It was extraordinary for an illiterate man to evolve into a crafty warlord who worked for others to create his own empire. Promoted by Khalisa Durbar, he allied with the East India Company, and eventually raised loans to purchase Kashmir in instalments. But Gulab Singh, the ruthlessly ambitious maverick who founded J&K state, shall remain an enigma throughout history for cobbling a heterogenic state that defies logic but still exists 157 years after his death, reports Masood Hussain

This photograph was taken by Samuel Bourne in the 1860s as part of an album entitled ‘Photographs of India and Overland Route.’

Manhattan Indians’ sold New York City to Dutch settlers in 1614 for about 24 dollars. In 1867 even America purchases ‘Russian America’ for 7.2 million dollars from Russia and renamed it Alaska. But the sale of Kashmir by East India Company in March 1846 continues to be the most discussed sale of a nation ever. Nearly 170 years later, this Rs 75 lakh purchase still haunts Kashmir nation’s core conscience. Key to its tensions and instability, Kashmir is still groping to find a way to stop devouring generations.

The March 16, 1846, Treaty that sold Kashmir, “their fields, crops, streams, even the peasants…” – as poet Iqbal lamented later, was signed more than 500 km away from Srinagar, in Amritsar. “On this occasion, Maharaja Gulab Singh stood up and with joined hands, expressed his gratitude to the British Viceroy – adding, without, however, any ironical meaning,” recorded Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham, an East India Company official, in his celebrated History of Sikhs. “That he was indeed the zar-kharid or gold-boughten slave!”

Dress Begging King

A Britsih Library painting showing Gulab Singh’s Jammu palace

A man making a historic purchase still thinks to be a slave! He maintained this character while ruling Kashmir with an iron hand. “No native dare appear before the King in a handsome dress, for fear the King will beg it away,” records John B Ireland in his Wall Street to Kashmir. “He has been known to beg a dress from a Nautch dancer.”

“With the customary offering of a rupee as Nazar anyone could get his ear; even in a crowd one could catch his eye by holding up a rupee and crying out, Maharaj, Arz Hai, that is, ‘Maharaja, a petition.’ He would pounce down like a hawk on the money, and having appropriated it would patiently hear out the petitioner,” K M Panikkar quotes an English writer in his Gulab Singh (1792-1858) Founder of Kashmir. “A man, after this fashion making a complaint, when the Maharaja was taking the rupee, closed his hand and said: ‘No, first hear what I have to say.’ Even this did not go beyond Gulab Singh’s patience; he waited till the fellow had told his tale and opened his hand, then taking the money, he gave orders about the case.”

But that was just a facet of Gulab Singh whose meteoric rise from Jammu, is an interesting story. Instead of encouraging him to study, Kishore Singh, his father trained him in a “hard school, where lying, intrigue, and treachery were all considered part and parcel of politics.” The result was obvious. “Hardly able to sign his name,” Major Smyth writes in Reigning of Lahore, “He (Gulab Singh) looks after his own accounts and often has the very grain for his horses weighed out before him.”

But it was not his knowledge but his soldiering that fetched him what he wanted. In 1808 when he was 16, Gulab performed exceptionally well against Sikh invaders in the battle at Gumat in Jammu. Soon Gulab left home and was employed by a Sultan in Bhimber, a job he soon left. He wanted to join Afghans but skipped the idea. Later he joined Ranjit Singh’s army somewhere between 1809 or 1812.

Trio Takeoff

A William Carpenter litho-chromograph showing the life in Srinagar with Khanqah-e-Maula in background

But history has an interestingly different take for the rise of Singh brothers – Gulab, Suchet and Deyan. “It happened that once during a campaign, the brother was placed as sentinel outside Runjeet’s tent. The latter, who had an eye for personal beauty, was pleased with the soldierly appearance of the Rajput, and promoted him, giving him a place about his person,” Baron Erich Von Schonber wrote in his Travels in India and Kashmir. “The advancement of one brother was a stepping-stone for the others. Gulab and Dehan Singh shared their brother’s good fortune, and in a short time, Dehan enjoyed the special favour of the Rajah.”

“Deyan Singh speedily took the place of a chamberlain,” writes G M D Sufi in his Kashir: Being a History of Kashmir. “Gulab Singh obtained a petty command, and distinguished himself by the seizure of Aghan Jan, the chief of Rajauri.” Suchet, their “young, graceful and handsome” brother with “engaging qualities”, often referred to as the ‘gay courtier’ at Lahore “warmed his way into the Maharaja’s considerations” and one-eyed Ranjit Singh became so fond of him that “he would never allow him to be absent from his presence.”

On June 17, 1822, Ranjit Singh after attending their father’s funeral gave the family the Chakla jagir in Jammu. Soon, they were elevated as Rajas – Dhyan got Poonch and Suchet Ramnagar. But the warrior Gulab proved different. He stayed put in Jammu unlike his brothers and crushed rebels like Mian Dido. He started consolidating his possession and expanding it using sheer power or petty tricks.

A Wily Warlord

A William Carpenter litho-chromograph showing Gulab Singh with his son in 1855.

Baron Erich Von Schonber offers interesting insights into Gulab Singh’s Kishtwar takeover. While in control of Jammu, Gulab wrote to Kishtwar Rajah informing him that Lahore is sending an army for takeover. By the time response came from Kishtwar, Baron says Singh had “forged” letters and sent them to Lahore inviting Ranjit Singh to take over Kishtwar. Informing Kishtwar that his Vazier was in league with Lahore, Gulab Singh managed his ouster and imprisonment thus frustrating this small principality. Even when the Raja of Kishtwar came to seek advice from Jammu Raja, Gulab Singh imprisoned him and took over Kishtwar. Ranjit Singh was happy and gave this area for him to govern but set the Kishtwar’s Raja free. Once out of jail, he left for Lahore to seek justice. “As many sirdars interested themselves in his favour, it is probable that something would have been done for him, had not Gulab Singh bribed his servants, who, for a sum of ten thousand rupees, poisoned him,” recorded Baron.

In 1834, his ruthless General Zorawar Singh conquered Ladakh and in 1840 Skardu, but his army was annihilated during their attack on Tibet.

Despite being the most trusted lieutenant of Lahore, he faced a crisis when he was summoned and literally kept in protective custody on April 7, 1845, at Lahore. He managed his return honourably using his connections but never forgot the humiliation.

Gulab was not so unfriendly with the East India Company. In 1841 he helped the British army to pass through Punjab and helped them in supplies. In the 1845-46 war between British and Sikhs, Gulab stayed away and, after Sikhs lost it, became an arbitrator.  In lieu of one crore rupees of indemnity, East India Company took over hill countries between Beas and Indus rivers including Kashmir and Hazara on March 9, 1846, and later under Treaty of Amritsar on March 16, Gulab Singh paid Rs 75 lakh and took over the possession of Kashmir, Chamb, Ladakh, Jammu and Baltistan.

Gulab Singh borrowed some amount from Shaikh Saudagar, the army transport supplier to Sikh government, who subsequently was appointed as Vazier-i-Jammu. The amount was paid in four instalments, the last one on March 14, 1850. The Treaty underwent a change a year later. Instead of Chamb, Gulab Singh got Bhaderwah and yearly presentation of live animals was dropped in 1893. There were murmurs of a mistake in giving Kashmir to a “ruler of a different race” but Company’s Board of Directors justified the decision for the fear of managing distant Kashmir at huge costs at a time when defraying war costs was a priority. Soon after the Treaty, Lord Hardinge visited Kashmir for 10 days in 1846 spring.

Kashmir Takeover

Sheikh Immamuddin, the last Sikh governor, William Carpenter painting of 1855.

Kashmir was unchanged. Still, under the massively exploitative Sikh rule, Imam-ud-Din was governing the Vale. Apparently, under the written instructions of Lahore’s Sikh Vazier Lal Singh, Din resisted Dogra takeover. With the help of some tribesmen living in Kashmir periphery, he annihilated Gulab Singh’s posse and their commander Lakhpat Rai.

Treaty protected Singh’s possession. Lord Hardinge sent a huge force from Jullnder on September 22. British intervened and Din left Kashmir through Shopian, on October 23, survived a snowstorm and surrendered before Sir Henry Lawrence on October 31 near Bahram Galla. Later, an open case was launched against him by British but he proved evidence suggesting he had resisted on the directions of Lahore. With the last obstacle cleared, Gulab Singh moved into Kashmir as a sovereign on November 9, 1846, at 8 am. British agent Colonel H K Lawrence accompanied him.

For Gulab Singh, this was a historic entry into Kashmir as it completed his dream. Involved in Kashmir for a long time, he wielded more influence than even Lahore durbar. He was, in fact, Khalisa Durbar’s Kashmir architect from day one.

Ranjit Singh had tried annexing Kashmir in 1813 and failed. A year later he personally marched to Poonch and sent his army but rains forced a retreat. Somehow annexing Kashmir was deferred till Pandit Birbal Dhar, the Ijaradhar of Devsar, fell with Afghan ruler Azim Khan and fled Kashmir with his son. On way to Lahore, he reached Jammu through Gulabgarh.

Diwan Kirpa Ram gives a graphic picture of Dhar’s reception by Gulab Singh in his Gulabnama. “Because the marriage ceremony of the paternal aunt of his Lordship was then fast approaching so Diwan Sahib Amir Chand, was appointed to accompany the said Pandit,” Diwan wrote. “A high recommendation was written out to Lahore Sarkar and also a letter in name of Raja Sahib Dhian Singh with the remark that the key of the door of Kashmir valley had fallen into the hands of the nobles of the state.” Gulab Singh later accompanied Dhar and Misar Dewan Chand, Ranjit’s commander, when the Sikh army entered through Shopian and took-over Kashmir on July 5, 1819.

In the subsequent 27 years, 10 governors squeezed Kashmir but Gulab’s influence increased phenomenally. In 1841 after Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, serial murders were reported in the succession battles. Gulab lost his two brothers; two sons and a nephew in it. In Srinagar, Sikh infantry rebelled. Seeking hike in their salary, they killed Colonel Mehan Singh in July, the Sikh governor known more for laying Basant Bagh and less for murdering his wife in Sherghari Palace, first by suffocating her in her bath and later offering her poison which she drank. Singh’s death was a crisis for Lahore and Sher Singh deputed Gulab Singh to manage Kashmir. Gulab arrived, had a pitched battle with rebels at Natipora. Both sides suffered losses but Gulab restored order.

On directions of Lahore, Shyikh Ghulam Mohiuddin was installed as the new governor. A Jullunder shoemaker, who rose through the ranks in Sikh durbar was once “pinched with red hot irons” by Ranjit Singh, following which he gave him Rs 14 lakhs. Once free and literally a beggar, Ranjit Singh was informed that he has his wealth hidden in his father’s tomb located with his house. “The tomb was opened and found to contain, not a mouldering skeleton, but solid gold,” notes Baron. “Under the floor of Muhiuddin’s private room was found a flooring of these gold bricks, the walls were filled with them, the beams of the roof were hollowed out and stuffed with the same precious material. Runjit Singh took all this, and, including a lac of rupees that Gulab Singh paid for Muhiuddin’s liberation.”

With Ranjit dead, Kharak Singh rediscovered Muhiuddin and gave him Kashmir to govern. While installing him in 1842, Gulab Singh gave him one lakh rupees. “This is the man under whose iniquitous rule Kashmir now groans — unhappy Kashmir, which seems destined to feel for a long time the tyrant’s rod!” notes Baron Erich Von Schonber who spent many months in Kashmir in 1845. “The Schaykh, Gulam Muhuiddin, was his instrument, his creature: crafty and unprincipled in the extreme, he was just the man for his service.”

Then, Kashmir was agog with rumours of an impending British invasion on Gulab Singh’s behalf. Baron found Muhuiddin, pro-Gulab Singh but his army commander Waris Khan supportive of Lahore. He saw the relations between the two “not very satisfactory” and the governor “very uncomfortable”. Baron has detailed his literal house arrest and theft of documents at the behest of Gulab Singh. “There were some soldiers of Gulab Singh in the city, and a large body of troops was expected within a few days,” Baron noted. “In the meantime, negotiations were to be entered into, to try to induce Waris Khan to surrender the fort and join the governor’s party.”

Mohuiddin was poisoned in 1845 and buried at Mukhdoom Sahab, paying the way for his son Imamuddin to takeover. Barely freed by Lahore that kept him hostage till his father reigned in Srinagar, Imamuddin was remote-controlled by Lal Singh, on whose directions he resisted Gulab Singh’s takeover. Later, East India Company investigated his role and found Lal Singh responsible.

Object Lessons

A painting by James Duffield Harding showing Bijbehara village in 1847.

Finally succeeding in creating a state, not so smaller than England, Gulab Singh could rule for slightly less than 11 years. But he managed it as more of a fief than a state. Chilling accounts exist about his governance, exploitation and cruelty.

“A few minutes after, I passed one of the first marks of civilization — the skeleton of some poor murderous wretch, I suppose, who had been starved to death in a cage suspended fixed in a gibbet,” Ireland noted in December 1853 about his entry into Srinagar. Then, Gulab Singh was in Kashmir’s firm control. “This being purely a Hindoo and Sikh town, the killing of a cow is punished by death. The wretch I saw hanging in a box as I arrived had been hanged for that offence.”

“I went out this morning in my boat, and we sailed towards the open plain beyond the precincts of the city, where two gibbets were standing, garnished by horrible skeletons of men in chains hanging, propped up (by wires) in wooden cages,” records Mrs Hervey in her travelogue The Adventures of a Lady in Tartary…in August 1850. “Their clothes were still on them, and these ghastly skeletons looked very revolting, leaching in the bright sunlight. They have been hanging for two or three years; their crime was murder. The family of one of the two lives close-by. How very callous must the wife and mother be, who continue to inhabit such a neighbourhood!”

Throughout his career, Gulab Singh believed in ‘object lessons’. “Some of his prisoners were flayed under his own eye. The executioner hesitated and Gulab Singh asked him if he were about to operate upon his father or mother, and rated him for being so chicken-hearted,” Sufi has quoted from Godfrey Thomas Vigne’s Travels In Kashmir, a firsthand account from his July 1835 incident when Singh had gone to Poonch for managing an insurrection. “He then ordered one or two of the skins to be stuffed with straw… the figure was then planted on the wayside that passersby might see it, and Gulab Singh called his son’s attention to it and told him to take a lesson in the art of governing.”

Diminishing Returns

A painting by James Duffield Harding showing Gulab Singh’s Jammu Palace being guarded by his army in 1847.

Once firmly in control, Gulab Singh started filling his coffers. “The gardens are nearly a jungle, and, with the exception of the principal one in the Shalimar, the palaces are almost ruins,” Ireland recorded, “Goolaub Singh attending more to substantial realities in the way of filling his coffers, than creating, or even keeping in order, the artificial beauties of palaces, gardens, and fountains.” Added Panikkar: “Gulab Singh knew well enough the value of gold in such unsettled times and considered great expenditure on palaces and buildings to be a mere waste of money.”

All those who travelled through Kashmir in his era were pained by the filthy, miserable appearance of the state and its subjects. “Since Goolab Singh’s accession to the kingdom of Kashmir, the population is yearly diminishing, through the poverty and disease brought on by his cruel and oppressive rule,” recorded Mrs Hervey. “Besides, were it not that every pass out of Kashmir is carefully guarded, so as to render egress most difficult, the number of emigrants would be so overpowering, that the province would be entirely depopulated in the course of a year or two.” He would sign every “trifling order” and take “all his accounts himself” and it did not exclude passports.

Almost every source of income belonged to the state. “Among other matters, the avarice, oppression, and cruelty of Goolaub Singh, who is admitted to be the wealthiest man in India, and which he has scattered all over the country for safety,” Ireland recorded on December 22, 1853. “Part is in a secret place in the fort at Jamoo, which was constructed a few years ago, and to preserve the secret, the men who built it were destroyed.”

Ireland gave a descriptive system of taxation: the tax on the birth of lamb was one anna (8 cents), calf 4 annas, for a marriage one rupee (60 cents plus 11 days of wages), every shop in the city pays three annas a day. A fishing boat four annas a day, walnut trees ten annas a year. His computation suggested seven-eighths of the land produce landed in his pocket. Shawl-manufacturers paid 30% of their earnings in addition to 300% duty on raw material import. Nearly 400 weavers on June 6, 1847, ceased work and proceeded towards Lahore in protest.

“After the grain is harvested, it must be stacked and remain, until the government assessors report and the King chooses to fix the rate of the tax. Sometimes it is two or three months. In the meanwhile the poor wretch, if they have none of the old crop left are obliged to subsist on turnips and herbs,” Ireland recorded.

“They (his predecessors) had taxed heavily, it is true but he (Gulab) sucked the very life-blood of the people,” Col Torrens wrote in his Travels in 1863. “They had laid violent hands on a large proportion of the fruits of the earth, the profits of the loom, and the work of men’s hands, but he skinned the very flints to fill his coffers.”

Exploitation was so massive that people stopped working. Revenue started diminishing. Mrs Hervey reported the state revenues nose-diving three-fourth since Sikh rule despite Gulab Singh forcing tilling of every patch of land available. Beagaar, the forced labour, was such a routine that even European travellers including Mrs Hervey would force people to do it for them.

Genuinely Zar-Kharied

This photograph shows the tree in Bhimber Rawalakote on which Gulab Singh hanged the rebels and kept them hanging for years.

In utter disregard to what he was doing to his subjects, Gulab Singh would entertain all the Europeans visiting the Vale. From their entry to their departure, everything was free. Residents would carry their luggage and the state would pay for everything.

“…It was the custom for every European, of whatever nation he might be, who visited the valley of Cashmere, to be received as a guest, and entertained as such, from the instant of his entering the country to the moment of his departure,” writes John Martin Honigberger, the physician to the Lahore Court, in his Thirty-Five Years In The East after spending two months in 1852 summer in Kashmir. “Even the hill-porters who carried the baggage were by the officials of the maharajah placed at the disposal of the visitors.”

Apparently, in a bid to keep the East India Company in good humour, Gulab Singh would invite these visitors to his palace for meals. It would create interesting instances as the guests would send their spoons, plates and forks in advance to the palace and then Singh would see them but never eat with them. To entertain them, Gulab would arrange exhibitions of fireworks, illuminations on the river, music, and dancing-girls.

Mrs Hervey was one of the few visitors who repeatedly denied an invitation. But the master of Kashmir who would slay people on just a provocation never felt bad. As she was leaving Kashmir and the king was aware of Princey, her pet dog’s demise, Gulab Singh gifted her new pet from the royal kernel! She named her Monte.

Ruthless Gulab Singh, however, was scared of the Europeans. But that did not prevent the ‘miser’ king from sharing his dilemma with various visitors. In a conversation with Honigberger, Gulab Singh complained that many of the servants of the European visitors had abused the hospitality displayed towards them: “…they had frequently taken with them very large quantities of saffron, and other products of the country, much beyond what they could really use during their sojourn.”

Almost a year after his takeover, the Company had sent Lt Reynell G Taylorm, an Assistant to Resident of Lahore for investigating various complaints against him. Taylrom spent six days from June 14, 1847, in Srinagar where Gulab’s son (with his slave girl) Mian Hutto Singh represented durbar. Nothing much is known about follow-up but historians widely believe the complaints were more about the European visitors than his subjects.

In 1848 Lord Hardinge wrote him about his intentions of appointing a Resident because his administration “aroused misgiving”. The idea revived in 1851 and this time objective was to look after the interest of an increasing number of British visitors.

Death By Dropsy

A statue of Gulab Singh at Amar Mahal Palace, Jammu.

At a time when he asked Dr Honigberger to enter his service, Gulab’s health was falling. In anticipation of his death, he had anointed his son Ranbir as his successors in February 1856. He took over as governor of Kashmir. Inflicted by dropsy, he is reported to have distributed one lakh rupees as antya dhan (last gifts of charity) before he died on June 30, 1857, at the age of 65. Consigned to flames at Rambagh, Sufi has quoted Mrs Ashby Carus-Wilson saying that Colonel Urmston prevented Sati of his five widows.


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