Maharaja Ranjit Singh used to say any man worth his salt must put his passion for horses above anything else. His love for horses is legendary. At its peak, his collection boasted way over a 1000 horses of finest qualities and none of the horses cost less than 20,000 rupees. Of his collection of horses, it has been said that cost of his entire collection was equal to the cost of the city of Lahore.
In early 1820’s, Maharaja Ranjit Singh heard about a horse whose speed was legendary in the whole of Khyber pass. The horse was the legendary Asp-i-Laila or Laila’s horse. The word Laila means night and those familiar with the timeless legend of Laila Majnu would know that Laila was dark skinned hence the name of the horse since the horse was dark colored too. In 1835, the horse was 13 years old so its birth year can be put to 1822.
Maharaja’s interest was aroused and he sent intelligence units out to gather information about the veracity of the claims of a magnificent horse roaming the hills of Khyber. It was revealed to the Maharaja that the famed horse did actually exist. It was said to be a pure Persian breed so beautiful that it was a sight to behold, dark grey or black in colour and 16 haths height equivalent to 16 haths in width. He was informed that the horse was in the possession of the Barkzai chief Yar Mohammed Khan who was the governor of Peshawar. It is said that the Barakzai chief found out about Maharaja’s interest in the horse and moved the horse to Kabul. But once Maharaja Ranjit Singh set his sight on something, especially his favorite animal, he would go out of his way to acquire it.
The Maharaja sent his minister Fakir Aziz-u-din to collect tribute from the Governor in hope that the horse would be a part of it. But it wasn’t. When asked to surrender the horse, Yar Mohammed Khan denied the existence of the horse.
The Maharaja dispatched another set of intelligence officers to ascertain the whereabouts of the horse and when it was confirmed that the horse was alive and well back channel efforts began to secure the horse. By in 1828, Maharaja’s patience had given up. He sent a punitive force under Budh Singh Sandhiawala to secure the horse. A battle ensued in which scores of soldiers were killed but eventually the Ranjit Singh’s army prevailed when another force was sent to reinforce the previous one.
After the battle Maharaja Ranjit Singh was informed by the Governor that the horse had died. This sent the Maharaja in a fit of rage for he was determined to secure the horse come what may. He sent another force under his son Prince Kharak Singh in 1829, to secure the horse and depose the Governor if he didn’t comply. By this time Yar Mohammed Khan had fled to Yusufzai hills and his brother Sultan Mohammed was installed as the new Governor. Ranjit Singh’s French general Ventura demanded surrender of the horse from the new Governor, which was again met with the reply that the horse was already dead. Ventura, who had had enough by now, arrested the new Governor and told him to give up the horse or he would be beheaded within 24 hours. Fierce reputation that the Frenchman had Sultan Mohammed had no choice but to give up the horse eventually and cried like a baby while giving it up.
The horse was carried in a special carriage guarded by over 500 guards and entered the fort through Akbari gate. The road leading up to the fort was cleaned and washed for two days so not even a single particle of dust would enter the horse’s nostrils. In the end Maharaja set his sight on the horse and remarked ‘it was worth the trouble’.
In 1835 when the famed German traveler Charles Hugel visited Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh showed him his favorite horse and told him this was the finest horse he had ever seen and that it perfect it was in every respect. He informed Hugel that the horse cost him 6 million rupees and 12,000 soldiers. The great German traveler also mentions that this was the finest horse in Maharaja’s stables… ‘and round his knees he has gold bangles, dark grey with black legs, 13 years old and full sixteen hands high’. The horse also has the honor of wearing the famous Koh-i-Noor around its neck. So the diamond that so called royals of england once wore in their crown used to be tied around the neck of one of Maharaja’s horses.
This was also the last horse Maharaja Ranjit Singh ever rode. Though almost immobile due to illness, the moment he sat on the horse he was totally fine. Such was his passion for horses and love for Asp-i-Laila, perhaps the most expensive horse in history.