Harking Back: Precious ‘Majoon’ of gems that killed Ranjit Singh

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 29, 2015

Last week while researching on the ancient origins of Lahore, I came across a book on ‘Susrutasamhita’, an important Sanskrit text on the medicinal practices in Harappan Civilisation cities from Peshawar to the banks of the Beas. Why we no longer ‘dare’ to study our ancient source language is a baffling phenomenon, a sort of inferiority complex.

One of the problems of writing a piece involving our ancient past is that people think that I am trying to counter the idiotic claims by the current rulers of India, who keep claiming bizarre things like South Indians having invented the flying machine 3,000 years ago, or that the Harappan people actually migrated from the East to the West. Unscientific nationalistic pastimes are best suited to politicians.

In one of the lines Sushruta, writing probably in the 5th century BC, mentions an intricate nose surgery which restored the cut-off nose of a soldier prince. This jogged my memory about a piece I had read in the famous and rare book ‘35 Years in the East’ by Dr. Johann Martin Honigberger, the Hungarian doctor who has also written an excellent book on Indian herbal plants and medicines. This rare massive and detailed book I had spent a whole week reading in the Rare Books sections of the library of the University of Cambridge.

Dr. Honigberger used to live in Bazaar Hakeeman, and he was, on arrival, tested by General Allard of Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s ‘Fauj-e-Khas’. Allard’s son named Achilles was afflicted by a fistula on the spine, and “native doctors had tried several remedies on the poor boy”. The maharajah ordered Allard to test the skill of ‘this strange doctor speaking a strange language from the West’ before he was allowed an audience with him. Allard was to comment: “Meeting the maharajah is very difficult, and leaving him is even more difficult”. After five months of treatment and constant attention the boy fully recovered, and so it was that Honigberger met the maharajah for the first time.

In the exquisite court of the Lahore Darbar the maharajah, in the very first meeting, introduced him to a once unruly ‘nihang’ whose nose, ears and hands had been cut off on his orders. He was a rebel, and as the maharajah was against capital punishment - “lest he made a mistake and the Almighty punished him for an injustice” – he punished him just enough to make him immobile. But the crafty ‘nihang’ had gone to some ‘Hindoo surgeon in the hills’ who had restored the man with remarkable expertise. Except for his hands, his nose and ears seem fully restored, which with his turban was not even noticeable”. Honigberger was shocked at the surgical expertise and went on to write: “my friends in Europe will never believe me on this matter”.

While in Lahore Dr. Honigberger gave lessons in pharmacy and chemistry to the fakir brothers Azizuddin and Nooruddin. In the house where he lived a section was dedicated to distilling red wine from the choicest grapes from Kabul. He had also helped to modernise the distillery outside Delhi Gate (now in Landa Bazaar) which specialised in producing wine from ‘keshmesh’, the “horse-kick variety” as Sir John Lawrence was to describe it during a visit to Lahore.

But it seems most of the time of the good old doctor was spent in preparing opiates for the ruler. On one such occasion he examined one sample made by a Sikh official and informed the maharajah that it was lethal enough to kill him. The maharajah called in the official and asked him to be his guest and forced him to consume the opiate, which “had fatal consequences”.

Dr. Honigberger was much appreciated and was immediately made head of the gunpowder manufacturing factory at Mughalpura. That premises was much later to be converted into the Railway Workshop by the British. The appreciation of the maharajah is a classic, the verbatim as given by Honigberger goes: “Toon bhaang pachaan da ghani ain, tey phavr gooday da ve badshah hoon gaa”. (As you are a master at recognising opium, then you will surely also master gunpowder).

It was Honigberger who introduced coffee to the Lahore Darbar. He writes: “It is strange no one in Lahore was aware of the existence of coffee, not even the learned fakirs Aziz-oo-Deen and Noor-oo-Deen, both of Arab descent who had heard of it but never seen it. It was in 1832 that they first saw coffee”.

It was Dr. Honigberger who was the sole person present when the maharajah passed away. He declared him clinically dead. One of the problems with Ranjit Singh was that he never trusted foreign doctors, and all the medicines recommended he first made those around him test. He writes: “My opinions were taken, but set aside on the comment ‘but let me hear what other physicians have to say’”.

The entire care and treatment was being led by Fakir Azizuddin. He was accompanied by over a dozen hakeems from Peshawar and Lahore, and a number of Hindu physicians and astrologers. “In the end they decided to crush ‘jowahirat’ (precious gemstones) and construct a ‘majoon’”. He goes on to claim that he warned the maharajah against this ‘majoon’. “It will kill you. This is no medicine it is poison”. The maharajah smiled and said that means everyone here except you is wise.

So it was that the maharajah started using this ‘majoon’ of ground jewels and pearls. Honigberger further writes that when all the physicians had left, the maharajah would take his customary dose of opium. At night before going to bed a customary glass of his ‘horse-kick’ wine. Dr. Honigberger went to the fakir brothers and begged them to stop this medicine and to plead with the maharajah to stop his opium and wine habit. But it was useless. None of them dared to confront the powerful maharajah.

Soon Dr. Honigberger realised that everyone seemed consigned to the fact that this powerful man was on his way out. He passed away ‘poisoned by the precious jewels and pearls his physicians and hakeems of every shade had forced on him’. Within a fortnight of taking this precious concoction Maharajah Ranjit Singh died on 27th of June, 1839, at the age of 58.

In his amazing book Dr. Honigberger dwells on the art and science of Indian surgery. He is all praise for the physio-therapist ‘pehalwans’ in Bazaar Hakeeman. His praise for hakeems is scanty. But he blamed till the end the fact that the precious jewels ‘majoon’ is what really killed the maharajah.


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