Every time you hear the name of Lahore’s Bhati Gate, the first name that comes to mind is the Fakir Khana Museum, which is the family house of the ancestors of one of the three famous Fakir brothers, all connected to the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh.
The Fakir family is, without doubt, one of the most distinguished families of old Lahore, whose family lineage needs some introduction. In the second half of this piece I will concentrate on the eldest brother, Fakir Azizuddin, the genius foreign minister of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who was a distinguished diplomat, physician and an outstanding linguist of his age. He was respected immensely by the British, and, to a certain degree, he was the man who prevented the initially worked up Sikhs from indulging in crazy military adventures that would have certainly seen their empire crumple much earlier than it did. This is an aspect of our history that needs a lot of research.
First the family. The records of the family show that they migrated from Bukhara, for they were Syed immigrants from the lineage of the Tenth Imam Ali-un-Naqi. The family’s oral tradition states that they moved from Arabia to Bukhara in the 7th century with the family head being Jalaluddin. Bukhara was a very important Uzbek trading city on the old Silk Route where traders, a lot of them from Multan, lived and traded with the sub-continent. It seems that the Multan trader connection could have got the family to move to Punjab.
So it was that the family in the 16th century landed at Uch, a city allegedly founded by Alexander in 325 BC. The initial settlers of this city were Greeks from Thrace. In those days a descendant of Abdul Qadir Gilani set up a Qadiriya Sufi monastery. The city already had a strong Ismaili tradition. There lived Syed Ghulam Shah, the grandfather of Fakir Azizuddin.
At Rohila on the River Beas was born Syed Ghulam Mohyuddin, who for economic reasons after the death of his father, moved to Lahore. Here he became a pupil of a famous ‘hakeem’ Abdullah Ansari. As he grew up his interest in his religion led him to become a disciple of Fakir Imanat Shah Qadri. It was from this famous Sufi of Lahore of his age that the family came to be known as the Fakir family.
Fakir Ghulam Mohyuddin had three sons, they being Azizuddin, Imamuddin and Nuruddin. In this piece my interest is in the eldest Fakir Azizuddin. I will dwell on the other two brothers in another piece. Fakir Azizuddin became a pupil of Lala Hakeem Rai, the chief physician of Lahore, and when Ranjit Singh captured Lahore in 1799 it was Fakir Azizuddin who, along with Lala Hakeem Rai, became his personal physicians.
The maharajah took a liking to the straight talking young man, and sought to get his lost eye restored. Legend has it that the young physician, fully realising that it could never be restored, said: “Would it not be better to see the world with the same eye”. The crafty Sikh ruler got the message and insisted that in future he was to be his personal physician. Soon he began consulting him about other matters of State, only to discover in the 22-year old young man a very wise person.
As the maharajah grew to depend on his advice more and more, he granted him the ‘jagir’ of the village of Sharakpur. With time these ‘jagirs’ increased manifold. The real test of the sagacity of Fakir Azizuddin came in 1809 when the British agent C.T. Metcalfe (read V.G. Kiernan’s account) negotiated a peace treaty with Azizuddin on April 25, 1809, which secured for the British the independent Sikh States between Sutlej and Jumna. In return the British were to stay away from Ranjit Singh’s Punjab. For both it was a win-win situation, especially given that both sides believed they could defeat the other.
It was in such conditions that the larger picture was explained to Ranjit Singh by Fakir Azizuddin. Documents tell us that his stand was that even if the British were defeated, which he doubted, they would return with a much larger army and conquer Punjab. The maharajah rushed him to meet Metcalfe, where the crafty Fakir convinced that fighting the Sikhs could mean losing their grip on their Empire. The British agreed with his logic and so the first Anglo-Sikh Tripartite Treaty was signed.
The British thought that through this treaty the French menace to British India would be stalled. War was averted and on return Fakir Azizuddin advised that the finest military generals fleeing the collapse of Napoleon should be hired to train a modern Punjabi Army. That advice was followed resulting in Lord Roberts saying: “The Sikh Army is one of the finest in Asia”.
The 1809 treaty led to the British determination of surrounding Punjab. On this there are two views. One that the peace treaty strengthened the British. Azizuddin’s view was that it provided the Lahore Darbar time to modernise and manage to keep the expanding British at bay. For the next 30 years Azizuddin’s view prevailed.
In 1810 he was asked to accompany most military expeditions. His role was to discuss strategy and to advise military commanders not about tactics, but how their plans fitted into a larger strategy. The capture of Gujrat ruled then by Sahib Singh Bhangi led to the Sikh Army following a policy of quick appeasement after overcoming. Azizuddin’s policy seems that defeated adversaries should never be disgraced, but provided with the incentives to support and further build Ranjit Singh’s military and financial strength. It was on this ‘conquer and grow in peace’ strategy that the Lahore Darbar prevailed.
In June 1813, led by Dewan Mokham Chand, he was among the commanders who captured Attock. This was the first victory of the Sikhs over the Durranis and the Barakzais. Ironically, during the battle the Afghan gunners of the Sikh Army refused to fire. The artillery ‘daroga’ Ghaus Khan, had instructed them so. Azizuddin convinced Ghaus Khan and also Mazhar Khan, ‘daroga’ of the horses, along with all their men, to return to Lahore to explain their grievances to Ranjit Singh.
Once in Lahore he asked the maharajah to immediately imprison them all and to end paying them a salary. That sent a shivering message to every soldier in the Khalsa Army. It showed the maharaja that wisdom needs strictness too. Attock was to prove the strategic point for capturing the entire Indus territory. It was also to prove the launch of the amazing military career of Hari Singh Nalwa, who every time he was in Lahore first paid his respects to the Fakir family.
In 1819 when asked what strategy to adopt to keep future problems at bay, we learn from J.D. Cunningham’s description that Fakir Azizuddin advised that defeating the Afghan influence in the south was the key of keeping Kabul to the west in check. So it was that the expedition of capturing Multan started.
We know that in 1831 along with Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa he went to Simla to meet the Viceroy Lord William Bentinck. In 1835 when Amir Dost Muhammad Khan moved to capture Peshawar, he boldly went out to negotiate with the Afghan invader, who soon discovered that he had been surrounded. Ranjit Singh was so pleased that on return to Lahore he was given a General’s salute.
When Ranjit Singh died on June 27, 1839, the Fakir was by his side. Till 1841 Azizuddin served as the main interlocker with the British, and it was because of him that they were kept at bay. Till 1843 he served the court, but then he increasingly felt that the intrigues of the court were too much to handle. He died on Dec 3, 1845. Thus ended the eventful life of a great diplomat, strategist, physician and linguist of Lahore.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2020