On the treasure hunt

Print edition : September 20, 1997

SECRET documents that prove that the magnificent Kohinoor diamond adorning the British monarch's crown was taken from Maharaja Duleep Singh by deceit; priceless jewels of the Lahore durbar: these are just some of things observers speculate may be found in a recently discovered Zurich bank vault. The account, held by Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh, came to light when the Swiss Bankers Association released lists of dormant bank accounts, part of an effort to restore properties of Holocaust victims to their descendants. Although there is no real confirmation of what the account actually contains, claimants to the treasure are already queuing up for their share of the spoils, prompted by a report in London's The Daily Telegraph.

Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Sikh king and son of the legendary Ranjit Singh, was brought to England when he was just eight years old. The child-ruler was made to sign over his kingdom, through the Treaty of Lahore in 1846. Duleep Singh was also made to convert to Christianity. In his early years he did not appear to harbour any resentment at the events of his childhood, and lived comfortably off his pension of over 50,000.

The Kohinoor was taken from Duleep Singh while he was still a child and sent as a present from the East India Company to Queen Victoria. It was only in his later years that the Maharajah began to plan the liberation of his kingdom, making contact with both Irish revolutionaries and representatives of the Russian Tsar. In 1886, during an abortive effort to return to India to reclaim his legacy, he was denounced by those he thought he could trust, and was arrested in Aden. For these actions, he was stripped of his inheritance, but Queen Victoria, who retained a fondness for him, gave him a pardon shortly before his death in Paris in 1893.

For a man who lived on a substantial pension, Duleep Singh left a curiously thin estate. He left just 7,219 to his elder sons, Princes Victor and Frederick. Little is known of his youngest son, Prince Edward. All three died childless. Two of Duleep Singh's daughters, Princesses Catherine and Sophia, lived together and remained unmarried. Princess Catherine's estate was left to Sophia, who in turn reportedly shared it with their mother, Princess Bamba, the Battersea Dogs Home, various elderly people associated with the estate, and a girl's school in Ferozepur. When Princess Bamba died in Lahore in 1957, all she had was 3,000, most of which she left to her lawyer. Princess Catherine possibly never knew of the Swiss account, for there is no mention of it in her will.

"The discovery of the account is very exciting," Duleep Singh's biographer Michael Alexander was quoted by The Daily Telegraph as saying, "I would speculate it contains the crown jewels of Lahore - the ones the British never got their hands on. It might have been discreetly founded by her father and passed on." British entrepreneur Trilok Singh Wouhra, who has set up the Maharaja Duleep Singh Project, a charity, insists that the account "belongs to India, not to anyone else." Jagdish Rani, the Sahiba of Faridkot, has always claimed descent from Ranjit Singh's family. Her daughter, Rajkumari Devinder Kaur, says her mother is the great-grand-daughter of Shehzada Jagjot Singh, who was the son of Prince Peshaura Singh, the fifth son of Ranjit Singh. Several others, too, have made public claims to the account. The SGPC, for its part, insists that the jewels are the property of the Sikh community and should be handed over to the religious body and kept at the Golden Temple's treasury along with other religious relics and treasures.

None seems to have been deterred by the mythical curse on the Lahore jewels. Legend has it that Maharaja Ranjit Singh dug up a gold cache buried by Guru Gobind Singh, the last Sikh guru. The cache, however, was cursed: whoever held it would have a childless family. None of Duleep Singh's eight children had any children. If nothing else, however, the discovery of the Swiss bank account is likely to revive interest in the dying years of the Sikh monarchy and in the beginning of colonial rule in Punjab.

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