A little historical background information is necessary before we can tell you the story of Moran Sarkar. The story takes place in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.
Punjab, also Panjab (Persian: meaning "Land of the Five Rivers") is a region straddling the border between India and Pakistan. The "Five Rivers" are Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Chenab and Jhelum; all these are tributaries of the Indus river, Jhelum being the biggest one. Punjab has a long history and rich cultural heritage. The people of the Punjab are called Punjabis and their language is also called Punjabi. The main religions of the Punjab region are, in order of population, Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism.
The area now known as the Greater Punjab comprises what were once vast territories of eastern Pakistan and northern western India. The bigger section of the Punjab is part of Pakistan (55% to India's 45%). It comprised, in its original sense, regions extending from Swat/Kabul in the west to Delhi in the east.
The Pakistani Punjab now comprises the majority of the region together with the Hazara region of the North-West Frontier Province and Azad Kashmir. The Indian Government further sub-divided Punjab into the modern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi.
One of the greatest heros of the Punjab and of the Sikhs is Maharaja Ranjit Singh. A drawing of Ranjit Singh is to the right. At its prime, his kingdom extended over all of Punjab north of the Sutlej, Kashmir, Ladakh, the hill states as well as the wild tribal areas of the North West - an area even the British could not hold for long. Peshawar, for long the bastion of Pathan pride, was inside Maharaja Ranjit Singh's kingdom. One of his many accomplishments was the return to India of the Kohinoor diamond which he wore on ceremonial occasions. Much of his success was because of his army - the artillery, cavalry and infantry, was said to be the best in Asia after the British East India Company. It was commanded by resourceful leaders, native as well as mercenary foreigners. It had Gurkhas on its rolls as well as a special contingent of fanatic Sikhs called the Akalis. The Akalis raided forts of enemies with good effect after the Sikh artillery's cannons made a breach in the walls.
One question that often bothered Indian historians is why Maharaja Ranjit Singh never went to war against the British, though he was aware of their designs. With aggressive Afghans on his northern boundary, Maharaja Ranjit Singh could have ill afforded to open a new flank in the south against the British. This way, the Maharaja was able to keep the British out of his designs. He was, by any measure, a very pragmatic ruler.
About two hundred years ago, Maharaja Ranjit Singh constructed a Shiva (a Hindu god) Temple at Dhanoa Kalan, Attari in Amritsar (Punjab). It is situated about 50 meters from the current Indian Pakistan border. People from far flung areas and of different faiths used to come to the temple.
A 12-foot-wide canal also ran through this area. It was built in 1641 to irrigate the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore constructed by Emperor Shah. The canal named Shah Nahar meaning Royal canal, later also known as Hansti nahar, meaning Laughing canal was brought from the Ravi River in Rajpot (present day Madhpur in India), a distance of over 161 kilometers (today it is a ditch with a mere trickle of water).
Maharaja Ranjit Singh also built a Bari Dari (example shown to the left). A baradari, in Persian and Moghul architecture, is a building or room with 12 doors designed to allow the free draught of air through it. Persons of repute used it as a venue for formal and informal settings in hot weather. Maharaja Ranjit Singh along with his royal troops used to stop over during his travels between Lahore and Amritsar. Eventually a gurdawa (gateway), temple, mosque, and seperate male/female bathing areas were also built. A small trading community sparng up in the area of the Shiva and Bari Dari. Booths were set up by traders from Lahore and Amritsar.
When staying at the Bari Dari he was often entertained by artisans.
There are a three important terms that referred to some of these artisans. They are the terms: "tawaif", "nautch" and "kanjri" or "kanjari". The word "tawaif" is a word rich with emotional connotations. The term "tawaif" is the plural form of the Arabic "Taifa", and as such meant "group". Today the term has become synonymous with a prostitute. Unfortunately, this is an extreme corruption of the word, and not at all a reflection of this once noble institution. The tawaifs were female entertainers. They were in many ways similar to the geishas of Japan. They excelled in the arts of poetry, music, dancing, singing, and were often considered to be the authority on etiquette. By the 18th century they had become a central element in polite, refined north Indian culture. However, their sphere of entertainment also included entertainment of the more erotic variety; it was the latter activity that contributed to their downfall.
"Nautch" is another term that needs to be discussed. Nautch is an anglicised form of the Urdu/ Hindi "nach", which is derived from the term "nachna" which means "to dance". However since the 19th century, the term "nautch-girl", "nach-wali", or "nautch-wali", has been applied to tawaifs.
The confusion of "tawaif" with "nautch-wali" is due to a mixture of ignorance and half-truths. It is correct that dance was a major portion of the tawaif's accomplishments; but every tawaif was not necessarily an expert in dance, nor was every dancing girl necessarily a tawaif. Still from the standpoint of the zealots who were engaged in the Victorian anti-nautch movement, the terms all began to represent a prostitute. A nach girl is pictured to the right.
Another term is "kanjri" or "kanjari" which is Punjabi for dancing girl. It is a mutation of kanchani which in Persian means dipped in gold and fully blossomed. Later, this term too became derogatory.
Since the tawaifs excelled in singing, dancing, poetry, and the erotic arts; and considered to be the absolute authorities on etiquette, and the social graces - they were freed from many of the mundane duties of ordinary women. They were able to elevate these artistic activities to levels that most men could never attain. It was normal for nobility to send their children to the tawaifs to be instructed in the arts and letters. The tawaifs were considered to be the originators, or at least the popularisers, of several art-forms. The kathak form of dance, for instance, is inextricably linked to the tawaif; this highly rhythmic, and at times abstract form of dance, has been popular in northern Indian for centuries.
There were other areas that they generally did not invovle themselves in. Obviously menial work was out of the question. But it is interesting to note the musical fields in which they seldom indulged. Although they would occasionally play musical instruments, being an accompanist was beneath their dignity. They would usually hire men to play the accompanying instruments such as tabla and sarangi; the status of these musicians was definitely that of "hired help".
The dignity of the tawaif may have prevented her from stooping to lowly professions such as playing a musical instruments, but their dignity empowered them at times to acquire massive wealth, political power and even military might. When everything is considered about the tawaif, an interesting picture emerges. The tawaifs had options open to them that were generally denied most women of a more domestic nature. If they had professional aspirations, especially in the artistic fields, they had a virtual monopoly. If they desired to settle down, marriage was always an option. From what we know of history, when this option was taken it was often with only the wealthiest and most well placed men. Remember their mastery of etiquette and the social graces made the tawaifs a "prize catch", for almost any man. If they desired an independent lifestyle, this too was an option which the tawaif could exercise that was denied most women of the period. This is born out by an examination of tax rolls that tend to show only tawaifs as female property owners and tax payers. The tawaifs were often poets and authors, in a period when the majority of women were illiterate. When everything was considered, the tawaifs had, education, independence, money, power, and self-determination, in a period when many women were treated little more than cattle or similar property.
The woman who became know as Moran Sarkar was a Muslim tawaif who danced at the Bari Dari of Maharaja Rangit Singh between Lahore and Amritsar. Her village, Makhanpur, was not far from the Bari Dari. Moran is said to have gotten her name by her style of dance which in some way reminded observors of a peacock. "Moran" in Punjabi is plural for peacock. Moran, her dancing, looks and personality won her way into the Maharaja's heart when Ranjit Singh was only 21. She was unlike any woman he had known. She was Muslim and he Sikh, their communities were intolerant to any relationship. He continued to meet her at the Bari Dari where she would dance for him.
Once, as she was coming from Makhanpur on horse she lost one of her silver sandals in the canal which was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan to carry the waters of the Ravi to Lahore to irrigate the Shalimar Gardens. Moran was furious at losing the sandal. The pair of sandals had been a present from the Maharaja. She was disappointed at the loss of the slipper and apparently had lost other items into the canal or was inconvenienced while crossing it. She refused to perform before the Maharaja again - until he built a bridge across the canal. The maharaja immediately ordered a bridge to be built over the canal. The bridge is shown to the left and right. It became known as Pul Kanjri (Bridge of the Dancing Girl). It was constructed of biscuit bricks-commonly referred to Lahori Bricks used in the Mughal era which were used in building the Taj Mahal and The Red Fort. As mentioned earlier besides the baradari there was a temple, a mosque and other structures built in the area. The building of the bridge caused the trading in the area to grow even more so that a small village emerged and became known also as Pul Kanjri.
The Maharaja became captivated by Moran. His love went beyond the physical love to a spiritual love and he wished to have her at his side. The Maharaja soon realized the women in Moran's community were being exploited by society. To give a message to society at large he decided to sanctify his love for her by marrying her. Despite the complaints from both communities he married Moran in 1802.
As was common with the monarchs during those days, Ranjit Singh had many queens (46 at the time of his death), some of whom he married according to Sikh custom. There were situations where the Maharaja had to enter into matrimonial alliances with the daughters of other Sikh chiefs and neighboring rulers in order to strengthen his political base. What is noticeable about the queens of the Maharaja is the fact they not only possessed beautiful looks and feminine charm but also qualities of leadership. Moran was considered among the most beautiful of the queens of Ranjit Singh. On at least two occasions he called her the most beautiful of his Queens. This caused one of his wives to commit suicide. Unlike other queens of the Maharaja, Moran did not observe purdah.
Purdah literally means curtain or veil, and refers to the various modes of shielding women from the sight primarily of men (other than their husbands or men of their natal family) in the South Asian subcontinent. Purdah can refer to the veiling or covering of the entire body or of parts of the head and face through the manipulation of womens' attire. It can also refer to the practice of the seclusion of women inside their homes. In the sense of attire, purdah can denote the practice of completely covering a woman's body by wearing a loose, body-covering robe called the burqa. Among sari wearers, the end part of the sari called the palla is used to cover all or part of the head and face. In those parts of the subcontinent where women wear the shalwar-kameez (long, loose tunic worn over trousers) or long skirts (lehenga/ghaghra), a scarf (dopatta) is used to cover the upper part of the body as well as part of the head and face. Purdah in its many variations is still used by both Hindu and Muslim women, although the burqa is almost always exclusively associated with Muslim women.
Purdah, in the sense of seclusion, means restrictions on women's movements outside the home. Thus, a woman could be unveiled and yet observe purdah by remaining in seclusion within the home. Purdah has further connotations for living arrangements within the home in the sense of separate living spaces for men and women - a feature that is often manifest in the architecture of family residences. As Cora Vreede-De Stuers has pointed out, in its most extended sense purdah refers to approved norms of modest and circumspect feminine behaviour, as for instance in downcast eyes, the bowing of the head, the complete silence a woman observes in the presence of a man, or by the hasty gesture of veiling her head with a corner of her sari or dupatta if she is caught unawares. The degree and kind (the actual veiling or seclusion) of purdah observed by women has varied across time and place and from family to family and is also related to class status. Purdah in the form of seclusion is almost exclusively a characteristic feature of upper-class status, but one that is frequently emulated by lower-class aspirants to it.
The practice of purdah derives from a concern to control female sexuality and to shield women from being the objects of the sexual desire of men other than their husbands. Secondly, in its association with circumspect feminine behaviour (which in turn was associated with female subordination), it is critical for preserving hierarchy within the patriarchal family. Thus, women observe purdah usually with male and often with senior female members of their husbands' families. Purdah is observed much more loosely and sometimes not at all by women when they are with their natal families.
Since the Mahrajani Moran did not observe purdah, she appeared with Ranjit Singh in public and rode on an elephant with the Maharaja in many ceremonial processions. There is a popular tradition that the Maharaja even issued a series of coins issued with her name. On the coins were a feather of a peacock. He never issued coins in his name or profile. The coins were the origin of the term Moran Sarkar or Moran Government or Authority which the people began to use for her. The Moran coins were called Moran shahi currency. The Maharajah took to calling her by the name Moran Sarkar as well (before that he called her Rani Moran). There are some who have debunked that these coins were ever made >
When the British Governor-General, Lord William Bentick, and his wife came to meet the Maharaja at the Ropar Durbar, noticing the couple's fondness for each other, Ranjit Singh remarked that he was reminded of Moran for whom he had the same kind of love and could not bear separation from her even for a moment. The Maharaja's decision to marry Moran, her being a Muslim and not observing Purdah greatly upset the orthodox Sikhs, who created a storm of protest. They met at the Akal Takhat (a temple) and decided to summon the Maharaja and ordered him to undergo public flogging for violating the Sikh code of conduct. The Maharaja readily agreed to abide by the word of the Akal Takhat and presented himself before Akali Phoola Singh, then Jathedar (leader) of the Takhat, and bared his back to receive the lashes. Akali Phoola Singh was greatly moved by the Maharaja's humble submission and changed the corporal punishment to a fine.
Maharajani Moran is pictured in the drawing to the left. Through his marriage to Moran, the maharaja wanted to uplift the community of tawaifs to which Moran belonged who were social outcasts. Marriage for social integration is often looked down upon because of class and caste factors, unlike a matrimonial alliance for the expansion of the kingdom for political reasons Though the "Twaif" community of Moran had set of rules and regulations to ensure its performing art was preserved in its pure form, Maharaja Ranjit Singh made an effort to uplift Moran's community. The Maharaja gave the community a biradari near Amritsar city and named it Sharifpura (locality of honest persons) to reaffirm the honour of the community and encourage them to explore other vocations in case they wished to do so.
Maharajani Moran, Ranji Moran, now known as Moran Sarkar, became a window to the common people who often brought their problems to her. Deeply spiritual, Moran had a spiritual guide called Mian Jaan Mohammad of Laverian, who told her that a madrasa (school or academy) would benefit more people than a masjid (mosque). Moran was instrumental in setting up a school for Persian and Arabic studies for students who would be spared the trouble of travelling all the way to Persia.
Moran was quite capable of distancing herself from the material world, which she often did. When palace intrigues and machinations intensified (with 46 wives, most of them political, it must have been unaviodable), Moran moved away to a jagir (a jagir is the gift of a small territory from which the recipient can enjoy revenue derived from it) in Pathankot. Pathankot is the last city in Punjab on the road that connects Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of India. This bestows strategic importance on the city. Twenty years later, after giving her the jagir and her removal to Pathankot, the maharaja still felt there was no one quite like Moran. There is a village in the Amritsar district named Moran in her honor by the Maharajah.
Ranjit Singh was able to rise above the communal and ethnic prejudices of his times and treated all his subjects on equal footing. Ranjit Singh established a powerful Panjabi state which was secular in character. There were no forced conversions in his reign, no communal riots, no language tensions and no second-class citizenship. He encouraged the arts of all ethnic communities, even promoting some of them that were not of Sikh origin. Competent persons from all faiths - Sikh, Hindu, Muslim - occupied high positions in the Darbar (court) of the Maharaja. That the Maharaja was able to create a sense of Panjabi nationalism is evident from the fact that when, after his death, the British compelled the Lahore Durbar to take up arms, all communities-Hindu, Muslim and Sikh-fought shoulder to shoulder and ungrudgingly mingled their blood in a vain attempt to save the first Panjabi sovereign state established by Ranjit Singh. The Maharaja was able to do what no other Indian ruler had done before by making Panjabis realise that being a Panjabi was more important than being Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, pictured to the right, lost the use of an eye early in his life. An anecdote that tells us how at ease Moran was with the Maharaja and he with her came at a time when he and Moran Sarkar where enjoying some light banter, Moran asked him where was he when God was passing out good looks, the Maharajah answered, without missing a beat, that must have been when he was out conquering all the territories for Punjab. He died at 59 in 1839, having ruled over 40 years.
Rare photograph of Rajit Singh with English officers and Sikhs on his staff
Rajit Singh is seated in the front with dark turban
The construction of the "pul" (bridge) between Amritsar and Lahore at the behest of Moran, caused an economic boost. Most of the rare commodities which were not available in Amritsar and Lahore used to be available in the market of Pul Kanjri village. Once a prominent trading centre, Pul Kanjri village became a victim of the violence that accompanied the partition of Pakistan and India. in 1947, there were killings, abductions, massacres- not just of people but also of the structures that have been silent witnesses to history of more than two hundred years. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, again history was repeated. The Pul Kanji area was seized by the Pakistani forces, just as India seized some Pakistani territory. After a treaty, each got his own back, but with definite and permanent marks of the foreign occupancy. In 1971, hostilities again broke out. A fierce battle was fought here at Pul Kanjri in 1971 and the village was captured by Pakistan but later the Indian Army launched a massive assault to drive out the enemy. There is a memorial to the soldiers killed at the site.
Some of the families forced from the area come here every year in mid August when a fair is held and all those who lost their lives in 1947, 1965 and 1971 are remembered. Maharajah Ranjit Singh is also remembered and still revered over these many decades as the great ruler he was. His Queen Moran was not remembered with the same reverence. For most of the intervening years, except by those who knew the truth, it was believed she was merely a consort who had angled herself a better life. In a backhanded way this is evidenced by the fact that the Masjid-e-Tawaifan (mosque for prostitutes) in Lahore was re-named Mai Moran Masjid, in 1968 to bestow honour on the Muslim nautch girl Moran.
In 2008, after considerable research, an Indian educator from Amritsar by the name of Manveen Sandhu was able to show proof that the Maharaja did marry Moran. Sandhu established Maharaja Ranjit Singh had married the Muslim dancer as part of his social reform movement and to win over other confidence of other communities. Sandhu also revealed Moran was not a nautch girl but belonged to a family of entertainers, that she was a pious Muslim and that she helped with social reforms and the establishment of the madrasa that offered studies in Arabic and Persian. Mrs. Sandhu wrote a play, "Moran Sarkar" that was performed by a mixed cast of Indian and Pakistani players that highlighted Moran's contributions to Punjabi history.She also wrote a history of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Her work and those of other academics has raised the publics consciousness of Moran Sarkar to a point where the government of India has decided to restore the historical area of Pul Kanji and rename the bridge or village Pul Moran or both in honor of Moran Sarkar.The name was officially changed in 2011. The entire area is being restored and help in maintaining the structures will be provided by the now deceased Manveen Sandhu's school where she was Principal.
Varinda Walla of the Tribune News Service
Aruti Nayar, Tribune India
Jagpal Singh Tiwana
Encyclopaedia of Sikhism - Harbans Singh
EMPIRE OF THE SIKHS,
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MAHARAJA RANJIT SINGH
Patwant Singh and Jyoti M Rai
Hay House India
MAHARAJA RANJIT SINGH, THE LAST TO LAY ARMS
Abinar Publications, 2001
K. S. Duggal and Kartur Singh
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