About Maharaja Ranjit Singh - Lion of Punjab

Ranjit Singh throne in British Museum 2009.
  • Maharaja Ranjit Singh, born in 1780, represented a united and resurgent Punjab.
  • Article briefly evaluates strengths and weaknesses of Ranjit Singh and draws an analogy with Shivaji.

TIME shapes man in its crucible, but there have been men who changed even the course of time and left their footprints on the shores of history. One such monarch in the recent times was Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He did not wear a crown or sit on the throne, ruled in the name of the Khalsa and had secular and cosmopolitan outlook.


He was powerful and yet so humble as to smear his forehead with the dust of the feet of holy men of all faiths. He allowed himself to be tied to a tamarind tree to receive stripes on his bare back, in full public view on a charge of moral depravity. The Maharaja did not award capital punishment to a single person during the 40 years of his rule, he never treated even the vanquished with contempt by way of public flogging. Despite being a devoted Sikh, he restored the Sunehri Masjid to the Muslims of Lahore.


This article was first published in 2001 in The Tribune.


Nature had not endowed the Maharaja with a bewitching countenance. The scars of smallpox were clearly visible on his brown face, his thick lips, snub nose (unusually large at the tip) and short stature reminded one of Socrates, except for the fact that the latter had both his eyes intact, while the Maharaja had lost one in his childhood.


His face bore the signs of royalty and emitted a strange sort of radiance which impressed one and all. His apparent ugliness was compensated by his courage and bravery. When a jester asked him where he was when the Almighty freely distributed beauty, Ranjit Singh replied that he had gone in search of a kingdom.


Even though illiterate, Ranjit Singh was a man of profound knowledge. He was inquisitive about everything - ranging from politics and methods of warfare to the customs and manners of European— from guns, forts, wines, medicines and horses to hell, Paradise, God and the devil. His name commanded respect and honour, both among his courtiers and his subjects.


Victor Jacquemont, a French traveller, observed: “He is better obeyed by his subjects than the Mughal Emperors at the zenith of their power." His genius was conspicuous from the moment he uttered the first word, conversed with the wisest or the manner in which he bestrode a horse or handled his opponents. His memory was phenomenal, and like Napoleon Bonaparte, he could recall at will, the names of persons and places without straining himself.”


Born on November 13, 1780 at Gujranwala to S. Maha Singh and Raj Kaur (daughter of Gajpat Singh of Jind) Maharaja Ranjit Singh assumed the charge of the Shukkarchakkia Misl after the death of his father when he was hardly 12 years old. With exceptional courage, he was able to transform a tiny principality into a vast kingdom that extended over an area of 100436 square miles.


His kingdom extended from Ladakh to Sindh and from the Sulaiman ranges to the Sutlej river. In the process, he threw off the Afghan yoke, subdued the warring array of Sikh misldars and Muslim and Rajput chieftains and acquired control over such cities as Lahore, Amritsar, Attock, Multan and Peshawar.


He employed the services of Avitabile Ventura (Italian), Claude Auguste Court and Allard (French) and Alexander Gardiner (British), among others, to modernise his army. He reshaped the infantry on the western model, exposed his soldiers to regular drill and discipline and gave the artillery pride of place in the Sikh army. Ranjit Singh set up the Fauj-i-khas to meet certain eventualities, besides maintaining Fauj-i-Ain (regular Army) and Fauj-i-Beqawaid (irregular force). Disparate soldiers were converted into valiant fighters, who were conversant with the art of warfare.


With his military skill, the Maharaja was able to stem the tide of foreign aggressions from the north-west for the first time in Indian history.


He knew how far he could go in the fulfilment of his territorial ambitions. Aware of the strength of the British, he deliberately avoided an open clash with them. He knew that any attempt to forge a united front with the Marathas, Gurkhas, Rajputs and others would prove to be an exercise in futility since each of them had self-centric motives to fulfil.


His desire to subjugate the Cis-Sutlej region was checkmated by the Treaty of Amritsar, which he signed with the British in 1809. The treaty was ample proof of his political sagacity. His prophecy that the British would acquire control over the whole of India in the near future (Ek din sab lal ho jayega) came true about a decade after his death.


The pageantry of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court reminded one of the times of the Mughal emperor Shahjahan. Sitting cross-legged on a majestic chair, sporting a Kalgi on his forehead, a string of pearls around his waist and the Koh-i-noor diamond on his arm on special occasions, the Maharaja, was clad in a simple attire that was often white but light yellow during feasts and festivities. 


His clothes were made up of pure Kashmiri pashmina in winters and of Dacca muslin in summer. He seemed conspicuous among the galaxy of courtiers who were wearing costly costumes. “My sword is all the distinction I require”, he once told Baron Charles Hugel. Such was the arrangement of the court that only Prince Kharag Singh, Prince Sher Singh, and Hira Singh were provided with chairs, while all others sat on the floor.


Faqir Azizuddin, the foreign minister stood in front of him and Dhian Singh, the Prime Minister, behind his chair. "I believe few, if any other, courts either in Europe or the East could show such a fine-looking set of men as the principal Sardars," wrote Captain William G. Osborne, who visited the Durbar in 1838.

Samadahi of Ranjit Singh in Lahore is where he was cremated. 1999.

The etiquette and discipline of the Maharaja’s court was quite akin to that of the Victorian times, and impressed the foreign dignitaries, one of whom remarked that all that the imagination could conceive of human grandeur, all that the most exorbitant fancy could desire in its endeavour to portray the scene of royal splendour was embodied in the court of the Maharaja. The rich treasure of paintings bequeathed to us by August Theodar Schoefft, Emily Eden and Godfrey Vigne, the court painters of the Maharaja, bear testimony to this.


The Maharaja had, in his possession, a huge stock of costly pearls, diamonds, shawls, various kinds of bridles dotted with gold and silver or with diamonds, and other valuable items. It is doubtful if any court in Europe possessed such valuable gems as the Court of Lahore, wrote Lt Col Steinbach. But more than the lustre of costly gems, the Maharaja was attracted towards gems among men belonging to different castes, clans, regions and religions. His court presented a multi-ethnic bouquet of people from the Brahmin, Sikh, Afghan, Rajput and European stock.


Merit was the sole criterion for appointing people to positions of trust and responsibility. If Hari Singh Nalwa could, by dint of his military acumen, rise to the position of the Commander of the Sikh army, so could Faqir Azizuddin become a foreign minister from his humble position of a royal hakim.


Prominent among the Hindu and Sikh courtiers of the Maharaja were, Diwan Mohkam Chand, Diwan Moti Ram, Maharaja Gulab Singh, Raja Suchet Singh, Diwan Bhawani Das, Sham Singh Attariwala, Raja Dhian Singh and Khushal Singh. Colonel Alex Gardener noted that there were 39 military officers and three medical officers in the Maharaja’s service.


The Maharaja’s fascination for horses was matched only by his inclination towards liquor, aphrodiasics and women. He could stay in the saddle the whole day without being exhausted. Sometimes, he would make surprise visits to far-off areas for surveillance. The royal stables had a large number of thoroughbred Arab and Persian horses, some of which like Gohar Bar and Sufaid Pari were reserved exclusively for the Maharaja. The legendary horse Laili, for which he had to pay heavily, both in terms of men and money, reminds one of Bucephalus, the famous Greek horse in whose memory Alexander the Great founded a city.


The Maharaja loved to remain in the lap of nature for as long as he could. Beautiful gardens at Amritsar, Lahore, Gujranwala and Dinanagar were laid out. He restored the Shalimar garden to its old Mughal glory and renamed it as Shalabagh, as the former name in Punjabi meant "the killer of love".


The kingdom of the Maharaja was not theocratic but secular. There was no place for coercion or conversion in his polity. Cold-blooded religious persecutions, so common during the medieval times, were absent. Himself a devout Sikh, the Maharaja paid obeisance to the Adi Granth and listened to the rapturous hymns of Gurbaani every morning. Whenever he faced a dilemma or planned to launch a military or diplomatic move, he turned to the Holy Granth for inspiration.

Guru Nanak ji.

He visited Harmandar Sahib, Amritsar, the sacred Sikh shrine, especially on holy days or festive occasions like Amavasya (New Moon Night), Samkranti (first day of the solar month), Baisakhi (first day of Vaisakha), Dasehra and Divali for ardaas (prayer), samkalpa (mental resolve), tuladana (the giving of charitable objects equal to one’s weight) or for making large offerings in cash and gold.


The Toshakhana of the Harmandar Sahib contains some invaluable articles donated by the Maharaja. He was also instrumental in embossing the shrine with marble and gold, and for giving it a facelift. His benevolent acts have been preserved in a gold-plated inscription on the main entrance to the Golden Temple.


Such was the Maharaja’s devotion to his faith that he did not allow his name or portrait to be inscribed on his coins. He described himself as the kukar (dog) of the Guru and the Khalsa Panth, and issued the Nanakshahi rupee and mohar, bearing the figure of Guru Nanak Dev. 


He called his government as Sarkar-i-Khalsa or the government of the Khalsa Commonwealth, in which he was a mere drum (nigarah) to be played upon by the Almighty and engraved the words Akal Sahai (God be with us) on his royal seal. The Sikh salutation, Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh (Khalsa belongs to the Lord; Victory is therefore Lord’s own) was in vogue among his army men.


He created a garden at Amritsar after the name of the fourth Guru, Guru Ram Das. He named the fort at Amritsar, Gobind Garh, after the name of the tenth Sikh Guru, even though his courtiers wanted it to be called Ranjitgarh. When the Nizam gifted an expensive canopy to the Maharaja, he donated it to Harmandar Sahib.


Despite being a devout Sikh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh respected other religions. Sufis and bhakts, pandits and maulvis, Christians and Udasis were all welcome in his court, and given due respect. Festivals like Dasehra, Divali, Basant, Holi and Baisakhi were celebrated at the court with much fervour; so were the Id, the Muharram and the Milad-un-Nabbi. The Maharaja visited tombs of Muslim faqirs and temples with as much religious fervour as he did the Harmandar Sahib.


He held the Jawalamukhi temple, Kangra, in special veneration and sanctioned money and gold for guilding its roof, besides presenting two golden umbrellas. During his last days, he deputed his son Kanwar Naunihal Singh to pray for his well-being at the shrines of Jawalamukhi and Kangra and perform yajnas or sacrificial rites and santi prayogas (occult practices for inducing a peaceful state) so that he might regain health.

Baba Deep Singh is remembered for his bravery, 2012.

The Maharaja donated six quintals of gold to some temples at Banaras, and wished to donate the Koh-i-noor diamond (which he had obtained from Shah Shuja, the fugitive Amir of Kabul) to the Jagannath temple, Puri. His last wish was never carried out and the invaluable jewel finally passed on to the British. It may be mentioned that the Maharaja’s last rites were performed a day after his death on June 28, 1839, mostly in the Hindu manner and his ashes were immersed in the holy water of the Ganges.


Four of his principal wives - Kundan (also known as Gudan), Hardevi, Raj Kunwar and Banali - along with seven slave girls - burnt themselves on his funeral pyre in conformity with the custom of Sati.


His efforts to negotiate the return of the Sandal Gates of the Somnath Temple which Mahmud had taken away to Ghazni, his attempts to safeguard and support Muslim tombs such as those of Hazrat Shah Balawal and Hazrat Data Ganjbaksh, and his order to Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa not to destroy the religious library of Hazrat Omar Sahib while invading Peshawar clearly reveal how liberal and tolerant he was towards other religions.


The Maharaja reminds us of the legendary Vikramaditya who was known for his benevolence, dramatic gestures of goodwill and uncanny faith in human dignity. Loved by his people to whom he was a Paras (or the Philosopher’s Stone), respected by his courtiers and admired by foreign dignitaries, the Maharaja’s name struck terror in the hearts of anti-social elements. One could safely travel in his kingdom without the least fear of being misguided, robbed or killed. 


Such was his concern for peasants and the development of the means of irrigation, that while British India underwent a recurrent phase of famines no such calamity befell his kingdom.


Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s true greatness lies not merely in the story of his rise, not even in his military valour or diplomatic skill but in the fact that he emerged as a symbol of resurgent Punjab and united Punjab and provided as it were, the first "glimmerings of a nascent Punjabi nationalism". 


Even though the political edifice he had so assiduously created tumbled to the ground within a decade after his death, the echoes of its splendour and cosmopolitan character can be heard to this day.


The Maharaja was no Attila, yet he was relentless in the battlefield and firm in the saddle. He was a devout yet not a puritan like Oliver Cromwell and had all the vices of medieval monarchs.


Despite his frailties, he was the perfect model of a king like Ashoka and Alfred the Great. What Tweedsmuir said of Julius Caesar may aptly be said of him: “His culture was as wide as that of any man of his day: combined in him in the highest degree were the realism of the man of action, the sensitiveness of the artist, and the imagination of the creative dreamer - a union not paralleled elsewhere.”


Noted author, historian and spiritualist, Dr Satish K Kapoor was formerly British Council Scholar, Principal, Lyallpur Khalsa College, Jalandhar and Registrar, DAV University. Samadhi pic by V Achreja. Throne, Baba Deep Singh and Shivaji pics by Sanjeev Nayyar. 


This article was first published in The TRIBUNE and here eSamskriti.com has obtained permission from The Tribune and the author to share.


More on Punjab History by Editor - Since this article was written in 2001 adding some relevant history – source The History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan Volumes 9 (126-132) and 10 (pg 235-289).


Nadir Shah invaded North India in 1739 and Ahmed Shah Abdali first invaded in 1748 and repeated invasions during 1748-67 and Nadir Shah in 1739. The third Battle of Panipat was fought between the Marathas and Abdali in 1761.


When Abdali tried to suppress the Sikhs in 1748, due to some confusion of rockets he had to retreat. The Sikhs pursued the Afghan army up to the banks of the Indus and plundered Abdali’s baggage.


Numerous confrontations between Sikhs and Muslim Governors continued with the Sikhs getting more organised. After victory in battle of Panipat, Abdali was harassed by the Sikhs in his return March. Post Panipat Abdali invaded India till 1767 which aggravated disorder in Punjab and gave change for assertion of Sikh power. Between 1767 and 1773, the Sikhs extended their power from Saharanpur in the east to Attock in the west, from Multan in the south to Kangra and Jammu in the north. They organised themselves into 12 Misls or confederacies of which Ranjit Singh father headed one.


RS wanted to bring all the 12 misls under his personal sway. He achieved great success but was confronted with the power of the British who had extended their power to the Yamuna after the second Maratha War in 1803-04.


The British looked upon the Sutlej as a better frontier than the Yamuna and were thus opposed to the advance of power of RS beyond that river. When RS tried to extend his power in that direction to bring all the Sikh States within her sphere the British stood in his way. When British troops crossed the Yamuna and marched towards Ludhiana in 1709, RS knew he could not fight them. His power was established only over a part of Punjab.

Shivaji Maharaj Kolhapur 2019.

He made the best of the situation and concluded a treaty with British at Amritsar in 1809. Sutlej was fixed as the southern boundary of RS sphere of influence. By 1823 all the Sikh misels to the west and north of Sutlej were absorbed with a strong centralised monarchy under RS, the ones in the east and south were under British protection.


Between 1810 and 1824 he carried out a series of campaigns against the Afghans. In 1818 RS, after repeated failed attempts, conquered Multan. After a campaign of nearly 2 years, RS defeated the Afghans in Kashmir and it came into his possession in 1819. Next he conquered the mid Indus region.


Former governor of Kashmir Azam Khan declared holy war against RS. The Sikhs and Ghazis fought a pitched battle post which the Sikhs emerged victorious in 1823. RS entered Peshwar in triumph. Due to hill tribes of region he left region in charge of a muslim.


Inspite of his brilliant successes, RS remained true to his alliance with the British all through for eg he refused to ake advantage of their difficulties when they suffered setbacks in the early stages of their wars in Nepal-1816 and Burma-1824. The rulers of Nepal, Bhonsle Raja of Nagpur and ruler of Bharatpur asked for his hep but he refused due to the treaty of friendship with the British.


RS offers a striking analogy to Shivaji. Both moulded groups of scattered peoples into a compact nationality and built them into a strong military kingdom. However, RS never took on the British. Sikhs might have proved a formidable obstacle to the British Empire in India.

However, why this did not happen can partly be explained by RS character. Unlike Shivaji, RS lacked his moral character. His open sensuality sapped the vitality of the Court. Next was centralization of all powers in the person of the ruler and the absence of any organized system of administration. There was nothing in the Lahore darbar corresponding to the Asht-pradhans instituted by Shivaji.


Rajendra A commented on FB"Shiva Ji built up Maratha kingdom when both Bijapur and Moghul empire were on their Zenith. Ranjit Singh built up his kingdom when Moghuls were confined from lal Qila to Palam and Afghanistan was under anarchy. Comparing Ranjit Singh with Shivaji is in-equitous."

The greatest achievement of RS was the creation of the army. Aurangzeb devastated the dominions of Shivaji but could not destroy the Marathas who rose out of the ruins to dominate India during the 18th century. Conversely, the dominions of RS were destroyed within 10 years of his death.


How did Punjab rise again after Ranjit Singh is a separate story? Sufficient to say the British played a role in their rise. 


Also read

1. Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama Amritsar

2. Ranjit Singh Samadhi Lahore

3 How the British sowed the seeds for the Khalistan Movement before the Indians took over

4 How the Khalistan Movement was defeated in Punjab

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