Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Maharaja in the Museum


            Five of us: my parents, sister, cousin, and I search quickly along the glass displays.  “Neepu, look at this.”  Gopi’s excitement reminds me of our childhood adventures.  Even though he’s fifteen days older than I am, I remember leading our adventures through our village in Punjab.  It was my idea to try and finish homework before even getting home from school—Gopi, his older sister, and I sat down where the village men usually got together to play cards, pulled out our notebooks and began our homework session while our grandparents and mothers went from house to house asking if anybody had seen us.  My mission today in this British museum is just as noble, to locate every single Sikh-related historical object before the museum closes in the next half hour.  
            I walk over to where Gopi is standing in front of a thin black sword with a snaking blade.  “Neepu, this is ours right?”
            “No Gopi, look at the style.  Sikh swords have more intricate patterns and designs.  This is plain, it’s probably European.”  Sure enough, the mini description clarifies that it is Scottish.  “We take a lot of pride in the royal appearance of our weapons.  Trust me, when you see one, you’ll recognize it.”  He shrugs and continues searching.  I see my parents standing next to a huge glass island in the middle of the room, reading something. 
            “Look, it’s the shield of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.”  They show me a large black shield with golden borders depicting hunting scenes in the center and profiles of the Maharaja probably near the edges.  I call over Gopi and my sister who has been running around taking photos of random things that are cool in her dictionary.  “Look at how beautiful it is.  Now this is the pride of Sikh royalty.”  My eyes move to the other objects surrounding the shield; there is a mini painting of the Maharaja seated on his throne with an attendant behind him.  The bright greens and blues of his robe, jewel-encrusted turban, and the red canopy and carpet surround ‘The Lion of Punjab’ in true cultural and historical splendor—he had ruled over all of Northern India, Pakistan, the Khyber Pass all the way into Southern Afghanistan, and parts of Western Tibet.  The Sikh Empire lasted 150 years and enjoyed 50 years of golden prosperity under Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
            There is a matching sword and sheath probably three feet long.  The sheath is black with gold engravings outlining a flower pattern a solid golden tip probably six inches long engraved finely as well.  There are embroidered velvet straps attached to round golden seals of the Maharaja—this is probably how he attached his sword to the rest of his attire.  Or perhaps I think with horror, these weapons were removed from his dead body after the British defeated the Sikh Empire. 
            I wonder how many times the Maharaja had taken the sword with its golden and ebony horse-shaped handle out of its sheath to serve justice or defend his subjects.  The Maharaja had one good eye after childhood smallpox, but that eye was a jeweler’s eye and the eye of justice.  He collected priceless jewels; I doubt the British royalty will ever display anything but replicas of the looted treasures.  The swords and shields in this museum must not mean very much to them, but the few that have been returned are secured in historical Sikh gurdwaras throughout India, shown to the pilgrims with a great sense of pride and loss.  At least not everything from our royal history is locked in a British museum.
            We find other daggers and swords from the Sikh Raj—probably belonging to defeated soldiers.  We can only take pictures of the sword and shield from multiple angles before we have to leave.