The Dawn: Jul 10, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Mystery of Nau Nihal Singh’s death: the storyteller’s version

Mushtaq Soofi 

Last Sunday, Majeed Sheikh in his well-researched write-up ‘Abiding mystery of the Roshnai Gate tragedy’ talked about the sudden and mysterious death of Prince Nau Nihal Singh, the grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and son of Maharaja Kharrak Singh in 1840. He used ‘four different accounts to reach a reasonable conclusion as to what really followed’ the fateful murder of Kharrak Singh’s trusted assistant by Dhian Singh Dogra and Prince Nau Nihal Singh. Here is another version of the event narrated graphically in a dramatic tone by the Punjab’s greatest storyteller of 19th century, Mian Kamal Din of Chiniot. The following narration is a fragment taken from his longer story ‘Fateh Khan Motian Ala’ published in the book, Kamal Kahani. “ …When Kharrak Sigh died, Nau Nihal Singh was supposed to light his pyre and Queen Chand Kaur was to self-immolate as per their custom. Mian Gul Mohammad Kaliar, son of Watta, was there on the occasion that day in Lahore (the gentleman was from what is now called district Sargodha). Mian Baz Mirasi used to narrate the episode in the words of Mian Gul Mohammad. A proclamation was made that along with the dead Maharaja, the Queen Chand Kaur would be consigned to flames. She started crying. ‘God took his life. Why do you want to kill me?’ The move was in fact machination of Hira Singh (son of Dhian Singh) and co. If she was burnt to death, the Sandhawalias’ power, with the loss of a vital link with the court (Chand Kaur was from their clan), would dwindle away. Dhian Singh in the hearing range of her brothers said: ‘the Maharaja is dead. What will the Queen do now? Will she self-immolate on the Maharaja’s funeral pyre?’

After hearing this, the brothers go to see the Queen. ‘Immolate yourself when the Maharaja is cremated,’ they request. She refuses to come out of her parlour. She changes her dress and throws the one taken off, out of the window to be picked up by the beggars. She changes again, goes to the looking glass, looks at herself and cries. Again she changes. Again she throws the discarded dress outside, looks at herself in the mirror and cries. There is anxious crowd outside. The Kharrak Singh’s coffin is on the bier. Everyone waits with bated breath as she is expected to go to the cremation site. At last, she comes out and gets into the palanquin which is lifted by the bearers. The palanquin has a pile of coins stacked inside it which she is supposed to wave over her head in a ritual gesture before throwing them out as alms to be picked by hoi polloi. The palanquin is carried close to the pyre. According to Mian Gul Mohammad Kaliar, when Chand Kaur bowed down to pick the coins, her long flowing hair would hide her face as if clouds covered the full moon. When she sat upright throwing away the coins, it would look as if the moon had come out of the clouds. She was stunningly beautiful.

The Brahmans following her would beat the drum shouting ‘The Raja rules and the ruled live in peace’. She would cry ‘neither the Raja rules nor the ruled live in peace. It’s not God that takes my life, it’s Chuhr Singh (Chuhr/Chuhra means sweeper/a man of low caste) who wants me dead’. She would refer to Nau Nihal Singh as Chuhr Singh.

When the palanquin was placed on the ground near the pyre along the Kharrak Singh’s coffin, oil was sprinkled all over the firewood. Nau Nihal Singh started the circumambulation. After the first round, he saluted her; ‘greetings mother’. Their ritual was such that the queen had to drop her ring and the son of dead Maharaja had to light the pyre. If the queen didn’t throw her ring even after the third round, she would be out of the fold of her religion and be handed over to the Chuhras (sweepers). When the prince, moving around, said ‘greetings mother,’ she shouted; ‘you are neither my son nor I am your mother. Remember you Chuhr Singh, my husband is dead and you are killing me unjustly. You are committing a great atrocity. Mark my words. You are not destined to rule’. She repeated the same words during the second round. When Nau Nihal Singh was about to take the third round, Chand Kaur’s brothers came rushing to her. They cried; ‘how we will face the world when you are handed over to the Chuhras?’ She looked at her brothers, sobbed and dropped her ring. As the ring touched the ground, Nau Nihal set fire to the pyre. Mian Gul Mohammad Kaliar used to say: ‘there wasn’t an eye in the gathering that hadn’t tears. It was such a day of grief that all, Hindus and Muslims, wept and wailed uncontrollably at the brutality. The fire burst into a conflagration. There was an eaves (Chajja) of the fort at quite a distance. A chair was placed under it for Nau Nihal Singh to keep him away from the searing heat. All of sudden a spark flew from the burning wood and turning into a flame, it hit the eaves (Chajja) setting it on fire. There was absolutely no likelihood of it catching the fire. That day we witnessed a miracle. As the eaves caught fire, a brick load came down tumbling over Nau Nihal Singh’s head. He was crushed there and then. Chand Kaur was still being consumed by the fire when Nau Nihal Singh lost his life…”

So those who write on the Punjab should not miss out on the stories preserved and transmitted orally by our storytellers. A poor Mirasi (bard/storyteller) from a far flung area may enrich the narrative of people’s history more than our highbrow professional historians.

Without losing sight of the facts, our storytellers can tell the forgotten tales, full of unbearable anguish and angst, signifying the brutal ugliness of patriarchy driven power and politics. —

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