Maharaja Ranjit Singh
April 1792 – 11 April 1801 as Chief of Sukerchakia Misl12 April 1801 – 27 June 1839 as Emperor of the Sikh Empire
|Investiture||12 April 1801 at Lahore Fort|
|Successor||Maharaja Kharak Singh|
13 November 1780
Gujranwala, Punjab region, Sukerchakia Misl of the Sikh Confederacy (present-day Pakistan)
27 June 1839 (aged 58)|
Lahore, Punjab region, Sikh Empire (present-day Pakistan)
|Burial||Cremated remains stored in the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh in Lahore, Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent (modern-day Pakistan)|
Maharaja Kharak Singh|
Maharaja Sher Singh
Maharaja Duleep Singh
|Father||Sardar Maha Singh|
Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780 –1839) was the leader of the Sikh Empire, which ruled the northwest Indian subcontinent in the early half of the 19th century. He survived smallpox in infancy but lost sight in his left eye. He fought his first battle alongside his father at age 10. After his father died, he fought several wars to expel the Afghans in his teenage years and was proclaimed as the "Maharaja of Punjab" at age 21. His empire grew in the Punjab region under his leadership through 1839.
Prior to his rise, the Punjab region had numerous warring misls (confederacies), twelve of which were under Sikh rulers and one Muslim. Ranjit Singh successfully absorbed and united the Sikh misls and took over other local kingdoms to create the Sikh Empire. He repeatedly defeated invasions by outside armies, particularly those arriving from Afghanistan, and established friendly relations with the British.
Ranjit Singh's reign introduced reforms, modernisation, investment into infrastructure and general prosperity. His Khalsa army and government included Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Europeans. His legacy includes a period of Sikh cultural and artistic renaissance, including the rebuilding of the Harimandir Sahib in Amritsar as well as other major gurudwaras, including Takht Sri Patna Sahib, Bihar and Hazur Sahib Nanded, Maharashtra under his sponsorship. He was popularly known as Sher-e-Punjab, or "Lion of Punjab".
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was succeeded by his son Maharaja Kharak Singh.
Ranjit Singh was born on 13 November 1780, to Maha Singh Sukerchakia and Raj Kaur – the daughter of Raja Gajpat Singh of Jind, in Gujranwala, in the Majha region of Punjab (now in Pakistan) His birth name was Buddh Singh, after his ancestor who was a disciple of Guru Gobind Singh, a Khalsa, and whose descendants created the Sukerchakia misl before the birth of Ranjit Singh, which became the most powerful of many small Sikh kingdoms in northwestern Southern Asia in the wake of the disintegrating Mughal Empire. The child's name was changed to Ranjit (literally, "victor in battle") by his father to commemorate his army's victory over the Muslim Chatha chieftain Pir Muhammad.
Ranjit Singh contracted smallpox as an infant, which resulted in the loss of sight in his left eye and a pockmarked face. He was short in stature, never schooled, and did not learn to read or write anything beyond the Gurmukhi alphabet, however, he was trained at home in horse riding, musketry and other martial arts.
At age 12, his father died. He then inherited his father's Sukkarchakkia misl estates and was raised by his mother Raj Kaur, who, along with Lakhpat Rai, also managed the estates. The first attempt on his life was made when he was age 13, by Hashmat Khan, but Ranjit Singh prevailed and killed the assailant instead. At age 18, his mother died and Lakhpat Rai was assassinated, and thereon he was helped by his mother-in-law from his first marriage.
In his teens, Ranjit Singh took to alcohol, a habit that intensified in the later decades of his life, according to the chronicles of his court historians and the Europeans who visited him. However, he neither smoked nor ate beef, and required all officials in his court, regardless of their religion, to adhere to these restrictions as part of their employment contract.
Ranjit Singh married many times, in various ceremonies, and had twenty wives. Some scholars note that the information on Ranjit Singh's marriages is unclear, and there is evidence that he had many mistresses. According to Khushwant Singh in an 1889 interview with the French journal Le Voltaire, his son Dalip (Duleep) Singh remarked, "I am the son of one of my father's forty-six wives".
At age 15, Ranjit Singh married his first wife Mehtab Kaur, the only daughter of Gurbaksh Singh Kanhaiya and his wife Sada Kaur, and the granddaughter of Jai Singh Kanhaiya, the founder of the Kanhaiya Misl. This marriage was pre-arranged in an attempt to reconcile warring Sikh misls, wherein Mahtab Kaur was betrothed to Ranjit Singh. However, the marriage failed, with Mehtab Kaur never forgiving the fact that her father had been killed by Ranjit Singh's father and she mainly lived with her mother after marriage. The separation became complete when Ranjit Singh married his second wife Raj Kaur of Nakai Misl in 1798. Mehtab Kaur died in 1813.
Raj Kaur (renamed Datar Kaur), the daughter of Sardar Ran Singh Nakai, the third ruler of Nakai Misl, was Ranjit Singh's second wife and the mother of his heir, Kharak Singh. She changed her name from Raj Kaur to avoid confusion with Ranjit Singh's mother. Throughout her life she remained the favourite of Ranjit Singh, who called her Mai Nakain. Like his first marriage, the second marriage brought him a strategic military alliance. His second wife died in 1818.
Ratan Kaur and Daya Kaur were wives of Sahib Singh Bhangi of Gujrat (a misl north of Lahore, not to be confused the state of Gujarat). After Sahib Singh's death, Ranjit Singh took them under his protection in 1811 by marrying them via the rite of chādar andāzī, in which a cloth sheet was unfurled over each of their heads. Ratan Kaur gave birth to Multana Singh in 1819, and Daya Kaur gave birth to Kashmira Singh in 1819 and to Pashaura Singh in 1821.
His other wives include Moran Sarkar in 1802, Chand Kaur in 1815, Lakshmi in 1820, Mehatab Kaur in 1822, Saman Kaur in 1832, as well as Guddan, Banso, Gulbahar, Gulab, Ram Devi, Rani, Bannat, Har and Danno before his last marriage.
Jind Kaur was the final spouse of Ranjit Singh. Her father, Manna Singh Aulakh, extolled her virtues to Ranjit Singh, who was concerned about the frail health of his only heir, Kharak Singh. The Maharaja married her in 1835 by 'sending his arrow and sword to her village'. On 6 September 1838 she gave birth to Duleep Singh, who became the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.
In 1802, Ranjit Singh married Moran Sarkar, a Muslim nautch girl. This action, and other non-Sikh activities of the Maharaja, upset orthodox Sikhs, including the Nihangs, whose leader Akali Phula Singh was the Jathedar of the Akal Takht. When Ranjit Singh visited Amritsar, he was called outside the Akal Takht, where he was made to apologise for his mistakes. Akali Phula Singh took Ranjit Singh to a tamarind tree in front of the Akal Takht and prepared to punish him by flogging. Then Akali Phula Singh asked the nearby Sikh pilgrims whether they approved of Ranjit Singh's apology. The pilgrims responded with Sat Sri Akal and Ranjit Singh was released and forgiven.
Ranjit Singh had eight sons. Kharak Singh was the eldest from his second wife. His first wife gave birth to Ishar Singh, who died at the age of two, and, after her separation from Ranjit Singh, to the twins Tara Singh and Sher Singh. The two widows he took under his protection and married gave birth to Multana Singh, Kashmira Singh and Pashaura Singh. Duleep Singh was from his last wife. Ranjit Singh acknowledged only Kharak Singh and Duleep Singh as his biological sons
In the 1830s, Ranjit Singh suffered from numerous health complications as well as a stroke, which some historical records attribute to alcoholism and a failing liver. He died in his sleep on 27 June 1839. Four of his wives, and seven concubines with royal titles committed sati by throwing themselves on his funeral pyre by their own desire.
After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal Empire fell apart and declined in its ability to tax or govern most of the Indian subcontinent. In the northwestern region, particularly the Punjab, the creation of the Khalsa community of Sikh warriors by Guru Gobind Singh accelerated the decay and fragmentation of the Mughal power in the region. Raiding Afghans attacked the Indus river valleys but met resistance from both organised armies of the Khalsa Sikhs as well as irregular Khalsa militias based in villages. The Sikhs had appointed their own zamindars, replacing the previous Muslim revenue collectors, which provided resources to feed and strengthen the warriors aligned with Sikh interests. Meanwhile, colonial traders and the East India Company had begun operations in India on its eastern and western coasts.
By the second half of the 18th century, the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent (now Pakistan and parts of north India) were a collection of fourteen small warring regions. Of the fourteen, twelve were Sikh-controlled misls (confederacies), one named Kasur (near Lahore) was Muslim controlled, and one in the southeast was led by an Englishman named George Thomas. This region constituted the fertile and productive valleys of the five rivers – Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Bias and Sutlej. The Sikh misls were all under the control of the Khalsa fraternity of Sikh warriors, but they were not united and constantly warred with each other over revenue collection, disagreements, and local priorities; however, in the event of external invasion such as from the Muslim armies of Ahmed Shah Abdali from Afghanistan, they would usually unite.
Towards the end of 18th century, the five most powerful misls were those of Sukkarchakkia, Kanhayas, Nakkais, Ahluwalias and Bhangi Sikhs. Ranjit Singh belonged to the first, and through marriage had a reliable alliance with Kanhayas and Nakkais. Among the smaller misls, some such as the Phulkias misl had switched loyalties in the late 18th century and supported the Afghan army invasion against their Khalsa brethren. The Kasur region, ruled by Muslim, always supported the Afghan invasion forces and joined them in plundering Sikh misls during the war.
Ranjit Singh's fame grew in 1797, at age 17, when the Afghan Muslim ruler Shah Zaman, of the Ahmad Shah Abdali dynasty, attempted to annex Panjab region into his control through his general Shahanchi Khan and 12,000 soldiers. The battle was fought in the territory that fell in Ranjit Singh controlled misl, whose regional knowledge and warrior expertise helped resist the invading army. This victory gained him recognition. In 1798, the Afghan ruler sent in another army, which Ranjit Singh did not resist. He let them enter Lahore, then encircled them with his army, blocked off all food and supplies, burnt all crops and food sources that could have supported the Afghan army. Much of the Afghan army retreated back to Afghanistan.
In 1799, Raja Ranjit Singh's army of 25,000 Khalsa, supported by another 25,000 Khalsa led by his mother-in-law Rani Sada Kaur of Kanhaiya misl, in a joint operation attacked the region controlled by Bhangi Sikhs centered around Lahore. The rulers escaped, marking Lahore as the first major conquest of Ranjit Singh. The Sufi Muslim and Hindu population of Lahore welcomed the rule of Ranjit Singh. In 1800, the ruler of Jammu region ceded control of his region to Ranjit Singh.
In 1801, Ranjit Singh proclaimed himself as the "Maharaja of Punjab", and agreed to a formal investiture ceremony, which was carried out by Baba Sahib Singh Bedi - a descendant of Guru Nanak. On the day of his coronation, prayers were performed across mosques, temples and gurudwaras in his territories for his long life. Ranjit Singh called his rule as "Sarkar Khalsa", and his court as "Darbar Khalsa". He ordered new coins to be issued in the name of Guru Nanak named the "NanakShahi" ("of the Emperor Nanak").
In 1802 Ranjit Singh, aged 22, took Amritsar from the Bhangi Sikh misl, paid homage at the Harmandir Sahib temple, which had previously been attacked and desecrated by the invading Afghan army, and announced that he would renovate and rebuild it with marble and gold.
On 1 January 1806, Ranjit Singh signed a treaty with the British officials of the East India Company, in which he agreed that his Sikh forces would not attempt to expand south of the Sutlej river, and the Company agreed that it would not attempt to militarily cross the Sutlej river into the Sikh territory.
In 1807, Ranjit Singh's forces attacked the Muslim ruled misl of Kasur and, after a month of fierce fighting, defeated the Afghan chief Qutb-ud-Din, thus expanding his empire northwest towards Afghanistan. He took Multan in 1818, and the whole Bari Doab came under his rule with that conquest. In 1819, he successfully defeated the Afghan Sunni Muslim rulers and annexed Srinagar and Kashmir, stretching his rule into the north and the Jhelum valley, beyond the foothills of the Himalayas.
The most significant encounters between the Sikhs in the command of the Maharaja and the Afghans were in 1813, 1823, 1834 and in 1837. In 1813, Ranjit Singh's general Dewan Mokham Chand led the Sikh forces against the Afghan forces of Shah Mahmud led by Dost Mohammad Khan. The Afghans lost their stronghold at Attock in that battle.
In 1813–14, Ranjit Singh's first attempt to expand into Kashmir was foiled by Afghan forces led by General Azim Khan, due to a heavy downpour, the spread of cholera, and poor food supply to his troops.
In 1818, Darbar's forces led by Misr Dewan Chand occupied Multan, killing Muzaffar Khan and defeating his forces, leading to the end of Afghan influence in the Punjab.
In July 1818, an army from the Punjab defeated Jabbar Khan, a younger brother of governor of Kashmir Azim Khan, and acquired Kashmir, along with a yearly revenue of Rs seventy lacs. Dewan Moti Ram was appointed governor of Kashmir.
In November 1819, Dost Mohammed accepted the sovereignty of the Maharaja over Peshawar, along with a revenue payment of Rs one lac a year. The Maharaja specifically ordered his forces not to harass or molest any civilian. In 1820 and 1821, Dera Ghazi Khan, Hazara and Mankera, with huge tracts of land between Jhelum and Indus, Singh Sagar Daob, were also annexed. The victories of Kashmir, Peshwar and Multan were celebrated by naming three newborns after them. Prince Kashmira Singh, Peshaura Singh and Prince Multana Singh were born to Daya Kaur and Ratan Kaur, wives of Ranjit Singh.
In 1834, Mohammed Azim Khan once again marched towards Peshawar with an army of 25,000 Khattak and Yasufzai tribesmen in the name of jihad, to fight against infidels. The Maharaja defeated the forces. Yar Mohammad was pardoned and was reinvested as governor of Peshawar with an annual revenue of Rs one lac ten thousand to Lahore Darbar.
In 1837, the Battle of Jamrud and his march through Kabul in 1838, in cooperation with the colonial British army stationed in Sindh, became the last confrontation between the Sikhs led by him and the Afghans, which helped extend and establish the western boundaries of the Sikh Empire.
In 1838, Ranjit Singh with his troops marched into Kabul to take part in the victory parade along with the British after restoring Shah Shoja to the Afghan throne at Kabul.
The Sikh Empire, also known as the Sikh Raj and Sarkar-a-Khalsa, was in the Punjab region, the name of which means "the land of the five rivers". The five rivers are the Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Chenab and Jhelum, all of which are tributaries of the river Indus.
The geographical reach of the Sikh Empire under Singh included all lands north of Sutlej river, and south of the high valleys of the northwestern Himalayas. The major towns at time included Srinagar, Attock, Peshawar, Bannu, Rawalpindi, Jammu, Gujrat, Sialkot, Kangra, Amritsar, Lahore and Multan.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh allowed men from different religions and races to serve in his army and his government in various positions of authority. His army included a few Europeans, such as Jean-François Allard, but he did not employ British people, who were attempting to create a colony in the Indian subcontinent. Despite not employing them, he did maintain a diplomatic channel with the British; in 1828, he sent gifts to George IV and in 1831, he sent a mission to Simla to confer with the British Governor General, William Bentinck; while in 1838, he cooperated with them in removing the hostile Islamic Sultan in Afghanistan.
Ranjit Singh's policies were based on respect for all communities, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. A devoted Sikh, Ranjit Singh restored and built historic Sikh Gurdwaras – most famously, the Harmandir Sahib, and used to celebrate his victories by offering thanks at the Harmandar. He also joined the Hindus in their temples, prohibited cow slaughter out of respect for Hindu sentiments, and visited Sufi mosques and holy places. He ordered his soldiers to neither loot nor molest civilians.
The Sikhs led by Singh never razed places of worship to the ground belonging to the enemy. However, he did convert Muslim mosques into other uses. For example, Ranjit Singh's army desecrated Lahore's Badshahi Mosque and converted it into an ammunition store, and horse stables. Lahore's Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) was converted into "Moti Mandir" (Pearl Temple) by the Sikh army, and Sonehri Mosque were converted into a Sikh Gurdwara, but upon the request of Sufi Fakirs, Ranjit Singh restored the latter back to a mosque. Lahore's Begum Shahi Mosque was also used as a gunpowder factory, earning it the nickname Barudkhana Wali Masjid, or "Gunpowder Mosque."
Singh's sovereignty was accepted by Afghan and Punjabi Muslims, who fought under his banner against the Afghan forces of Nadir Shah and later of Azim Khan. His court was ecumenical in composition: his prime minister, Dhian Singh, was a Dogra; his foreign minister, Fakir Azizuddin, was a Muslim; and his finance minister, Dina Nath, was a Brahmin. Artillery commanders such as Mian Ghausa were also Muslims. There were no forced conversions in his time. His wives Bibi Mohran, Gilbahar Begum retained their faith and so did his Hindu wives.
The army under Ranjit Singh was not limited to the Sikh community. The soldiers and troop officers included Sikhs, but also included Hindus, Muslims and Europeans. Hindu Brahmins and people of all creeds and castes served his army, while the composition in his government also reflected a religious diversity. His army included Polish, Russian, Spanish, Prussian and French officers. In 1835, as his relationship with the British warmed up, he hired a British officer named Foulkes.
However, the Khalsa army of Ranjit Singh reflected regional population, and as he grew his army, he dramatically increased the Rajput and Jat Sikhs who became the predominant members of his army. In the Doaba region his army was composed of the Jat Sikhs, in Jammu and northern Indian hills it was Hindu Rajputs, while relatively more Muslims served his army in the Jhelum river area closer to Afghanistan than other major Panjab rivers.
Ranjit Singh changed and improved the training and organisation of his army. He reorganised responsibility and set performance standards in logistical efficiency in troop deployment, manoeuvre, and marksmanship. He reformed the staffing to emphasise steady fire over cavalry and guerrilla warfare, improved the equipment and methods of war. The military system of Ranjit Singh combined the best of both old and new ideas. He strengthened the infantry and the artillery. He paid the members of the standing army from treasury, instead of the Mughal method of paying an army with local feudal levies.
While Ranjit Singh introduced reforms in terms of training and equipment of his military, he failed to reform the old Jagirs (Ijra) system of Mughal middlemen. The Jagirs system of state revenue collection involved certain individuals with political connections or inheritance promising a tribute (nazarana) to the ruler and thereby gaining administrative control over certain villages, with the right to force collect customs, excise and land tax at inconsistent and subjective rates from the peasants and merchants; they would keep a part of collected revenue and deliver the promised tribute value to the state. These Jagirs maintained independent armed militia to extort taxes from the peasants and merchants, and the militia prone to violence. This system of inconsistent taxation with arbitrary extortion by militia, continued the Mughal tradition of ill treatment of peasants and merchants throughout the Sikh Empire, and is evidenced by the complaints filed to Ranjit Singh by East India Company officials attempting to trade within different parts of the Sikh Empire.
According to historical records, states Sunit Singh, Ranjit Singh's reforms focused on military that would allow new conquests, but not towards taxation system to end abuse, nor about introducing uniform laws in his state or improving internal trade and empowering the peasants and merchants. This failure to reform the Jagirs-based taxation system and economy, in part led to a succession power struggle and a series of threats, internal divisions among Sikhs, major assassinations and coups in the Sikh Empire in the years immediately after the death of Ranjit Singh; an easy annexation of the remains of the Sikh Empire into British India followed, with the colonial officials offering the Jagirs better terms and the right to keep the system intact.
Ranjit Singh ensured that Panjab manufactured and was self-sufficient in all weapons, equipment and munitions his army needed. His government invested in infrastructure in the 1800s and thereafter, established raw materials mines, cannon foundries, gunpowder and arm factories. Some of these operations were owned by the state, others operated by private Sikh operatives.
However, Ranjit Singh did not make major investments in other infrastructure such as irrigation canals to improve the productivity of land and roads. The prosperity in his Empire, in contrast to the Mughal-Sikh wars era, largely came from the improvement in the security situation, reduction in violence, reopened trade routes and greater freedom to conduct commerce.
The mid 19th-century Muslim historians, such as Shahamat Ali who experienced the Sikh Empire first hand, presented a different view on Ranjit Singh's Empire and governance. According to Ali, Ranjit Singh's government was despotic, and he was a mean monarch in contrast to the Mughals. The initial momentum for the Empire building in these accounts is stated to be Ranjit Singh led Khalsa army's "insatiable appetite for plunder", their desire for "fresh cities to pillage", and entirely eliminating the Mughal era "revenue intercepting intermediaries between the peasant-cultivator and the treasury".
According to Ishtiaq Ahmed, Ranjit Singh's rule led to further persecution of Muslims in Kashmir, expanding the previously selective persecution of Shia Muslims and Hindus by Afghan Sunni Muslim rulers between 1752 and 1819 before Kashmir became part of his Sikh Empire. Bikramjit Hasrat describes Ranjit Singh as a "benevolent despot".
The Muslim accounts of Ranjit Singh's rule were questioned by Sikh historians of the same era. For example, Ratan Singh Bhangu in 1841 wrote that these accounts were not accurate, and according to Anne Murphy, he remarked, "when would a Musalman praise the Sikhs?" In contrast, the colonial era British military officer Hugh Pearse in 1898 criticised Ranjit Singh's rule, as one founded on "violence, treachery and blood". Sohan Seetal disagrees with this account and states that Ranjit Singh had encouraged his army to respond with a "tit for tat" against the enemy, violence for violence, blood for blood, plunder for plunder.
Singh made his empire and the Sikhs a strong political force, for which he is deeply admired and revered in Sikhism. However, his era also marked a general decline in religious and moral fervour towards a life of alcoholism and licentiousness, along with a demoralisation of the Sikh court and nobility. He failed to establish a lasting structure for Sikh government or stable succession, and the Sikh Empire rapidly declined after his death. The British subsequently easily defeated the confused and demoralised Khalsa forces, then disbanded them into destitution. Sikhism itself did not decline.
Clive Dewey has argued that the decline of the empire after Singh's death owes much to the jagir-based economic and taxation system which he inherited from the Mughals and retained. After his death, a fight to control the tax spoils emerged, leading to a power struggle among the nobles and his family from different wives. This struggle ended with a rapid series of palace coups and assassinations of his descendants, and eventually the annexation of the Sikh Empire by the British.
Singh is remembered for uniting Sikhs and founding the prosperous Sikh Empire. He is also remembered for his conquests and building a well-trained, self-sufficient Khalsa army to protect the empire. He amassed considerable wealth, including gaining the possession of the Koh-i-Noor diamond from Shuja Shah Durrani of Afghanistan, which he left to Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha in 1839.
Perhaps Singh's most lasting legacy was the restoration and expansion of the Harmandir Sahib, the most revered Gurudwara of the Sikhs, which is now known popularly as the "Golden Temple". Much of the present decoration at the Harmandir Sahib, in the form of gilding and marblework, was introduced under the patronage of Singh, who also sponsored protective walls and water supply system to strengthen security and operations related to the temple. He also directed construction of two of the most sacred Sikh temples, being the birthplace and place of assassination of Guru Gobind Singh - Takht Sri Patna Sahib and Takht Sri Hazur Sahib, respectively - whom he much admired.
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| Leader of the Sukerchakia Misl
| Maharaja of the Sikh Empire