The dioramas may look a little tacky and the premises stripped of their regal ambience, but the Ram Bagh palace complex in Amritsar has finally come full circle. On 27th January 2022, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (r. 1801-39), founder of the Sikh Empire, ‘returned’ to his rightful place in the magnificent palace he had built.
A museum was opened in the palace complex, boasting statues of the ‘Lion of Punjab’ and dioramas with likenesses of Ranjit Singh, his family and his generals. It also displays paraphernalia relating to the Maharaja’s reign.
The museum is located in the main palace, which was Ranjit Singh’s summer retreat, but the many structures dotting the sprawling complex and its once stunning gardens bear little resemblance to what they looked like in their glory days.
Today, Amritsar’s new royalty, its social elite, rubs shoulders in the social clubs on the property. And even though the complex is beautifully maintained, it wears a sanitized look and has lost its charm.
A Home For An Emperor
Although Lahore (now in Pakistan) was Ranjit Singh’s capital and seat of power, he visited Amritsar regularly to pray at the Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh community. He also visited Amritsar to celebrate festivals like Dusshera, Diwali and Baisakhi. Since he didn’t have an official residence in the city, the Maharaja would stay in the havelis or mansions of local moneylenders and businessmen.
So when Amritsar was being remodelled on the lines of cities like Lahore and Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), Ranjit Singh decided to build a summer palace for himself, just outside the city walls. He named it Ram Bagh, after the fourth Sikh Guru Ramdas, and designed it on the famous Mughal-era Shalimar Gardens of Lahore.
The site chosen was in the north of the modern city, where the Bhangi misl chiefs, who controlled the city before Ranjit Singh’s occupation, had built a mud fort. The Bhangis’ fort was demolished and work on a royal residence began in 1819.
The palace complex was spread across a whopping 84 acres and it took 10 years to build. It was enclosed by a 14-foot-high wall with ramparts and surrounded by a moat. Most importantly, it was connected to the Harmandir Sahib by a road that went straight from Ram Bagh through the walled city and onward to the shrine, which the Maharaja visited for prayers every morning, during his stay in Amritsar.
The Ram Bagh complex was accessed through a grand gateway, which had four watchtowers and eight pavilions. Outside the gateway was a deorhi or gatehouse, which till the reign of Maharaja Sher Singh had elephants lining the gate to welcome guests. The walls of the deorhi had beautiful murals, which did not survive the collapse of the Sikh Empire.
Not far from the palace was a hammam or a royal bath built by Ranjit Singh’s Italian-French General Jean-Baptiste Ventura, for the royal women. It was fed by five wells that were connected to the hammam by an underground tunnel. Today, all five wells are covered by tube-well pumps.
Amritsar’s Shalimar Gardens
The garden surrounding the palace was a sight to behold. Inspired by the famous Mughal-era Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, it was laid out in classic charbagh style. In the centre of the courtyard ran a double row of fountains that went right up to the central palace.
According to Up The Country (1866), a travelogue written by Emily Eden, sister of the then Governor-General of India George Eden, the walls of the garden were lined with “splendid soldiers and people dressed in gorgeous clothes with flowing beards and determined turbans”.
Although unconfirmed, there are stories of a ‘lake’ outside the palace complex, which is believed to have connected the grand gateway of the walled city to the garden complex. It is said that the Maharaja and his special guests would reach his residence in a boat!
Things started to change soon after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839. Many nobles and chiefs, who were either in the royal service of the Sikh Empire or were important landlords, began to build mansions all across the palace complex. The houses were spread unevenly, in such an ugly layout, that the complex was referred to as a ‘Jungle Palace’ by contemporary English writers.
Ram Bagh To ‘Company’ Bagh
After the British East India Company won the second Anglo-Sikh war in 1849, they took control of Ram Bagh and renamed it ‘Company Bagh’ to stamp their authority in the region. They removed almost all traces of Sikh royalty and of Ranjit Singh, and converted the Emperor’s palace into the office of the Deputy Commissioner, until it was transferred to another venue in 1876.
One of the smaller palaces on the grounds was used as the District Board Office and renamed Massy Hall. Later, it was called Ghanta Ghar or ‘clock house’ by the locals. The other two minor palaces were used as the municipality office and district school. The deorhi or guard house outside the grand gateway was converted into a police station and called Thana Sadar.
In the 1860s, the Bagh underwent further dramatic changes. Its wall was demolished and boundaries extended by filling in the moat. A storey was added to the small palaces on either side of Ranjit Singh’s main palace. A few years later, trees and plants were brought in from the government’s nursery and planted here.
Saddest of all, the original charbagh layout for the garden was destroyed and a new layout based on English recreational standards was introduced. Ironically, in the 1880s, British administrators would boast that Company Bagh was the most beautiful garden in Punjab Province, even better than the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore.
Gen Dyer Stayed Here
The Ram Bagh palace complex has a brief but dark chapter that connects it to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919. Known as the ‘Butcher of Amritsar’, General Reginald Dyer stayed at Ram Bagh during his short posting in the city when he opened fire on the massive crowd that had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh on 13th April 1919, killing hundreds in one brutal and swift action.
Dyer had reached Amritsar on 11th April and he chose Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s erstwhile summer palace as his residence. The three small palaces on the property were used as his military headquarters, a mess for his officers and a civil office. He stayed there for more than a week.
In the mid-20th century, the palace underwent further changes. The walnut timber, which covered its ceiling, was replaced with a coat of plaster. Similarly, the red stonework on the exterior of various structures in the complex was overlaid with a coat of cement.
After 1960, a series of statues were installed in the palace complex, including those representing Mahatma Gandhi; Major Lalit Mohan Bhatia, who was martyred in the 1971 India-Pakistan war; and one of Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself.
In 2001, a new, 5-foot-high, outer wall was built to enclose the bagh, a century and a half after the British demolished the original, 14-foot historic wall.
Today, many civil clubs like the Service Club, Lumsden Club and Amritsar Club are scattered across the bagh. A panorama created by the National Council of Science Museums, Kolkata, is also located here, which tells the history of Ranjit Singh through photos and artefacts.
A Return To Past Glory
The new museum, run by the state government’s Punjab Heritage and Tourism Promotion Board, is located in the main palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Step inside and you are greeted by statues of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his Sikh army commanders. Nearby, there’s a model of the bagh complex. In another galley, the wedding of Ranjit Singh and Mehtab Kaur is depicted via statues. The Emperor’s mother-in-law, Rani Sada Kaur, too is represented here. Oddly, the statue of Ranjit Singh depicts him in his early 20s even though was got married when he was just 8 years old!
Many other galleries in the museum depict the Maharaja with various important people in his life. Some galleries display important paraphernalia and mementoes associated with the Sikh Empire, such as copies of treaties signed by the Sikh Empire with Sikh misls (chiefdoms) and with the East India Company.
You can also admire copies of rare oil paintings, guns, cannons and other weapons, which are on display. A model of the Maharaja’s throne and a model of the world-famous Kohinoor diamond are also exhibited.
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