The life of a British Maharaja

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire

Maharaja Duleep Singh gave up his throne in India to be raised a gentleman aristocrat in England. Philippa Faulks finds out how Duleep’s connection with the Royal Family inspired his Freemasonry

Mharajah Duleep Singh’s life was one of opulence and tragedy. On 29 March 1849, the son of the late Maharaja Ranjit Singh (known as Sher-i-Punjab, or ‘Lion of Punjab’) effectively became a king without a country.

Ending what his father had founded as Pakistan’s first independent state of Lahore, in the Punjab, the ten-year-old reluctantly signed the official document, later known as the Treaty of Lahore, and annexed the state. In doing so, he relinquished vast areas of India, and his family’s wealth, into the hands of Britain’s East India Company.

The Koh-i-Noor diamond, subsequently ‘gifted’ to Queen Victoria by the Marquess of Dalhousie, was part of this treasure trove. Given the diamond’s history of royal bloodshed and the ill fortune attached to those who possessed it, it is of no surprise that the newly disposed Maharaja’s life went from bad to worse. Born on 6 September 1838, Duleep was the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) and Maharani Jind Kaur (1817-1863). When Ranjit died, he left six sons, of which four were legitimate or ‘acknowledged’; only two of these – Khurruck and Duleep – were ‘fully acknowledged’ by the Maharaja.


At the age of five, having lost his predecessors to assassinations, Duleep was declared sovereign with his mother, who was described by the British as ‘a woman of great capacity and strong will’. Duleep acted as Regent until December 1846, after the First Anglo-Sikh War. The former Maharani was deposed by the British, imprisoned and replaced by a Council of Regency. Duleep would not see his mother again for more than 13 years.

Following the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the ten-year-old Duleep signed the Treaty of Lahore and the annexation of the state was complete. The document stated: ‘His Highness the Maharajah Duleep Singh shall resign for himself, his heirs, and his successors all right, title, and claim to the sovereignty of the Punjab, or to any sovereign power whatever […] All the property of the State […] shall be confiscated to the Honourable East India Company, in part payment of the debt due by the State of Lahore to the British Government.’

Within a week of control being relinquished, Duleep was handed over to the guardianship of Sir John Login and his wife. Login had just been installed as Governor of the Lahore Citadel and would benefit from Duleep’s guardianship, monetarily and socially. Indirectly, the finances of the Maharajah contributed significantly to Login’s missionary schools in Fatahgarh, Uttar Pradesh, where, according to the book Sir John Login and Duleep Singh (Lady Login, 1890), the young sovereign lived comfortably and, in the main, enjoyably with the Logins after his removal from Lahore.

It was to be a condition of his future exile in England that the young sovereign become a Christian, but how much of this was under duress is a controversial point. Certainly, Lady Login’s account is that he was most enthusiastic and adhered to his Bible studies with a passion; he was baptised on 8 March 1853.

‘Duleep’s passions included art, music, shooting and coursing – fitting the part of an English country gentleman, which he would soon become’


Duleep’s other passions included art, music, shooting and coursing – fitting the part of an English country gentleman, which he would soon become. But his life was monitored and manoeuvred by the East India Company Board. Any hint of a desire to return to India was thwarted and a gentlemanly diversion of travel and other pursuits was instigated.

During his young life, Duleep moved from one part of Britain to another but was most taken with Scotland, where he was known for his penchant for shooting parties and donning Highland dress, gaining the nickname the ‘Black Prince of Perthshire’.

Not long after his arrival in England, Queen Victoria received the Maharaja at Buckingham Palace. He became a friend of the Royal Family, spending summers with them at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The Queen affectionately called the young Singh ‘her beautiful boy’, and he struck up a firm friendship with Albert and her sons (Duleep’s own sons were to bear the names of Albert Edward, Victor and Frederick).

Likely inspired by the Royal Family’s masonic connections, he became a member of various gentlemen’s clubs – notably, and ironically, the East India Club. However, it was in 1861, when Duleep returned to India to bring his mother out of political exile, that he was admitted into Freemasonry in Lodge Star in the East, Calcutta, No. 67.

Aside from his masonic membership, Duleep was awarded the title of Knight Grand Commander (GCSI) in the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India by Queen Victoria – the Order’s motto is ‘Heaven’s light our guide’.

After Duleep brought his beloved mother back to England, she only lived for another two years, passing away on 1 August 1863, at her son’s Kensington residence, Abingdon House. Her death prompted Duleep to request to escort her body to the Punjab for cremation. This was denied by the government of India, but he was later permitted to take her to Nashik, Maharashtra, which he did in February 1864.

Duleep returned to England via Egypt, where he met Christian Mission teacher Bamba Müller, the daughter of a German banker and an Abyssinian Coptic Christian slave. They married on 7 June 1864. A year later, the couple took up residence at Elveden Estate in Suffolk, ensuring he could live as a Victorian noble. They had six children – three sons and three daughters.


The marriage was short-lived. In 1886, Duleep became disillusioned with the British government after it continually reneged on a promise to supply him with a yearly income in exchange for his allegiance. He had begun to reacquaint himself with the Sikh faith during his years in exile and had re-established contact with his relatives in Lahore. Duleep longed to return to his homeland and regain his royal status, something he attempted on 30 March 1886. Along with his family, he set sail for India but was intercepted and arrested in Aden.

Duleep was no longer welcome in England, and his wife and family returned alone to London, where the Maharani died shortly after in 1887. The Maharaja remarried, having two further children, but his burning desire to return to India led him as far as exhorting the support of the Tsar. This mission also failed.

Heartbroken and in reduced circumstances, Duleep reached out to Queen Victoria, and after negotiation with the government and Crown, he received a pardon. Sadly, he was to die in Paris, aged just 55. His body was not transferred to India for cremation, as per his wishes, but was instead returned to England for a Christian burial, laid beside the Maharani Bamba in the churchyard on his former estate at Elveden.

Duleep Singh’s grave has since become a pilgrimage site for Sikhs. Requests to return both the Koh-i-noor diamond and the remains of the last Maharaja of Lahore to their homeland have never been granted, with the diamond, now resplendent in the Crown Jewels, having barely been worn.

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