LAHORE DARBĀR, i.e. the Sikh Court at Lahore, denoted the government of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh and his successors (1799-1849). However, the Persian chroniclers refer to this government as Sarkār Khālsājī, and the term "Lahore Darbār" is not used even in British records until about the death of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh.
The composition of the Lahore Darbār was highly diversified. In the direction of all State affairs, political, foreign and domestic, it was completely subservient to the will of the Mahārājā. Highly personalized, the Lahore Darbār was a creation of the Mahārājā, a devout Sikh; he in theory at least publicly proclaimed that he was "the drum of the Khālsā" and that his government was based on the ideals of the Khālsā or the commonwealth of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, but in actual practice it was totally secular. It comprised councillors, ministers, advisers of all denominations --- Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. The Jammū brothers --- Gulāb Siṅgh, Dhiān Siṅgh and Suchet Siṅgh --- were Ḍogrā Rājpūts; Jamādar Khushāl Siṅgh, Tej Siṅgh, Sāhib Diāl, Gaṅgā Rām, Dīnā Nāth, Belī Rām, Ajudhiā Parshād, who controlled the financial, diplomatic and military affairs of the Darbār, were all Brāhmaṇs. The Faqīr brothers --- 'Azīz ud-Dīn, the foreign minister, Nūr ud-Dīn, the governor of Lahore, and Imām ud-Dīn, the governor of Gobindgaṛh fortress --- were Muslims, and Allard, Court, Avitabile and Ventura, the architects of the Europeanized wing of the Darbār's army, Christians.
The Lahore nobility presented a very picturesque aspect. The Jaṭṭ Sikh of the ruling class with his commanding figure and his handsome beard and turban was the adornment of the court which excelled in oriental pageantry and splendour. Personally, the Mahārājā was not given to ostentation. He was usually dressed in simple white, wore no ornaments but a single string of pearls and, on special occasions, the celebrated Koh-i-Nūr diamond on his arm. "My sword," he once confined to Baron Charles Hugel, "procures me all the distinction I desire; I am quite indifferent to external pomp." But he liked to be surrounded by magnificently robed ministers and fine-looking sardārs majestically accoutred and armed. "The dresses and jewels of the Rajah's court were the most superb that can be conceived, " observes H.E. Fane. "The whole scene can only be compared to a gala night at the opera."
Heir apparent Khaṛak Siṅgh, Kaṅvar Sher Siṅgh and Rājā Hīrā Siṅgh were the only individuals privileged to sit on chairs in the Darbār. Golden pillars covered three parts of the Darbār hall; rich shawl carpets embroidered with gold and silver and inset with gems covered the floor. Behind the Mahārājā invariably stood the Rājā Kalāṅ Dhiān Siṅgh; all others --- ministers, officials, courtiers and sardārs stood with folded hands and lowered eyes at places according to their ranks and status. Yellow and green were court colours and most of the officials were clothed in yellow garments of Kashmīr silks or woollens. There being no rigid classification or gradation of rank, the status of courtiers was normally determined by the degree of trust reposed in them by the Mahārājā. Titles conferred upon officials were usually honorifics, but many favoured sardārs held them along with lucrative jāgīrs.
The Lahore Darbār treated all foreign visitors with decorum and hospitality. Strict protocol was observed according to the status of the visitor. Moorcroft, Wade, Charles Hugel, Mohan Lāl, Shahāmat 'Alī, Fane and others tell us of the generous hospitality they received from the Darbār. The visitors were on arrival met by protocol officers especially appointed, their lodgings were fixed according to their status, and funds in cash and kind were provided for their entertainment. When Baron Charles Hugel visited Lahore, 'Azīz ud-Dīn, the foreign minister, received him and over 50 bearers made their appearance with presents of sweets and fruit, wines and a bag of 700 rupees. He was given accommodation in General Ventura's palatial residence and an allowance of 6,000 rupees per month was fixed for hospitality. The magnificence of the Lahore Darbār was unmatched on diplomatic and ceremonial occasions. As for instance, the reception of the Governor-General Lord William Bentinck at Ropaṛ in 1831, of Governor-General Lord Auckland at Fīrozpur in 1838, and of the Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Fane in 1837 at the time of the marriage of Kaṅvar Nau Nihāl Siṅgh. Full regalia and military might of the Darbār were then on display.
The Lahore Darbār transacted State business in the buildings inside the Lahore Fort called the Musamman Burj. A public court was held in the morning till noon in the Dīwān-i-'Ām or the Hall of Audience, attended by princes, ministers, nobles and civil and military officers. The Mahārājā sat cross-legged on a golden chair, clad in plain clothes. High civil and military appointments were made; reports from the provincial satraps and kārdārs were read out and royal orders given orally to be transcribed for final approval; tributes and nazarānās were accepted and supplicants dismissed gracefully with khill'ats (robes) and cash awards. When on tour or on expedition, business was conducted by the Mahārājā on horseback or under the shade of a tree. He dictated orders to the provincial governors while inspecting troops or fighting a battle. Alexander Burnes, who visited Lahore in February 1831, testifies to the expeditious manner in which work was transacted by the Mahārājā in the Darbār : "I never quitted the presence of a native of Asia with such impressions as I left the man; without education and without a guide, he conducts all affairs of the kingdom with surprising energy and vigour, yet wields his power with a moderation quite unprecedented in an eastern prince."
The Darbār kept itself fully informed of what was happening in the far-flung territories and in the neighbouring countries. The waqa'nawīs (news-writers) in the sūbās (provinces) sent to the royal court newsletters at regular intervals. Vakīls (agents) of foreign countries were attached to the court on a reciprocal basis. The Darbār had news-writers in Afghanistan and vakīls in some of the cis-Sutlej Sikh states and in the British territory. Vakīls of the cis-Sutlej states, Rājpūtānā, the Marāṭhā country and Nepal frequently came on complimentary missions. The Lahore Darbār also had in its employ numerous European officers. About four scores of such feringhee officers --- English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, American and Russian --- adorned the Mahārājā's Darbār. Among these foreigners were Jean Francois Allard, "the Suleman Bey of Raṇjīt Siṅgh," Jean Baptiste Ventura, "the baron of the Fauj-i-Khās," Paolo di Avitabile who became a civil administrator and a judge, and Claude Auguste Court, "the architect of Lahore Darbar's artillery." However, the Lahore Darbār kept the Europeans under strict control and discipline. They were encouraged to domesticate themselves by marriage and settle down in the Punjab and were bound to wear turbans and grow beards like the Sikhs and not to eat beef or smoke in public. The court nobility, which also included members of the royal family and the collaterals, lived in style in palatial havelīs, wore costly garments and rich jewellery. Some of the royal princes and the Rājā Kalāṅ Dhiān Siṅgh were permitted to hold their miniature Darbārs. None were allowed to lead a life of indolence. The Mahārājā kept sending out princes and sardārs alike on military expeditions and on diplomatic and political duties.
The main festivals observed by the Darbār were Baisākhī, Dussehrā, Basant, Holī and Dīvālī. The day of Baisākhī was deemed blessed and was celebrated at the court with disbursement of money, gold, silver, cows, horses, elephants, gold bangles and foodstuffs to the Brāhmaṇs and to the poor. The festival of Basant was celebrated with great enthusiasm. Troops paraded in yellow uniforms and court officials and sardārs, also clad in yellow, offered nazars to their sovereign who granted khill'ats (robes of honour) to each one according to his rank and status. The court assembled at Amritsar for the celebration of the Dussehrā. On this occasion a muster of the jāgīrdārī troops was taken and parades inspected by the Mahārājā.
The Lahore Darbār presided by Raṇjīt Siṅgh had become a byword for grandeur. To have established such precise standards of regal usage and dignity was remarkable for one born to a small worldly inheritance. Raṇjīt Siṅgh's patrimony did not amount to more than a few villages precariously held in the turbulent days, and his authority then scarcely coincided with any recognizable or settled geographical demarcation. He carved out sovereignty for himself in his own lifetime after a protracted and bitter struggle and set up a unique tradition of noble pomp and glory.
B. J. Hasrat