Mystique of treasures

April 05, 2009

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ON March 10, 1957, in a run down house in Model Town, Lahore, died the last grandchild of the greatest ruler of the Punjab, Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The few remaining 'treasures' of the Lahore Darbar still left with Princess Bamba, mainly oil paintings of the 19th century, were 'gifted' to the government. They are today displayed in Rani Jindan's Palace in the Lahore Fort.

Princess Bamba died a virtual pauper. She refused to leave Lahore. Her father, Maharajah Dulip Singh, had been robbed of his 'rightful' treasures by the British government, leaving him to die in 1893 in Paris, as a bankrupt refugee.

The eminent geologist Suzy Menkes states in her book on the British royal jewels that 'the treasures accumulated from India by the British as gifts, or war booty, from the Indian Maharajahs, especially the massive one found in the Lahore Fort, are listed in a very secret manual kept by jewellers to the Royal family, Messrs Garrads & Co., and they are not willing to let the historians see the list, even a century after the demise of Queen Victoria'. Why such secrecy?

There are compelling reasons to believe that it was the greatest and largest treasure ever found in history anywhere, by any conqueror, let alone the East India Company. Ironically, the people of Lahore, to whom this treasure actually belongs, know the least about it. That is why it makes sense to try to piece together some details. For reference, keep in mind the purchasing value of a single silver rupee.

In Ranjit Singh's days for 10 silver rupees, you could buy a gold sovereign weighing seven grams. Today, ten grams of gold costs Rs6,990. This means that a silver rupee would today cost approximately Rs489.
A few years after Maharajah Ranjit Singh's death, famous historian Carl Steinbeck estimated that there were the 'over eight crores silver rupees in cash that were officially accounted for in the Lahore Treasury inside the Lahore Fort by the East India Company'.

Then came the Lahore Jewellery Collection, probably the largest and most important ever in history. This was followed by a dazzling collection of 'over 48,700 pure woollen Kashmiri shawls that were stacked in several rooms'.

Today, such a shawl would easily cost over Rs100,000 each, if not more. Then came an array of 'other treasures, which alone were estimated at several crore rupees more,' says Steinbeck in his book. In his comments he adds 'It was doubtful whether any royal family in Europe had so many jewels as the Court of Lahore'.

Between 1849 and 1850, the treasures of the Lahore Darbar were looted by the British. The most famous and well-known jewels of Maharajah Ranjit Singh were taken away as 'gifts to the British Sovereign Queen Victoria'.
The throne of Ranjit Singh is today in the Victoria and Albert Museum at London. The famous diamond Kohis the star attraction in the display of British crown jewels in the Tower of London Museum.

The famous Timur Ruby (283 carats), the second largest in the world and once occupying pride of place in the 17th century Peacock Throne of Emperor Shah Jahan, was kept for quite some time as one of the minor treasures, till one British officer recognised it as the Timur Ruby.

Maharajah Dulip Singh, the son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, was brought up as a ward of the East India Company in England. Photographs exist showing him standing next to Queen Victoria, in grand jewellery, a very small portion of the treasures of the Sikh empire that he had.

Dulip Singh, in the later years, embarked on a campaign of trying to find out how much of the treasures had been taken away from the Lahore Treasury and with great difficulty succeeded in locating two of the seven catalogues that had been printed for sale at Lahore in 1849-50. No record could be found of the sum of money raised.

The seven auctions of Maharajah Ranjit Singh's confiscated treasures were sold by Messrs Lattie Brothers, of Hays-on-Wyes, in the Diwan-i-Aam of the Lahore Fort, the last one starting on Monday, Dec 2, 1850, for five successive days.

The sale of 95 items of the second catalogue, out of 952 items listed, fetched Rs139,287 only. To realise the unbelievable throwaway prices (of these 95 items alone) at which the treasures were sold, page 56 of the catalogue describes item No 61, as 'a magnificent jewelled dagger with belt inlaid with diamonds of purest water, the gold mounting sheath beautifully enamelled also inlaid with large diamonds and rubies attached with massive tassels of large pearls'.

Then comes Item 70, 'a magnificent Bajooband (armlet), the centre being a very large emerald of finest colour estimated to weigh 47 carats surrounded by very valuable rubies estimated to weigh 290 carats.
At the end of the tassel was a very large sapphire. This ornament formerly belonged to Ahmad Shah, the founder of the Afghan Durrani Empire, and bears his name'.

So what is the true extent of the Lahore Treasure? It is a reasonable estimate that minus the jewels, the current value of the treasure would be well over Rs78 billion. The jewels, including the Koh-i-Noor and the Timur Ruby, and hundreds of major diamond pieces that it constituted, I will not venture to name a price.

My calculator has betrayed me. So let the mystique of the world's largest and greatest treasure remain. The British definitely put in far less than what they took away in one year 1849-50, alone.

The Bamba Collection is merely a 'shade of a reminder of a glorious past', one we still do not acknowledge. Such is the power of bigotry.