On Saturday 6th April, at Ruddock Performing Arts Centre in Birmingham, Dr. Priya Atwal presented an educative session where she spoke about the women who built the Sikh empire in the 19th century. The fundraising event was held to support a charity 'Unite In Virtue' which is run by families from Hindu, Muslim and Sikh backgrounds and who support the homeless in the local community by providing them with food and clothes.
“There is a lot written about Maharaja Ranjit Singh but my interest in Sikh women started by reading about Maharani Jind Kaur who was the last wive and the ruler of the Sikh Empire in the last half a decade of the 19th century Sikh Empire before it collapsed,” said the teaching fellow in Modern South Asian History at King's College London.
Dr. Atwal's started studying about the Sikh women when she was nineteen and delved deeper into academic research where she explored the role of the Sikh women in politics, expansion of the empire and active diplomatic representations in terms of hosting galas and dinners for the British guests.
“During my PhD I looked at how Rani Jind Kaur justified herself and specifically amidst the 41 wives that the Maharajas (Ranjit Singh and his two sons and grandson) had between them. Looking at the Persian courtly chronicles that were published in Ranjit Singh's darbar, it was dominant that most of these women were Sikh but some were Hindus and Muslims as well,” explains Dr. Priya.
Perhaps, these marriages which were often seen as political alliances led to the establishment of such a multi-cultural and integrated Sikh Empire between 1800-50. However, digging through the pension records, court verses and other academic archives, Dr. Atwal was unable to trace if these wives had any tensions amongst themselves.
“There was gender insubordination to the extent that they were hierarchically placed beneath the Maharajas but they had their own independence in terms of land ownership, commission of architectural projects and running the army,” she said.
“However, there was tension between Ranjit Singh's first and second wive after the latter was able to bear a son called Kharak Singh and takes the higher stage in hierarchy. This left the first wive Mehtab Kaur in a very difficult position,” Dr. Atwal reveals.
But there was also competitive rivalry among the women where in one instance according to folklore Ranjit Singh had held a courtly darbar with all his wives. When the maharaja was asked to name his most beautiful wive he had instantly replied that it was his first Muslim wive and did not agree with the suggestion that he perhaps meant to talk about his Hindu Rajput wive. When he disagreed with the view, according to Dr. Atwal, it impacted deeply on the wives' mental health who overdosed on some unknown drug at night and killed herself.
“This incident, apparently, mortified Ranjit Singh to such extent that according to some historians he stopped holding any more darbar events,” Dr. Priya shares.
Talking about gender discrimination, insubordination and parity, Dr. Atwal mentions that the Sikh women have traversed a long way from the 19th century Sikh kingdom where they were seen more as political alliances to today being an equal asset in a marriage. However, there still remains a long way for them to go.
The event also had Eshmit Kaur performing poetic verses at the event.