It must have been a TV show about famous precious stones that made me look up the giant diamond in the British royal crown, the Mountain of Light, better known as Koh-i-Noor. You know how it is to look up something on Wikipedia? You start getting diverted to other topics, and that is how my husband and I ended up in the churchyard of the tiny British village of Elveden last year. From the internet to a tombstone … Coincidentally we were spending some time in the area anyhow.
Elveden is one of those villages that have one main road running through, with quaint old houses spreading on each side. But it is also the site of a Guinness brewery complex, a quite sizeable village church, and a legendary palace. That of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, Duleep Singh. You cannot see it from the road side, but there are some insights on YouTube of how splendid the British palace was when Maharaja Duleep Singh was still living there.
Born in 1838, Duleep Singh, the son of the Lion of Punjab, was declared Maharaja of Lahore at the age of five, with his mother ruling on his behalf. All predecessors had been assassinated. It was a truly unruly period in the Punjab, and it had been the last state in India that Britain had not yet managed to annex into its Empire. The history of occupations is never gentle. In this case, the child was robbed from his mother and raised by British foster parents. His mother was exiled from Punjab. The void of a Maharaja-less kingdom was filled by a British government. The Maharaja’s diamond, among other valuables, became part of the British crown treasure.
Maharaja Duleep Singh was converted to Christianity, transported to Britain at the age of 15, and soon became known as “the Black Prince of Perthshire”. You might have watched the movie of a similar title in 2017. He managed to reunite with his mother and to return with her to England, he got married twice and had eight children, none of whom would leave behind an heir. For the rest of his life, he was denied access to the Indian Empire, as the British feared an insurrection of the Sikhs and a breaking apart of their Empire on the subcontinent. Torn between the wish to be the Maharaja he felt he owed being to the Sikhs and his Christian anglicized education, Duleep Singh fell out with Queen Victoria (but got reconciled with her shortly before his death), reverted to the Sikh religion, tried in vain to get support for his cause from the Russian Tsar, and passed away in France at the age of only 55 years, highly indebted.
The British, fearing that a funeral in the Punjab would reignite nationalist emotions, brought the body of the Sikhs’ last Maharaja to Britain and buried him in a Christian ceremony in the churchyard of Elveden. To this day, the gravesite is a place of pilgrimage for the Sikhs. His palace was sold to cover Duleep Singh’s debts; it now belongs to the Empire of the Guinness family.
The people of Elveden remember Maharaja Duleep Singh fondly as the one who restored their church, their school, and cottages. There are books about the Black Prince in the nearby artisan shopping court. The town of Thetford celebrates the legendary, hapless monarch with a beautiful statue.
In 2018, my husband and I were revisiting places that we had grown fond of in the past, but mostly searching out new places. We had always only passed through Elveden during our time of courtship. It was a sunny, cold March day when we went to visit the Maharaja’s gravesite. We opened the latch of the churchyard. Nobody else was around. Most stone slabs were leaning one way or another.
After walking around the church, I finally found the grave of Maharaja Duleep Singh on the other side of the building. There were candles, and somebody had laid down flowers. A plaque tells of a society that today tries to arbitrate between the two cultures that once tore this human being apart. Maybe that attempt at mutual understanding is a better gain for the former Empire than the possession of a diamond somewhere in a vault in the Tower of London.