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Sikh Kingdoms

Maharajah Ranjit Singh


Perhaps the most legendary of all the Indian Maharajahs, ‘the lion of the Punjab’ Ranjit Singh takes a special place in Sikh and British colonial history. A ferocious warrior, a just King, and a masterful tactician, he belongs to those extraordinary men who create empires out of nothing. At its peak, between 1825 to 1839, the Sikh kingdom was worthy of European rivalry and one of the most attractive destinations for any European; travellers, artists and writers flocked to the Lahore Durbar for its style and its arts patronage. It was the first secular states of the modern world. It was also the last territory of India that hadn’t fallen into hands of British Imperialists.

He was the son of a Misl (Sikh clan) chief. Ranjit was only 10 when his father died in a battle and he had to step into his shoes. Struck by small pox, the young Chieftain lost sight in one eye, developing a characteristic feature that would distinguish his personality throughout his life. The Misls at the time were warring with each other over territorial claims. Using wily diplomacy and wilful force, Ranjit Singh united them into a considerable force to reckon with. He then proceeded to sack Lahore, capital of the Punjab, and declared himself its Maharajah in 1802. He defeated the mighty Pathans and expanded his empire from the Khyber Pass to the borders of Tibet, adding more to his already substantial treasury, including the Kohinoor. Recruiting European military officers after the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe and combining them with the fighting prowess of the Akali forces, led at that time by the charismatic Akali Phoola Singh, Ranjit’s army was the most sophisticated in Asia and a formidable adversary to the British who remained frustrated for over forty years until his death in 1839, to realise their designs of imperial expansion into the
Punjab.

Ranjit Singh had tried to guide and mentor his heir, Kharak Singh; but the eldest son was never up to the task. In fact he only remained on the throne for less than two years before being murdered by his ambitious siblings. The Sikh Empire soon crumbled; what once was a kingdom, worthy of the attention of world powers, got disposed as a corner in British colonial India.