Empire of the Sikhs Exhibition Opens in London
Over 100 dazzling artworks and objects tell the story of a cosmopolitan empire that almost ended British rule in India
This summer heralds a major exhibition telling the story of the last great native kingdom which challenged the British for supremacy of the Indian subcontinent. ‘Empire of the Sikhs’ will be on view at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS from 12 July to 23 September 2018.
The Sikh Empire (1799–1849), which spanned much of modern day Pakistan and northwest India, as forged by the ‘Napoleon of the East’ Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839). He became known as Sher-e-Punjab, the Lion of Punjab, over his forty-year reign during which he established a powerful military meritocracy that included many European officers. The one-eyed king of Lahore was a trusted ally of the British but also a potentially formidable opponent and his empire offered a crucial buffer between them and incursions via the Khyber Pass.
The inevitable clash came in the form of two bitterly fought Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845–46, 1848–49) in which British pre-eminence hung in the balance as they came within hours of a total surrender. But through treachery, victory was turned into defeat for the Sikhs whose territories, treasury and fighting men became incorporated into British dominion.
A source of great interest to western visitors to the Sikh royal court prior to annexation was the Koh-i-nûr diamond, which was wrested from Afghan hands in 1813. The fabled jewel was eventually presented to Queen Victoria on 3 July 1850 in the armlet that Ranjit Singh had specially made for it. Fitted with a rock crystal replica of the original, uncut Koh-i-nûr, it is now preserved as part of the Royal Collection and will be one of the highlights on display along with a stunning array of over 100 objects and works of art from leading private and public collections.
Among them will be glittering jewellery and weaponry from the Sikh Empire including personal items that belonged to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the most famous of his thirty ‘official’ wives, Maharani Jind Kaur. They were the parents of the deposed boy-king Maharaja Duleep Singh and grandparents to prominent suffragette (and goddaughter to Queen Victoria), Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.
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