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Frescos unveiled Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Samadhi in Lahore.

For reasons unknown, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Samadhi (figure 1), a monument of great importance near the Lahore Fort, never inspired historians writing about Lahore and its architecture to document it in complete detail. During research for my doctoral thesis, I have come across quite a few interesting pieces of information regarding its construction and ornamentation. A few historians like Nur Muhammad Chishti, Rai Bahadur Kanhaya Lal, and Syed Muhammad Latif do mention it but leave out a lot in recording the details. Moreover, the absence of any photographic documentation with their accounts makes it more difficult to reconstruct the exact picture.

Every aspect--from the uncoordinated design called a "mixture of Hindu and Muhammadan styles" to the jumble of materials and techniques--when examined, casts light on the strange circumstances of the monument's construction. A study of the politics and society of this period verifies these observations and evokes awe at the fact that such a significant structure could be built despite all the misfortunes in the Lahore durbar (court) following the Maharajas demise in 1839. It was commenced immediately after the Maharajas death at the cremation site by his only legitimate son Kharak Singh, who did not have the good fortune to complete it. In the struggles for power in the durbar, Kharak Singh lost his life within a short span of 16 months after accession to the throne, and within 24 hours of this, his only son Nannehal Singh died under mysterious circumstances. These unfortunate happenings led to the crumbling of the great empire Ranjit Singh had so painstakingly and single-handedly built during the 40 years of his reign (1799-1839).


An albumen print dated somewhere between 1858 and 1867, presently in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a photograph in Lahore: Illustrated Views of the 19th century by ES. Aijazuddin, led me to investigate some unnoticed details of the Samadhi. The pristine white structure visible in the V&A print, erroneously labelled as a structure of white marble, portrays a grand monument. The two photographs showing the northern side of the still new Samadhi and comments by ES. Aijazuddin drew attention to "the mute sentinels guarding the royal shrine" painted in blind niches flanking the entrance. I had always wondered about the fact that the interior of the Samadhi's second floor displayed beautiful fresco paintings whereas the exterior was absolutely without ornament. A study of architectural trends at the time and a comparison of the Samadhi with Naunehal Singh's haveli, also in Lahore, propelled me further. The haveli's many wall paintings of solitary and multiple figures include one on the outer wall of the first floor's southwestern section, now barely visible due to whitewash, that showcases a female figure standing under a red canopy wearing a green odhni (large scarf) and ghagra (skirt) and bending slightly forward possibly to pluck a flower.

Determined to investigate the matter and hoping that the images were still preserved under the whitewash, I approached the authorities of the Evacuee Trust Board who were restoring the Samadhi. They graciously consented to help and allowed scraping off of a small area of one of the niches. The frescos appeared as if they had been waiting for almost a century for this moment. Beautiful crimson shone beneath thick layers of whitewash at the very first touch. Careful scraping has brought back to light beautifully rendered male figures in each of the niches that flank the entrances on the eastern and northern sides of the Samadhi, and flowers in the western niches. The paintings on the eastern side are the best preserved and offer a semblance of their initial vivid appearance (figure 2). The rest have lost their brilliance and call out for restoration.


The figure in the left niche on the eastern side of the Samadhi painted with face in profile and body turned three-quarters, wears a blue turban, a flowing crimson angarkha (long, flared shirt), and blue churidar (tight-fitting trousers) (figure 3). The face has been badly scratched hence it is difficult to make out much of its features. With the right hand on the hilt of a sword and most likely a handkerchief in the other, the figure appears to belong to a noble family, as is also indicated by its authoritative demeanour. Also the multiple armlets follow exactly the style in which Maharaja Ranjit Singh used to wear the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The loose turban whose end falls to the shoulders is very similar to what we find Prince Naunehal Singh wearing in a Pahari-Sikh opaque watercolour painting from the family workshop of Purkhu (Ranjit Singh's court painter), c. 1830, now in the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum, Amritsar (figure 4). The three-tiered pearl necklace with star-shaped pendants hanging from them in the fresco are also comparable to what the prince wears in the watercolour.

The companion figure in the niche on the right side of the eastern entrance of the Samadhi is in a different pose (figure 5). In order to give it a distinct personality and movement, the artist rendered the figure placing his weight on his left leg and taking the support of a staff or rifle, on which both his hands rest, while his right leg is bent with the foot barely touching the ground. The regal posture, and rich jewellery with large pearls or precious stones, strongly indicate the royal lineage of the subject. The yellow angarkha is set off by the crimson paijama (trousers) and a patka (scarf) of the same colour around the neck. The green karnarband (waistband) may have matched the turban, but the latter is invisible except for some traces.

A close inspection of the niches on the north side of the Samadhi and a detailed comparison with the corresponding photograph printed in Aijazuddin's book reveals the possibility of changes brought about at some stage after the picture was taken in 1870. Although quite different in appearance and detail from those in the niches on the eastern side, both figures in the southern niches have been rendered in the same posture--the left one standing erect and the right one resting on his left leg with right bent. Although devoid of most details, these frescos still show traces of jewels and bejewelled hilts of swords that were marks of prestige.


A wooden model of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Samadhi (c. 1839-58), part of the 1999 V&A exhibition 7he Arts of the Siteh Kingdoms, reconstructs the original to some extent. The main facade of the model shows niches with painted panels flanking the central entrance, each with a single male figure. The poses and attire are very similar to what we find in the niches on the Samadhi's east and north facades.

These painted figures on the exterior of the Samadhi, flanking the entrances, appear to be the elite guards of the Maharaja, offering their timeless services at his eternal abode. They are dressed the way the Maharaja always instructed his courtiers to present themselves at the durbar. This display of grandeur was to impress his visitors. Various accounts of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's durbar tell us that he used to be simply dressed with very little jewellery on his person but that he ordered his attendants and courtiers to be in resplendent attire.

Unlike the frescos on the east and north sides, the niches on the west of the Samadhi do not display any figurative images. These two niches showcase crimson flowers in full bloom scattered across the surface and beautifully rendered buds in the upper area (figure 6). A small parakeet perched on a branch at the upper right side of the niche on the right of the western entrance adds life to the blooming bush. Of the two, the image in the right niche is better preserved and the outline of some flowers with their yellow centres and details of most of the buds in the upper area are very well preserved.


The buds and leaves in the upper section of the right niche are sensitively and delicately rendered. Surprisingly, no definite identity has been given either to the flowering plant as a whole or to the flowers, unlike those in the frescos in Naunehal Singh's haveli. There all depictions of flowering plants are quite definitive and it is clear that the artist tried his very best to capture the particularities of the flowers.

The frescos that may have adorned the niches on the south of the Samadhi have been totally lost due to their exposure to rain, sun, and other unfavourable conditions. The ones on the east, west, and north unveiled after almost a century of oblivion call for careful restoration. The guardian figures with their magnificent regalia are a record of the glory of the Lahore durbar.

All photographs by the author.
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Author:Naeem, Nadhra Shahbaz
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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