HARKING BACK: Crumbling ‘haveli’ of Lahore’s ultimate bureaucrat

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn March 27, 2016

If you walk through Taxali Gate in the old walled city and proceed right to its eastern end and turn off at Bazaar Said Metha through a lane moving westward you reach the now dilapidated ‘haveli’ of the great Punjabi bureaucrat, Raja Dhian Singh. The once grand haveli that covered almost six acres has been, save the portions of the main building, encroached upon leaving just two kanals. In its day it was, without doubt, the most important house in the entire walled city.

The power and influence of Raja Dhian Singh was second only to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Who was this amazing person who, in my books, was primarily responsible for keeping the Khalsa State of the Punjab intact? His power and ability to keep clear of all scandal were remarkable. If ever there was an ‘ultimate bureaucrat’ of the Punjab, it was this Raja of Jammu.

Dhian Singh Dogra, for this was his full original name, was the second son of Kishora Singh Dogra, whose eldest son Gulab Singh served in the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. In 1812 at the age of 16 he was introduced at the Rohtas Fort to Maharajah Ranjit Singh by his brother and was inducted as a soldier in the Khalsa Army with a monthly salary of Rs60, which in those days was a very handsome amount. For this special favour he remained, always, loyal to the maharajah. According to accounts written by Khushwant Singh, as also Sohan Lal Suri and Lepel Griffin, Raja Dhian Singh was a tall impressive-looking man, he was very brief and careful in what he said, had exceptionally polished manner and an amazing sense of protocol. When Maharajah Ranjit Singh died, he offered to commit ‘Satti’ as a token of his abiding loyalty to the old dead maharajah, but was prevented by the new Maharajah Kharrak Singh on the promise that till peace returns he would serve as chief minister, and then would leave for the holy places.

Peace never returned to the Punjab, for in the bloody turmoil that followed he was, on the 15th of September, 1843, shot dead by Sardar Ajit Singh, the Sandhiawalia Sardars who were opponents of Maharajah Sher Singh, inside the gates of the Lahore Fort. The Sandhiawalia Ajit and Lahina had returned to the fort after murdering Maharajah Sher Singh and his little son Partap carrying their heads on spikes. For the maharajah he pledged and for the maharajah he was killed.

From the very beginning of his career he performed feats of immense bravery in various battles alongside Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and every time he was honoured he uttered his famous sentence: “I am but your loyal servant, and the honour is all yours”. His stature was such in the eyes of the maharajah that in 1818 he was made a ‘Shahi Deorhidar’, or the Royal Chamberlain to the maharajah’s household. He had replaced the powerful Jamadar Khushal Singh, and this, according to Griffin, was a major Lahore Darbar reshuffle and determined the future power structure of the court. The Dogra brothers of Jammu had become the most powerful players in the Punjab. Dhian Singh proved to be exceptional in his handling of court, financial and protocol matters, always providing strategic advice on how to handle the different power centres of the Punjab. He was very close to the Fakeer brothers who handled foreign affairs and finance. Their complete trust in one another and the unflinching loyalty to the maharajah has been described by Khushwant Singh as the main reason the Lahore Darbar functioned as an effective and efficient bureaucratic machinery. There was a saying in Lahore, as Sohan Suri describes, that “even when the maharajah sleeps, which is almost never, Dhian Singh is awake and working”.

But Maharajah Ranjit Singh never went by what was being said in court or in the streets, he used his own unique way of judging a man. Out of the blue in March 1823 he told Dhian Singh that he was to be sent to a critical battle at Nowshera. There Dhian Singh excelled and Ranjit Singh began to trust his skill in almost every field. The foxy maharajah had a strange way of testing those most loyal to him. Sohan Suri says: “When I give them no work that is when the character of a man and his loyalty is best tested”. The careful Dhian passed every test and his position in the Punjab was now unchallenged, except by the maharajah.

In June 1827 he was given the title of ‘Raja-e-Rajgan Raja Kalan Bahadar’, which cemented his position as the chief minister of the Punjab. In matters civil, financial and military he was supreme. When a major loss in April 1837 occurred in the death of General Hari Singh Nalwa at Peshawar, he was rushed in to control matters. He ruthlessly crushed all opposition to, as he said ‘any evil forces opposing the maharajah’.

When the maharajah was dying he called before him the entire court and army commanders and informed them that Prince Kharrak Singh would take over after him and that Raja Dhian Singh Dogra, the Hindu Jamwal Dogra Rajput, was to remain the chief minister. In Dhian Singh, the ultimate bureaucrat, he knew that the Punjab would always remain safe, even though his own family did not possess any men of his caliber. After the maharajah died the Lahore Darbar was the hotbed of intrigue. Kharrak Singh proved to be totally inept and it was in those days that the people of Lahore composed humorous poems about the drunken ruler. Within 45 days of him assuming power, in an amazing move Dhian Singh, through the maharajah’s son Prince Nau Nihal Singh, imprisoned the ruler and Nau Nehal Singh took over power. He also murdered with his own sword, Chet Singh, who wished to be the chief minister.

Kharrak Singh was, slowly, poisoned by Dhian Singh’s servants from Jammu, and at his cremation in a mysterious freak accident the new ruler and the nephew of Dhian Singh were both killed. The book on the incident by Dr Honigberger, the royal physician, claims Nau Nihal Singh was killed inside the fort in a conspiracy by ‘British’ spies in high royal positions.

Lahore had become the centre of conspiracy seldom seen before, or after. Nau Nihal’s mother, Chand Kaur, took over on the claim that Nau Nihal’s wife was expecting the future maharajah. Dhian Singh Dogra respected this protocol, but called in the eldest surviving son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Prince Sher Singh, to take over. As the Sandhiawalia Sardars were thick with Chand Kaur they saw Dhian Singh as the real enemy. As fate was, the ‘future maharajah’ died a still born child.

After a bloody battle at the Lahore Fort, Maharajah Sher Singh took over and Raja Dhian Singh Dogra was again the powerful chief minister. Within two years, thanks to British intervention and the forgiving ways of Sher Singh, the Sandhiawalia brothers returned only to murder the maharajah and his son, thus ending that lineage. On the same day they shot dead Dhian Singh Dogra. The British within weeks had, effectively, taken over the Lahore Fort and under their guard the new maharajah, the five-year old Duleep Singh, was sworn in as the new ruler.

As you walk through the ruins of the ‘haveli’ of Raja Dhian Singh, it is sad that the place that once yielded so much power, that saw the creation of Government College and the Oriental College, now is a shambles. Time, place, beliefs, names and shared history mean little. It is a sad thought, but that is the reality.


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