Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ca. 1830,
Gouache heightened on gold with paper, private collection

While the painting of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Darbar Sahib listening to the Guru Granth Sahib being recited is an imaginary scene that August Schoefft's never witnessed, history does provides us with eyewitness accounts of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at times of religious devotion.

Like many of his Sikh subjects, Maharaja Ranjit Singh seems to have incorporated the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib into his daily routine. Although he is well known for his debauchery, drinking and women where important Sikh religious principles were completely ignored by him, at the same time he seems to have also shown an underlying reverence for the Guru Granth Sahib. Illiterate and unable to read or write, Maharaja Ranjit Singh still made it a point to spend a few hours in devotional prayers each day having the sacred verses of the Guru Granth Sahib read to him.

Although no bigot, and active in restraining the zeal and fanaticism of the Akalees, and others. Runjeet Singh is yet scrupulous in the performance of all the prescribed observances of the Sikh faith, and, for a certain number of hours every day, has the Grunth read before him by Gooroos, and is liberal in his charities to Fuqeers and men of reputed sanctity.
Origin of the Sikh Power in the Punjab and Political Life of Muha-Raja Runjeet Singh
Henry T. Prinsep, Calcutta 1834

He was a devout believer in the doctrines, and a punctual observer of the ceremonies of his religion. The Grunth, the sacred book of the Sikhs, was constantly read to him, and he must have been familiar with the moral precepts it incalculated.
The Court and Camp of Runjeet Sing
W.G. Osborne, London, 1840

The Grunth, or Sacred Book, is now read to him by the Gooroos, or priests, who are magnificently attired for the occasion, and seated on the richest carpets and silks. After this he again holds his durbar, and finishes the business of the day by a ride on horseback.
The History of the Sikhs
W.L. M’Gregor M.D., London, 1846


Not only did Maharaja Ranjit Singh spend time dedicated every day to listening to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Maharaja also seems to have developed a unique approach of reaching decisions on issues when he could not easily make up his mind.

We accordingly set the old Faqueer Uzeezoodeen to work with him, and much to our satisfaction heard, in the course of the evening, that on his mentioning our wishes to the Maharajah, he had consulted the Grunth, or sacred volume of the Sikhs, and that, as the oracle was propitious, we might be prepared to set off for Lahore in four days's time.

Runjeet Sing rarely undertakes any expedition of importance without consulting this holy book. When unable to make up his mind upon the probable success of any measure he has in contemplation, he takes a very simple method of solving his doubts, by placing between the leaves of the Grunth two slips of paper, on which is written the object of his wishes, and on the other the reverse. The papers are selected by one of his Gooroos or priests, without being looked at, and should the first one presented to him prove propitious to the expedition he may contemplate, he undertakes it with the greatest confidence of success, if otherwise, all idea of prosecuting it is immediately given up.
The Court and Camp of Runjeet Sing
W.G. Osborne, London, 1840

It is no uncommon practice of Runjeet Singh, when he contemplates any serious undertaking, to direct two slips of paper to be placed on the Grunth Sohil, or sacred volume of the Sikhs. On the one is written his wish, and on the other the reverse. A little boy is then brought in, and told to bring one of the slips, and, whichever it may happen to be, his Highness is as satisfied as if it were a voice from heaven.
Origin of the Sikh Power in the Punjab and Political Life of Muha-Raja Runjeet Singh
Henry T. Prinsep, Calcutta 1834


Maharaja Ranjit Singh Visits Darbar Sahib

Golden Temple Interior, Amritsar.
William Simpson, ca. 1860, Victoria and Albert Museum

Schoefft provides us with an artist’s imaginary rendition of what it may have been like when Maharaja Ranjit Singh visited Darbar Sahib, but we are fortunate enough to have an a eyewitness account of a actual visit by Ranjit Singh to Darbar Sahib.

In 1838 George Eden the Earl of Auckland and Governor General of India accompanied by his sister Emily Eden and commander-in-chief Sir Henry Fane had a rare opportunity to enter the Sikh Empire and visit Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Lahore. The aged Maharaja was by now in poor health and partially paralyzed, only a year away from his death, but he still though it important enough to take his visitors on a journey from Lahore, the political capital of the Sikh Empire to Amritsar, it’s spiritual capital to visit Darbar Sahib.

Only a handful of Europeans had ever been allowed to visit Darbar Sahib during Ranjit Singh’s reign. We are fortunate that Emily Eden recorded the events that transpired in December 1838 in her journal as the aged Maharaja and his guests entered the precincts of Darbar Sahib.

Eden’s account of the Maharaja’s humility in rubbing dust on his forehead as he enters Darbar Sahib is remarkable for someone of his status and power and is in line with the Sikh belief that we are all equal in the eyes of God, the king or the begger are the same. After a visit to the inner sanctum of Darbar Sahib Eden records that ‘Runjeet took us up to a sort of balcony he has in one corner of the square.’, this balcony is likely the very same one that Schoefft would spend time on years later as he worked on his sketch for his epic painting.

Up the Country, Volume II
Emily Eden, London, 1866

Letter dated: Camp Umritzir, Dec 10, 1838

Runjeet takes off his shoes and stoops down, and puts some of the dust on his forehead; it amounts to taking off a hat, and only answers to the same respect that we should wish anybody to pay on entering one of our own churches.….

The temple is of pure gold; really and truly covered completely with gold, most beautifully carved completely with gold, most beautifully carved, till within eight feet from the ground, and then there are panels of marble inlaid with flowers and birds – very Solomonish altogether. There are four large folding-doors of gold. We walked round it, and then Runjeet took us in.

There was a large collection of priests, sitting in a circle, with the Grooht, their holy book, in the centre, under a canopy of gold cloth, quite stiff with pearls and small emeralds. The canopy cost 10,000l. Runjeet made G. and F. and me sit down with him on a common velvet carpet, and then one of the priests made a long oration, to the effect that the two great ponentates were now brothers and friends, and never could be otherwise. Then G. made a speech to the same effect, and mentioned that the two armies had joined, and they could now conquer the whole  world; and Runjeet carried on the compliment, and said that here, the oracle had prompted him to make this treaty, and now they saw that he and the English were all one family. In short, you never saw two gentlemen on better terms with themselves and each other. G. presented 16,000 rupees, and they, in return, gave us some very fine shawls. I think, mine was scarlet and gold, but the Company’s baboo twisted it up in such haste that I did not see it well.

When all this was over, Runjeet took us up to a sort of balcony he has in one corner of the square, and by that time the bridge, the temple, the minarets, everything was illuminated. Shere Singh’s palace was a sort of volcano of fireworks, and large illuminated fish were swimming about the tank. It was a curious sight, and supposed, by those who know the Sikhs, to be a wonderful proof of confidence on Runjeet’s part.