Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the king of the Sikh Empire, which was formed under his leadership and eventually emerged as major power in the Indian subcontinent. Popularly known as Sher-e-Punjab or Lion of Punjab, this gallant king became
Chief of Sukerchakia Misl following his father’s death. He fought several wars to expel the Afghans. Formation of Sikh Empire started after he captured Lahore, which was followed by ouster of Afghans from Punjab after the Afghan-Sikh
Wars and eventual merger of separate Sikh Misls into a unified political state. At age 21, Ranjit Singh proclaimed himself “Maharaja of Punjab”. He established a secular empire based in Punjab and expanded it till his death in 1839.
His reign witnessed modernization of army and other leading-edge efforts apart from a renaissance in Sikh art and culture.
He was born as Buddh Singh, named an ancestor, on November 13, 1780, to Maha Singh Sukerchakia and Raj Kaur from the Sandhawalia Jat tribe. Among the Sikh misls or sovereign states of the Sikh Confederacy that rose in the Punjab region
of Indian subcontinent in the 18th century, the Sukerchakia misl was the most powerful. After Maha Singh’s army defeated Muslim Chatha chieftain Pir Muhammad, he changed his son’s name from Buddh to Ranjit, meaning a victor in battle.
During his infancy, Ranjit Singh suffered from smallpox which left him with a pockmarked face and also affected his left eye resulting in loss of its sight. As a child, he was never schooled and only knew how to read and write the
Gurmukhi alphabet but received training in martial arts, horse riding and musketry. He was just 10 years old when he fought his first battle while accompanying his father. He inherited the Sukkarchakkia misl estates of his father
at age 12 after the latter’s death in April 1792 and became Chief of Sukerchakia Misl. He was thereafter brought up by his mother along with Lakhpat Rai, both of whom managed the estates.
A man of short stature, Ranjit Singh took to drinking as a teenager. He however refrained from smoking and eating beef, and also made it a rule that those who will work as officials in his court, irrespective of the religion they belong
to, should abstain from such habits.
Following death of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb way back in 1707, the Mughal Empire witnessed a steady downfall. Dwindling of Mughal power was precipitated by expeditions against them as also the Afghans in the west by Dal Khalsa, a rearrangement
of the Sikh warrior community called Khalsa initiated by Guru Gobind Singh, the last living Guru of Sikhism. Eventually the Sikh army strengthened and split into a number of confederacies or semi-independent misls. Different areas
and cities were controlled by each of these component armies. Before Ranjit Singh rose to fame there were fourteen small warring regions in the north-western areas of Indian subcontinent that presently constitute Pakistan and some
areas of North India. Among these twelve were Sikh misls (confederacies), one near Lahore was a Muslim confederacy named Kasur and one in the southeast was led by George Thomas, an Englishman.
He rose to fame at age 17. This happened in 1797 when a battle occurred in the territory within the misl controlled by him where the invading army of Afghan Muslim ruler Shah Zaman, of the Ahmad Shah Abdali dynasty made effort to annex
Punjab region into Shah Zaman’s control. Ranjit Singh applied his regional awareness and warrior skills and thrived in resisting the Afghan invaders thus ensuring victory of the Sikhs.
The first major victory of Ranjit Singh happened in 1799 when he attacked the region under control of the Bhangi Sikhs that were centered around Lahore. His army was backed by another army led by Rani Sada Kaur. While the rulers fled,
the Hindus and Sufi Muslims of Lahore accepted him as the ruler. The control of Jammu region was also ceded by its ruler to him in 1800.
He proclaimed himself “Maharaja of Punjab” and started reigning as Emperor of the Sikh Empire from April 12, 1801. He gave the name “Sarkar Khalsa” to his rule and called his court “Darbar Khalsa”. He directed issuer of new coins in
the name of Guru Nanak called the “NanakShahi”. He took Amritsar from the Bhangi Sikh misl in 1802. He signed a treaty with East India Company officials agreeing not to expand south of Sutlej River while the latter assented that
militarily they would not move beyond the Sutlej River to the Sikh Empire. The years that followed saw Ranjit Singh expanding the Sikh empire. The major towns that came under his reign include Lahore, Multan, Amritsar, Rawalpindi,
Peshawar, Attock, Gujrat and Jammu.
Ranjit Singh established a secular Sikh rule where his army and government included people of different race and religion. For instance he had a Dogra prime minister, Dhian Singh; a Brahmin finance minister Dina Nath; and a Muslim
foreign minister, Fakir Azizuddin; while many Afghan and Punjabi Muslims fought battle under his rule against the Afghan forces of Nadir Shah and Azim Khan. He also had Muslim artillery commanders like Mian Ghausa. His army also
had French, Spanish, Russian, Prussian and Polish officials. Although he maintained friendly relation with the British he did not induct any British men under his rule excepting in an instance where he hired British officer Foulkes
His reformatory measures were concentrated more on enhancing his military and ensuring security of his empire. He altered and improved his army’s training and organization and bettered war methods and equipment. He adopted a military
system blending best of both old and new concepts and reinforced the artillery and infantry. In pursuit of making Panjab self-reliant, he initiated manufacture of all weapons, munitions and other equipment necessary for his army.
During the 1800s, government led by Ranjit Singh made infrastructure investment and then set up arm and gunpowder factories, cannon foundries and raw materials mines. He however did not pay much heed to reform the Jagirs-based taxation
system to end abuse nor did he initiate uniform laws or made effort in enhancing internal trade or to increase power of peasants and merchants. No significant investments were made to better the productivity of land and roads. He
however reopened trade routes that paved way for increased independence in commerce while his reign witnessed less violence compared to the Mughal-Sikh wars era.
A devoted Sikh himself, Ranjit Singh revered all religions and made his policies on that basis. No forced religious conversion took place during his reign. He built two sacred Gurdwara to commemorate the birthplace and place of assassination
of Guru Gobind Singh, namely the Takht Sri Patna Sahib (presently located in Patna, Bihar, India) and the Takht Sri Hazur Sahib (presently located in Nanded, Maharashtra, India) respectively. He also restored Sri Harmandir Sahib,
now famous as the Golden Temple and considered the most holy Gurdwara and significant pilgrimage site of Sikhism. Ranjit Singh who used to offer thanks and celebrate his victories in this Gurdwara, rebuilt it in 1809 with marble
and copper. The sanctum of the Gurdwara was overlaid by him with gold foil in 1830. He also visited temples, Sufi mosques and other holy places and respected Hindu sentiments by prohibiting slaughter of cows. No places of worship
irrespective of religion were demolished by the Sikhs under his rule, however some of the Muslim mosques were converted for different purposes. These include desecration of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore that was used as a garrison
by the Sikh Empire and conversion of the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) of Lahore into a Sikh temple called Moti Mandir. The later was also used by him later for the state treasury. He willed the Koh-i-Noor diamond that he gained from
Shuja Shah Durrani of Afghanistan to the Hindu Jagannath Temple in Puri (presently in Odisha, India) that was then administered by the East India Company.
Unity & Leadership without boundaries