Ranjit and Leili

The legend of Leili

Well, people wondering what I am upto this time may be led astray by the title thinking it has something to do some love story. Well, it sure is, but not involving two people, but a man and a horse. Some years back, I wrote about the Kohinoor diamond, a particularly popular article and in that I promised to tell the tale of Ranjit Singh’s horse Leili (a.k.a Laila, Laylee, Asp-i-Lailia and Leila), the one who adorned the Kohinoor diamond on many an important occasion. I am not sure if the British Queen or Kate knows, but well if legends are to be believed, Leili the horse for one, used to wear it before them.

The very mention of Ranjit Singh will get the Punjabi blood going. This revered leader and king is still popular with every Punjabi Sikh, and of course he was a great king in his life. This one eyed, pock marked king created the Sikh empire, becoming a 20 year old Maharaja in 1801making Lahore his capital in 1799. Ranjit Singh died in 1839, after a reign of nearly forty years, leaving seven sons by different queens, as many as 20 of them according to legends, 9 each of Sikh and Hindu and 2 Muslim. In 1845 after the First Anglo-Sikh War, Ranjit Singh's Empire was defeated and all major regional decisions were taken by the British East India Company. The story of Dulip Singh, his son, is quite sad and well, long and mysterious, but I was reminded about all this when I saw the article the other day on the newspaper where David Cameron had refused discussion on claims from India for the Kohinoor diamond (that it be returned to India).

But then this fanciful essay is not on the diamond or its owners (See my previous essay if interested) but about Ranjit Singh’s favorite horse that was apparently the cause for many a war and the expenditure of many million rupees. How much of it is true is not clear, but the lore about Leili had been created and spun so long ago, so much so that visitors to Lahore even in those days tried to get a look of the big horse.

Most of you may not know Lahore and I do not either, though I would like to see it someday (I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime). We read a little here a little there, of that glorious city of Punjab that is now part of Pakistan. We see bits of it in some PTV drama and I have heard my grandmother and grand aunt talk much about Karachi and Lahore, places they lived many years before Independence, since my grandfather and a few uncles served the British Raj’s military and railways in those parts, in their ‘good old days’. But well, without digressing, Lahore is referred to as the cultural heart of Pakistan, host to myriad arts, cuisine, festivals, film-making, music, gardening and a good crop of the top talent of the country. Known for its affiliation with poets and artists, it also has the largest number of educational institutions and some of the finest gardens of the region. Lahore or Lavapuri was where Lava the son of Rama once lived, if legends are to be believed. Maharaja Ranjit Singh moved into the Mughal palace in Lahore's citadel in 1799. By 1812 he had refurbished the city's defenses by adding a second set of outer walls that followed the outline of Akbar's original walls. We will focus on this old part or the old Walled City of Lahore known locally as the "Un-droone Shehr" though these city walls were destroyed after the British annexed the Punjab in 1849. The Lahore Fort, locally referred to as Shahi Qila is located in the northwestern corner of the Walled City. This fort and the city remained under the control of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his sons, grandsons and wives, until the fall of the last Sikh empire or the Lahore Darbar in 1849. Ranjit Singh of course loved horses and possessed a great many of them.

Somewhere to the left of the fort is a side entrance opening out to a military barrack. Before the British built this barrack, this was the stable of the Darbar where Ranjit Singh kept a large number of his finest horses. As you may have read he also extended the grounds of the nearby mosque to house his many horses. So that is the walled city of Lahore, Ranjit Singh’s capital. What if somebody told you that the entire walled city had to be cleaned, scrubbed and washed for two days to herald the arrival of a horse in Oct 1827? Which was to ensure that not a whiff of dust entered its flaring nostrils?

As writer Majid Sheikh put it, for a beautiful horse, or a beautiful woman, this 5’3” leader of the Sikhs would go to any length, for once he got it into his head to acquire the “filly”, it became an obsession with him. A joke doing the rounds of Lahore then listed the price of the entire city of Lahore and the cost of the Maharajah’s horses as being equal. Iwaz khan his stable keeper was charged with maintaining them and having his favorites ready every day.

Ranjit Singh, Leili and his diamonds
But how did Ranjit Singh get to own Leila or Laila? That is the story of the black or greyish white horse (not the white horse seen in pictures and pianintgs), the favorite of the legendary king.

What we do know is that one of the heads of the Barakzai tribes that ruled Peshawar area, Yar Muhammed owned the majestic horse Leili. It is not clear if it was a Persian or Turkomen breed, though most accounts state that it was a Turkomen breed, of towering height and of a dull grey color. As Sheikh puts it, its speed was legendary in the whole of the Khyber Pass. Even though Ranjit Singh had won the battles for Peshawar and eventually installed Yar Muhammed as his tributary there, the news of this ‘great’ horse reached the Lahore Durbar only later, sometime in 1823. Immediately Ranjit Singh dispatched intelligence agents to find out where the horse was located. One account put it at Peshawar, while another stated that the Barakzai Pashtun’s had heard of the interest of the Maharajah from their agents in Lahore, and had shifted the horse to Kabul. Nevertheless, Azim Khan of Kabul decided to lend a hand to Yar to help him get out of Ranjit Singh’s clutches, and what followed was the Battle of Nowshera in 1823 which was won by Ranjit, after which again Yar was reinstated as governor of Peshawar but with a bigger tribute to Singh. It appears that Ranjit took away Yar’s son back with him to Lahore and that the boy mentioned the great horse. A British account states that the young lad of 12/13 brought along with him a number of horses, but not Leili and the horse was reported to have died during the trek from Peshawar to Lahore.

Now there are of course a number of legends that tie up Ranjit Singh’s desire for the horse Leili as the main reason behind the battles that followed, but I would presume for now that that is fanciful. Nevertheless, the horse was in the scheme of things and was considered to have been part of the tribute expected from Yar Muhammed. In the meantime Ranjit hears that Fateh Ali Shah of Persia had offered RS 75,000 for the horse.

Ranjit Singh’s’ woes were not over for Syed Ahmad was to try and retake Peshawar as part of a Jihadist attack in 1826/7. A battle was fought between the Ghazis and the Sikhs in Dec 1826 The Ghazis were repulsed and Peshawar was reoccupied.

Now we have to get to know another interesting mercenary – Gen Baptiste Ventura, the Jewish Italian who fought for Napoleon, but had to flee Europe due to some disputes, was already in Lahore since 1822 training and spearheading Ranjit Singh’s army together with Gen Allard. In fact both of them were already in place when the battle of Nowshera was fought. As the story goes, it was after this venture that Ventura himself obtained the horse for Ranjit Singh from Yar Muhammed. A number of personalities such as Kharak Singh- Ranjit’s son, Sardar Budh Singh Sandhawalia etc are involved in this battle where Yar Mohammed was killed or flees, Ranjit’s forces prevail and Syed Ahmed is driven away.

As Sir Griffin explains, Laili however had not been surrendered, and General Ventura, after having defeated Syad Ahmad, encamped before Peshawar and demanded the animal from Sultan Muhammad Khan, whom he promised to confirm in the governorship if he gave her up. But Sultan Muhammad tried as many subterfuges as his brother, and it was not till Ventura had arrested him in his own palace and threatened to hold him a prisoner till Laili was given up, that persistence obtained its deserved success, and the General, becoming the happy possessor of the coveted mare, took her to Lahore where she was received with much rejoicing by the Maharaja.

Now we get to hear third party assessments of the renowned Laili. Was it really a majestic steed, a horse or a mare? Doubts remain

The Sikh Encyclopedia puts it thus - Some writers, including Lepel Griffin, are of the view that this horse was not the real Laili. They hold that Laili means a mare and not a stallion. Further Laili implies black colour and qualities of femininity. But Ventura and Ranjit Singh were sure that it was the real Laili. Ranjit Singh`s court historian, Sohan Lal, holds that the horse was surrendered by Yar Muhammad Khan in October 1827, while others are of the view that it was Sultan Muhammad Khan who gave the horse to General Ventura

Sir Griffin continues - Whether the real horse was given up is still doubtful, for there are few created beings that an Afghan cannot or would not deceive. Certainly, at Rupar in 1831, when the Maharaja visited the Governor-General, a brown horse was shown as Laili. When Hiigel visited Lahore he especially begged to be allowed to see the famous horse, which the Maharaja told him had cost him sixty lakhs of rupees and twelve thousand men. He describes Laili as magnificently caparisoned, with gold bangles round his legs, a dark grey, with black points, thirteen years old and fully sixteen hands high. This was the horse Ventura assured Hiigel that he had obtained with so much difficulty at Peshawar; but, on the other hand, Sikh records always speak of Laili as having been a mare which the name would seem to confirm. So the sex of the true Laili must remain a historical puzzle. Certain it is, that no horse, since that which caused the fall of Troy, has ever been the source of so much trouble and the death of so many brave men.

Gabriele Fiesting adds– Leili was taken to Lahore to suffer like all horses in a Raja’s stable, too much good food and too little exercise. Some say that the Khan (or Ventura) cheated the Raja for the animal exhibited with bangles and jewels was a horse while Leili was a mare.

Let’s take a look at what Karl Alexander A. Hügel an eyewitness actually stated - The morning brought the Fakir Sahib, and the large elephant to be drawn by Vigne, and the famous horse Laili, that I had inquired for. The Malm Raja let me know that this horse had cost him 60 lakhs of rupees (£600,000), and 12,000 soldiers, having been the occasion of several wars. It was the property of Yar Mohammed Khan of Peshawar, and Ranjit Singh made the delivery of the animal to him one of the conditions of peace. The cunning Mohammedan, however, who considered this article humiliating to him, evaded it several times by sending another horse under the name of Laili, and it was owing to a plan devised by General Ventura, that it was eventually obtained. He took a company of soldiers as his guard on one occasion when he went to Peshawar to receive the horse……….. It is the finest horse belonging to the Maha Raja, and I could not help mounting a steed that had cost six millions of florinsThe bridle and saddle was splendid, and round his knees he has gold bangles: he is a dark grey, with black legs, thirteen years old, and full sixteen hands high. I have heard that at Riipar, Ranjit Singh showed a brown horse as Laili, but General Ventura assured me that this was the true Laili.

Back to the florid description by Majid Sheikh and Lahore – Laili reached Lahore at the western Akbari Gate of the Lahore Fort, and the road that comes from Badami Bagh and curves around the fort was all cleaned and scrubbed for two days in advance, and the order was that not a single speck of dust should enter the horse’s nostrils. And so Asp-i-Laila reached Lahore, and the maharajah feasted his eyes on the horse and commented: “It has been worth the trouble.” One account puts the color as jet black, as the name Asp-i-Laila suggests, another makes it dark grey. But no matter what the color was, the horse had the honor of not only wearing the Koh-i-Noor diamond around its neck on special occasions, but of also being the horse that was brought out on special occasions.

Kartar Singh Duggal talks about its exploits - Leili had its finest hour when at Ropar during his meeting with Lord William Bentinck, Ranjit Singh performed great feats of skill on the horse, spearing a small pot while riding at great speed.

Osborne meeting Leili - We before stated that Runjeet had a wonderful passion for horses, and cared not the cost to have his fancy satisfied. "I took (says Mr. O.) the opportunity of asking him about the celebrated horse Leili, to attain which he had embroiled himself in a tedious and expensive war with a neighboring province. He told me that the horse was the most perfect animal he had ever seen, but that he was now very old and almost worn out, but that he would send for him in order that I might see him. Runjeet's passion for horses amounts almost to insanity; at least such was the case a few years ago, though, at present, age has tamed that as well as other less harmless passions. Avaricious as he is, he did not appear to regret the enormous sum he had squandered to obtain possession of this animal (upwards of thirty thousand pounds), and still less does he regret the vast loss of life to his people, or of character to himself, which this barefaced and unjustifiable robbery entailed upon him. So determined was he to obtain Leili, that he kept the son of the chief in whose possession the animal was supposed to be, a boy of twelve years of age, a close prisoner in his court. In vain he was assured that the horse was dead; his answer was, ' You will remain a prisoner till he is found.' He kept his word; and not until the horse was delivered to him was the boy permitted to depart."

Mc Gregor in his History of Sikhs mentions - This horse was valued, we suppose, for its action, as it was by no means remarkable for beauty. Lieutenant Barr describes it as a speckled grey, overloaded with fat, and much neglected, but which, if well groomed, might have looked handsome. He saw in the same stable a Dhunee horse of far greater beauty, and for which the Maharajah had given £900. With all his fondness for horses it is surprising that he had not an Arab in his stud. His excuse for this, as Dr. M'Gregor tells us, was that he found them too expensive. He had Persian horses and Toorkees, for which he gave high prices, but his favorites were a white breed, such as we have mentioned above, found at Dhunee and other places in the Punjab. He was always a first-rate rider, and continued to go on horseback until the latest period of his life. His equipment were magnificent, the holster pipes being covered with gold tinsel, and studded with emeralds, topazes, and other precious stones, and the reins having rich gold and silver ornaments, connected over the leather.

Somewhere near Chillianwallah is Dingee. It was here that Willian Barr saw the horse Leila in 1839, which we talked about. With these scenes of horror around us, we did not find the environs of Dingie very prepossessing, and the town itself has nothing to boast of but its size, being chiefly constructed of mud hovels, promiscuously heaped together in a sort of elegant confusion. We, however, visited the royal stables, for the purpose of seeing the far-famed "Leila," the horse Runjeet Singh waged an expensive war to gain possession of, and which, when brought out for our inspection, rather disappointed us. It was a speckled grey, and might have looked handsome, had it been in proper condition; but it was overloaded with fat, filthily dirty, and its heels, for want of paring and exercise, so excessively high, that it limped along with much difficulty. One of a pair of "Dakhinies," for which the Maharajah gave 9000 rupees, far exceeded "Leila" in beauty; but it was much too grossly fed, and equally ill-attended to: the other was dead.

Sir William Lee warner makes a mention of the Horse in his biography of Dalhousie- An interesting piece of historical byplay at this meeting between his predecessor and Ranjit Singh was told to Lord Dalhousie in 1849 by one who was present at it, and is here repeated as it was narrated. The Maharaja on this occasion brought out some of his famous horses, and among them his celebrated favorite, Leila. After parading him for a time, the Maharaja insisted on making a present of him on the spot. Lord William demurred, but the Maharaja pressed on him the gift. The Governor-General, embarrassed by this, and knowing the great value that Ranjit set on the possession of the horse, asked Captain Benson what he should do. Captain Benson recommended him to accept the gift, and then give it formally back again. Accordingly this was done. Leila was accepted, and then another bridle having been sent for and put on the horse, Lord William begged the Maharaja to accept this proof of his friendship and esteem; and Leila was led back to his own stable, to Ranjit's infinite and undisguised delight.

One more pointer explains that Leili as shown by Ranjit was a horse and not a mare (so was there really Leili the mare?). This comes from Rollo Sprinmgfield’s book – The horse and the rider. He states Runjeet Singh's passion for horses has passed into a /proverb in the East: it amounted almost to insanity. He was never weary of talking to and caressing his favorite steeds; they were continually in his thoughts, and almost constantly in his sight, adorned in the most sumptuous style. Their bridles were overlaid with gold or enamel, a plume of heron's feathers was fixed to the headstall, strings of jewels were hung round the animals' necks, under which were fastened sulemans or onyx stones, highly prized on account of the superstitions connected with them. The saddles were likewise plated with enamel and gold, and set with precious stones, the pummels being particularly rich. The housings were of Kashmir shawls fringed with gold, and the crupper and martingales were ornamented in the same style as the other furniture. Even a carthorse sent him by the King of England, was dressed out in the same fashion. His Majesty wished to make a suitable return for the shawl tent, presented to him, through Lord Amherst, by the old Lion of the Punjab, and a very extraordinary selection was made, upon whose advice is not known. A team of cart-horses, four mares, and one stallion, were sent out from England, under the notion that Runjeet would be glad to rear a larger breed than the native Punjabees. But the fact was, he cared only for showy saddle horses, of high courage, well broken into the manege of Hindustan, that he could ride himself, on parade, or on the road, or set his favorites upon. Accordingly, when the cart-horses arrived at his court, the stallion was immediately put into the breaker's hands, and taught the usual artificial paces. This animal, with its enormous head and coarse legs, stood always in the palace yard, or before the tent of the chief, blazing with gold and precious stones, and was sometimes honored by being crossed by Runjeet Singh himself. The mares were never looked at, and were matters of utter indifference to the Singh.

Certainly the raja was pleased with the horse and mentioned to Osborne and Emily Eden who did the first sketch of the raja with the horse, that it was an intelligent animal. But unfortunately, by then Ranjit Singh could hardly ride for he was paralyzed waist down. He would still be hoisted onto the horse at times, riding for some time. The court poet, Qadir Yar, it seems composed a poem in praise of Leili. As accounts go Leili died before the maharaja. Legends state that the Maharaja was shattered and the horse was accorded a state burial with the firing of 21-gun salute.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh suffered his first serious illness in 1826 when he had a stroke of paralysis. He was under the treatment of Dr Murray for eight long months. Early in 1837 Ranjit Singh had a second stroke of paralysis. This time the whole of his right side was affected and its effects persisted for nearly six months. Ranjit Singh eventually passed away on the 27th of June 1839, due to illness or as some people believe (source: KS Duggal’s book), by poison administered by his attendants.


Lahore – Tales without End – Majid Sheikh
The horse and his rider- Rollo Springfield
Maharaja Ranjit Singh: The Last to Lay Arms - Kartar Singh Duggal
Selections from the Travels and Journals Preserved in the Bombay Secretariat edited by Sir George Forrest (Massons travels)
The life of the Marquis of Dalhousie, K. T. - Sir William Lee-Warner
History of the Sikhs W L McGregor
Journal of a march from Delhi to Peshâwur: and from thence to Câbul -William Barr
Travels in Kashmir and the Panjab- Karl Alexander A. Hügel
Ranjit Síngh and the Sikh Barrier between Our Growing Empire and Central Asia - Sir Lepel Henry Griffin
A Personal Narrative of a Visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan, and of a ... By Godfrey Thomas Vigne
Strangers within the Gates By Gabrielle Festing
The Horse that led Lahore to war – Majid Sheikh

The Turkoman horse and the Pashtun - Springfield explains - The horses of the Toorkmans, or Turkmans, are much esteemed in Persia, and in the adjacent countries. Turkestan, the native region of these nomades, lies northeast of the Caspian, but their tribes are widely dispersed over Persia, Asia Minor, and Syria. Their horses are large, swift, and possess extraordinary powers of endurance, though their figures are somewhat ungainly. When a Turkman starts on an expedition, he takes with him some hard balls of barley meal, which are to serve both him and his horse for subsistence until his return. But sometimes in crossing the Desert, when he finds himself unusually faint and weary, he opens the jugular vein of his horse, and drinks a little of the animal's blood, by which he is himself refreshed, and thinks that the horse too is relieved. Some of these men and horses have been known to travel nine hundred miles in eleven, successive days.


This Laila Puranam was quite interesting. Kudos for digging up.
Kadambari said…
I think men haven't changed much.
The obsession has shifted to cars.. :)
Maddy said…
Thanks PNS..
That was a good title for it..
As for me I have never beenon a horse!!!
Maddy said…
Thanks Kadamabari..
yes, cars or bikes and in some parts, boats..