Anglo Sikh Heritage In The South East

By Caroline Lewis/Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail | 03 May 2005
shows a sepia toned photograph of a Sikh officer inspecting troops stood to attention.

Brighton has a long and significant connection with the Sikh community. Here the Maharajah of Patiala makes a troop inspection outside the Royal Pavilion in 1921. © Brighton Royal Pavilion.

This trail, developed with the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail (ASHT) includes highlighted links that take you back to the ASHT website. Each link launches in a new window and explains in greater detail some key events and themes relevant to Anglo Sikh heritage.

The ASHT have also provided a pdf translation of the trail in Punjabi, which you can download at the bottom of the page.

Sikh heritage in the south east is tied up with the twin phenomenons of empire and war. Locations in this trail offer glimpses of Duleep Singh’s bittersweet life story and a people unafraid to fight for justice.

The Anglo-Sikh Wars, fought between 1840 and 1849, resulted in the Punjab being occupied by the British – a blow indeed to the strong and rich sense of Sikh identity. Sikh artefacts on display in military museums in southeast England pay tribute to hard-won battles against the Khalsa army, the fine pieces of weaponry demonstrating expert Sikh craftsmanship.

The Queen’s Regiment Museum at Dover Castle, Kent, contains Sikh battle standards and cannon from the Sutlej campaign of the Second Anglo-Sikh war.

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Dover Castle is just one of the places in the south where you can see Sikh weaponry captured during the Anglo-Sikh Wars. © Dover Castle.

Similar items can be seen at Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment Museum at Maidstone, while the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, has among its jam-packed glass cases some Sikh arms, chakkars (chakrams, quoits – steel ring-shaped weapons) and swords.

The quoit is a distinctive Sikh military weapon, fired like a discus or frisbee, or even spun on the forefinger before being released with a momentum that could dismember at a distance of 50 metres (the outer edge is very sharp).

Fortunately, the most danger a quoit will do these days is look frightening in a museum display case, or be thrown by Xena the Warrior Princess.

The galleries at Fort Nelson in Fareham cover the history of artillery – which doesn’t come any finer than Sikh style. A Sikh gun and carriage, ornamented with brass figures and animals, is one of the fort’s most beautiful exhibits. The cannon is one of nine captured by British general Sir Henry Havelock during the Anglo-Sikh Wars.

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Fort Nelson - with its Sikh cannon. © Fort Nelson.

The British annexation of the Punjab meant that valuable Sikh artefacts ended up in the Imperial homeland and Queen Victoria became acquainted not only with Sikh articles and heritage but also with the Punjab’s rightful king.

When 15-year-old Maharajah Duleep Singh was deposed, taken away from his mother and brought to England, the queen treated him with great favour. She thought him most handsome and commissioned one of Europe’s finest artists to paint his full-length portrait.

The 1854 portrait, by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, lives at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where the Maharajah was made to feel most welcome during his lifetime.

Osborne House was the queen’s country retreat and it was decorated in an accordingly escapist fashion. The exquisite Durbar Room, used as a state-banqueting hall, is a fantastic example of Sikh decorative techniques. The name is derived from the Indian for state room.

Shows a photo of the inside of a room which has an intricately detailed sculpted ceiling with flower motifs and a deep red carpet

The Durbar Room at Osbourne House was designed in a Sikh style by Bhai Ram Singh. © Osbourne House.

It was designed and built in 1890-91 by a Sikh, Bhai Ram Singh, whose portrait is now displayed in the room. The walls and ceiling are embellished with moulded plaster and papier maché, depicting Indian symbols like the elephant god, Ganesh.

The elaborate Peacock Fireplace is of particular note, having taken 26 craftsmen to complete. In the adjoining Durbar Corridor are small portraits of Duleep Singh and members of his family.

Hampton Court Palace also has a strong connection to the Singh family. The daughters of Duleep Singh resided in the annex, Faraday House, in ‘grace and favour apartments’ courtesy of Queen Victoria.

Famous for being Henry VIII’s preferred home and centre of court life, Hampton Court Palace was later home to a diverse community that included the passionate suffragette, the Indian princess Sophia Duleep Singh. (An exhibition open from March 2005, Suffragettes, Soldiers and Servants, celebrates this post-Royal community with new rooms on show to the public.)

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Hampton Court was once home to Maharajah Duleep Singh and members of his family. © Historic Royal Palaces.

The most overtly Indian-looking palace in Britain has to be the Royal Pavilion, situated in the seaside resort of Brighton. The Prince Regent (King George IV) had his pleasure dome(s) built there after Doctor Russell popularised the local seawater as a cure.

However, the last monarch from the House of Hanover did not take to the fanciful construction and gave the Pavilion to the people of Brighton. Little did either Queen Victoria or King George IV know that in 1914, the Corporation of Brighton would offer use of the palace to the war office.

Along with Elm Grove Workhouse (Brighton General Hospital) and York Place School, the Pavilion was put to use as a military hospital for the treatment of Indian troops wounded on the front in France, with a marquee set up to act as a Gurdwara.

The Khalsa Army impressed the British during the Anglo-Sikh Wars and the British Army soon began to recruit Sikhs. Come the First World War, Sikhs made up nearly 20 per cent of the British Indian Army, though they were only 2 per cent of the population.

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Sikh soldiers in a converted ward in the Royal Pavilion. © Royal Pavilion Brighton.

By the end of the First World War, 12,000 Indian soldiers had passed through Brighton’s hospitals. Following the war, after thousands of Sikh volunteers had given their lives, India bestowed a gift on Brighton.

His Highness the Maharaja of Patiala unveiled the South Gateway to the Royal Pavilion in October 1921. It bears the inscription: “This gateway is the gift of India in commemoration of her sons who – stricken in the Great War – were tended in the Pavilion in 1914 and 1915. Dedicated to the use of the inhabitants of Brighton, BN Southall, Mayor.”

The domed gate looks for all the world as if it were built at the same time as the Pavilion. In return, the mayor of Brighton presented the Maharaja with a gold key, a copy of the original key to the Royal Pavilion.

Another memorial was unveiled in 1921, also of Indian design. The Chattri War Memorial, however, was situated far from the centre of town, out on the South Downs behind Brighton, 500 metres above sea level.

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His Highness the Maharaja of Patiala unveiled the South Gateway to the Royal Pavilion in October 1921. © 24 Hour Museum.

The Chattri is positioned in the place where about 30 Sikhs and Hindus who had died in Brighton’s war hospitals were cremated. Constructed from white marble, the domed Chattri was designed by Indian architect EC Henriques and funded by the Brighton Corporation and the India Office.

Each year since 2000 there has been a memorial service at the Chattri, attended by Indian ex-servicemen. The memorial’s inscription reads:

“To the memory of all Indian soldiers who gave their lives for their King-Emperor in the Great War, this monument, erected on the site of the funeral pyre where Hindus and Sikhs who died in hospital at Brighton passed through the fire, is in grateful admiration and brotherly affection dedicated”

The Chattri is located at: The Downs, Patcham, Brighton, BN1.

shows an Indian style pagoda building which acts as a memorial to Sikh and Indian soldiers

The Chattri stands on the Downs above Brighton as a memorial to Indian and Sikh soldiers lost in the First World War. © ASHT.

A legacy of the First World War for Brighton are the descendants of these brave soldiers who are still living in the area. Today nearly 40,000 Sikhs live in the Southeast.

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This trail was developed in partnership with the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail (ASHT).
ASHT highlight and promote Anglo Sikh Heritage and they have produced a Punjabi text translation, which can be downloaded in pdf format below.

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