For over eight centuries, gunfire from the Khyber Pass found its echo in an uneasy silence in the plains of the Punjab. It was an eerie silence, of a people bludgeoned into cowed obedience by ruthless plunder and rape for over eight centuries. Marauders poured into Punjab through the lethal pass and it seemed no one could plug the treacherous leak. A seething murmur rent the air of seventeenth century Punjab. And the land of the five rivers haunted by tyranny, looked to the twelve misls (generally refers to the 12 sovereign states that form the Sikh confederacy) for answers. But though the Sikhs were strong and powerful warriors, their response was hampered by disunity. Then a strange thing happened.
Some awakened force rose from the wildness and power of the Universe, battled the bloodthirsty Afghans, conquered their lands, plugged the treacherous Khyber Pass, and forever subdued the sounds of genocide. The surreal dynamo who settled the bloody border was none other than the son of the soil, a legendary warrior who dared to swim against the tides of History and a benevolent monarch who needs no introduction – the one and only Maharajah Ranjit Singh also known as the Sher-e-Punjab (Lion of Punjab).
Of all the rulers of India (except Emperor Ashoka and the remarkable kings of the Chola Empire), he was the only one who took his conquering sword outside the borders of India. His writ ran large across the lands of invaders from the mouth of the Khyber Pass to the borders of China. At the time of his death on June 27, 1839 in Lahore, he had acquired the territories of all of the Punjab region till Multan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, Jammu, Gilgit, Northern Areas, Khyber Pass, Peshawar, North West Frontier Province, FATA, parts of Western Tibet and Ladakh. Unfortunately most of these lands are with Pakistan which they acquired riding on the coattails of the diabolic British.
There is little doubt that the remarkable life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is a requiem for an excellent Time capsule to be enshrined in India’s memory for ever. Beginning with his birth on 13, November 1780 to Mahan Singh (chief of Sukerchakia misl) and Raj Kaur in Gujrangwala, to his death in 1839 in his favorite Lahore, his life bristles with brilliance at every step.
Even as a young lad of 10, during his first battle, he showed a tremendous presence of mind when he ambushed and routed the Bhangi sardars. The stirring drama began with Sahib Singh Bhangi refusing to pay tribute to his father, Mahan Singh. Incensed at this show of insolence, Mahan Singh laid siege to Bhangi’s Sodhran fort. It was a long siege during which Mahan Singh fell sick and had to return to his home in Gujranwala. The sickness compelled him to declare his son Ranjit as heir to Sukerchakia misl.
The other sardars, sensing a vacuum in the leadership of Sukerchakia misl, as they felt they had nothing to fear from a ten year old boy, rallied to Sodhran fort to support Sahib Singh Bhangi. But they were in for a big surprise. Much before they could reach Sodhran, they were ambushed and forced to retreat. Little did the burly sardars realize that a fiery stripling of a boy could perform such a stupendous feat that eventually forced them to taste the bitter ashes of defeat. His father proudly celebrated his son’s victory.
Mahan Singh passed away in 1792 when Ranjit singh was twelve years old. Under the guardianship of his mother, Raj Kaur and assisted by Diwan Lakhpat Rai, Ranjit Singh took nominal charge. His uncle Dal Singh did not favor the Diwan and the palace intrigues began. To escape the byzantine intrigues, Ranjit Singh became an outdoor person, spending his time hunting and riding. He was an excellent horseman, and honed his skills in performing military feats.
Military prowess stood him in good stead all his life and largely overcame the handicap of his childhood when he lost one eye due to smallpox. When he was barely thirteen, he was attacked and stabbed by Hashmat Khan who had a score to settle with his father. Ranjit Singh bore his wound stoically and watched his opponent like a hawk waiting for an opening to hit back. Just before his next move, Ranjit Singh deftly struck him hard, sawed off his head and hung it in a spear. It was a miraculous feat that put all his enemies on notice with a “do not mess with me” ferocity.
When he was sixteen years old, he married Mehtab Kaur of Kanhaiya misl. This brought two powerful misls together. He married again in 1798 which irked Mehtab Kaur who went back to her hometown in Batala. In spite of this, his mother-in-law, Sada Kaur encouraged him to take the reins of Sukerhakia misl when Diwan Lakhpat Rai was murdered. He was barely 18 and plunged himself into administering the various functions of the misl. She also motivated him to rally the Sikhs and fight rather than flee to the hills whenever a large Afghan force came down like a “wolf on the fold.”
Young Ranjit was not considered good looking, but his commanding personality, razor sharp wit, cheerful demeanor, and military skills overrode his shortcoming. He was also not literate in the usual sense of the word. However, his native wisdom more than made up for the literate savants of the day who could not get their basic act together -- that united we stand and divided we fall. His first act was to unite the twelve sikh misls into a powerful unit of Sikhs to take on the fire breathing Afghans.
This was not easy as he had to contend with the jealousy and infighting among the sardars, especially the Bhangi sardars who were openly hostile. The ripple effect of their myopia resulted in fighting each other and even making deals with the Afghans, with airy hopes of a new era which never materialized. Nobody even thought about uniting against their common enemy and turning the tables on them, until Ranjit Singh came to alter the wheel of destiny. It was his socio-political genius, far-seeing vision and steely nerves that forged the squabbling Sikhs to become masters of their destiny and opened pathways to a unified identity. This was a turning point bringing together a broken country and Punjab emerged from the mists of History, a renewed nation determined to give battle to the jihadis, the most stubborn enemy of civilization.
Next, Ranjit Singh looked at weapons – weapons not just for survival but expansion, a road not taken on the political landscape for centuries. This meant that he had to look outside the region to recruit skilled foreigners to train and modernize his army. He turned to Europe especially the French, the sworn enemies of the British who had recently honed their battling skills under Napoleon. French generals Ventura and Allard were hired to train and modernize his army. In the course of time he hired several others, Italians, Germans, Russians, Greeks and Austrians. By 1839 there were about 39 European officers including 6 generals and 3 doctors. He provided for them a generous income and a good living but always followed the pole- star of his heart – trust but also verify their loyalty at all times.
Third, he placed great emphasis on knowing the enemy’s mind and forestalling their actions via a unique messaging system that gave him real time information directly from the frontlines of war and/or peace. He set up a human relay of messengers who effectively passed information regarding supplies, movement of troops, enemy fortifications and weapons. He could subdue the Pashtuns via fifty or more forts from Peshawar to the mouth of the Khyber which acted as force multipliers during surprise insurrections, provided timely warning by sleuths darting through forts without being noticed by the enemy, and injected an element of surprise in the battle to unnerve the opponent.
He secretly visited British camps and noticed the mobility of their artillery, sepoys performing machine drills, and solidarity of their regiments, cavalry and infantry. This gave him an insight into the geopolitical games that determine behavior of nations, their battle tactics and motivation. The modernization of his forces, and enhanced intelligence capabilities made the Sikh empire a force to reckon with and Ranjit Singh stood out as the first monarch of the East whose forces were at par with Western armies.
The time was ripe for action as the third battle of Panipat in 1761 left the Afghans with a dubious victory. Marathas were completely defeated but the Afghans fared little better. They lost thousands of trained troops and Ahmed Shah Abdali had to rush back with his much weakened army to confront the central Asian emirate of Bukhara knocking at the gates of Afghanistan. Ranjit Singh marched into the political void in the Punjab and liberated Lahore on July 7, 1799 from the oppressive Bhangi sardars (they were called Bhangi because they were always consuming bhang).
The people of Lahore hailed the conquering hero and Lahore rocked with sounds of celebration. The evil of mob rule ended and the emperor’s throne beckoned. The jubilant people celebrated the coronation of their beloved Maharajah Ranjit Singh on the 12th of April 1801 with pomp and pageantry on the auspicious day of Baisakhi. And thus the mighty Sikh Empire was born with Lahore as the capital.
Twenty one year old Ranjit Singh sat on the emperor’s throne with bayonets pointing at him from all directions. He had to contend with the Afghans in the Northwest, Gurkhas in the Northeast, Rajputs of Kangra in the North, British in the East, Marathas in the Southeast, and Pathans in Kasur near Lahore. Unfazed by all the swirling hostility, he freed Punjab from the slavery of eight centuries, brought peace to colliding cultures, and ushered in a rarefied world of enlightenment and tolerance. He raised the Indian spirit from servility, inferiority and fatalism to dynamic resistance against tyranny.
Anyone tuned in to the awareness channel can get the nature of the game played by big power brokers of the time. It was the time of the Napoleonic wars and the British were plagued by the foray of the unruly Afghans into the plains of India. They were not ready to take on another Eastern tiger on the prowl and therefore maintained an uneasy truce with the Sikhs. Ranjit Singh was aware that all of India was chafing under the British except Sind and Punjab and it was just a matter of time before the British would turn their hungry eyes on lush Punjab. He was also aware that he could play the French against the British or use the Afghan situation to keep Russia away which would please the British. As a wily world power the British were also in the know of these matters. But Ranjit had his priorities. He had to first fight the Afghan menace and plug the Khyber Pass. He knew his limitations and would not be able to take on the Afghans and the British at the same time.
In spite of far superior arms and training, the British were also reluctant to engage with Ranjit Singh, for they knew it would consume a lot of the resources of the “Raj” to put down the military genius. Considering all this, the British and Rangjit Singh made a win-win compromise and signed the treaty of Amritsar in 1809 to demarcate the Sutlej as the boundary of the Sikh empire with the British. This virtually granted Ranjit Singh no interference from the British as long as he stayed west of the Sutlej.
He was now free to confront the Afghans. The Sikh empire fought six wars with the Durrani Empire of the Afghans before they could completely dominate the war-like tribes. These wars were the Battle of Attock in 1813, Battle of Multan in 1818, Battle of Shopian in 1819, Battle of Nowshera in 1823, Battle of Peshawar in 1834 and the battle of Jamrud in 1837. Each of these battles were won by bravery, fortitude and physical prowess of his dazzling generals, Hari Singh Nalua, Akali Phula Singh, and Gurmukh Singh Lamba, to name a few. They were aided by a military machine with a roaring engine, whose components included the best of native guerilla war tactics and European style discipline, drill and devastating firepower of the cannon and heavy guns.
Battle of Attock
This battle took place on July 13, 1813. It took place between Ranjit Singh’s general Dewan Mokham Chand and the Afghan forces of Shah Mahmud led by Dost Mohammad Khan. The Sikhs won the battle and hit the first nail in the Afghan dominated coffin. The Afghan stronghold became part of the Sikh empire which was also known as Sarkar Khalsaji. Soon, major parts of the current Pakistan Punjab including Islamabad and Rawalpindi and Kashmir came under the rule of the Sikhs.
Battle of Multan
The battle lasted 3 months and the fort stubbornly withstood the onslaught of the Sikhs. Messages received from the Sikh generals requested heavy guns and supplies. The Indus became a valuable conduit for transporting all kinds of goods, grain, horses, ammunition and heavy guns, including the game changer cannon ZamZama which had created such a havoc in the third battle of Panipat. The cannons poured their lead like hellfire missiles and the fort was breached. The legendary general, Hari Singh Nulwa, mounted an assault and following a ferocious fight, Multan was wrested from the Afghans to become a part of the Sikh empire.
Battle of Shopian
In order to dislodge Jabbar Khan, the governor from the Durrani Empire in Kashmir, the Sikhs wanted to soften the kill by controlling the jugular vein of the Durranis, the myriad supply routes through the Pir Panjal range of mountains. They subdued small kingdoms in the range but could not wrest total control from the reigning afghan. During one of the Sikh expeditionary forces foray into supply routes, the battle began with Jabbar Khan on July 3, 1819. The battle was fierce and both sides lost heavily. But Jabbar Khan fled from the battlefield and across the Indus. The Sikhs entered the city of Srinigar, more as liberators from five centuries of oppressive Islamic rule, than as conquerors. They were magnanimous in their victory. Soldiers were given strict orders not to plunder the city, to ensure that all citizens were protected from loot and mayhem and most importantly to protect all the trade routes. This included the largest trade route from Lahore to Petersburg that went through Kashmir. As a result the lucrative shawl making industry continued to flourish as exquisite shawls were traded in as far-away places as Tibet, Skardu and Ladakh. Kashmir brought to the empire significant revenue and territory thus increasing the reach and quality of the Sikh empire.
Battle of Nowshera
This battle fought in 1823 was where the Afghans met their Waterloo and began the unraveling of the Afghan empire. It was a decisive battle that clinched the fact that the tribal ferocity and blood lust was no match for the modernized Sikh army and the brilliant tactics of the Sikh generals Hari Singh Nalua, Akali Phula Singh, Dewan Mokham Chand, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and his son Fateh Singh Ahluwalia and Gurmukh Singh Lamba to name only a few.
It all began when Yar Mohammad, the ruler of Peshawar, paid tribute to Ranjit Singh instead of Kabul. Azim Khan, the ruler of Kabul, incensed with Yar Mohammad rode from Kabul and reached Peshawar on Jan. 27, 1823 along with the fierce Yusafzais whose ranks swelled to around 40,000 at Peshawar. Yar Mohammed went into hiding. The tribes with blood curdling cries of Jihad besieged the fort of Jehangiria where an advance party of around 8000 Sikhs led by Hari Singh Nalua and Prince Sher Singh were temporarily stationed waiting for supplies and the rest of the army to join them. Hari Singh Nalua defended the fort against a rising pack of jihadis for over a month. He led daring sorties outside the fort and destroyed Afghan guns and ammunition and even captured a few. It is a testament to the brilliant general’s immense grit and talent for it was no mean feat holding 40,000 screaming jihadis at bay with only 8000 men.
Meanwhile Ranjit Singh arrived with his army along with the shock troops of Akali Phula Singh known as the Nihangs and found to his dismay that the bridge over the river Attock was destroyed by the Afghans, thus preventing the Sikhs from joining their comrades at Jehangiria. Swollen with fresh snow in freezing January, the Attock stood like an unyielding barrier seeming to test the resolve of nature’s wild child, Ranjit Singh. The Maharaja refused to let his besieged troops at Jehangiria to be outnumbered and massacred. Without a moment’s hesitation, he plunged his horse into the rising Attock – bridge or no bridge, he was going to cross the river thus equalizing the cold math of combat. And wild nature smiled back. The army crossed over along with the suicide squad of Nihangs, even though some of the war gear and ammunition was lost.
The dauntless crossing over the untamed Attock spooked the superstitious Afghans near the bank as they felt it could only be dead men walking, since no one had dared to cross the river during floods. They fled without a fight. Ranjit Singh’s army reached Jehangira after defeating the sleeping soldiers and joined their fellow Sikhs with cries of victory. In the interim, the rest of the Yusafzais fled to Pir Sabak (currently named Nowshera), confident that Azim Khan’s army would come to their rescue.
But Azim Khan was forced to miss his date with destiny, as Hari Singh Nalua prevented him from crossing the Landai stream that separated his army from the Yusafzais. He watched agonizingly and helplessly as Sikh guns stopped his huge army from coming to the rescue of the jihadis. The rest of the war between the troops led by Hari Singh Nalua and the jihadis was ferocious and bloody with both sides showing a stoic endurance. The effort to dislodge the jihadis from the hillock of Pir Sabak took the life of Akali Phula Singh whose unsurpassed heroism drove the jihadis out of their safe haven. Hari Singh Nalua angered at the death of his hero Akali Phula Singh pursued them and relentlessly rained death on them. The Sikhs were victorious, but their victory was marred with the death of a heroic and daredevil fighter Akali Phula Singh. Maharajah Ranjit Singh mourned his death and had a Samadhi built at the site.
Moorcroft, who was present at the battlefield wrote to the Governor General: “The matchlock, the bow, the spear, the sword, the knife and even the staff of an undisciplined multitude were about to be opposed by the cannon, the musket, the matchlock and the sabre directed by disciplined artillerists under the command of Ranjit Singh himself and consisting of the flower of the Sikh army.” The lashkars/jihadis were subjected to heavy pounding of a modernized Sikh cavalry and forced to flee. Some tried to swim across the stream and were drowned. The Sikh victory was not only complete, but it liquidated the iron fist of the Durranis between the Indus and Peshawar. Azim Khan, the instigator of this sorry episode soon died of a broken heart.
Battle of Peshawar
Peshawar fell to the Sikhs in 1834 when the ruling Barazkais retreated without a fight. A large afghan force under Dost Mohammad Khan came to battle the Sikhs. Hari Singh Nalua’s forces surrounded them and dammed the water supply. However, Dost Mohammad Khan lost the appetite for war as he was still mourning the loss of his brothers Jabbar Khan and Sultan Mohammad Khan and withdrew. Compared to the war of Nowshera, Peshawar was a cakewalk and ended 800 years of muslim rule.
Battle of Jamrud
Ranjit Singh asked Hari Singh Nalua to build a fort at Jamrud at the mouth of the Khyber Pass to check the influx of invaders and to keep an eye on Jalalabad. Construction of the fort aroused the suspicions of Amir Dost Mohammad, the afghan ruler who sent his four sons with 7000 horsemen and 2000 men with musketry. The jihadis were not far behind and their numbers swelled to 15000. Hari Singh Nalua’s response to the siege was quick. He arrived with a force of around 9000 men and in the fierce encounter, he was mortally wounded. In spite of it he rode as far as the camp and gave orders to keep his death a secret to keep the men motivated to fight. The Sikhs won the war, the Khyber was plugged, but the legendary warrior Hari Singh Nalua was dead. His death halted the expansion of the Sikh empire to Jalalabad and Kabul. The victory of the Sikhs was bitter as they mourned the loss of the conquering arm of Ranjit Singh.
Pockets of bold thinking assisted in expanding and consolidating the newly acquired territory that added vast lands to India’s borders. Under the rule of Prince Sher Singh (Maharaja in Kashmir), an enterprising general, Zorawar Singh conquered Ladakh and Baltistan in 1840 and carried the Sikh flag into territories of Tibet as far as Mansarovar where pitched battles were fought with a strong Tibetan army from Lhasa. Due to lack of reinforcements as heavy snow blocked all the passes, Zorawar Singh’s campaign was hampered and the great conqueror fell down lifeless in a fierce battle near Mansarovar. However, his daring initiative was rewarded when a treaty was signed with the Chinese which brought the whole of Ladakh and surrounding territories into the formation of the current boundary of India.
The Legacy of Ranjit Singh
After his death, Ranjit Singh’s empire lost its sheen due to poor governance and infighting that had plagued the continent for centuries. His son, Kharak Singh born in 1802 to Rani Raj Kaur did not inherent his father’s brilliant capabilities and could not hold the empire together. Within ten years, on March 14th, 1849, the Sikhs surrendered to General Gilbert near Rawalpindi.
Ranjit Singh possessed the magnificent Koh-i-noor, which was given by Shuja Shah Durrani for rescuing him from a dungeon after defeating the governor of Kashmir. The famous diamond still radiates with splendor though it is in the possession of the British. At his deathbed, Ranjit Singh willed it to the Jagannath Temple in Puri.
Maharajah’s enduring legacy is the beautification of the Harminder Sahib with marble and gold, for this reason it is known as the “Golden Temple” and remains the most revered Gurudwara of the Sikhs. He also brought the gates of the Somnath temple from the Afghans and installed it in Harminder Sahib.
Imbued with a Solomon-like insight, Ranjit Singh could pick the right person for the right job at the right time. The generals that he picked Hari Singh Nalua, Akali Phula Singh, Gurmukh Singh Lamba, Ventura, Allard and many others were each legendary in their own right. An imposing figure, and standing at over 6 feet tall, Hari Singh Nalua was so feared that Afghan mothers used to use his name to quiet their unruly children. He fought and killed a tiger with his own hands, could ride for 14 hours at a stretch and physically subdue four strong men at a time. Akali Phula Singh and his nihangs were priceless in shutting down the jihadi engine. Gurmukh Singh Lamba was wounded several times by musket balls, sword cuts, spear thrusts and the arrow, but the legendary warrior fought on caring not for life or limb. Such generals stand out as sparkling milestones in the dim corridors of the nation’s history and made the Sikh Empire a civilizational lighthouse.
Ranjit Singh was the rare leader who was not deterred to lead in turbulent times. A great communicator, he could motivate his men to cross the flooded Attock and lead his men to conquer new frontiers. His hunger for knowledge was insatiable. Victor Jacquemont, a foreign traveler wrote, “Ranjit Singh is almost the first inquisitive Indian I have seen, but his curiosity makes up for the apathy of his whole country.” Nothing escaped his attention right from patronage of the arts to minting new coins. He was actively involved in the environment and promoting/establishing new learning centers. There were around 4000 schools scattered throughout the kingdom, mostly attached to Gurudwaras, temples and mosques. Many travelers were impressed by his generosity, mental alertness, cheerful and vivacious personality.
There were no communal riots throughout his reign, capital punishment and cow slaughter was banned. None of the religious places, books, places of learning or crops were destroyed. Laws were strictly enforced, justice was quick, and for the first time untouchables became part of his army. People from all communities, castes, tribes, nations worked together to build one of the most enlightened empires in the world.
In spite of his stupendous achievements, Maharaja was also humble and compassionate. He willingly submitted to the Akal Takht’s decision to be flogged publicly for marrying a muslim nautch girl. His humility impressed the panj pyaras of the Akal Takht under whose orders he was called, and they fined him instead. At times he would wander in his kingdom in disguise and help the poor and the weak. He carried a bag of wheat for an old woman to feed her starving children and a sack for an old man to his home. When there was a massive famine in Kashmir, he opened his granaries of grain for their use. He was tender hearted enough to release a young cub to its mother, chided a general for killing a nightingale and gave one tenth of revenue for charitable purposes. He was completely free of malice, cruelty or vindictiveness and was kind even to his enemies. These unusual traits in an otherwise brutal age defined the political juggernaut who clawed out new borders, a man who stepped from another time to halt the downward spiral, and forever enthralled our senses with his grandeur.
More than anything else, he created political whirlwinds that blazed a new paradigm – Do not fear to take the path less trodden. In a world ridden with hostility and intolerance, he carved out an empire which is known for its intense humanism, respect for all religions, justice, and for building a modern army to stand up to the West.
The left wing highbrows have very little to say about Ranjit Singh in their doctored History books. But India cannot afford to forget the sacrifice, resilience and immense bravery of the Sikh warriors for protecting India’s borders from the savage hordes of invaders. Thousands of Sikhs lost their lives in the several battles with the Afghans. The saintly Sikh gurus Arjun Dev and Tegh Bahadur were brutally tortured and martyred for the cause of Hinduism. Guru Gobind singh’s two sons barely 6 and 8 years were bricked alive. The martyrdom of the Guruji’s children reflects the cruelty of the medieval Mughals, a cruelty unparalleled in the annals of civilization and an indicator of what the Sikhs had to undergo.
The least that India can do is to discard the sardar jokes to the dustbin of History, include a mandatory chapter in History books on the remarkable Sikh Maharajah, and provide justice to the victims of the horrendous and despicable riots of 1984. India owes this to Ranjit Singh whose nation building competence stopped the medieval Taliban in its tracks.
Finally, like an ancient Yogic warrior, Maharajah Ranjit Singh was master of astounding military feats as well as possessing the equanimity, secular outlook, and the deep wisdom of a native genius - a true yogi whose humility is legendary, possessed of a compassion as shining as the lights of eternity.