Exhibition: Empire of the Sikhs

 

Exhibition dates: 12 July – 23 September 2018

This major free exhibition telling the story of the last great native kingdom which challenged the British for supremacy of the Indian subcontinent opens today. The Sikh Empire (1799–1849), which spanned much of modern day Pakistan and northwest India, was forged by the ‘Napoleon of the East’ Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839) who became known as Sher-e-Punjab, the Lion of Punjab, over his forty-year reign.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh established a powerful military meritocracy that included many European officers. His empire offered a crucial buffer state between the British and incursions via the Khyber Pass. The one-eyed king was a trusted ally of the British but also a potentially formidable opponent.

The inevitable clash with the British came in the form of two bitterly fought Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845–46, 1848–49) in which British pre-eminence hung in the balance as they came within hours of a total surrender. But through treachery, victory was turned into defeat for the Sikhs whose territories, treasury and fighting men became incorporated into British dominion.

A source of great interest to British visitors to the Sikh royal court prior to annexation was the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was wrested from Afghan hands in 1813. The fabled jewel was eventually presented to Queen Victoria on 3 July 1850 in the armlet that Ranjit Singh had specially made for it. Fitted with a rock crystal replica of the original, uncut Koh-i-Noor, it is now preserved as part of the Royal Collection and will be one of the highlights on display along with a stunning array of over 100 objects and works of art from leading private and public collections.

Among them will be glittering jewellery and weaponry from the Sikh Empire including personal items that belonged to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the most famous of his thirty ‘official’ wives, Maharani Jind Kaur. They were the parents of the deposed boy-king Maharaja Duleep Singh and grandparents to prominent suffragette (and goddaughter to Queen Victoria), Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

For more information visit the website of the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London.

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