of confusion and indecision, urging the Sikhs to fight and make their bid for glory. She was an active participant in the wars that were subsequently waged and helped carve out an empire that all too briefly, held out against the British.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the mystical Sikh faith had loudly proclaimed the equality of the sexes, and Sarbpreet Kaur makes it a point to highlight the stories of the brave as well as capricious women who stepped forward and danced with destiny as they strove to leave their mark on history.
There is the dancing girl of Lahore, the queen who overdosed on opium furious over an ungallant slight, and another blessed or cursed with robust sexuality, as she played the ‘Game of Thrones’ with deadly intent and endless intrigue.
The Kohinoor is yet another player which changed hands many times and bears testament to the abiding avarice of humans.
The trials and tribulations faced by mighty warriors and schemers with courage as abundant as their prickly pride such as Hari Singh Nalwa, Akali Phoola Singh and the Dogras make for a riveting read. Shortly after the death of the great monarch, his kingdom imploded a victim of murder, foul play, treachery and avarice delivering Punjab straight into the hands of the British.
Through these charming tales, Singh subtly highlights the high points of a glorious chapter in Indian history while gently pointing out the foibles of race pride and greed that has so often resulted in untold loss and tragedy.
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