In 1801, Ranjit Singh, the young scion of a petty fiefdom in the Punjab was declared the Maharaja of Punjab. The young man went on to carve out a kingdom that stretched from the borders of Afghanistan in the west to those of the British Raj in the east—the lush hills and valleys of Kashmir, the barren mountains of Ladakh and the fertile plains of his native Punjab. The British dared not engage in military adventures against Ranjit Singh, but valued him as an ally who would keep their western frontier safe.
The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia brings alive the king’s dynamic court and his tumultuous but effective reign. In his court was Akali Phoola Singh, the tempestuous leader of the militant Sikhs, who won Ranjit Singh some of his most notable victories, but never fully submitted to his authority. The teenaged Muslim courtesan, Bibi Moran, was the love of the emperor’s life. Josiah Harlan, a Quaker from Philadelphia (the camel merchant of the title), rose to become a trusted administrator, only to defect to the Afghans. Jean Baptiste Ventura and Jean Francois Allard formed the king’s famed French legions and rose to the highest ranks of the empire’s armies.
Sarbpreet Singh’s compelling new history of Ranjit Singh’s life and times humanises a great emperor without glossing over his flaws and foibles. He examines the maharaja’s complex relationship with his mother-in-law, Mata Sada Kaur, arguably the chief architect of his ascension to the throne, just as candidly as he does the rise of the Dogra brothers, who began as humble soldiers and went on to scale unimaginable heights of power and glory in his court.
This is an unusually nuanced and complex image of Maharaja Ranjit Singh—a must-read for everyone interested in Indian history.
Sarbpreet Singh is a poet, playwright, and commentator with a career in technology. He writes a column for sikhchic.com, and his commentary has appeared elsewhere, including NPR’s Morning Edition, the Boston Herald, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Providence Journal. He is the founder and director of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of traditional Sikh music. He also serves on the boards of several non-profits focused on service and social justice and has been recognised for his interfaith work.
Pub date: 19 April 2019 | Imprint: Tranquebar | Price: INR 699