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Dr Ernst Becker, 'Duleep Singh on the Lower Terrace at Osborne'. Courtesy of the Royal Photographic Collection

Dr Ernst Becker, 'Duleep Singh on the Lower Terrace at Osborne'. Courtesy of the Royal Photographic Collection

I1843 after the violent upheavals in the Punjab caused by the death of Ranjit Singh, his only remaining son, the seven-year-old Dalip Singh, became Maharaja.

After the Anglo-Sikh war and the annexation of the Punjab by the British in 1849, Dalip Singh was separated from his mother, Rani Jindan. She was regarded by the British as a dangerous influence on the young boy. He was given into the care of Dr John Login and they moved to Fategarh, a remote provincial town in north India. Removed from his cultural roots and living in a predominantly Christian household, Dalip Singh converted to Christianity. Soon afterwards, Lord Dalhousie gave him permission to travel to London.

He arrived in 1854, quickly gaining a royal audience and an invitation to stay with the Royal Family at Osborne, where Queen Victoria sketched him playing with her children and Prince Albert photographed him. Winterhalter, the court artist, was asked to paint the Maharaja's portrait.

In 1861 Dalip Singh returned to India to rescue his mother from political exile in Nepal, bringing her to London where she died in 1863. On the journey to take her body back to India, Dalip Singh met Bamba Muller, who became his wife in 1864. They lived at Elveden Hall in Suffolk with their children, where the Maharaja looked after his estate and organised shooting parties for his aristocratic friends.

Later in life, as he became increasingly embittered about the loss of his kingdom, he reconverted to Sikhism. He met Irish Fenians and Russian revolutionaries, becoming part of an international web of intrigue to destabilise British power. The plans came to nothing, his health broke down and he died in Paris in 1893, two years after a final meeting with Queen Victoria.


The Maharaja's Box

Carte de visite, Dalip Singh, England, 1850-1900. Museum no. 2831-1934

Carte de visite, Dalip Singh, England, 1850-1900. Museum no. 2831-1934.

Canary Wharf, London, August 1997

IT BEGAN, as should all good treasure hunts, with a clue. It was one line, the mis-spelled name of a dead Princess. I found it, unromantically perhaps, not on an ancient parchment but twinkling on a computer screen in a newspaper office. It said simply: `Duleep Singh, Catherine (Princess), last heard of in 1942 living in Penn, Bucks.'

Sunday journalists know the terror of Thursdays - talked-up stories falling down, nothing to write, deadlines looming. In early August 1997, the London media was transfixed by the rumoured romance of Diana, Princess of Wales with Mr. Dodi Alfayed. I had little to contribute. That Thursday morning came an electronic deliverance. The Swiss Bankers' Association published a list of names on the Internet. The mysterious Princess Catherine was on it. She was listed among more than 1,800 holders of so-called `dormant accounts,' deposits of cash, valuables and who knew what else, made long ago in the vaults of the exquisitely secretive Swiss and untouched since the end of the Second World War. The list's publication, the unaccustomed openness, was part of a national Swiss shriving for complicity in bank-rolling the Third Reich. The journalistic shorthand was `Swiss Nazi Gold.' `Sounds like a radio-station' said a cynical photographer colleague.

It was an idea for a story. Perhaps I could reunite a family with their inheritance. Claimants had until January 1998 to come forward, their provenance would be assessed by an international committee - and, supposedly, eight months later, they would be handed the keys (in the case of this account, the deadline was to slip substantially).

First I had to find some living heirs. The original account-holders must surely be dead. The names were theoretically those of Holocaust victims, Jews, enemies of the Reich - individuals who had managed to get their valuables to a place of safety only to be brutally extinguished themselves. But the list was impenetrable. There were counts and barons, Spanish fascists, black-marketers, collaborators, anyone with something to hide. The accounts were `dormant' for a reason. No-one had dared go back to them. The Nazi-hunters at the Simon Wiesenthal centre in Vienna described the list to me as `an insult.' There were more names of murderers than their victims, they said.

At least fifty named account-holders had last been heard of living in Britain. This was closer to home. I began to dig. There was that one name which intrigued me. Duleep Singh, Catherine (Princess). Who was she? Why was this Indian-sounding lady living in a wartime English village? What reason could she have to possess a numbered Swiss bank account and why did she seem to have forgotten about it? The Buckinghamshire telephone directories for March 1939 (telephone directories are preserved at the British Library, London) disclosed this name: `Duleep Singh, Princess C. Hilda, Colehatch ho. Penn 2154.' Could the computerising transcribes of a Swiss bank-clerk's copperplate ledger entry have made a simple spelling mistake?

I rang the local librarian in Buckinghamshire, who searched county records. `There was a Catherine Duleep Singh, double `e', in the electoral register in the 'thirties,' he said. `She lived at Colehatch House and Hilden Hall; it's a housing estate now. Have you tried looking at the wills at Somerset House?'

A leather-bound volume creaked open. `Probate granted Llandudno, May 1943' - that's all we need,' said a dusty custodian. A copy of the will arrived, the fee was 25 pence. It was made in 1935: `I, Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh desire to be cremated and the ashes buried at Elveden in Suffolk. I give my gold jewellery, my long pearl necklace and my wearing apparel to my sisters Princess Bamba Sophie Jinda Sutherland and Princess Sophia Alexandrowna Duleep Singh.' In a codicil she asked for a quarter of her ashes to be `buried as near as possible to the coffin of my friend Fraulein Lina Schafer at the Principal Cemetery at Kassel in Germany.' Who were these exotic new characters?

I searched the wills of the other sisters. The last, Princess Bamba, had died aged 88 in Lahore, Pakistan in March 1957. She had married but had no children - evidently leaving her worldly goods to her secretary, a Mr Pir Karim Baksh Supra. Could there be no descendant-heirs at all?

There was no mention of a Swiss bank account in Catherine's will, in Princess Sophia's (she died in England in August 1948) nor in Bamba's - and nothing that might be deposited in a Zurich vault. But Elveden sounded familiar - a country house, once the home of Lord Iveagh, head of the Guinness family - now apparently empty and shuttered. There was a church listed in Crockford's Clerical Directory, St Andrew and St Patrick. The rector was helpful: `We think her ashes are here and her father is buried in the graveyard. He was Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last emperor of the Sikhs - the one who gave the Koh-i nur diamond to Queen Victoria.'

The Koh-i nur, the mountain of light, the most celebrated diamond in the world. Wars were fought for it, brother had killed brother for it, and ill luck was supposed to befall any male ruler who wore it. It had been the jewel in the crown of Britain's sovereigns for almost a century and a half. But what of the Indian king who had once owned it, this mysterious Duleep Singh?

`There's a very proper historical trust in the Maharajah's memory,' the rector of Elveden had told me, `run by a Mr Trilok Singh Wouhra.' Mr Wouhra lived in Birmingham. A beneficent, BMW-driving millionaire in his sixties met me off the Euston train to entertain me to a Punjabi lunch in his boardroom above a warehouse packed with sacks of rice and jars of spices. What he did think about the Swiss account - could he help me find an heir?

`The discovery of this bank box is very exciting,' Mr Wouhra said. He thought the `box' might contain jewels, or perhaps the private papers of Princess Catherine's father. Did I know who he was? I confessed I knew little beyond what the rector and a few cuttings had told me.

He outlined the life of Maharajah Duleep Singh... It was the most extraordinary story I had ever heard.

`Now you understand why Sikhs revere their last king,' said Mr Wouhra when he had finished. `He both loved England and hated her.' But why, I asked, did all the Maharajah's children by two wives seem to have no children themselves? He had six by Queen Bamba, the girl he married in Cairo - and two by the `European he married in Paris,' her name was Ada Douglas Wetherill, according to a thin 1930 obituary I had found. Nothing much seemed known about her. `Ah yes - why no grandchildren he replied. `That is the curse of the tenth guru.' He explained that the Sikhs' greatest spiritual leader, Guru Gobind Singh, had a golden box of treasure buried on his death. The line of whoever touched it would `vanish from the light,' the guru had prophesied. `But Ranjit Singh dug it up, to build a monument to the holy man. That is why all Duleep Singh's children died childless.' So that was it - fin de ligne: There was no heir to open the vault. `Don't worry,' Mr Wouhra said, `there will be many, many cousins. Write your story and someone is bound to come forward.'

`Nazi Gold Fortune Awaits the Heirs of Maharajah' ran the headline of my Sunday Telegraph story published on 3 August 1997, which summarised the Swiss banks' declaration for claimants to come forward and what little I knew of the family history. It repeated Mr Wouhra's suggestion that the box might contain documents. But if they did prove that he had somehow been defrauded out his Kingdom - where would that leave 150 years of subsequent history? The Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947 on independence - Lahore on one side of the border, Amritsar on the other. The descendants of the once-ruling family had been driven out - along with millions of other Sikh refugees.

Within a few days the story was on the front page of papers all over India.
Koh-i nur in a Swiss Bank vault? asked The Tribune, published on 5 August. `Diplomatic row likely over Duleep's Swiss "box"' proclaimed the Hindustan Times a day later, darkly hinting that the British Foreign Office had prior knowledge of my story and were `concerned' that the Indian Government might force the `deposit safe to be opened.' Pakistan would say it was theirs, the paper reported - that even Iran might lay claim to the Koh-i nur `on behalf of the Moghul empire.' `This discovery could lead to war.' This was not my intention.

The stories kept rolling in: `Heir makes demand on Queen now' proclaimed the Indian Express. `Indian Prime Minister rejects plea for Koh-i nur'. `Crown Jewel controversy engulfs Konigin Elisabeth' said Die Welt. I had no clue what might be in Princess Catherine's dormant account, whether it was a safe deposit at all. No matter, as far as millions of Sikhs around the world seemed concerned, I had stumbled on the existence of the Maharajah's Box.

There were more letters and faxes. An Englishwoman of tantalising anonymity wrote to say she had known Princess Bamba in Lahore, Pakistan, shortly before her death. `She showed me the residue of the Duleep Singh jewels remaining in the family after a century of sale and gifts,' she recalled. `The magic box was brought from her strong room in her house and as the trays were filled they seemed to my child's eyes the extravagant equivalent of an Aladdin's cave. They may have been small beer to the great-great-grand-daughter of the mighty Sikh warrior who, after Indian independence was signing herself `Bamba Shahzadi, Rightful Queen of the Punjab and Kashmir.' I suggest the Swiss box contains little more than locks of Duleep Singh's hair.'

`A Pandora's Box has been opened,' proclaimed The Hindustan Times. `A host of family descendants will say it's theirs.' The newspaper was right. Mr Wouhra's Birmingham phone began to ring. He listened to his callers on crackly lines from India, and then he got back in touch with me. `I think we have found some heirs for you. There is a gentleman in Amritsar, a Mr Sandhanwalia, and a Princess who lives in Delhi. You might want to meet them...'

The story had taken wings. I flew to India as soon as I could.

This extract is from Chapter 2 of Christy Campbell's 'The Maharaja's Box: An Imperial Story of Conspiracy, Love and a Guru's Prophecy', 2002, ISBN: 1585672939. Christy Campbell spoke at the V&A on 28 March 2001 as part of the Sikh Arts and Heritage Lecture Series.

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