Sunday 25 October 2020

132 - Rise of the Sikh Power in Punjab

A question often intrigued me that exactly when the Sikhs conquered Punjab, i.e. in which year Punjab fell to them? Gradually I realized that it did not happen in the result of a single battle or war between two clearly identified adversaries, as for example we can mention the third battle of Panipat, the starting point of the Mughal Empire in India. Rather it was a lengthy struggle which continued for over a century, starting in the early 18th century and by 1760s Sikhs became the most important power in Punjab and in the next half century they were supreme power in this region and controlled a vast area between Jamuna in the east to Khyber Pass in the West and Ladakh in the north to the border of Sindh in the south. Sikhs gained their power through and long a protracted struggle against the Mughals and Afghans, but they lost it very rapidly to British in the middle of the 19th century.

The saga of Sikhs started with the birth of Guru Baba Nanak Dev ji in 1469 at Nankana Sahib, the first guru and the founder of Sikh religion. His mission and teachings continued under the nine gurus who succeeded him. The tenth and the last guru died in 1708.

Gurudwara Sacha Sauda, Farooqabad, Sheikhupura. (27.07.2017.)
Baba Guru Nanak Dev ji showed signs of divinity at a quite early age. Such an incident happened at Scha Sauda, when Guru ji showed his love for humanity and fed poor starving people at this place. 

The purpose of this post is only to discuss the political history of the Sikhs, so I shall confine myself to the political role played by the gurus. If I am not wrong, during the first century after the first guru started his mission, up to the end of 16th century AD, the population of the Sikhs was negligible in Punjab. However, from the fifth Guru Arjan Dev Ji their presence on the political map of Punjab started to be felt. He was the first Guru who laid the foundations of the Harmandir Sahib in 1581 at Amritsar or Chak Ram Das as it was known then, thus providing a religious and political centre to the Sikh community. It is widely believed that Guru Arjan ji invited Hazrat Mian Mir of Lahore, a Muslim saint to lay the foundations of this holy temple. He was successful in his preaching missions as well and converted many people to his religion. His fame reached Akbar and he met him in 1598 while travelling in this part of his empire and was impressed by the Adi Granth compiled by him and presented the guru 51 gold mohurs.

Akbar died in 1605 and Jahangir ascended the throne. Right from the beginning, the relations between the emperor and the guru soured. Prince Khusru rebelled against his father Jahangir and had a meeting with Guru Arjan. This meeting greatly annoyed the emperor. Besides this incident, the rising popularity and influence of Guru Arjan were bound to raise suspicion in an absolute monarch. This situation led to tragedy. Guru was arrested and sent to Lahore, where he died under torture or drowned in river Ravi. This was the first important political event with far-reaching consequences. The story of a certain Chandu Shah is also often quoted in relation to this incident, who is accused of instigating the emperor against the guru due to a personal grudge.

Lal Khu, in Lahore. A well that was in or close to the place where Guru Arjan was imprisoned in Lahore. 

After his death, his eleven years old son Har Govind was declared the sixth guru. The death of guru Arjan was a profound shock to his son, family and his followers. He was the first guru who paid attention to acquiring military power by collecting arms and a trained body of soldiers and even constructed a fort at Lohgarh. His activities did not go unnoticed, and he was imprisoned in Gwalior fort for a year or two. However, his influence kept on increasing. During the reign of Shah Jahan troubles again erupted and after several clashes between the followers of guru and the Mughals, he left the plains and shifted to Kiratpur a relatively safe place in 1634 and made this place his headquarter. From that point, we can say that the Sikhs started their active resistance against the government and tried to gain political force and an independent state. His defiance and resorting to arms made him even more popular. He died in 1644 and Har Rai became the next guru. Here it is interesting to note that despite the execution of his father, at some point he had cordial relations with Jahangir and with his cooperation took his revenge upon Chandu Shah, for his role in the killing of his father Arjan. According to Syed Abdul Latif he even served in the army of Jahangir and accompanied him to Kashmir. Despite some occasional frictions with the government, no open confrontation took place during his time. Before dying in 1661 he appointed his five years old son Har Krishan the next guru. His elder brother Ram Rai disputed this decision and Aurangzeb called both of them to capital Delhi for arbitration, where the young guru died of smallpox in 1664. At this time, like some occasions in the past, the succession became disputed. However, eventually, Tegh Bahadur was accepted as the new guru by the majority of the Sikhs, when he returned to Punjab after travelling for several years in Awadh, Bihar and Bengal. After his return to Punjab he probably created a law and order situation in Punjab. Famous writer Mr Khushwant Singh quotes the following passage in his book “A History of the Sikhs”:

Professors Ganda Singh and Teja Singh have rendered the same passage in the following words:

‘Tegh Bahadur gathering many disciples became powerful and thousands of people accompanied him. A contemporary of his, Hafiz Adam, who was a fakir belonging to the order of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi, had gathered about him a great multitude of followers. Both of these took to the practice of levying forcible exactions and moved about in the land of the Punjab. Tegh Bahadur took money from Hindus and Hafiz Adam from Mussalmans. The royal newswriters wrote to the Emperor that two fakirs, one Hindu and the other Muslim named so-and-so, had taken to that practice. It would not be strange if, with the increase of their influence, they created trouble.’

The Sikh version is however different. According to this, a delegation of Kashmiri Brahmins had approached the Guru to help them out of their predicament. Allegendly, they had been ordered to accept conversion to Islam. The Guru is said to have advised them to tell the Mughal officials that if Tegh Bahadur would accept conversion they would follow suit. The Guru was consequently summoned to Delhi, and on his refusal to renounce his faith was beheaded. This version is supported by Tegh Bahadur's son, who was then old enough to know what was going on. However, it is not clear to me that why Kashmiri Hindus appealed to him? Was Guru Tegh Bahadur militarily strong enough at that point to act in support of Kashmir Pundits, far away from his area of activity and influence?

Syed Abdul Latif mentions the role of Ram Rai a pretender to the guruship for provoking the emperor Shah Jahan against the guru for his activities, like keeping a large band of armed retainers and maintaining a splendid court at Kartarpur (not to be confused with the Kartapur in Pakistan) like an independent sovereign. He was summoned to Delhi but was allowed to leave and the next few years, he spent in travelling into Bihar and Bengal. However, after returning to Punjab he set upon a career of loot and plunder. He also gave shelter to fugitives from the state. An army was sent against him and his Muslim partner Adam and he was brought to Delhi as a prisoner.

Whatever were the circumstances of the death of Guru Tegh Bahdur, his execution took the relations between the Mughals (and by default Muslims) and Sikhs to the new heights of bitterness and animosity. But perhaps it was still not too late. He was succeeded by his nine years old son Gobind Singh as the tenth and the last guru. He spent his childhood in a small village Paonta, near Anandpur sahib, by then de facto capital of small Sikh state. He was educated with great care in four languages Punjabi, Hindi, Persian and Sanskrit. He further motivated Sikhs for an armed struggle to preserve their freedom and ideals by furthering the concept of Dharma Yudh (holy war). In 1687 he openly came out against the Mughals when he along with other rajas of the hill states fought against a Mughal army sent to collect revenues. Mughals subdued the rajas but prince Moazzam future emperor Bahadur Shah, ignored Gobind Singh. For the next 12 years an uneasy peace prevailed. He spent this time in organizing his people and constructed several forts around Anandpur. Clearly, he was bidding for his time, while Aurangzeb was in Deccan busy in subduing Marathas in the mountains of Western Ghats. In 1699 he called a general congregation of Sikhs at Anandpur and introduced many religious edicts into the Sikh religion. He also transformed his followers into a martial brotherhood. This was the start of Khalsa.

Anandpur sahib, the first stronghold of the Sikhs.

At this point, even the neighbouring Hindu rajas, including his host the raja of Bilaspur, became uneasy due to his militant activities and tried to evict him out of their territories. But by then he had become strong enough to thwart them in their efforts to evict him. It is pertinent to mention that at this time he was living a life of a semi independent ruler with considerable military forces under his command and many forts and strongholds between Sutlej and Jamuna under his control. The rajas appealed to Aurangzeb and he ordered the governors of Lahore and Sirhind to take action against Gobind Singh. The army besieged Anandpur and the guru was forced to leave it. His followers and family scattered in the mayhem and he himself took refuge at Chamkaur sahib. But he was closely followed by the government forces. But somehow with the help of two Pathan mercenaries he escaped from the pursuing forces. During these running battles, two of his elder sons died. While two younger sons, mere young boys, were executed by the governor of Sirhind. Gobind Singh now made the area around Muktasar as his centre of activities. Despite these severe and trajic losses, his fame increased greatly and a large number of people joined him. After exchanging some messages with Aurangzeb and demanding justice against the governor of Sirhind, Gobind Singh proceeded to Deccan to meet Aurangzeb. But Aurangzeb died before the meeting could take place.

Mosque of Bhagat Sadhana in Sirhind. 


At the death of Aurangzeb, a war of succession started among his sons and Gobind Singh sided with Prince Moazzam who won the struggle for the Mughal throne. At this juncture, the relations improved and Gobind Singh even accepted a gift of Rs 60,000 from the emperor and stayed for four months at Agra. He even accompanied the emperor to Deccan, where he was assassinated by two Pathans and they too were killed before their motive was known. There are two versions of their motives. Either they were sent by the governor of Sirhind to assassinate the guru or the guru had a business dispute with the father of the assassins regarding purchasing some horses, which resulted in his death. He died in Nanded, on 8th October, 1708. He did not appoint any person as the next guru, instead, he ordered his followers to seek guidance from the holy book Granth Sahib. As we have noted above his all four sons had already been killed.

Takht Sachkhand Sri Hazur Sahib, Nanded. 

At that point, it was quite possible that Sikh faith would have faded away in a few decades or became a sect of Hindus. However, before his assassination, he took one step that was going to change the course of Sikh history forever. After failing to persuade the emperor Bahadur Shah I to take action against Wazir Khan, the governor of Sirhind, for his role in executing his two sons, he decided to take the matters into his own hands. He charged one ascetic Lachman Das, whom he met in his hermitage at Nanded, to avenge the death of his sons and the persecution of the Sikhs. He marched to the north with a small band of followers and near Delhi he heard about the death of the guru. He proceeded north and entered Punjab and sent his messengers conveying the message of guru to the communities of his followers. Lachman called himself Banda or slave of Guru Gobind Singh, hence became famous as Banda Bairagi, bairagi being the order of ascetics he belonged to. He proclaimed his mission to free all the downtrodden including the peasants from their oppressors. He successfully turned his mission to, not only taking revenge from the government officials but also freeing peasants from the landowners. He set upon his mission with a great fury of plunder and violence. His first target was Sonipat, he looted the state treasury and the rich of the town and distributed the wealth among his followers. Religious zeal and opportunity to plunder the rich increased his followers greatly. His next targets were Kaithal and Samana. Samana, a historic city, was attacked ferociously, looted, plundered and destroyed and ten thousand people massacred. Samana fell on 26 November 1709. Muslims of these areas were particularly targeted, considered being the part of the ruling class or their supporters. From now on it was more of a religious war for both the Sikhs and Muslims, than just political affairs between a rebel and an emperor.  

The next target, the real objective of this uprising, was Sirhind. Wazir Khan prepared for the battle and sent a request of help to Bahadur Shah, who was in Deccan. In the meantime, a large number of Banda’s followers and peasants were converging on Sirhind from all the districts of central Punjab. These multitudes converged on Sirhind and defeated Wazir Khan on 12 May 1710 in the battle of Chappar Chiri, and completely sacked the historic city of Sirhind. Wazir Khan was killed in the battle and the city was consigned to fire and sword. All kinds of atrocities were unleashed upon the opponents, particularly Muslims by Banda and his fanatical supporters.

Fareh Burj, at Chppar Chiri. This tower was constructe in 2011 to commemorate Banda's victory over Wazir Khan of Sirhind in 1710. 

Now a large part of Punjab had fallen to him and he declared himself a king and struck coins in the name of gurus. The absence of organized resistance to his depredations emboldened him further and he crossed Jamuna and attacked Saharanpur and plundered it ruthlessly. In addition to that Behat, Ambheta and Nanauta met the same fate and panic and terror spread in the whole region. He returned soon to Punjab and in the autumn of 1710 captured the whole Jullundur Doab. Soon disturbances reached the environs of Lahore. The Majha region, from Amritsar to Pathankot was lost to this uprising.

Learning of this calamity Bahadur Shah marched to the north, the Rajputs were already in rebellion, but the emperor did not stop to subdue them and entered Punjab and ordered a general mobilization of forces. This is how Khafi Khan describes the grim situation:

'For eight or nine months and from two or three days march from Delhi to the environs of Lahore, all the towns and places of note were pillaged by these unclean wretches and trodden under foot and destroyed. Men in countless numbers were slain, the whole country was wasted, and mosques and tombs were razed. These infidels had set up a new rule, and had forbidden the shaving of the hair of the head and beard.... The revolt and ravages of this perverse sect were brought under the notice of His Majesty, and greatly troubled him'. 

Firoz Khan was appointed the commander of the campaign and he launched his offensive vigorously and within a month recovered Thanesar, Karnal and Shahabad and by the end of  1710 Mughal rule was re-established in the Malwa region of Punjab (districts south of Sutlej). Banda retreated to his hides in mountains. Mughal army pursued him and surrounded him in his fortress at Mukhlisgarh, the fort fell on 11 December, 1710 but Banda managed to escape.  

Next, he made Kiratpur his centre of activities in Siwalik hills and sacked Bilaspur. In the summer of 1711 he again descended on plains and besides other placed sacked Batala. Bahadur Shah was at Lahore, he came into the pursuit of Banda but he again escaped into mountains. The emperor died on 28 February 1712 and a war of succession started, which gave further respite to Banda and he made full use of this opportunity and again captured Sadhaura and sent proclamations to his followers and sympathizers. The next emperor Janahandar Shah after winning the struggle to the throne took action against Banda but soon his nephew Farrukh Siyar rebelled and toppled him. He appointed Abdus Samad Khan to suppress Banda. He was an able and energetic administrator and general, he captured all the strongholds of Banda and he retreated further deep into the mountains. The rebellion was almost over but Banda was still at large. He went into hiding in the hills of Jammu and laid low for over a year. However, some disturbances continued in the area around Ropar.

In February 1715, Banda launched his last campaign of terror and marched into Majha. Abdus Samad Khan met him near Batala and after a fierce fighting Banda was defeated and fled towards Gurdaspur and fortified himself near this city. He fought maniacally but Abdus Samad Khan too was equally determined. After a long siege of 8 months, Banda surrendered on 17 December 1715. Hence, ended his six years reign of terror, destruction and pillage. Banda along with his band of fanatics numbering 700 was sent to Delhi, where they reached by the end of February 1716. All the prisoners were executed including Banda himself on 19 June 1716.

Banda is considered a great hero, whose exploits are remembered with pride, a man who rose against the Mughals and tried to establish a free state for Sikhs and showing them the path of open defiance and armed struggle. Cunningham and Syed Abdul Latif both wrote their histories in the mid and late 19th centuries and both mentioned that the memory of Banda is detested and not held in good esteem even by the Sikhs, he was remembered for his insatiable bloodthirst for Muslim blood and savagery. But that all has changed since then, now Banda is counted among the greatest heroes of the Sikhs and a number of monuments have been built in his memory.

After the suppression of this rebellion, the Sikhs laid low, but some bands of desperadoes remained active in loot and plunder. At this time the governor Abdus Samad Khan and his son Zakaria Khan were mostly on their own, without much help from the government in Delhi. The Mughal emperor was too busy with his own problems and too weak to give any active support to Lahore. In this situation, the governor did what he could do and followed a policy of oppression and conciliation. Restrictions on the gathering of Sikhs were relaxed and they were allowed to meet twice a year in Amritsar. These gatherings provided Sikhs an opportunity to reorganize their affairs and choose their leadership. They divided the armed men into groups and appointed Jathedars (commanders) on them and all these groups were under a joint organization called Sarbat Khalsa. At the time of emergency, these bands could be merged into one national army, Dal Khasa. In 1733 one of their sardars, Kapur Singh of Fyzullapur was given a jagir and the title of Nawab. This was the first official recognition of Sikh power in Punjab. So during this time Sikhs were not sitting idle by any means, Amritsar was under their sway and serving as a de facto capital of the Sikhs. Many chiefs were quite strong in their respective areas of activities, especially in the hills and Malwa. Above all, they all had a strong organization and a very strong sense of purpose, religious fervour and military zeal.

Hence the 1730s was not a period entirely free of troubles. Plundering raids continued on smaller scales and also confrontations with government forces. In 1738 Bhai Mani Singh, manager of Harminder Sahib, Amritsar, applied to Zakariya Khan the governor of Lahore for permission to hold the fair of Diwali in Amritsar. He was granted permission at the payment of Rs 5,000 after the festival. Mani Singh was unable to pay and was arrested and executed on 14 June 1738. At the place of his execution or nearby a gurdwara still exists known as gurdwara Shaheed Ganj, Lahore. The killing of such a respected and senior priest caused great resentment among Sikhs.

Gurudwara Shaheed Ganj, Lahore.

Soon after this incident, a totally unexpected turmoil hit this region which was going to make the task of the Sikhs easier. It was indeed an opportunity the Sikhs could have little expected of. In 1739 Nadir Shah, King of Persia and Afghanistan invaded India. Zakaria Khan the governor of Lahore, submitted without resistance and the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila, too was defeated at Karnal. Nadir Shah entered Delhi without resistance. Due to some misunderstandings, a disturbance arose in the city and a general massacre was ordered and the city was thoroughly plundered. Besides the fabulous treasures of the emperor, invaluable items like Koh-i-Noor diamond and the peacock throne were also looted. Notables and traders of the city also yielded a wealth that Nadir Shah would not have imagined. He returned soon but left the whole Punjab without any effective government. The emperor due to secessions of different subahs, like Bengal, Awadh and Deccan and uprisings of Marathas, Jats and Rajputs, all over India, was already on his knees. This invasion made the whole edifice of the imperial authority to collapse and resulted in the total loss of any prestige left.

In these circumstances Sikhs became bolder day by day and now in some areas were succeeding in establishing their authority openly and even started collecting taxes. They built a fort at Dalewal, somewhere on the banks of Ravi and armed bands openly started visiting Amritsar. However, Zakaria Khan still had a strong grip on most of Punjab and he destroyed the fort and rounded up a large number of Sikhs, and had them executed in Lahore. Sikhs were outlawed and an order was issued to completely suppress this sect. They were regularly brought in Lahore and killed in the horse market since renamed Shahid Ganj and a gurdwara exists at the place. Sikhs suffered great losses but remained defiant. Zakaria Khan died in 1745. He was an able administrator and his loss was mourned by the people.

After his death his son Yahya Khan was made the governor of Lahore and his younger brother Shah Nawaz of Multan. At this time sensing an opportunity Sikhs merged their smaller bands into larger cavalry groups and made Nawab Kapur Singh the commander of the whole Sikh army. Sikhs openly incited people to refuse to pay revenue to the government. This led to clashes and Yahya Khan marched against the trouble makers and crushed a Sikh army north of Lahore, killing seven thousand and capturing three thousand more. His minister Lakh Pat Rai played an active role in the campaign to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of the Sikhs. During this operation in June 1746, Sikhs were pursued over a long distance starting from near Gurdaspur and ending at Lakhi jungle near Bathinda. Sikhs remember this incident as Chhota Ghallughara (smaller holocaust). But the revolt of Shah Nawaz the younger brother of the governor gave a timely respite to Sikhs. Shah Nawaz defeated his brother and in March 1747 entered Lahore. To strengthen his position he sought the cooperation of the Sikhs and appointed a Sikhs Kaura Mal, his minister. To further consolidate his position he invited Ahmad Shah Abdali to his aid. This turmoil gave a golden opportunity to Sikhs to regroup and reorganize. They fully utilized it and constructed a fort near Amritsar, Ram Rauni.

Abdali did not need much persuasion and marched towards Punjab and entered Lahore on 12 January 1748. He plundered the suburbs and exacted a heavy tribute for sparing the rest of the city. After staying for a month in Lahore he marched towards Delhi. The imperial forces, under Wazir Qamruddin, intercepted him at Manupur, near Sirhind. Mir Qamruddin was killed in the battle but his son Mir Muin ud Din, famously known as Mir Mannu, took the command and forced the invaders to retreat. After this victory he was appointed the governor of Lahore. The Sikhs took full advantage of this opportunity and they not only plundered the retreating Afghan army but Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia also defeated the forces of Adina Beg, near Hoshiarpur. Now the Sikhs were organizing themselves in very large bands called Misls, twelve in number, operating in and controlling vast tracts of land. These all bands united under the command of Jassa Singh, who was addressed as Padshah (king).  

The position of Mir Mannu however was weak, Multan was under the control of Afghans, Jammu under Dogras and vast areas in central Punjab under the marauding bands of the Sikhs. He first recaptured Multan and then proceeded to Amritsar to reduce Ram Rauni. The fighting continued for two months but before any conclusion of this campaign, Abdali again invaded Punjab. Abdali advanced up to Wazirabad where his further advance was blocked by Adina Beg but he did not receive any help from Delhi. They reached a compromise and areas west of Indus were ceded to Ahmad Shah and in addition to that he received the revenues of four districts of Sialkot, Pasrur, Gujrat, and Aurangabad, the last place I have been unable to find and locate. One of the reasons for the governor to control the Sikhs was the constant intrigues and conspiracies hatched by the Wazir Safdar Jang in Delhi.  The wazir instigated two rebellions, in Sialkot and Lahore, against Mir Mannu and he was compelled to placate the Sikhs and take their active help in repressing these revolts. Kaura Mal the wazir of Mir Mannu was a Sikh and many Sikhs entered government service and some others were granted jagirs. In the years 1749 – 1750 many peasants embraced the Sikh religion.

In the year 1752, Abdali again invaded Punjab. Mir Mannu raised a large army but was defeated outside Lahore. Kaura Mal the wazir of Mir Mannu also died in the fighting. Afghans extracted an indemnity of 3 million rupees. By the terms of the treaty concluded between Abdali and the emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur Lahore and Multan were ceded to Afghanistan. However, Abdali kept Mir Mannu in the position of the governor of Lahore. Before leaving for Afghanistan he also conquered Kashmir.

When Mannu was brought before Abdali, the Afghan King asked; 'What would you have done if I had fallen in your hands?' 'I would have cut off your head and sent it to my master,' replied Mannu. 'Now that you are at my mercy what do you expect of me?' asked Abdali. 'If YOU are a tradesman, sell me; if you are a tyrant, kill me; but if you are a King, pardon me,' replied Mannu. Abdali embraced Mannu and addressed him as his brave son and the champion of India-Farzand Khan Bahadur, Rustam-i-Hind. The dialogue is recorded by the most of Persian and Punjabi historians.

After the third invasion of Abdali the Sikhs spread the disturbances across Punjab from Malwa to Salt Range. Many skirmishes and battles were fought between the roving bands of the Sikhs and the government forces. Jullundur Doab and Bari Doab were particularly hard hit. Mir Mannu took very harsh measures against the Sikhs and a large number of them were killed or brought to Lahore for execution. Anandpur was attacked and the fort Ram Rauni was also destroyed. He also offered a reward of Rs 10 for each Sikh killed. But this campaign remained inconclusive due to the sudden death of Mir Mannu in November 1753, in a riding accident. With his death, the administration of Punjab totally collapsed. His widow tried to run the affairs as the regent of Mannu’s infant son, but running the affairs of that turbulent province was much beyond her capabilities. The whole province fragmented into small principalities. Multan was still under the control of Afghans, Jammu became independent and Adina Beg was controlling Jullundur and Sirhind. Most of the other areas were under the sway of Sikhs misls or local chiefs. In the winter of 1754 – 55, Sikhs further increased their activity of plundering raids in Punjab and even beyond. Now instead of simply robbing the people, they offered protection and in return took one-fifth of their produce. Hence, for the first time, Sikhs took over the administration of the areas under their influence. Mughlani Befum, despite all odds and intrigues of her adversaries survived until March 1756, when she was replaced by Adina Beg. Mughalni Begum although confined in Delhi, did not sit idle and sent a message to Abdali to conquer India and even promised her to tell him about the hidden wealth of notables of Delhi, including her own relatives. Abdali did not need much persuasion, he saw his opportunity and descended on Hindustan once again.

Abdali crossed Indus in November 1756 and invaded India for the fourth time. Adina Beg saw it prudent not to put any resistance and Abdali reached Delhi without any resistance and entered the city on 28 January, 1757 and set upon plundering the city and its inhabitants thoroughly. After ruthlessly pillaging Delhi his next targets for loot and plunder were the Hindu holy cities of Mathura and Brindaban. The Mughal Emperor Alamgir II was a very weak person and a mere puppet in the hands of his Wazir Imad ul Mulk.

Abdali and his son after completing their mission returned to Afghanistan loaded with the booty. Sikh bands were ready on the way and using guerrilla tactics relieved his army of some of their loot and plunder. Abdali retaliated by blowing up Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar and filling the holy pond with dirt and desecrated it with the entrails of slaughtered cows. He handed the administration of Lahore to his son Timur Shah. Sikhs however, under Charat Singh of Sukerchakia misl, harassed his army up to Indus. Sikhs tried to avenge the desecration but were again defeated and the Afghan commander Jahan Khan again sacked the Harmandir in Amritsar and the gurdwara at Kartarpur (probably the one near Kapurthala in Jullundur Doab) was also demolished.

Jassa Singh Ahluwalia called on the misls to join forces to avenge the desecration of Amritsar, he found an ally in Adina Beg the administrator of Jullundur Doab, who was not on good terms with the Afghans. The joint forces defeated the Afghans forces at Mahilpur, district Hoshiarpur. Prince Timur sent a second army but that too was defeated. Now the situation became so bad that even the environs of Lahore, just outside the city walls, were not safe from the depredations of the Sikhs.

Adina Beg was an unscrupulous and very shrewd man. Next, he invited Marathas, already entrenched in Delhi, to his aid to expel Afghans from Punjab. Sikhs were also a part of this tripartite alliance. Marathas were offered large amounts as an incentive for their troubles, besides prospects of loot and plunder. In March 1758, Marathas entered Punjab with a very large army. Afghans were no match for this huge army of stated to be two hundred thousand and abandoned Lahore and other areas without a fight. Maratha chief, Raghu Nath, along with Adina Beg, entered Lahore in April 1758 and chased Afghans out of Punjab completely. Marathas soon left Punjab, richer by crores of rupees and appointing Adina Beg their governor at the promise of paying 7.5 million of rupees per year. As soon as Marathas were out of sight, Adina Beg attacked Sikhs at Ram Rauni or Ram Garh, and started a campaign to break the power of the Sikhs but he suddenly died in September 1758. Marathas again entered Punjab and with the help of the Sikhs defeated an Afghan army entering Punjab to press their claim on this province.

The situation in Punjab compelled Ahmad Shah to invade the province for the fifth time. His main object was to check the rising power of the Marathas in northern India. Marathas fled before the powerful army of Afghan without much resistance and Abdali marched towards Delhi. After a year of manoeuvring and preparations, Abdali and Marathas met at the famous battlefield of Panipat on 14 January 1761. Despite having a great victory at Panipat, Abdali could do little to crush the roving bands of the Sikhs, scattered almost all over Punjab. Small bands of Sikhs constantly attacked, harassed and plundered the moving columns of the Afghan army on its return march to Afghanistan. Officials appointed by Abdali to deal with the Sikhs completely failed in their task. They were utterly defeated near Gujranwala.

On the festival of Diwali, 22 October 1761, Sikhs gathered in Amritsar, such a congregation is known as Sarbat Khalsa, and resolved to capture Lahore, the ultimate prize in Punjab. Afghan general Khawaja Obaid could not resist and the Sikh chief Jassa Singh Ahluwalia captured Lahore without a fight. He was given the title of Sultan Al Qaum (the King of the nation) and new coins were minted. However, Khawaja Obaid remained entrenched in the fort. Abdali could not ignore this grave situation and entered Punjab with speed. Sikhs hastily evacuated Lahore and tried to scatter into far flung areas. Abdali caught up with one large retreating band at Kup. Sikhs tried to escape towards Barnala and fought a running battle. However, they suffered terribly and most of them were slaughtered on 5 February 1762, the incident is known as Vada Ghallughara (the great massacre). According to Latif, Sikhs were besieging the city of Sirhind, Abdali came to rescue the city and chased away Sikhs and inflicted a big defeat on them. Harimandir sahib at Amritsar was again blown up with gunpowder. For the next one year he stayed mostly in Lahore or Kalanaur. But even during his stay in Lahore Sikh bands raided and plundered villages from Jhelum to Karnal with impunity and even dared to gather at Amritsar for Divali. Abdali was helpless to suppress this anarchy, he left Lahore on 12 December 1762 for Afghanistan. Actually Afghanistan was not a stable country and whenever Abdali left it for a campaign in India, some trouble erupted behind him. After his departure, his nominated officials were unable to control Sikhs and they quickly captured large territories and towns in Sirhind, Jullundur Doab, Upper Bari and Rachna Doabs. This time even large towns were also permanently occupied. Towns of Rohtas, Jalapur, Ahmadabad, Chakwal and the most important town of this region Pind Dadan Khan also fell during this time. In early 1764 they invested Lahore and were busy in the conquest of Punjab with full speed when Abdali came again to stem the tide of rising Sikhs. This was his seventh invasion of Punjab. His target was again Amritsar where the Harmandir sahib was blown up and the pool filled with dead cows. But the Sikhs had already fled. Abdali chased elusive Sikhs in Jullundur Doab and Sirhind, but they scattered and hid themselves. However, as soon as he started his return journey they also started harassing his army with small guerrilla attacks. They never made a stand and relied on running battles, an art they were perfect in.

Situation in 1764 accoridng to a map given in the Joseph Devey Cunningham's book "A History of The Sikhs"

Soon after the departure of Abdali, the Sikhs gathered for the annual festival of Baisakhi on 10 April 1765 in Amritsar and they rebuilt the temple. They also planned to capture Lahore. On 16 April 1765, two Bhangi sardars Gujjar Singh and Lehna Singh entered Lahore. The next day Sobha Singh Kanhya also joined them. This time the city was spared of loot or plunder. In the same years Sikhs crossed Jamuna and raided Rohilkhand region. They plundered and killed in all directions and returned with great wealth. In 1766 they captured the important town of Pakpattan and marched towards Multan.

This state of affairs was intolerable for Abdali and he again entered Punjab for the eighth time. He overcame all the resistance on the way and entered Lahore on 22 December 1766 unopposed, as the three sardars had already left the city. To chastise the Sikhs he marched towards Sirhind. But the Sikhs dispersed their forces and resorted to their time tested tactics of hit and run and plundering raids. They even attacked a large force of Afghans near Amritsar under the command of Jahan Khan before Ahmad Shah could come to his aid. Soon Ahmad Shah’s energy was worn down and he returned to Afghanistan. The Sikhs again entered Lahore, this time permanently. By the end of 1767 Sikhs had reached as far as Rawalpindi and Salt range was firmly under their control. Now they were undisputed masters of Punjab. Even the surroundings of Delhi were not safe from their raids and they were systematically collecting extortions in the villages of Rohilkhand. Abdali made his ninth and the final attempt to stem the tide in 1769, but could go much further and returned to Afghanistan, where he died on 23 October 1772. Khuswhant Singh describes the epic struggle between Ahmad Shah Abadli and the Sikhs in the following words:

Abdali was the bitterest antagonist of the Sikhs and paradoxically their greatest benefactor. His repeated incursions destroyed Mughal administration in the Punjab and at Panipat he dealt a crippling blow to Maratha pretensions in the north. Thus he created a power vacuum in the Punjab which was filled by the Sikhs. Abdali failed to put down the Sikhs because they refused to meet him on his terms. They were everywhere and yet elusive; they displayed temerity in attacking armies much stronger than theirs and alacrity in running away when the tide of battle turned against them. Fighting the Sikhs was like trying to catch the wind in a net. The Sikhs were able to resort to these tactics because the people were behind them. The peasants gave them food, tended the wounded, and gave shelter to fugitives. The Sikhs were also fortunate in having leaders like Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Hari Singh Bhangi, and Charhat Singh Sukerchakia. By contrast, Abdali's son and generals were men of modest ability. Besides this, Abdali never had time to consolidate his conquests for he had to rush back to his own country to put down some insurrection or the other. Consequently, what he won by his military prowess was lost by the ineptitude of his deputies. Abdali spilled more Sikh blood than any other; but he also taught them that no people can become a strong and great nation without learning to shed blood.

1772 was a turning point in the history of Punjab, Abdali died in Afghanistan and Delhi went into the protection of Marathas. So now there was no power in the east or the west to contest the control of Punjab with the Sikhs. Especially the Mughals were totally out of the game and the Afghans were also on the retreat and for the next six decades remained busy in defending their areas in Punjab and along the western bank of the Indus. Sikh bands were now free to appropriate the lands as much as they could control. After the last invasion of Abdali there was a race among the 12 misls to occupy as much areas from the local chiefs as possible. There was no power to stop them from Indus to Jamuna even Ganges in the east and Delhi in the south.

After the last failed invasion of Abdali, towns and principalities started to fall like dominoes before the rising tide of the Sikhs. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia occupied Kapurthala and Sultanpur Lodhi in Bist Doab. Hills states of Kangra, Nurpur, Chamba, Basohli and Mandi started paying tributes to the Sikhs misls. Similarly, Jammu came under the influence of the Sikhs. Sukerchakias increased their territories in all directions of Gujranwala. So far Bhangis were the strongest of all the misls, they had two main cities of Punjab Lahore and Amritsar under their control. In 1772 they captured Multan, which remained under their occupation for eight years. Kasur too paid tribute to them. During the same year, Gujjar Singh Bhangi established himself at Rawalpindi and captured Attock, Fateh Jang and Pindi Gheb as well. The famous town of Rasulnagar fell in 1778 to Maha Singh Sukerchakia. It was an important victory and raised the power and prestige of the Sukerchakias. Another important town Alipur was also captured in this campaign. The names of these cities ware changed to Ramnagar and Akalgarh respectively. The original names were restored after 1947.

At the same time in the east of Jamuna, Sikhs were busy in regularly looting and plundering rural and big urban areas.  Zabita Khan was the ruler of Rohilkhand, he was so hard pressed by the Sikhs that he was compelled to enter into an alliance with the Sikhs and pay them a large amount. Together their forces looted the environs of Delhi. From 1775 onwards Sikhs remained quite active and fought many battles as allies of Rohillas against Delhi forces and their Maratha allies. In 1778 they even succeeded in entering Delhi for some time. Delhi finally took against action the Sikhs in the autumn of 1779, but the campaign failed to achieve any big success. In 1781 again a campaign was launched against Sikhs under Mirza Shafi but again without much success and had to concede the right to exact taxes in districts between Panipat and Delhi and in the upper Gangetic Doab. At this time Delhi was at their mercy but they chose to concentrate on upper Gangetic Doab and reached as far as Dehra Dun. In March 1783 Baghel Singh encamped in the suburbs of Delhi and constructed four gurudwaras in the commemoration of their gurus. During these years marauding bands of Sikhs remained busy in looting, plundering and exacting rakhi in areas in Ganges Doab and around Delhi. Even big cities like Saharanpur, Nanauta, Meerut, Hapur, etc. were not safe. Northern India was being contested at that time by Mughals, Marathas, Rohillas and Awadh backed by the English. Sikhs manoeuvred among them successfully and in 1787 we find them allies of Ghulam Qadir Rohilla. As his allies, they plundered areas between Agra and Delhi. The chaotic conditions of northern India were ideal for the Sikhs. In 1788 Ghulam Qadir entered Delhi and let loose a reign of terror. Atrocities of unspeakable nature were committed on the emperor Shah Alam II and his family. Females of the imperial family also did not escape from his beastly nature. Before leaving the city Ghulam Qadir mercilessly looted the imperial family and blinded the ageing emperor on 10 August 1788. However, it should be noted that Sikhs did not participate in this episode in any way.

Now even the British protected Awadh was not safe as Sikhs made incursion across Ganges and in January 1791 a Sikh sardar Bhanga Singh of Thanesar captured a British colonel and released him only after exacting a ransom of Rs 60,000. However, after 1795 due to constant efforts of Marathas, Sikhs were pushed back across Jamuna to Punjab.

Meanwhile in the west especially in the central Punjab Sikh misls were now fighting among themselves over the spoils. For example rich state of Jammu was a bone of contention among misls. A historian describes the situation in the following words:

In the country of the Punjab from the Indus to the banks of the Jumna there are thousands of chiefs in the Sikh community. None obeys the other. If a person owns two or three horses he boasts of being a chief, and gets ready to fight against thousands. When a village is besieged by the Sikhs to realise tribute which the zamindars cannot afford, they intrigue with other Sikhs and the Sikhs begin to fight between themselves. Whoever wins receives money according to the capacity of the villagers. (Imamuddin, Husain Shah!, 242-3; H. R. Gupta, II, 19--20.)

The sordid game of ganging up sometimes with one, sometimes with the other, went on. Among the most successful was Maha Singh Sukerchakia. With his unbound energy and strong right arm, he raised the house of Sukerchakia to the second most powerful among the misls. He was rapidly rising to the top when his career of conquest was cut short by his untimely death in 1792.

India 1792. (Wikipedia)

It was clear by the end of the 18th century that the chaos and anarchic conditions with dozens of petty states busy in infighting over spoils of plunder cannot last for long. At this time Sukerchakia misl based at Gujranwala started to rise. After the death of Maha Singh his 12 years old son Ranjit Singh became the chief of this misl. His ascendency proved to be the starting point of a new epoch in the history of Punjab. His grandfather Charat Singh, who assumed the leadership of his Sukerchakia misl in 1752, made Gujranwala his headquarter and constructed a fort, hence laying the foundation of this city. At the time of assuming the leadership of his principality his main rivals were the sardars of Bhangi Misl, strongest of all in Punjab, controlling Lahore, Amritsar, Gujrat and areas in Potohar region. 

In 1793 Zaman Shah became the King of Afghanistan and twice tried to invade Punjab, the first time he could reach only Hassan Abdal and the second time Rohtas fort. Both campaigns failed to gain any tangible results. On the Sikh side, Ranjit Singh confronted him in the second campaign and regained Rohtas fort as soon as Shah Zaman returned to Afghanistan. However, in 1796, his third invasion was comparatively more successful and he entered Lahore and stayed in the city for some time. But he had to return to Afghanistan due to the unstable political situation. Sikhs soon gained all the areas they lost. Ranjit Singh played a leading role in resisting Afghans and after their departure became a hero.

Zaman Shah, however, returned soon and this time sacked Gujrat and Gujranwala. Sikhs had already fled hence according to Khushwant Singh his victims were Muslim. Shahdra was also destroyed. On 27 November 1798 Shah Zaman entered Lahore. This was going to be the last time a Muslim ruled the city, it was not going to happen again for 149 years until 1947. Nizamuddin of Kasur, Sansar Chand of Kangra and even Sikh ruler of Patiala, Sahib Singh, were on Shah Zaman’s side. Ranjit Singh was leading the Sikh side and he repulsed an Afghan attack on Amritsar and forced them to retreat to Lahore. He cut the food supplies to Lahore. Zaman Shah seeing no prospects of victory left Punjab never to return. This was a historic moment because since 1799 no one has successfully invaded India from the North West, thus ended an epoch that started 800 years ago with the invasions of Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi. The next time whenever an Afghan King came to Punjab, he came as a refugee.

As soon as Shah Zaman left Lahore, Sikhs took back all their estates and started chasing the Afghan army. Ranjit Singh took back Gujranwala and pursued him up to Attock. After this success, Ranjit Singh’s fame rose rapidly throughout Punjab. Now he was looked upon as the most important of dozens of Sikhs chiefs. Since 1765 Lahore was being ruled by three Sikh factions. Citizens of Lahore were not happy due to their internal squabbles and mismanagement. The leading citizens of the city sent a secret petition to Ranjit Singh, signed by Hakim Hakam Rai, Bhai Gurbakhsh Singh, Mian Aashak Mohammad, Mir Shadi and some other leading citizens, inviting him to take the city. Ranjit Singh accepted the offer and deputed his agent Kazi Abdul Rahman for further negotiation. After settling all the details Ranjit Singh entered the city on 7 July 1799. The three sardars could not put up much resistance. The conquest of Lahore, an imperial city of Mughals and the capital of Punjab increased the prestige of Ranjit Singh greatly. People rallied around him and he set himself upon organizing the administration of his state and organizing his army on modern lines.

Statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, in Lahore Fort.


Once Lahore in his firm control, he started his campaign of enlarging his state. The first target was the Raja of Jammu, he submitted and agreed to pay tribute. He also took the towns of Narowal and Akalgarh at the same time. Now he was the most prominent power in Punjab and to further establish his political influence he took the title of Maharaja on Baisakhi day, 12 April 1801. Taking this title enabled him to claim sovereignty over all territories that were once part of Lahore and gave tributes to its ruler. He established a mint in Lahore and issue new coins on this occasion. He also reorganized the administration of the city and appointed Imam Bakhsh as kotwal of the city.

Soon he captured Pindi Bhattian, Chiniot and made further inroads in Potohar, taking territories of the Muslim chiefs. Clashes with Nizamuddin of Kasur also continued. He attacked Multan and forced his ruler to pay tribute to Lahore instead of Kabul. His most important victory was the conquest of Amritsar. Besides its religious importance, the city was a significant trade centre. Many factions ruling this city jointly could not put up much resistance.

After this victory, his prestige and resources increased further and he embarked upon creating an army on modern lines. He raised infantry battalions of Punjabi Mussalmans and Hindustanis and hired British trained deserters to train them. Before that Sikhs looked down upon infantry and took pride as cavalrymen. But after seeing the results they also started to enlist as infantrymen. He employed Muslims in artillery and appointed Ghaus Muhammad Khan (Mian Ghausa) to train and command his artillery. These new units were ready by October 1803. The first target was Ahmad Khan Sial of Jhang in 1803. The city was captured after severe fighting but Ahmad Khan was reinstated as a vassal of Lahore Darbar. Towns of Shiwal (district Sargodha) and Garh Maharaja were also forced to pay tribute.

The same year in 1803 some dramatic changes occurred in northern India. The East India Company defeated Marathas in a series of battles and took Agra and Delhi from them, and took the Mughal Emperor under their protection thus they reached the borders of Punjab. The next year they captured Rohilkhand as well. From this point onward the British started playing a role in the politics of Punjab. The Sikhs chiefs of Malwa were depending on the support of the British to save their states from the expanding power of Ranjit Singh. In 1806 a serious dispute arose between Patiala and Nabha over the possession of a village. Both sides rallied their allies on their side but finally invited Ranjit Singh for arbitration. The maharajah settled the issue and hence the Malwa sardars also accepted his position as the most important ruler in Punjab and assured him that they looked upon him as their sovereign. The same year Gurkhas invaded Kangra, the raja Sansar Chand requested help from Ranjit Singh. He marched against Gurkhas and forced them to retreat and in return received tribute from Kangra.

In 1806 Ranjit Singh toured the areas south of Sutlej to settle the disputes between Nabha and Patiala and other Sikh chiefs. He exacted large tributes and also confiscated many small estates and jagirs. During the same campaign, he took the city of Ludhiana from the widows of Rai Ilias Khan of Raikot. Besides that, he also captured the towns of Thara, Jhanadala, Jagraon, Raikot, Baddowal, Talwandi, Dhaka and Basia. So this Muslim state finally succumbed to Sikhs. It is indeed a matter of surprise that it survived that much long, in the heartland of the Sikh Confederacy. However, another state of Malerkotla, survived until 1947. The aim of this article is to narrate the rise of the collective power of the Sikhs. So I am not going into details of victories of Ranjit Singh against other Sikhs states or chieftains.  

After the death of Nizamuddin, his brother Kutubuddin took his place and declared his independence. Ranjit Singh launched a campaign to subdue this state and in February 1807 besieged Kasur. After a siege of one month, the city fell and Kutubuddin was arrested. Ranjit Singh granted the ruling family a jagir at Mamdot and annexed the state. On this occasion, the city was thoroughly plundered and atrocities were committed on the vanquished people. Immediately after that, he attacked Multan to punish Muzaffar Khan for his support to Kasur. Muzaffar Khan paid an indemnity of Rs 70,000 to make a peace deal with the maharaja. Later in the year Tara Singh Gheba, sardar of Dallewalia misl died. Ranjit Singh annexed his territories including the town of Rahon and Nakodar in Bist doab. Soon afterward Pathankot was also taken. Before the year was over Ranjit Singh captured Sialkot, Gujrat and Sheikhupura from the local Sikh chiefs.

1809 was an important year for Ranjit Singh. The British had already entrenched themselves in Delhi in 1803 and soon Karnal and Hissar were under their control. The rulers of the Sikh states saw a good opportunity to protect themselves against the rapidly rising power of Ranjit Singh. They requested the East India Company to take their areas under their protection. East India Co. too wanted to consolidate its position in northern India and by agreeing to a common border between Lahore and EIC, was helpful in stabilizing the situation in South Eastern Punjab and hence avoiding any conflict in the area. Though it checked the expansion of Lahore state in this direction, but at the same time gave a free hand to Ranjit Singh to expand in north and west, without him worrying about his back. Under this treaty river Sutlej was agreed upon as the border between the territories of East India Company and the Khalsa Darbar of Lahore. At the same time EIC moved its forces northward and established a cantonment at Ludhiana, south of Sutlej. Hence four main states Patiala, Nabha, Jind and Kaithal of Malwa came under the protection of the British East India Company. The first three survived until 1947.

Soon afterward in early 1810, he turned westwards to abolish autonomous or independent estates. Bhangis were completely expelled from Gujrat and he also took the towns of Bhera, Miani, Shahpur and Khushab and Sahiwal (district Sargodha), thus almost completely taking the Chej Doab. The last two were taken from local Muslim chiefs for the first time by the Sikhs. Scattered territories of Sikh sardars in Bist Doab, Jammu region etc. were incorporated into Lahore Darbar. Towns like Daska, Mangla, Hallowal and Wazirabad fell in the same campaigns. Territories of Kanhya misl including the towns of Chunian, Dipalpur, Kamalia, Sharakpur, etc were also taken. This whirlwind campaign only ended at Multan. The city was taken but the citadel survived desperate attacks by the Sikhs and Ranjit Singh had to lift the siege and retreat. However, Muzaffar Khan the ruler promised to pay a nominal tribute. Similarly, attack on Shujaabad was also repulsed with big losses.  

The same year Shah Zaman returned to Lahore, a city he twice conquered, but this time as a refugee, along with his own and his brother Shah Shuja’s families. Shuja would join him soon. He came with the requests of help and support from Ranjit Singh to take back his throne.

In 1812 Ranjit Singh turned his attention to Kashmir. Bhimbar and Rajauri were taken from their Muslim chiefs. At that time Kashmir valley was under the rule of Afghans but Afghanistan was constantly suffering from the infighting of rival factions and one of those factions, led by Abdali’s grandson, Shah Shuja was taking shelter in Lahore. Shah Shuja himself was a prisoner of the Kashmir governor in Srinagar. Maharaja’s, assistance was sought by one Afghan faction to conquer Kashmir from its rivals. This campaign did not bring many benefits to Ranjit, but Shah Shuja was freed and joined his family in the asylum in Lahore. However, the campaign was not entirely a failure as Ranjit Singh succeeded in taking the important fort of Attock.

As we already have noted that the family of Shah Shuja, including his wife Wafa Begum, were residing in asylum in Lahore. Ranjit Singh gave them Mubarak Haveli for residing and some allowance for expenses as well. She had offered the famous Koh-i-Noor to Ranjit Singh for the freedom of her husband. Now they showed great reluctance in keeping the promise but under the pressure of Ranjit Singh finally handed over the diamond to him on 1 June 1813.

Mubarak Haveli, Lahore. (

To secure the occupation of Attock, the Sikhs established themselves at Haripur in 1813. The Afghans tried to take back the Attock, but were defeated at Mansar. Meanwhile, through all this year preparations continued to capture Kashmir. The campaign was launched in the summer of 1814 and two large armies invaded Kashmir and the main thrust went as far as Shupian but the whole campaign ended in failure. But next years the town of Bhimbar, Rajauri and Kotli were retaken. Later in the year Lahore forces made further gains in Kangra region. Next year the direction of the military campaign was southwards and Bahawalpur, Multan and Mankera were forced to pay their arrears in tribute. To press their demands Sikhs devastated many areas and committed severe atrocities at many places. The district of Uch was also captured.

In the year 1818 Ranjit Singh achieved a big success when he captured the important city of Multan. Many towns and areas in south Punjab were already in the control of Lahore Darbar. A big army under the command of Misr Dewan Chand and heavy artillery under Elahi Bakhsh was sent to Multan. Preparations for his campaign were made on a large scale. Before attacking Multan, Dewan Chand took the forts of Khangarh and Muzaffargarh. After a long and hard battle the city fell on 2 June 1818. The ruler Nawab Muzaffar Khan died fighting valiantly along with his five sons. He refused to surrender and preferred to die as a free man. People of Multan suffered greatly and the situation is described by Muhammad Latif in the following words:

The city and fort were now given up to be plundered by the Sikh troops. Great were the ravages committed by the Sikhs on this occasion. About 400 to 500 houses in the fort were raised to the ground, and their owners deprived of all they had. The precious stones, jewellery, shawls and other valuable belonging to the nawab were confiscated to the State and were carefully packed by Dewan Ram Dayal, for the inspection of the Maharaja. The arms were all carried away. In the town many houses were set on fire, and nothing was left with the inhabitants that was worth having. Hundreds were stripped even of their clothes. Outrages were committed on the women, many of whom committed suicide by drowning themselves in the wells, or otherwise putting an end to their lives, in order to save themselves from dishonour. Hundreds were killed in the sack of the city, and indeed there was hardly a soul who escaped both loss and violence.

Area of Multan Fort. 


Shujaabad fell soon after. It was a great victory and the power of Muslim states in the region was broken. Soon after this victory, Ranjit Singh scored another big victory when he captured Peshawar and himself entered the city in November 1818. But as soon as he left the area, Dost Mohammad Khan of Afghanistan regained control of the city by expelling the governor nominated by Ranjit Singh. He, however, agreed to pay Rs 100,000 as annual tribute.

After failing twice to capture Kashmir, Ranjit Singh invaded it again in 1819. The Afghans were busy as usual in their civil wars and the passes leading into Kashmir valley were already in control of Sikhs. The invasion was made through two directions, Rajauri and Bhimber. Both invading armies met at Shupiyan on 3 July 1819. Afghans could not stand against the superior artillery of the Sikh state and were defeated decisively. So this time he finally succeeded and annexed this beautiful and rich area to his empire. Hence, ended nearly five centuries of Muslim rule in the Kashmir valley. Even now after the passage of two centuries, the Muslims have been unable to regain their independence, despite being more than 98% of the population in the valley.

The next target of Ranjit Singh was the southwestern Punjab. He stayed at Multan and his forces captured Dera Ghazi Khan. He handed over the area to Nawab of Bahawalpur at the annual payment of Rs 300,000. But due to disturbances in Hazara, Ranjit Singh returned leaving the mission incomplete. He sent many forces to quell this rebellion, which was suppressed with the brutal use of force.

 However, he returned in the autumn of 1821 and this time his target was the vast state of Mankera in Sindh Sagar Doab, it also had territories across the Indus river including the city of Dera Ismail Khan. Bhakkar and Leiah were other important cities. Maharaja reached Khushab in October 1821. Bhakkar surrendered without a fight and Maharaja sent forces to Leiah and Dera Ismail Khan, both cities surrendered without much fighting. Then all the forces converged on Mankera, the capital. Mankera is situated amidst a vast desert with little sources of water. The scarcity of water added to the difficulties of this campaign. The city was surrounded by huge mud walls, which were strong enough to sustain even very heavy gunshots. Sikh forces besieged the city and a general exchange of cannon and musketry fire started. After the siege of twenty two days, Nawab Hafiz Ahmed Khan surrendered on the promise of permission to reside in Dera Ismail Khan and a jagir.

Huge mud walls of Mankera Fort. (12.07.2019.)


In 1823 Afghans tried to take Peshawar by expelling Yar Mohammad, a tributary of Ranjit Singh. Ranjit Singh invaded Peshawar valley in March 1823 and decisively defeated Afghans and their local allies at Pir Sabak near Nowshera. Ranjit Singh entered Peshawar three days later and reinstated Yar Mohammad as his nominee with an increased annual tribute of 110,000 rupees. The city was spared but vast areas around Peshawar were plundered. Ranjit Singh sensing the hostile feelings of the people prudently decided to handover the city to Yar Mohammad acting as his tributary. In 1826 a military operation was conducted under the command of Prince Kharak Singh and areas around Bannu also came under the sway of Khlasa raj and nazranas were extracted from the local tribes. In the same year a rebellion in Hazara was suppressed at Gandgarh and Sirikot was occupied.

But troubles continued in this region, especially after the appearance of Syed Ahmed of Rai Bareilly in 1827 in Peshawar valley. He came from India to liberate the Muslims of this region from the Sikh rule. He declared Jihad against the infidels and remained active in this area for many years. Initially, he arrived with a force of 500 Hindustani Muslims and sought the help of the local Muslims. At Panjtar, 13 kms north of Swabi, he raised the green standard of the Holy Prophet and declared Jihad against the Sikhs. He remained active in this area and in 1830 even occupied Peshwar after defeating Sultan Muhammad Khan, brother of Yar Muhammad Khan, governor of the city appointed by Barkzais of Afghanistan but also a tributary of the Lahore Darbar. Ranjit Singh himself took the field and marched towards Peshawar. On his approach, Syed Ahmad vacated the city and fled to the hills. Ranjit Singh restored Sultan Muhammad to his position and returned to Lahore. But as soon as he returned Syed Ahmad again occupied the area. Sultan Muhammad being unable to resist him submitted to Syed and accepted his supremacy. But soon the officials appointed by Syed were killed and he lost his influence over the city. After not meeting any success in this area, Syed Ahmad shifted his activities to Hazara region. But on 6 May 1831 he was defeated and killed at Balakot.

Now the only way open for expansion was in the direction of Sindh but a tripartite trade agreement between Sindh, the East India Company and Punjab was reached. This made the Maharaja to renounce his ambition to expand towards the sea. However, from mid 1830s Sikh state started making inroads in the Ladakh region. On 6 May 1834 Hari Singh finally captured Peshawar permanently and garrisoned the city with his own troops. Barakzai sardars fled or were expelled from the city. In the south Ranjit Singh’s forces occupied Mithankot and Rojhan in 1836.  Next year Afghanistan’s King made another attempt to recover Peshawar but his forces under his sons were defeated at Jamrud on 30 April 1837. His son Afzal Khan died in the battle but Sikhs also lost one of their best generals, Hari Singh Nalwa. This was going to be the last major battle in the life of Ranjit Singh. He died on 27 June 1839 after a prolonged illness.  

Empire of Ranjit Singh in 1839. (By then Dogras had not made much progress in conquering Ladakh and Gilgit / Baltistan)

At this point, the power of the Sikhs was at its zenith, but the signs that were already indicating towards an ominous future were quite visible. During the last forty years, since 1799, the year Ranjit Singh captured the throne of Lahore, the political situation in India had completely changed. Mysore, Bengal and Awadh had fallen and Nizam of Deccan was already part of British India, since then powerful Maratha confederacy had been thoroughly defeated and subdued and the Rajput states too had come under the protection of the British. Now everybody was expecting that the next target would be the last remaining independent state of Punjab. Especially after the fall of Sindh in 1843, no doubt whatsoever remained. British authorities too were eager to expand their control up to the “natural” frontiers of India i.e. Indus river or Khyber pass to be precise. The British were bidding their time and they did not have to wait for long.

Samadhi of Mahraja Ranjit Singh, Lahore. 

After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, chaos and anarchy reigned supreme in Lahore Darbar and the British managed to provoke a war with Punjab. Both sides were fully expecting this final showdown. The British declared war on 13 December 1845 and the first battle was fought at Mudki on 18 December 1845, which remained inconclusive. A few days later on 21 December, another battle was fought at Ferozeshahr, the British suffered terrible losses but they managed to avoid defeat. A British officer described the situation in the following words:

"That frosty night 'the fate of India trembled in the balance."

Different columns of the two forces clashed again at Buddowal and Aliwal on January 21 and 28 respectively. But the final decisive action was fought at Sabraon on 10 February, 1946, which decisively defeated the Khalsa army. The tenacity and bravery of Khalsa army astonished the British. It must be mentioned here that were there better leadership available to the Khalsa army the result could have been quite opposite. But the prime minister Lal Singh and commander in chief Tej Singh were in contact with the British and played a major traitorous role in the defeat of their own army. After two days the British forces crossed the river Sutlej and occupied Kasur.

War Memorial at Mudki. (Wikipedia)

Lahore Darbar appointed Gulab Singh of Jammu to start the peace negotiations. Treaties were signed in Lahore on 9 and 11 March 1846. According to this treaty, Lahore government was compelled to hand over the Jullundur Doab to the British and pay an indemnity of Rs 15 million and also forced to agree to the appointment of a British resident at Lahore Darbar to look after the government affairs. The size of the army was also reduced considerably to 32,000 persons. The Punjab state was not in a position to pay this large amount hence had to agree to cede the whole present-day Kashmir and some territories in the present-day Himachal Pradesh. British thought it prudent, due to political and administrative reasons to sell the Kashmir valley to the Raja of Jammu for Rs 7.5 million, and recognized his independent status from Punjab. Practically the state was now run by British officers though Mahraja Dilip Singh sat on the throne. In December a new treaty was signed and under this agreement, the British took control of the administration completely. Maharaja Dalip Singh was a minor and in no position to resist encroachments upon his authority.

Punjab in 1846 accoridng to a map given in the Joseph Devey Cunningham's book "A History of The Sikhs", after Punjab lost the Jullundur Doab in the first Anglo-Sikh war. 

This arrangement did not last for long, as could well be expected. First of all, troubles started at Multan when the governor Mulraj was replaced by Kahan Singh. But when he reached Multan to take over the charge a disturbance started in which the two British officers accompanying him were killed. The incident happened on 18 April 1848. The rebellion soon spread to other parts of Punjab as well. This started a chain of events which resulted in the full invasion of Punjab by the British. Indeed, the British provoked some sardars to rebel, as it suited their final objective of annexing Punjab. Due to hot weather and to gain time for preparations the British scheduled to launch the final campaign to subdue Punjab in winter. However, some English officers stationed around Multan started taking some measures with the help of local allies and the state of Bahawalpur.

Samadhi of Diwan Mulraj Chopra at Alipur Chatha (Akalgarh), district Gujranwala. (20.12.2016).  


This time the Sikhs were in a much weaker position. The size of the army had been restricted to 20,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. The Khalsa army was without heavy artillery as most of the guns were surrendered to the British after the first Anglo-Sikh war. On the other side, the British had massed an army of nearly 70,000 to invade Punjab. At the start of the campaign in November 1848, the areas west of Chenab and around Multan were in the hands of rebel forces.

The first battle of the second Anglo Sikh war was fought at Ramnagar (now Rasulnagar) on 22 November 1848, when the Sikhs tried to stop the British forces from crossing the river Chenab. But the most important battle of this war was fought two months later at the banks of Jhelum at Chillianwala on 13 January 1849. Both sides fought fiercely and the Sikhs succeeded in giving a bloody nose to the British army and shake their morale to the core. However, the next day the Sikhs retreated towards Gujrat. Where the final battle was fought a month later on 13 February and the Sikhs were decisively defeated. They retreated towards Rawalpindi but finally their commander Sardar Sher Singh Attariwala surrendered on 12 March near Rawat (the exact spot is probably Humak). Mulraj had already surrendered Multan on 12 January, 1849. Punjab was formally annexed on 29 March 1949, thus ending the last sovereign state of India. Punjab was incorporated into British India as a province that included the areas annexed in 1849 and areas south of Malwa as well. In 1858 after the mutiny even Delhi was made part of Punjab, that arrangement lasted until 1911, when Delhi again was separated from Punjab and made the new capital of the British India.

A small cemetery near the battlefield of Ramnagar. (16.03.2011.)

A monument at the site of Battle of Chillianwala, district Mandi Bahauddin. (23.08.2015).

A few graves of the British soldiers killed in the Battle of Gujrat. (26.03.2009.)

With the fall of Punjab, the Sikhs lost most of their political power in Punjab, but it not completely vanish. Five Sikh princely states, Patiala, Nabha, Kapurthala. Faridkot and Nabha, survived until 1947, as a part of the British India.

I have depended on two books written by Khushwant Singh and Muhammad Latif, for writing this post and has taken all care to be as objective as possible. I shall welcome suggestions for any improvement. 

 The Rise of the Sikh Power in Punjab

Tariq Amir

Doha - Qatar.

October 25, 2020.