Sunday, 15 April 2012

Punjab’s Last—And Suffolk’s First—Maharajah

It may surprise you to know that Elveden, a village just inside the Suffolk border to the north, was once home to the Punjab’s last maharajah, Duleep Singh (1838-1893). That is, unless you have the good fortune to step inside his former home, Elveden Hall, where the central hall is fashioned of white marble, and where eastern motifs sit happily alongside classical forms. The story of how the Maharajah ended up in rural Suffolk is—like many good stories— full of intrigue, loss, hope and tragedy.

The Maharajah became ruler of the Punjab aged just five but when the area was proclaimed part of the British Empire in 1849, he was deposed and forced to live in restricted circumstances at first in India, then exiled to England aged 13. The dethroning had been brutal. Property—the centrepiece being the spectacular Koh-i-Noor diamond, to this day part of the Crown Jewels—was confiscated, the lad was separated from his mother, his unshorn hair was cut and he converted to Christianity, one imagines
under duress.

The Maharajah Duleep Singh

The Maharajah lived at first in London, where he moved in royal circles and soon became a favourite of Queen Victoria. She is reported to have said of him, ‘Those eyes and those teeth are too beautiful’. A tour of Europe was followed by an episode living in Scotland, where it seems he developed a taste for parties and Highland attire. He returned briefly to India in 1860 to bring his mother back to live with him north of the border (and went back to his homeland only once again, this time to inter her ashes), returning to England after she died, and living a while in Yorkshire before settling in 1863 on the Elveden Estate, Suffolk, bought for him by the India Office.

Elveden Hall, Suffolk
I can imagine why the Maharajah felt at home there. The flat, arable lands of Suffolk could easily be twinned with the fertile plains of the Punjab; just swap sugar beet, potatoes and rye for mangoes, oranges and cotton. (Today the Pakistani Punjab produces 68 per cent of the country’s grain production, while 85 per cent of the Indian Punjab is under cultivation. Meanwhile, the Elveden Estate alone is one of the largest farms in the country, and its biggest producer of rye.) But there is something more tenuous than that, something in the way, on a summer’s evening, the setting sun envelopes the Suffolk landscape in a golden light reminiscent of a land even further east.

By all accounts, the Maharajah threw himself heart and soul into Suffolk life, displaying the jollity and joie de vivre that Punjabis have always been famous for. The red brick Georgian Elveden Hall was remodelled to resemble the elaborate Mughal palaces of his memory—the four-storey high Marble Hall and cupola its centrepiece. Breathtaking—as much for its luminescence as for the surprise of finding royal Punjab in the heart of East Anglia. Philanthropic, too, the Maharajah regenerated the estate’s buildings, including the church, school and cottages, and transformed it into an efficient game reserve, with this function still going strong today. (The Maharajah was known as the fourth best shot in England.)

The Marble Hall at Elveden

Family life was productive. In 1864 the Maharajah married Bamba Müller, the illegitimate daughter of a German banker and his Abyssinian mistress who had been cared for by Christian missionaries in Cairo. They had three sons and three daughters, who were brought up at Elveden. It appears at first glance that the Maharajah had made a happy life for himself.

But home is where the heart is, and he had plenty of time to contemplate the forced separation from his native land and religion and plan his return. In 1886 the British government decreed that he should not return to India nor re-embrace Sikhism, but still the Maharajah with his family set sail for home in March of that year and got as far as Aden, Yemen, where he was arrested. The family returned to England but the Maharajah did not return with them. He reconverted to Sikhism and in July travelled to Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life, concocting a series of failed attempts to liberate India from the British Empire and reclaim his former glory in the Punjab.

Maharani Bamba died in 1887, and the Maharajah went on to marry Ada Douglas Wetherill, reported to have previously been his mistress. Their marriage produced two daughters. Sadly, none of his eight offspring had children themselves, and so the royal lineage died with them.

Maharajah Duleep Singh died in Paris aged 55 in 1893. His body was not returned to India as he wished, but laid to rest in a Christian burial at Elveden Church. His executors sold the hall to Edward Guinness, the First Earl of Iveagh, and the estate remains in the hands of the family today.

The Maharajah's gravestone

The Maharajah’s story is fascinating and multi-faceted, and deserves a far deeper analysis than I can provide here. His story seems to encapsulate the fate of so many individuals in India as it succumbed to the British Empire, and even up to and beyond Partition in 1947 it has been retold time and time again—the tragedy of former glory, surrender, loss, attempted restoration and the poignancy of death far from home. And despite the Maharajah’s (understandable) love for his little corner of Suffolk, I am certain that it is the Punjab that is etched deeply in his heart.

With thanks to Rachel Power for her insights.


  1. Well, there's a thing - I thought Elveden was only famous as a venue for Center Parcs. Been there many times without knowing the rich historical and cultural heritage around. (Unfortuately this year we're going to Sherwood; any Robin Hood blog posts planned? :))

  2. Next time you go, David, you can look at it with different eyes! Now, Robin Hood, there's a thought...