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The Adolescent Maharaja: Nau Nihal Singh of Sikh Empire

Nau Nihal Singh was the third Maharaja of the Sikh empire whose reign began with the dethronement of his father, Kharak Singh, and ended with his death at the age of 19 on the day of his father’s funeral.

The emperor and his associates, in gradatim, strolled down to the sacred river Ravi. With the death of the former king, a man whom Nau Nihal proudly addressed to as his ‘father’, the young man, now to whom the courtiers bowed at, in symbolic reverence to their ‘Maharaja’, led the entourage forward, an entourage that was here to effectuate the sacramental rituals that were meant to be conducted with the passing away of a dynastic heir to the Lord of the Five Rivers, the Grand King Ranjit Singh, a man who had united the segregated misls and the king who’d passed away was none other than his eldest son, the despised Maharaja Kharak Singh.
Eminent scholar, academician and a Padma Shri Recipient, Dr. Jagtar Singh Grewal, in his 1998 work entitled “The Sikhs of the Punjab, Volumes 2-3” blames the powerful vizier (Prime Minister) Raja Dhian Singh with having instigated the removal of the late Maharaja, since, as stated by renowned Orientalists William Dalrymple and Anita Anand in their book “Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World‘s Most Infamous Diamond”, the accession of the eldest son of Ranjit Singh had been noted to be a dark day for Panjab, by the Imperial Austrian physician, Johann Martin Honigberger.
Coming back to the fateful funeral ceremony, with all rites diligently performed, the young boy (now the undisputed Maharaja of his father’s empire, as is earlier stated), accompanied by Udham Singh, a nephew of Raja Dhian Singh and some of his less noteworthy companions, trotted uphill, intending to go back to the palace via the Hazuri Bagh Baradari (built in 1818 CE by his grandfather Ranjit Singh, to celebrate the capture of the Koh-i-Noor from Shuja Shah Durrani in 1813).
American Colonel Alexander Gardner, five artillery men and a few other prominent nobles followed the emperor behind. As the royal entourage trotted past the gate, parts of the Hazuri Bag pavilion crashed down, a large block of stone particularly falling upon the vizier’s nephew Udham Singh, breaking his neck and hence, killing him on the spot instantly. Two of the other confidantes, including the emperor himself sustained minor injuries.
Having come to such an unprecedented standstill, chaos broke out amongst the Misl ranks and Gardner, a military officer as he was, had to request the emperor to allow himself to be taken up on a stretcher and be transferred into the inner quarters of his medical camp, probably so that he could be kept in isolation.
Major Nahar Singh Jawandha, in his book entitled “Glimpses of Sikhism”, details one on the suspicious activities rolled out by Dhian Singh, following the prompt responses by the Maharaja’s ranks in evacuating him from the accident site. It is rumoured that this shrewd Prime Minister barred one and all (members of the imperial family including the rajah’s mother Chand Kaur and officer Gardner) from having a talk with the injured Maharaja or even sighting him in that condition. The medical team that functioned under the Austrian physician Honigberger was sent for immediately.
Honigberger, an unbiased professional who restrained himself from taking sides, clearly takes on this incident through the lines penned down in his famed work “Thirty-five years in the East”. He recalls that the people who stood awaiting news of the emperor (the companions who had accompanied him for the funeral) had seen him minutely injured and not in a gravely wounded and serious situation as he found him, during the treatment. Although he tried his level best, Honigberger could not save the adolescent emperor and Nau Nihal Singh succumbed to his injuries on the 6th of November, 1840, a day after his father was cremated.
The death of the newly crowned king left the empire in distress and before a civil war could commence, Honigberger’s lines cratered an impact on the people who loved their benevolent maharajah.
“more reason to suppose that the partisans of Kurruck Singh and Chet Singh were the authors of this plot against the prince, as he had intended to ask them for an account of their perfidious behaviour during his father‘s long illness… He(the prince) to order seven of their houses to be closed and inquiries to be made”, he quoted. As a result, Chand Kaur, wife of the late Maharaja Kharak Singh and mother to the deceased Nau Nihal Singh, proclaimed herself to be the acting regent and the empress of the Sikh Empire, ruling on behalf of Nau Nihal’s unborn child (Nau Nihal Singh had a wife called Sahib Kaur who was pregnant when the Maharaja untimely passed away). However, with two remaining months complete, Sahib Kaur unfortunately gave birth to a stillborn child and the only remaining hope of her claims to the throne was lost.
Meanwhile, Sher Singh, another legitimate son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and someone who was favoured by Dhian Singh, laid siege on the capital and stormed the Lahore Fortress, securing the throne and sending Chand Kaur into seclusion.
Regarding the death of Nau Nihal Singh, Dalrymple talks about the fate of the five artillery men that carried the emperor from the accident site to the medical camp. As is told by him, two of them died under mysterious circumstances, two were sent on leave (never to return again) and the remaining man went “missing without explanation”, a few days from the day the incident took place!
Under such happenings, all a man could do was blame Dhian Singh and the nobles who’d later allied with Maharaja Sher Singh. However, Sir Lepel Henry Griffin, a British administrator and diplomat who was later appointed to the honorary position of the Chief Secretary of the Panjab and served as the Chairman of the East India Association in London, spoke up in support for Dhian Singh, clearly expressing his opinions in his book “The Punjab Chiefs”. He quoted, “The only reason for the mystery which shrouded the death-bed of the Prince, was the necessity which Dhyan Singh felt for keeping the fatal news from being generally known until the arrival of Sher Singh. If there had been an organised plot, the Raja would have taken care that Sher Singh should have been present in Lahore at the time of the catastrophe. The absence of Sher Singh proves the innocence of the Raja.”
Chand Kaur was later assassinated by her maids, two years later (in 1842), possibly as a consequence of an organised royal plot aimed at killing the power-hungry woman and crushing all who stood for her. With Chand Kaur’s death that followed that of her spouse and her son, the declining prowess of the Sikh empire caught the attention of the then ruling British.
There was a time when a united Punjab under Ranjit Singh had hoped that the Sikh Empire would carve out its pathway and go on to lead Hindustan in the days of tomorrow. However, with the power tussle that broke out and the assassinations of the mighty emperors and princes that followed, the empire disintegrated at a faster pace than what was expected. Call it a matter of fate (karma) or coincidence, both Sher Singh and Raja Dhian Singh Dogra were assassinated in a palace coup led by Ajit Singh Sandhawalia, in 1843. Ajit Singh was again killed treacherously by Hira Singh Dogra, the son of the dead vizier and a five year old Duleep Singh was installed on the throne of Punjab.
By then, the British intervention in the internal affairs of the empire had grown steadily. With Hira’s death in the hands of Sham Singh Attariwala in 1844, they waged the very first war against the Sikhs, on December 11th, 1845, and all hopes for the resurrection of the Sikh Empire were lost!

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in

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