Dyal Singh Majithia hailed from a family of the Shergill clan, which was settled in Majitha, a small town in the north-east of Amritsar. Imbued with martial instincts, his family had provided generals to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army for three generations.
His father Lehna Singh was the head of the kingdom’s ordnance. He acted also as governor of the hill states of Mandi and Saket, and was the chief administrator of Harmander Sahib (Golden Temple). He was deeply interested in science, and set up his own laboratory for conducting experiments. As an engineer of extraordinary zeal, he improved the Punjab foundries, and invented the clock that showed the day, the month and changes in the moon. Despite having a great interest in astronomy, he did not convert to the Copernican system and still continued to believe in the immobility of the earth.
He emigrated and settled in Benaras (Varanasi) once Punjab succumbed to disorder and political chaos after Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839.
It was in Varanasi that Dyal Singh was born in 1849, the same year the Punjab was annexed by the British. With the British having taken over the control of the Punjab, peace and order was restored, and the Majithia family returned to the land where they actually belonged.
Lehna Singh was equipped with tremendous charm and diplomatic skills, which he put to effective use to ingratiate the British rulers. V.N. Dutta states that Henry Lawrence, the British Resident who had much sympathy for the Punjab Chiefs, persuaded Lehna Singh to return to the Punjab, and appointed him a member of the Council of Regency. Henry Lawrence considered him the “most sensible Sardar in the Punjab”.
When eventually he settled down in the Punjab, he could not live beyond 1854, and died when Dyal Singh was just five years of age.
A young Dyal Singh was brought up under the tutelage of Sardar Teja Singh, formerly the Commander in Chief and a member of the Council of Regency. Dyal Singh inherited a large patrimony from his father. So prominent was Dyal Singh’s family that when the Viceregal darbar was held in Lahore in 1864, of the 603 people invited, Dyal Singh, then aged 16, was allotted the 55th seat, his uncle Ranjodh Singh being 103rd.
While Dyal Singh was growing up, the most significant feature of the Punjab’s history was its remarkable process of modernisation, and in this transformation certain aspects of urbanisation gained prominence — the various channels producing these changes were education, the press, the means of transport and communication, the bureaucratic setup and land settlement.
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He was instructed by a British governess and educated at the Christian Mission School at Amritsar. A young lad with an inquisitive mind, he read and developed quite an understanding of both the Gita and the Quran. That put him on the path that shaped him into a modern man.
I believe that it was this streak of modernisation that drew him towards the Brahmo Samaj, a brainchild of Raja Rammohan Roy, which had initiated social and educational reform in Bengal. Surenderanath Bannerji, a Brahmo leader, is believed to have suggested to Dyal Singh to set up an independent paper, which transpired in the form of The Tribune on February 1881. It started as a weekly, but expanded into a nationalist daily of tremendous power and prestige. The only other worthwhile newspaper of that time to be owned by an Indian was The Hindu of Madras.
His other business activity concerned the purchase and resale of precious jewellery. With his profound knowledge of the history of the Sikh kingdom, and the riches of the once important and wealthy families now in dire straits, he sent agents to buy their jewels on his behalf. He was a connoisseur of precious stones. From his business of real estate and the trade in precious stones, he earned a huge fortune. The assets accumulated and bequeathed in a will drawn up in 1895 were worth Rs30 lakh — Rs7 lakh more than the assets bequeathed in 1893 by Sir Dorabji Tata of the House of Tatas.
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Dyal Singh was a great advocate of western education, and was largely responsible for the setting up of the Punjab University. He made a hefty donation to Anjuman-i-Islamia. Similarly he welcomed Sir Syed Ahmed Khan as President of the Indian Association, Lahore. One may concur with B.K. Nehru’s assertion that Dyal Singh “did for North India what Raja Rammohan Roy had done for Bengal” three quarters of a century earlier.
He had drawn the conclusion well before 1880 that the salvation of the Indian masses lay in western education. That makes him a figure comparable to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan with whom he had quite a commonality of views.
Dyal Singh College and Dyal Singh Trust Library in Lahore were the outcome of his penchant for the dissemination of education. Dyal Singh Trust Library was started as a small reading room in 1908 in pursuance of Dyal Singh’s will. In 1928 it assumed the form of a proper library. On May 3, 1910, Dyal Singh College was inaugurated in Dyal Singh’s haveli in Lahore. The library building was constructed on Nisbet Road with proceeds from the sale of the exchange building sold to the Ganga Ram Trust.
Dyal Singh lived like a prince with hobbies and failings of the class he belonged to. His luncheon used to be a prolonged affair, sometimes continuing for more than a couple of hours. While he and his guests ate, there was some show of entertainment like music or tricks by a madari. He was a patron of wrestling and a keen kite flyer. Chess was another sport that interested him a great deal. Besides he had a refined taste in classical music, and played sitar with dexterity. He was also an accomplished poet, and wrote ornate Urdu under the pseudonym Mashriq.
When Dyal Singh died in 1898, he owned 26 prestigious properties, including the Dyal Singh Mansion of 54 residential units on the Mall, scores of lawyers’ chambers on Fane Road, the exchange building which was later sold to Ram Hospital, and a property in Karachi which was sold after his death, and the earning was invested in the purchase of land on the road to Mian Mir.