Thursday, 17 September 2009

Sikh heritage on the Isle of Wight?

Another experience about which I've been meaning to write is our seemingly-now annual trip to the good 'ol Isle of Wight. We've visited during the last two May-half term weeks. For those who don't know it is a little, very little, island off the south coast of England, kind of opposite Portsmouth, Hampshire. It is known for - how can I put this - being a little England stuck in the past, somewhere in the 1950s mostly. All deck chairs, ice-creams and ladies in hats. But many mainland families are attracted there because of its beaches, its holiday feel and its places to visit. So I set off for my next 'cross-cultural' experience of holidaying like the English. You also get to travel there on a 40-minute ferry ride, which always adds to the excitement (I like to think anyway, in my own little world...). And so we went.

We've stayed mostly towards the north-west of the island - near Yarmouth and then near Cowes. The children have loved it - excited visits to Colwell Bay, Carisbrooke Castle (where my son became a knight, right), Dinosaur Isle (in Sandown), Robin Hill (a ‘countryside adventure park' near Arreton) and Ryde Pier will, we hope, be memories they will keep.

However, a bit like that character in 'Goodness Gracious Me', my husband is amused by the way I manage to find a desi link everywhere (desi = from the home country). But this one is a biggie so stay with me...

On a trip to the island's imposing Osbourne House, the home of Queen Victoria and where she died, I spied in a roped-off corridor a very special painting with which my psyche was immediately very familiar. But it took me a few moments to realise that this was the original painting of a very iconic image for Sikhs, and for British diaspora Sikhs especially. Here hung the 1854 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter of Maharaja Dalip (or Duleep) Singh. Who was he? Wikipedia (yes, I know, but I'm in a hurry...) tells us:

Maharaja Dalip Singh.. was the last Maharaja of Sikh Raj. He was the youngest son of the legendary "Lion of the Punjab" (Maharaja Ranjit Singh) and the "Messalina of the Punjab" (Maharani Jind Kaur), and came to power after a series of intrigues, in which several other claimants to the throne and to the Koh-i-Noor diamond killed each other. After his exile to Britain, he was befriended by Queen Victoria, to whom he gave the prized diamond which is now part of the Crown Jewels, set in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth, and on display in the Jewel House in the Tower of London.

Today he is considered as Britain's first Sikh settler, having been exiled to its shores in 1854, after being dethroned and his country annexed by the British Raj in 1849.

(No doubt some parts of this description are highly-contested - I mean, he GAVE the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Vic??)

It's a remarkable story of the end of a particular Sikh era, though quite sad in many ways. It was a very striking life-sized painting and the staff stationed there were not at all surprised to find this brown person intently peering at it - many had come before me - I'm sure it's on the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail. Actually, glamorous though the painting is, I've always preferred this surviving photograph - it has, all at once, a romantic, haunting and tragic air.

So there endeth my desi story about the Isle of Wight. Though not without noting the poignancy of Duleep Singh dressed in his 17thC Sikh regalia, and some 150 years later, my son (of part-Sikh heritage) dressed near the same spot, as an English knight...

Click here to watch a BBC2 documentary on Maharajah Duleep Singh, the 'last Ruler of the Punjab', presented by Hardeep Singh Kohli and screened in 2005. Or here to watch a BBC1 documentary, Inside Out, screened in 2004, showing Gurinder Chadha researching the history of Maharajah Duleep Singh and his daughter Princess Sophiya for a feature film. It includes some fascinating information about Princess Sophiya, one of Duleep Singh's daughters, who became a well-known 'militant' suffragette and later, for her work during WWII with evacuees.

Update: If you have £30k-odd spare, I co-incidentally came across this article about the forthcoming sale of Duleep Singh's mother's (Rani Jindan's) necklace at well-known London auctioneers Bonhams, on October 8, 2009. [UPDATE: it went for £55,200]

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