The Lion’s Firanghis: Europeans in the Court of Lahore – A Report
Mr. Bobby Singh Bansal, a British historian, writer and filmmaker, is at the forefront of researching, documenting and presenting on topics revolving around Sikh Heritage and the Sikh Empire of the 1800’s. Mr. Bansal made his first trip to Pakistan at the ripe age of 18. It was the adventure that had him hooked to the immense history Pakistan had to offer. Ever since that first encounter Bansal has gone back numerous times over the past 25 years, making new friends and discovering the lost history of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Empire. However, Bansal discovered that over the years the remains of the Sikh Empire were being neglected and destroyed. Beautiful palaces and magnificent forts were being bulldozed and replaced by shopping malls and housing complexes. Bansal admitted that he was struck by emotions upon seeing the crumbling tomb of Maharaja Sher Singh; and at the moment vowed to take action to preserve these pieces of history. Thereafter, in collaboration with Fakir Aijazuddin, a descendant of Ranjit Singhs closest aids, Bansal, through his S.K Foundation renovated Sher Singh’s tomb. Today, Bansal documents various historical forts and palaces scattered across Pakistan and is continuing his efforts to renovate the historical buildings that once stood valiantly during the Sikh Empire.
Mr. Bansal’s talk on the Lion’s Firanghis – Europeans in the Court of Lahore held at Stanford University was a captivating lecture on the major role the Europeans played in developing and modernizing the Sikh Empire and Army. The talk provided in depth analysis of the high ranking European generals in Ranjit Singh’s court – including the close relationship Ranjit Singh had with General Allard, and the modernization General Court brought to the Sikh Army. Bansal stated that among the Sikh community, there is general knowledge that Europeans were a part of Ranjit Singh’s court, however, there is very little known about how much actual influence the Europeans had. According to Bansal, it has been written that Ranjit Singh trusted his Europeans Generals more than his native generals. The level of trust and loyalty between Ranjit and his Firanghis is best illustrated by the story of his Chief Physician, Johann Martin Honigberger, who despite leaving Lahore to settle back in Europe, made a hasty return to Lahore upon hearing that his Maharaja was severely ill.
In the 1800’s the Indian subcontinent, with the exception of Punjab, was primarily ruled by the British. Bansal explained that it was with the help of the Europeans, along with the signing of various treaties, which kept the British east of the Sutlej and started the Sikh Empires expansion west ward. In the Empire’s prime, its borders stretched from the Sutlej in the east, encompassing all of modern day Pakistan with the exception of Sindh, to Kashmir in the north and Peshawar in the northwest. The expansion of the empire had a great deal to do with the Europeans modernizing the function of the Sikh army. Their cannons, which were redesigned by General Court, surpassed British cannons which at the time where considered to be more advanced and superior to all others in the region.
So what attracted these Europeans to come to Punjab? Many of the first generals to come to Ranjit Singh’s court were Frenchmen. With the fall of Napoleon and France, many of the French generals were unemployed. But stories of Maharaja Ranjit Singh had reached Europe and caught the attention of these general, thus beginning their journey to the east. Ranjit Singh welcomed many of the Europeans with open arms and with high ranking positions in his army, which was not taken lightly by the bordering British. The arrival of the Europeans in Punjab worried the British so much that they began arresting any European attempting to travel to Punjab. The acceptance of these Firanghis in the Sikh Court threatened the British hold on land bordering Punjab and the newly revitalized Sikh Army was perceived as a challenger to British hegemony in the subcontinent. During the time European generals commanded various regiments within the army, the Sikh Empire rapidly expanded toward the west, causing fear among the Afghan leadership in Kabul. However, the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 never allowed for a Sikh army captained by Europeans to face off against the British or Afghans. The death of the Maharaja had plunged the empire into anarchy, and by the time of the first Anglo-Sikh war, nearly all the European generals had abandoned the Empire and returned to Europe.
Based on Mr. Bansal’s extensive research, the Europeans in the Court of Lahore played a major role in the development and growth of the Sikh Empire. Mr. Bansal’s lecture on Maharajas Ranjit Singh’s Firanghis gives us an insight on just how much influence Europeans like Allard and Ventura had on the Maharaja. Today, the legacy of the Firanghis lives on through the descendants of the Europeans that served in Ranjit Singhs court living across the world. Thanks to Bobby Bansal’s hard work and passion, he has been able to track down these descendants and established life long relationship with the families. Bansal has had the privilege of viewing family heirlooms that were given to their ancestors by Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself. In addition, the information he has gained through the numerous conversations with the descendants has helped evolve and continue his research. The heirs of Europeans like Allard, Court, and Van Courtlant have aided Bansal in removing the mystery surrounding these men and their roles in Maharaja Ranjit Singh court. Bansal states that these families are proud of roles their ancestors played in the Sikh Empire and hope to continue to pass on their stories and legacies to the future generations.
The Sikh Foundation had the privilege of having Bobby Singh Bansal present his research to a diverse Bay Area audience and bringing to light the lost history behind various monuments, relationships and artifacts of the Sikh Empire. The Sikh Foundation and Bansal truly believe that research of such magnitude will shine a new light on the lost history of Ranjit Singh and inspire future generations to continue exploring the Empires colorful and rich history.
Inderjit Singh Takhar- A graduate from the University of California, San Diego with a degree in International Relations/Political Science. He is passionate about the study of South Asian politics, culture, and society specifically academic research done on Sikh Art, Heritage, and Empires. In near future he hopes on pursuing a PhD revolving around the Sikh Empire of the 1800’s.
VIDEO FROM THE EVENT- Courtesy Dr. Dalvir Pannu DDS.
UCHE BURG LAHORE DE -Presentation by Dr.Dalvir Pannu.
Amazing footage and pictures of Sikh heritage documented by Dr. Pannu.
CLICK HERE TO SEE SELECTED IMAGES FROM THE PRESENTATION BY Mr. Bobby Singh Bansal – Click here, a new window will open
SEE EVENT PHOTOGRAPHS HERE – PICS BY RAJ BUDWAL event! Click here, a new window will open