Sitting inside the baradari (pavilion), Maharaja Sher Singh and his son, Kanvar Pratab Singh, watched the Khalsa Army parade in front of them. Before him, his father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh too sometimes used to inspect his army at this garden, earning it the title of parade ground.
The river Ravi flowed just behind this 16th century baradari associated with the Sufi saint Shah Bilawal. It is here, on the banks of Ravi, that Shah Bilawal set up his madrassa. Later, when he passed away, his son buried him here, and constructed a huge garden around this structure. Only a few kilometers away from the historical Shalimar Bagh, this was one of the most famous gardens of Lahore, a city which was once known as a city of gardens.
I carefully walked into the baradari unaware of what to expect. The building had been abandoned many years ago. Its roof was missing, while its colorful frescoes comprising floral and geometrical patterns were slowly fading away. It was easy to tell that this must have been a beautiful building in its splendour.
Garden of kings
Just behind the baradari was an enclosure of the Lahore Waste Management Company. In the courtyard of this building there was a yellow trash can overflowing with garbage, while the floor was completely covered with trash.
There was no boundary wall dividing this baradari – once part of a splendid garden – and this office with trash. Some trash spilled over into the baradari.
The baradari was located in the middle of a congested locality called Bhogiwal in Lahore. It is hard to believe that there was once a spacious garden here, visited by kings. Next to the ruins of the baradari were the remains of the smadh of Maharaja Sher Singh.
On September 15, 1843, while Sher Singh was inspecting his troops, his cousin Ajit Singh Sandhawalia asked him to come out of the baradari and inspect a new English rifle that he had acquired.
Ajit Singh Sandhawalia had returned to Lahore four months earlier, two years after his departure. For two years, Ajit Singh Sandhawalia had taken refuge with the British, writing letters to the Khalsa Army, inciting them against Maharaja Sher Singh. He returned to Lahore through the good offices of the British, who helped in reconciliation.
Unaware of the plot, Maharaja Sher Singh stepped out of the baradari to inspect the rifle. When he got closer, Ajit Singh fired at the Maharaja. Then, to make sure that the Maharaja wouldn’t survive, he took out his sword and cut off his head. Ajit Singh’s elder brother, Lahina Singh Sandhawalia, then killed the 12-year-old Kanvar Pratab Singh.
End of an empire
Escaping the scene, both Ajit Singh and Lahina Singh reached the Lahore fort, where they assassinated Dhiyan Singh, the Prime Minister of Maharaja Sher Singh.
He was a controversial figure who had also previously served as the Prime Minister of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Kharak Singh and Nau Nihal Singh.
Dhiyan Singh’s son, Hira Singh, with the help of a section of the Khalsa Army and the battalion of the legendary General Avitabile, lay siege on the Lahore fort and eventually killed Ajit Singh and Lahina Singh. The brothers’ heads were then severed and exhibited at the different gates of Lahore.
The mighty Sikh Empire, the last major independent kingdom in India, crumbled quickly after the assassination of Maharaja Sher Singh. Following his death, his five-year old step brother, Daleep Singh, was appointed as the Maharaja, while his mother Jind Kaur served as the Regent, a move that was challenged by Peshaura Singh and Kashmira Singh, the two elder sons of Ranjit Singh.
By now, the British knew that the Sikh Empire would soon fade away, a process that had started in 1839 after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1849, after suffering losses at the Second Anglo-Sikh War, Maharaja Daleep Singh handed over Punjab to the British, giving up the title of Maharaja.
It was here, in the shadows of this baradari, that a final blow was dealt to the Sikh Empire. Maharaja Sher Singh was the last sovereign ruler of Punjab, as Daleep Singh and the Regent served under the influence of the British Resident who was installed at the Lahore Durbar in 1846 after the First Anglo-Sikh War.
The situation, however, was not much better even before Sher Singh. Kharak Singh, the eldest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, replaced him but he was overthrown by his talented 18-year-old son, Nau Nihal Singh.
Kharak Singh died on November 5, 1840. On the same day, Nau Nihal died after suffering a fatal blow following the collapse of an arch. His mother, Chand Kaur, assumed the responsibility of the throne as a Regent, alleging that Nau Nihal’s wife was pregnant. The much awaited son was stillborn, and she was then replaced by the impatient Sher Singh, who took the throne in 1841, becoming the third Maharaja of Punjab in two years. This was the root of the conflict between Ajit Singh and Sher Singh. Ajit Singh supported Nau Nihal’s mother Chand Kaur during her conflict with Sher Singh, whom he felt had cheated her of the throne.
Even though it was perhaps evident that the Sikh Empire was on the decline, supporters of the throne clung to any hope. However, with the death of Sher Singh, all hopes for a stable Punjab Empire vanished.
The famous foreigner generals of Ranjit Singh, who had modernised the Khalsa Army and also served under his successors, left Punjab, perhaps aware of times to come. Just 10 years after the death of Sher-e-Punjab, his empire had been destroyed by his successors.
Only one part of the external wall of the smadh of Maharaja Sher Singh survived. It had been painted in white with a red boundary. Under the shadow of the smadh, a middle-aged man prepared bhang while next to him a woman sold eatables and incense stick.
Sometime in the past few years, the smadh of Maharaja Sher Singh was converted into a Muslim shrine. This has been the fate of several Hindu and Sikh shrines across the country, re-appropriated accordingly. But this was not a shrine, but the final resting place of a king. Perhaps in pre-Partition Lahore, Sikh pilgrims came to this smadh to pay their obeisance to the last sovereign Maharaja of Punjab.
Now, Muslim pilgrims and devotees visit his smadh, not for their Maharaja but an unknown Muslim saint. This is how the legacy of the last sovereign Maharaja of Punjab continues in Lahore, a city from where he once ruled a vast empire.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.