The day was 6 July. The year 1799. Some accounts describe it as an ‘oppressively’ hot day. An 18-year-old Ranjit Singh was leading his army to capture Lahore. At night, they approached the city in stealth and blew up the gates at dawn, taking the city by surprise. But instead of allowing his soldiers to ransack and pillage Lahore, the young king promised its citizens that they could live in peace.
The founder of the Sikh Empire then visited two mosques as well and let his opponent leave the city with his family, writes Mohamed Sheikh in his book Emperor of the Five Rivers: The Life and Times of Maharajah Ranjit Singh.
During his 38–year-reign, Ranjit Singh or Sher-e-Punjab as he came to be called, united Punjab, rebuilt the Golden Temple and kept the British at bay. The Golden Temple or the Harmandir Sahib got its dazzling marblework and gold dome installations under the Maharaja’s reign, giving us the exquisite religious place of worship that it is today.
In the 1780s, an East India company employee, George Forster, was tasked with writing a report on the people of Punjab. “Should any future cause call forth the combined efforts of the Sikhs to maintain the existence of empire and religion, we may see some ambitious chief, led on by his genius and success and absorbing the power of his associates, display from the ruins of their commonwealth, the standard of their monarchy,” he wrote.
The ‘Lion of Punjab’ was only two years old then. But Forster’s words were prescient.
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Ranjit Singh was born on 13 November 1780 in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. His father Mahan Singh Sukerchakia was the chief of the Sukerchakia misl estates, back when Punjab was divided into ‘misls’ or 12 sovereign states, which comprised the Sikh confederacy.
“Ranjit’s childhood was of the make or break kind,” writes Mohammed Sheikh in Emperor of the Five Rivers.
He was initially named Budh Singh, meaning the wise one, but his father Mahn Singh, a Sukerchakia Misl chieftain, who was returning home in triumph after a battle, renamed him Ranjit (viktor of battles).
Ranjit Singh took on the mantle of chieftain at the age of 12 upon the death of his father, even survived an assassination attempt when he was 13. Formal education took a back seat to training martial arts, horse-riding and firearms.
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After he took over Lahore, he was acknowledged as the city’s administrator by the Afghan king Zaman Shah. But in 1801, Ranjit Singh proclaimed himself the Maharaja of the Punjab.
In order to govern the state in the name of the revered line of Sikh leaders known as the Gurus, Singh had coins made in their honour.
After Lahore, the young Maharaja turned his attention to Pathan (Pashtun) city, and Kangra (now Himachal Pradesh). But first, the holy city of Amritsar, which was also an important commercial hub, was the prize. At the time, it was “under the control of about a dozen quarreling families”, wrote Sheikh. And local people were unhappy with the status quo.
One of the more prominent banks, Aroor Mal, reportedly begged Ranjit Singh to take over Amtristar and establish order, which he did in 1802.
By 1818, he captured the city of Multan, and the following year, expelled the Pashtuns from Kashmir valley. By 1820, he established his rule in Punjab.
But his conquests did not end there.
By annexing neighbouring states, he widened his dominion. At its height, the Sikh empire covered an area that stretched from Kashmir in the north to Mithankot in the south, and from western Tibet in the west to Khyber Pass in the east.
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The secular hat
His Khalsa army comprised Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus from Punjab. His ministers in his government and his commanders were from various religious backgrounds as well. In order to modernise his army, Ranjit Singh employed European officers—many of whom had fought in Napoleon I’s army—to train the infantry and the artillery in 1820.
Moreover, there is an interesting factor to note about the coins issued by the Maharaja. A religious prerogative, issuing coins was often exercised by medieval rulers in India and bore religious texts alongside the name of the king. But the Sikh coins in his time did not bear Ranjit Singh’s name.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh named his coins ‘Nanakshahis,’ conveying that they belonged to Guru Nanak. However, a variety of Hindu religious symbols appeared on his coins as well—from leaf, fish, conchshell to trishul among others—making him a secular Sikh ruler.
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Maharaja’s gold at the Golden Temple
The Maharaja shared a special bond with what we know today as the Golden Temple. After his conquest of Kashmir in 1819, he went to Harmandir and made large offerings in cash and gold. There are many other symbolic donations that he had made to the holy site — From two golden gates to a canopy with 20 pounds of gold that was studded with diamonds, rubies and other precious stones. The canopy was destroyed during Operation Blue Star.
Even revenue-free lands worth over Rs 1 lakh a year were granted by the Maharaja to officials of the Harmandir. And the management of the temple came under his control as he would settle disputes around the distribution of offerings.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh also oversaw the construction of two of the most revered Sikh shrines, Takht Sri Patna Sahib and Takht Sri Hazur Sahib, which are respectively the locations of Guru Gobind Singh’s birth and assassination.
After his death on 27 June 1839 at the age of 58 in Lahore, the Sikh empire he built, fell apart in six years. Only this year, his haveli in Gujranwala, Pakistan, where he was born and which was supposed to be converted to a tourism site, collapsed.
The Pakistan Archaeology Department has designated the structure as a protected heritage building, although authorities hardly ever go there. The Pakistani government has frequently set aside funds to rehabilitate it, but they have not been used.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)