Punjab, the area to which Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Fakir Azizuddin belonged, lay in the northwestern plains of India. The Punjab derived its name from the five rivers—Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej—that flowed through its fertile funnel and ultimately merged into the mighty Indus from which India itself took its name.
Geographically, Punjab followed a north-south axis. Rivers that began as streams in its northern mountainous valleys coursed—sometimes in parallel, sometimes as one—for more than a thousand miles. They left southern Punjab, crossed Sindh and then ultimately surrendered to the Arabian Sea in the south. Punjab’s history, though, followed an east-west direction. Every significant event in its often turbulent history, every incursion, every invasion, every permeation emanated from either the west eastwards (the Aryans, the Greeks, the Muslim dynasties, the Mughals) or from the east westwards (the Mauryans, Buddhism, and finally, in a manner of speaking, the British).
The Punjab being the middle ground between empires always belonged to one or the other, never to itself. Ranjit Singh’s uniqueness was in his giving Punjabiyat a political identity, in welding the Punjabi nation into a sovereign state. His success owed much to the contribution of the three brothers from the Fakir family: Azizuddin, Imamuddin, and Nuruddin.
Throughout his stay as a guest of Ranjit Singh’s, Murray spent more time answering questions about military matters than medical ones. He reported that during his professional visits he was attended only by Fakir Imamuddin. They would see Ranjit Singh usually before the darbar commenced, which was at any time between 9 and 10 a.m. On one of these visits, Murray’s observation provides an interesting contrast between Western and Oriental manners. Murray mentions that, accompanied by Imamuddin, he called on Ranjit Singh and, out of respect, doffed his hat. The turbaned Sikh to whom an uncovered head was a sign of social nakedness told Murray to put his hat back on. Ranjit Singh used Murray’s presence to impress him with the caliber of his troops. He held parades, had them execute maneuvers, sought his opinion on their uniforms and even on the food they ate. Where Ranjit Singh fell short of emulating British standards was in the payment of salaries to his troops. His revenues never seemed to equal his expenses and the solution for him lay in delaying payment to his troops. Such a policy was not without hazards.
While Murray was still at the court, there was a mutiny by about 400 of Ranjit Singh’s Golandaze soldiers, whose pay had been in arrears of over nine months. Imamuddin was dispatched to ‘expedite’ the payment. Ranjit Singh knew as clearly as Imamuddin did that payment was possible only if there was money in the treasury. Ranjit Singh promised the mutineers six months’ pay and an amnesty, and for good measure made his second son, Sher Singh, who was popular with the troops, a guarantor. The mutineers trusted the son more than they did the father. No sooner had the rebellious soldiers been brought back into their barracks by Sher Singh than Ranjit Singh had them thrown into prison and as an additional punishment deducted two months’ pay from each sepoy and one month’s from each officer from a salary which in any case he was not paying them. Murray noted: “This step caused much dissatisfaction, and the sardars employed in bringing the men back to their duty, and who had pledged themselves that the Raja would abide by his word, were very indignant on this occasion.” Imamuddin must have shared the chagrin of the sardars but any negative feelings he may have harbored were subordinated to fulfilling the Maharaja’s next whim.
Jacquemont knew the position Shahdin’s father and uncles enjoyed at the court. He wrote about them in his journal in a tone akin to awe:
“Among his most intimate councilors are three Mohammadan brothers, who conceal their wealth under an outward appearance of poverty and seek to atone for their intrusion by the humility of their behavior. All of them bear the title of ‘Fakir,’ as do their sons. They know Arabic and have read the medical books in that language, hence their reputation for deep scientific knowledge.
“The eldest, whom I met near Amritsar, is more or less the minister for foreign affairs; it is he who writes all the dispatches from Ranjit to the British government. Another is the trusted agent at Govindgarh. The third, whom I meet every day, is sometimes appointed governor of the city, when Ranjit does not take him away with him. These brothers have a cipher which they use in correspondence among themselves and this artifice, hitherto, I believe, unknown in the East, gives them a reputation for great cleverness.”
Hugel could never get up early enough for Azizuddin. When Azizuddin called on him on the morning of the 14th, Hugel was still fast asleep. Azizuddin, who had been waiting half an hour already, continued waiting until Hugel had dressed himself.
They went into an antechamber where Azizuddin broached the subject of his visit. “The Fakir assured me, first, that the Maharaja had never conversed with any person whose talent had caused him so much surprise, and he wished I would consent to remain with him,” wrote Hugel. Touched but not persuaded by such flattery, Hugel replied that had he been a younger man, he might have accepted his host’s offer, but if he missed his boat at Bombay, he would lose a year of his life. “The Fakir strove to persuade me to remain, but finding me resolute, ceased to importune me further, and said he would take my answer to the Maharaja.” Meanwhile, could he ask more questions that the Maharaja had dictated?
The first question: Being such a well-traveled man, what had impressed him most during his travels? Hugel pulled an Azizuddin on him. He described the wonders of the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, New Holland and Kashmir, the might of the East India Company, and ended with “the kingdom founded by Ranjit Singh, who, like a skillful architect, has formed of so many insignificant, unpromising fragments, one majestic fabric, seemed to me the most wonderful object in the world.” Azizuddin wrote down Hugel’s answer “with sundry wah, wah! as tokens of his amazement.”
Azizuddin collected Fane and his entourage, this time to attend a celebration of Holi. Fane noted that “in front of each chair were small baskets heaped one above another, full of small, brittle balls filled with red powder, and alongside them large bowls of thick yellow saffron and long gold squirts.” Ranjit Singh broke the ice by taking a large dish filled with saffron and pouring it on Sir Henry’s bald head. Dhian Singh rubbed the Commander-in-Chief with gold and silver leaf mixed with red powder.
Fane noted that few courtiers aimed their squirts at Ranjit Singh directly. Almost everyone present had come appropriately dressed and prepared for such festivities, everyone except the Afghan ambassador who had arrived recently from Kandahar: “The poor man was dressed in his best, his beard combed and dyed to a nicety, his feet tucked under him, and his face drilled to a grave, diplomatic cast.” All too soon, the hurling of dye-filled balls began, causing a reddish dust storm so extensive that “the very face of the earth looked red.” One of the balls hit the Afghan envoy. Fane recalled a scene he would never forget: “His look of astonishment of a ball of red dust being shied in his eye, and his horror when his beard was turned to a bright saffron color.” Vulnerable and unarmed, the Afghan ambassador took to his heels.
Once inside the tent, Azizuddin placed himself on the chair next to Ranjit Singh. As each sardar was called and stepped forward, Azizuddin provided a brief introduction. Jamadar Khushal Singh was “a close associate … a wise person, brave and courageous.” Next, Sardar Attar Singh Sandhanwalia: “A close relation of the Maharaja and a brave and courageous man.” After him, Raja Gulab Singh: “An administrator of civil and military affairs and a brave man.” Sardar Lehna Singh Sandhanwalia: “A principal sardar and an associate … well versed in administration.” Ranjit Singh then took the hand of Sardar Nihal Singh Ahluwalia and said that he was the senior most of his clan. “Then Jawad Singh Mokal came there. Fakir-ji said he was a confirmed drunkard [and] lucky go-fellow.”
By 1838, the three Fakir brothers had achieved an almost unassailable position in the Sikh court. Fakir Imamuddin—the first to be used by Ranjit Singh to negotiate with the British on his behalf—may have found it difficult to perform the role of a diplomat. He was replaced by Azizuddin and relegated to the post of Keeper of Govindgarh Fort, where he remained until his death. The fort functioned as Ranjit Singh’s treasury (where his bullion was kept) and as his armory (where his weapons and ammunition were manufactured and stored), and so to that extent, Imamuddin’s position could not be written off as a sinecure, nor the fort as a grace-and-favor apartment allocated by a grateful sovereign. The Killahdari of Govindgarh Fort affirmed the Maharaja’s confidence and trust in him underwritten by Imamuddin’s two brothers—Nuruddin and Azizuddin.
Over the years, Nuruddin had started functioning for the Maharaja much as a court chamberlain, responsible for ensuring that the paraphernalia that supported the show of royal pomp and pageantry was in the right place at the right time on the right occasion. When guests arrived, they had to be received with the proper amount of zeafut and appropriate level of hospitality. If transport was required by them, elephants and horses had to be caparisoned, harnessed, and readied. If a darbar had to be held in their honor, the pashmina tents had to be installed and costly carpets aired and rolled out; the presents given and those received in exchange had to be accounted for; and after their departure—however many guests there may have been and however long they may have stayed—a report had to be given to the Maharaja who calculated the costs and, against it, mentally evaluated the benefits. To Nuruddin, over time, arranging such events became second nature. His true achievement, though, lay in being able to succeed in every assignment the Maharaja threw his way and in bringing a degree of order and functionality to a court which enjoyed rituals but abhorred the regimen and effort that made them possible.
For Azizuddin, 1838 would be the year in which his talents as a dignified diplomat, a persuasive negotiator, a skilled draftsman, and an articulate spokesman for the Maharaja would be exploited to their maximum. The dependence of the Maharaja on Azizuddin had become absolute; his instructions to the delegation he sent to Simla in April 1838 were one instance of this. Azizuddin moved closer to the Maharaja physically (because the speech impediment following the Maharaja’s stroke made his words unclear except to one who knew his mind as intimately as Azizuddin did) and metaphorically (because Azizuddin was never at a loss for ideas or for words or for that choice mellifluous phrase that could provide color to meaning).
As the procession of the returning mission made its way down from Simla, Azizuddin, in his howdah atop his swaying elephant, must have pondered on the good fortune that had taken him from humble origins in the old city of Lahore to the cold climes of Simla, from an apprenticeship as a hakim to becoming the spokesman of the Sikh Darbar, invited by the British Lat Sahib to sit on a chair on a par with him.
Over the years Azizuddin had learned from experience that the way up was always arduous and fraught with perils; the way down was precipitous and dangerous and could be—if one was not watchful—fatal. Whatever anxieties Fakir Azizuddin may have felt on that return journey to Lahore, he wisely kept to himself. If he did share them, he would have done so, as he did the wealth they had amassed, with the only two persons he could trust implicitly: his brothers.
Azizuddin knew that of the three of them, Imamuddin was now the most vulnerable. Ranjit Singh had entrusted him with a sensitive assignment, to act as custodian of his treasury and arsenal at Govindgarh Fort. Large sums of bullion, mainly in coins, moved in and out of his custody; prized jewels were bought to be given away as gifts or received as nazar, stored, and individually accounted for; the cannons, the guns and muskets, their shells and shot and other ammunition, the swords and lances had to be counted and kept available for use at short notice. The inventory was endless, the accountability borderless and unlimited.
Over the years, Imamuddin had worked with Misr Beli Ram (the keeper of the toshakhana at Lahore) and particularly with his brother Sukh Raj who had been posted at Govindgarh Fort. Suddenly Beli Ram had fallen victim to Raja Dhian Singh’s wrath. How long would it be, Azizuddin must have wondered, before Dhian Singh picked on Imamuddin? Azizuddin knew that his brother did not enjoy the protection Misr Beli Ram did. Beli Ram was a Brahmin by caste, which is why his life had been spared by Naunihal Singh. Imamuddin’s religion could not provide him such a shield.
By comparison, Nuruddin’s duties as a chamberlain were less critical. His was the first face visitors to the court saw, the darbar equivalent of the reception desk at a modern five-star hotel. For nigh on 20 years, since that visit in 1820 by the horse doctor William Moorcroft, Nuruddin had welcomed shoals of visitors, offered them zeafut, supervised the timely supply of provisions to their camps, fulfilled their every need, satisfied their every whim. “Happy the man who never puts on a face,” Ralph Emerson, an American contemporary of Nuruddin’s had written in his Journals, “but receives every visitor with the countenance he has on.” Nuruddin’s assignment—repetitive, physically demanding, and not ungratifying—was not the sort of job a Sikh sardar would covet.
Azizuddin’s own position in the altered configuration at the Sikh court would depend on the quality of relations between his masters, the Sikhs, and his friends, the British. The letter of personal approbation sent by Lord Auckland to Azizuddin may have been unique in the annals of Sikh diplomatic correspondence but it was hardly the sort of talisman that Azizuddin could rely on to protect himself from the enemies who would attack him now that his benefactor was dead.
Although Azizuddin would have resented the inordinate, pernicious influence Mungal Singh and his associate Chet Singh exercised over Maharaja Kharak Singh, he knew that by the murder of Chet Singh, a sinister elemental force, violence, had been unleashed in court politics. The only weapons Azizuddin possessed were of a different caliber: the force of argument, the power of persuasion, the weight of wisdom. That armory was ineffectual now.
Ellenborough received him, Azizuddin, and the others on Dec. 28 at Ferozepur. Captain Von Orlich, a Prussian officer seconded to the British forces, witnessed the scene. Overawed by the handsome and resplendent Raja Hira Singh, Von Orlich thought less though of Fakir Azizuddin: “The cunning old Fakir Uzeezoodeen, accompanied the ambassador as his counselor, and, faithful to his order, appeared in a plain and dirty dress. He always calls himself the poor fakir, but everybody knows that he has amassed great treasures.”
The main apologists—Kunwar Partap Singh and Raja Dhian Singh—arrived at Ferozepur. Partap Singh, an 11-year-old juvenile, had been recalled from Peshawar where he was nominally in charge of the Sikh troops billeted there. The Sikh delegation was invited by Ellenborough to witness the grand military review organized by him in honor of the returning army. The site had been chosen deliberately, because it was the same dusty plain from where his predecessor, Lord Auckland, had bid Godspeed to Gen. Willoughby Cotton and his component of the Army of the Indus four years earlier. “Where the war opened, there it ends.” His Lordship went slightly overboard in his enthusiasm when arranging the parade, insisting, for example, that he would personally supervise the trunks of the elephants to be used in the victory parade and on designing the ceremonial arch through which the army would pass.
It took time for 22,500 men and 102 pieces of cannon to pass through those arches. “The young prince, more taken up with his fine ornaments and jewels than with what was passing around him, began to get tired, and twice sent a message to Dheean Singh, requesting permission to change a horse for an elephant; but his request was very positively denied,” it was recorded.
Ellenborough returned the visit on Jan. 2. The customary darbar was held in the Sikh camp, during which presents for Queen Victoria—“a perfectly beautiful green Kashmir tent, embroidered with silk” and a portrait of Ranjit Singh by a local artist—were formally handed over. Gifts were given to each senior attendee.
With this, too, the old Fakir was busying himself, holding a long list in his hand, and reading aloud the names of those who were so fortunate as to be entitled to receive them. The gentlemen about Lord Ellenborough and General Sale next received each a handsome saber. After the presentations, the 5,000 troops who had accompanied Kunwar Partab Singh were reviewed by Ellenborough. To show that the slight which had necessitated this costly apology had been forgiven, Ellenborough invited the young prince to sit with him in his howdah. The weather had turned suddenly chilly, and Dhian Singh, who was sitting behind them, “very considerately took off his choga and wrapped it round the Prince.”
Raja Hira Singh reached Lahore before the others did. He called on Maharaja Sher Singh and gave him an account of his meeting with the governor-general. Later that afternoon, Raja Partab Singh and Raja Dhian Singh came and during the journey to Shalimar Gardens with the Maharaja narrated details of their reception at Ferozepur. Fakir Azizuddin, in many ways the person who had singlehandedly retrieved what could have been a diplomatic disaster, was the last to arrive. Azizuddin’s contribution received a compliment from Ellenborough, who described him as “a well-wisher of India and Lahore.” Nuruddin repeated this to Henry Lawrence years later—and presented him with a gold watch. Ellenborough was also told, and in turn told Queen Victoria, that a grateful Sher Singh had granted lands to Azizuddin.
Azizuddin was a man of words not weapons. The closest he had been to a sword was when he had been accidentally injured by Dewan Bishan Singh at a darbar a few years earlier. He had “no fancy in his old age for bayonet thrusts from rude Sikhs,” it was said. Nearing the age of 65, Azizuddin would have preferred to retire quietly with dignity and to spend his remaining days composing poetry in the Sufi tradition. But the choice was not his to make. Honor and dishonor, Azizuddin knew, lay in the hands of the Almighty. Did not the Holy Quran say: “You give power to whom You please; and You strip power from whomever You please; You endow with honor whomsoever You choose, and You bring low whomever You please.” Azizuddin had received honor beyond the limits of his imagination; in the final years of his life, he was to experience its inversion.
He was forced to learn that whereas once a word in the ear of the Maharaja would have been enough to secure an appointment for any member of his family, now to secure the vakil-ship at Ferozepur for his son Shahdin, he had to importune the menial Mungla. She had become Rani Jindan’s intermediary, her “channel of communication for all but the great chiefs.” Broadfoot wrote to Currie that “the Fukeer wishes the situation for its own advantages, but he wishes also to have the means of securing his property there and a probable share in the important negotiations which every native of consideration looks as near at hand.”
While the Panchayats and Gulab Singh were scheming how they should denude these senior courtiers of their wealth, a party of Sikh horsemen crossed the Sutlej into British territory without permission. Broadfoot asked the Sikh generals for an explanation. His kharita and parwana “caused great anger.” Immediately, Azizuddin, Nuruddin, and Bhai Ram Singh were summoned to appear before them. These three confirmed that everything Broadfoot had said in his letter was “in conformity with justice and with the treaties.” They advised that an unqualified submission would be the only course of action that would not threaten the alliance. Both brothers refused to “have anything to do with the preparation of any letters defending the conduct of the Durbar.” The Fakirs were consulted again and maintained their recommendation that “an apology and dismissal of the Sowars” was necessary.
Azizuddin could see that in such chaotic and turbulent conditions a sure hand was required at the wheel of state. His preference was for Gulab Singh. Azizuddin, Broadfoot wrote, “chooses to remain aloof but according to his custom, secures his own ends by means of bad advice given by his brother Fuqeer Nooroodeen and others.” There could have been no better example of this diversionary tactic than during Azizuddin’s final appearance at the Darbar in September 1845. The Darbar had decided that the British, by not permitting Sikh troops to go unhindered across the Sutlej, had exceeded the bounds of hospitality.
They proposed to send a letter to remind them that the Darbar had at great cost twice invaded Afghanistan for the benefit of the British; that English armies had traversed the Punjab to the detriment of its people and government, an injury which had been patiently borne by the Darbar; that [the British] had been permitted to occupy Ferozepur, which by right belonged to the Darbar, on condition of keeping no more troops there than were necessary for the management of the district, but that in spite of this a great army was collected. (Ellenborough’s accumulation of 17,000 men and 66 guns had been increased by his successor, Hardinge, to 40,000 men and 94 guns.) If the British government did not at once withdraw all combatant troops from Ferozepur and allow the Sikh forces free passage, “the Darbar would decline to deal with anyone save the governor-general in person.”
In his account narrating the jingoistic proceedings of the Darbar, Broadfoot continued: “The tone and the words used were unusual and insolent, but the paper was heard by the generals with great applause. Bhai Ram Singh and Fakir Azizuddin, who represented what remained of the moderate party, would have nothing to do with it; whereupon Jawahir Singh said publicly that he would not be surprised if the troops and faithful Sikhs were to burn down their houses.”
Both Bhai Ram Singh and Azizuddin were summoned to appear in person before the Darbar. Bhai Ram Singh refused; Azizuddin thought it more politic to obey.
The Fakir, more at the mercy of the Darbar, attended. And, after a scene almost comical, gave an ambiguous approval understood by the intelligent, but taken literally by Jawahir Singh and his companions. He declared the style and composition to be admirable and calculated to fill the English with terror; that in his day such a letter would not have been answered, for Ranjit Singh had to deal with Sir D. Ochterlony and other headstrong men; but that he had no doubt the change was as great on the south as on the north side of the Sutlej, and if so the parwana would produce the desired effect. He flattered them with such great ability that he obtained Rs. 500 as a present, the promise of a jagir, and, what he valued more, the promise of never being sent for again on such a matter. On taking leave he said, so strong was habit at his years, that greatly as he admired the parwana and the spirit that dictated it, he could not help advising as most favorable to tranquility, adherence to the old treaty, and established rules.
This appearance was to be Azizuddin’s swansong. He withdrew completely into the protective privacy of his haveli, and safe within its walls he withdrew within himself, devoting his time to contemplation and poesy.
Alone but not lonely, Fakir Nuruddin had little time to himself to ponder over his situation. If he had earlier been an instrument in the hands of Ranjit Singh, he had to be careful now not to become too overt a tool in the hands of the British. His position as a Muslim, in a sense already the senior most Muslim in the Punjab, had not yet matured into the role that he would occupy once the British had absorbed the Punjab completely. He remained noncommittal during a discussion on the oscillating policy within the Darbar on the disturbed territory of Hazara—much to Henry Lawrence’s annoyance, they would agree on a thing one day and renege the next day—and prudently silent when he received a roobakaree or order permitting Muslims throughout the kingdom to cry their calls to prayer and abolishing all religious restrictions except the killing of kine.
At Aligarh, Coxe received the formal warrant from the government for the detention of the Maharani. From there Coxe wrote to Currie:
“Fuqueer Noorooddeen left us at Meerut on 22nd instant on his return to Lahore. He marches via Saharanpur and Umballa to Ferozepore. I take this opportunity of the Fuqueer’s departure to mention to you that as far as his demeanor towards myself is concerned, I found him all that could be wished, but in the presence of the Maharanee, he was in the habit of evincing a degree of timidity and hesitation in addressing Her Highness, and especially on those occasions when I had to communicate some instructions for her unveiling, for which I was a long time unable to assign a cause. I believe now from what the Fuqueer let fall before his departure that this nervousness was occasioned by the fear that his position with the Maharanee might be misrepresented, and that he would incur obloquy at Lahore as being the willing custodian instead of a mere channel of communication between the Ranee and myself. This, mixed up perhaps with a little actual fear of the lady herself, has prevented the Fuqueer from being at times, quite as eloquent a medium of communication as I would have wished; otherwise I have found him most attentive and useful.”
The above excerpts from The Resourceful Fakirs: Three Muslim Brothers at the Sikh Court of Lahore (Three Rivers Publishers, New Delhi, 2014) have been published with the permission of the author, Aijazuddin, who is a lineal descendant of Fakir Nuruddin. From our March 1 & 8, 2014, issue.