THE LAST WORD:
Sent to India aged just sixteen to make his fortune, Burnes soon revealed an extraordinary talent for languages, combined with a boyish charm, insatiable curiosity and irrepressible enthusiasm. By the age of 26 he had so impressed his superiors that he was entrusted with the task of journeying up the Indus, ostensibly with a gift of horses from the King to the Maharajah of Lahore. In reality he was acting as a diplomat and spy, assessing both the territory and the calibre of the warrior-kingdoms on the western frontier of British India.
On entering the first court of the palace, we were received by Raja Dihan Sing, a fine soldier-like looking person, dressed in armour, by whom we were conducted to the door of the palace. While stooping to remove my shoes at the threshold, I suddenly found myself in the arms and tight embrace of a diminutive old-looking man, - the great Maharaja Runjeet Sing. He was accompanied by two of his sons, who likewise embraced Mr. Leckie and myself; when the Maharaja conducted me by the hand to the interior of his court...all of us were seated on silver chairs, in front of his Highness.
The Maharaja made various complimentary remarks; asked particularly after the health of his Majesty the King of Great Britain; and, as we had come from Bombay, enquired for Sir John Malcolm. When we had been seated a short time, I informed his Highness that I had brought along with me in safety to Lahore five horses, which his most gracious Majesty the King of England had conferred upon him, in consideration of the relations of amity and concord subsisting between the states, as also a carriage from the Right Honourable the Governor-General of India in token of his Lordship’s esteem. I then added, that the horses were accompanied by a most friendly letter from his Majesty’s minister for the affairs of India, which I held in my hand in a bag of cloth of gold, sealed with the arms of England.
On this the Maharaja and his Court, as well as ourselves, rose up, and his Highness received the letter, and touched his forehead with the seal. The letter was then handed to his minister, Uzeez-o-Deen, who read a Persian translation of it in the presence of the whole Court. As the contents of the document were unfolded, the Maharaja gave evident symptoms of his satisfaction, and when the letter was half read, he said that he would greet its arrival by a salute; and a peal of artillery from sixty guns, each firing twenty-one times, announced to the citizens of Lahore the joy of their King. His Highness then expressed his intention of viewing the presents, and we accompanied him. The sight of the horses excited his utmost surprise and wonder: their size and colour pleased him: he said they were little elephants and, as they passed singly before him, he called out to his different Sirdars and officers, who joined in his admiration.
The hall of audience, in which the interview took place, was built entirely of marble, and is the work of the Moghul emperors: part of the roof was gorgeously decorated by a pavilion of silken cloth studded with jewels. The Maharaja himself wore a necklace, armlets, and bracelets of emeralds, some of which were very large. His sword was mounted with the most precious stones. The nobles were likewise dressed for the occasion with jewels, and all the Court appeared in yellow, the favourite colour of the nation, which has a gaudy but striking effect.
The exertion which his Highness underwent seemed to exhaust him, and we withdrew. Nature has, indeed, been sparing in her gifts to this personage, and there must be a mighty contrast between his mind and body. He has lost an eye, is pitted by the small pox, and his stature does not certainly exceed five feet three inches. He is entirely free from pomp and show, yet the studied respect of his Court is remarkable; not an individual spoke without a sign, though the throng was more like a bazaar than the Court of the first native Prince in these times.
Above: Alexander Burnes
Below, left to right; Runjit Singh and his Suwarree; Fort at Lahore; painting of Ranjit Singh; lithograph of original watercolour painting of Maharaja Ranjit Singh c. 1835–40 by Jivan Ram