Sikh Empire

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Sikh Empire

Sarkar-i Khalsa
Sikh Empire flag.svg
Anthem:  Deg Tegh Fateh
Sikh Empire tri-lingual.jpg
Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Sikh Empire at its peak in c. 1839
Capital Lahore
Common languages
Sikhism and other minority religions
Government Monarchy
Ranjit Singh
Kharak Singh
Nau Nihal Singh
Chand Kaur
Sher Singh
Duleep Singh
Jind Kaur
Jamadar Khushal Singh [2]
Dhian Singh Dogra
Hira Singh Dogra
 14 May 1845 – 21 September 1845
Jawahar Singh Aulakh
Lal Singh
 31 January 1846 – 9 March 1846
Gulab Singh [3]
Historical era Early modern period
 Capture of Lahore by Ranjit Singh
7 July 1799
29 March 1849
3,500,000 [4]
CurrencyNanak Shahi Sikke
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kattar Dhal Talwar.jpg Sikh Confederacy
Flag of Herat until 1842.svg Durrani Empire
Flag of the Maratha Empire.svg Maratha Empire
Punjab Province (British India) British Raj Red Ensign.svg
Jammu and Kashmir (princely state) Jammu-Kashmir-flag-1936-1953.gif
Today part of
Part of a series on the
History of India
Satavahana gateway at Sanchi, 1st century CE North Gateway - Rear Side - Stupa 1 - Sanchi Hill 2013-02-21 4480-4481.JPG
Satavahana gateway at Sanchi, 1st century CE

The Sikh Empire (also Sikh Khalsa Raj or Sarkar-i Khalsa [5] ) was a state originating in the Indian subcontinent, formed under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who established a secular empire based in the Punjab. [6] The empire existed from 1799, when Ranjit Singh captured Lahore, to 1849 and was forged on the foundations of the Khalsa from a collection of autonomous Sikh misls. [7] [8] At its peak in the 19th century, the Empire extended from the Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in the east, and from Mithankot in the south to Kashmir in the north. Religiously diverse, with an estimated population of 3.5 million in 1831 (making it the 19th most populous country at the time), [4] it was the last major region of the Indian subcontinent to be annexed by the British.


The foundations of the Sikh Empire can be traced to as early as 1707, the year of Aurangzeb's death and the start of the downfall of the Mughal Empire. With the Mughals significantly weakened, the Sikh army, known as the Dal Khalsa, a rearrangement of the Khalsa inaugurated by Guru Gobind Singh, led expeditions against them and the Afghans in the west. This led to a growth of the army which split into different confederacies or semi-independent misls . Each of these component armies controlled different areas and cities. However, in the period from 1762 to 1799, Sikh commanders of the misls appeared to be coming into their own as independent warlords.

The formation of the empire began with the capture of Lahore, by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, from its Afghan ruler, Zaman Shah Durrani, and the subsequent and progressive expulsion of Afghans from the Punjab, by defeating them in the Afghan-Sikh Wars, and the unification of the separate Sikh misls. Ranjit Singh was proclaimed as Maharaja of the Punjab on 12 April 1801 (to coincide with Vaisakhi), creating a unified political state. Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendant of Guru Nanak, conducted the coronation. [9] Ranjit Singh rose to power in a very short period, from a leader of a single misl to finally becoming the Maharaja of Punjab. He began to modernise his army, using the latest training as well as weapons and artillery. After the death of Ranjit Singh, the empire was weakened by internal divisions and political mismanagement. Finally, by 1849 the state was dissolved after the defeat in the Anglo-Sikh wars. The Sikh Empire was divided into four provinces: Lahore, in Punjab, which became the Sikh capital, Multan, also in Punjab, Peshawar and Kashmir from 1799 to 1849.


Mughal rule of Punjab

The Sikh religion began around the time of the conquest of Northern Indian Subcontinent by Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire. His conquering grandson, Akbar the Great, supported religious freedom and after visiting the langar of Guru Amar Das got a favourable impression of Sikhism. As a result of his visit he donated land to the langar and the Mughals did not have any conflict with Sikh gurus until his death in 1605. [10] His successor Jahangir, however, saw the Sikhs as a political threat. He ordered Guru Arjun Dev, who had been arrested for supporting the rebellious Khusrau Mirza, [11] to change the passage about Islam in the Adi Granth. When the Guru refused, Jahangir ordered him to be put to death by torture. [12] Guru Arjan Dev's martyrdom led to the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, declaring Sikh sovereignty in the creation of the Akal Takht and the establishment of a fort to defend Amritsar. [13] Jahangir attempted to assert authority over the Sikhs by jailing Guru Hargobind at Gwalior, but released him after a number of years when he no longer felt threatened. The Sikh community did not have any further issues with the Mughal empire until the death of Jahangir in 1627. The succeeding son of Jahangir, Shah Jahan, took offence at Guru Hargobind's "sovereignty" and after a series of assaults on Amritsar forced the Sikhs to retreat to the Sivalik Hills. [13]

The next guru, Guru Har Rai, maintained the guruship in these hills by defeating local attempts to seize Sikh land and playing a neutral role in the power struggle between two of the sons of Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh, for control of the Mughal Empire. The ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, moved the Sikh community to Anandpur and travelled extensively to visit and preach in defiance of Aurangzeb, who attempted to install Ram Rai as new guru. Guru Tegh Bahadur aided Kashmiri Pandits in avoiding conversion to Islam and was arrested by Aurangzeb. When offered a choice between conversion to Islam and death, he chose to die rather than compromise his principles and was executed. [14]

Formation of the Khalsa

Guru Gobind Singh assumed the guruship in 1675 and to avoid battles with Sivalik Hill rajas moved the guruship to Paunta. There he built a large fort to protect the city and garrisoned an army to protect it. The growing power of the Sikh community alarmed the Sivalik Hill rajas who attempted to attack the city but Guru Gobind Singh's forces routed them at the Battle of Bhangani. He moved on to Anandpur and established the Khalsa, a collective army of baptised Sikhs, on 30 March 1699. [15] The establishment of the Khalsa united the Sikh community against various Mughal-backed claimants to the guruship. [16] In 1701, a combined army of the Sivalik Hill rajas and the Mughals under Wazir Khan attacked Anandpur. The Khalsa retreated but regrouped to defeat the Mughals at the Battle of Muktsar. In 1707, Guru Gobind Singh accepted an invitation by Aurangzeb's successor Bahadur Shah I to meet him. The meeting took place at Agra on 23 July 1707. [15]

Banda Singh Bahadur

In August 1708 Guru Gobind Singh visited Nanded. There he met a Bairāgī recluse, Madho Das, who converted to Sikhism, rechristened as Banda Singh Bahadur. [15] [17] A short time before his death, Guru Gobind Singh ordered him to reconquer Punjab region and gave him a letter that commanded all Sikhs to join him. After two years of gaining supporters, Banda Singh Bahadur initiated an agrarian uprising by breaking up the large estates of Zamindar families and distributing the land to the poor peasants who farmed the land. [18] Banda Singh Bahadur started his rebellion with the defeat of Mughal armies at Samana and Sadhaura and the rebellion culminated in the defeat of Sirhind. During the rebellion, Banda Singh Bahadur made a point of destroying the cities in which Mughals had been cruel to the supporters of Guru Gobind Singh. He executed Wazir Khan in revenge for the deaths of Guru Gobind Singh's sons and Pir Budhu Shah after the Sikh victory at Sirhind. [19] He ruled the territory between the Sutlej river and the Yamuna river, established a capital in the Himalayas at Lohgarh and struck coinage in the names of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh. [18] In 1716, his army was defeated by the Mughals after he attempted to defend his fort at Gurdas Nangal. He was captured along with 700 of his men and sent to Delhi, where they were all tortured and executed after refusing to convert to Islam. [20]

Dal Khalsa period

Nawab Jassa Singh Ahluwalia PicKingRaja.jpg
Nawab Jassa Singh Ahluwalia

Sikh Confederacy

The period from 1716 to 1799 was a highly turbulent time politically and militarily in the Punjab region. This was caused by the overall decline of the Mughal empire [21] that left a power vacuum in the region that was eventually filled by the Sikhs of the Dal Khalsa, meaning "Khalsa army" or "Khalsa party", in the late 18th century, after defeating several invasions by the Afghan rulers of the Durrani Empire and their allies, [22] remnants of the Mughals and their administrators, the Mughal-allied Hindu hill-rajas of the Sivalik Hills, [23] [24] and hostile local Muslims siding with other Muslim forces. [22] The Sikhs of the Dal Khalsa eventually formed their own independent Sikh administrative regions, Misls, derived from a Perso-Arabic term meaning "similar", headed by Misldars. These Misls were united in large part by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Cis-Sutlej states

The Cis-Sutlej states were a group of Sikh [25] states in the Punjab region lying between the Sutlej River to the north, the Himalayas to the east, the Yamuna River and Delhi district to the south, and Sirsa District to the west. These states fell under the suzeraignty of the Maratha Empire after 1785 before the Second Anglo-Maratha War of 1803–1805, after which the Marathas lost control of the territory to the British East India Company. The Cis-Sutlej states included Kalsia, Kaithal, Patiala State, Nabha State, Jind State, Thanesar, Maler Kotla, Ludhiana, Kapurthala State, Ambala, Ferozpur and Faridkot State, among others. While these Sikh states had been set up by the Dal Khalsa, they did not become part of the Sikh Empire and there was a mutual ban on warfare following the treaty of Amritsar in 1809 (in which the empire forfeited the claim to the Cis-Sutlej States, and the British were not to interfere north of the Sutlej or in the empire's existing territory south of the Sutlej), [26] following attempts by Ranjit Singh to wrest control of these states from the British between 1806 and 1809 [27] [28] The Sikh crossing of the Sutlej, following British militarization of the border with Punjab (from 2,500 men and six guns in 1838 to 17,612 men and 66 guns in 1844, and 40,523 men and 94 guns in 1845), and plans on using the newly conquered territory of Sindh as a springboard to advance on the Sikh-held region of Multan, [29] would eventually result in conflict with the British.


The expanding empire in 1809 CE. The Cis-Sutlej states are visible south of the Sutlej river Punjabin 1809 AD-History of Punjab pg32.jpg
The expanding empire in 1809 CE. The Cis-Sutlej states are visible south of the Sutlej river

The formal start of the Sikh Empire began with the unification of the Misls by 1801, creating a unified political state. All the Misl leaders, who were affiliated with the army, were the nobility with usually long and prestigious family backgrounds in Sikh history. [7] The main geographical footprint of the empire was from the Punjab region to Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north, Sindh in the south, and Tibet in the east. The religious demography of the empire is estimated to have been just over 10% [30] to 12% [31] Sikh, 80% Muslim, [30] and just under 10% Hindu. [30] The population was 3.5 million, according to Amarinder Singh's The Last Sunset: The Rise and Fall of the Lahore Durbar.[ citation needed ] An estimated 90% of the Sikh population at the time, and more than half of the total population, was concentrated in the upper Bari, Jalandhar, and upper Rechna Doabs, and in the areas of their greatest concentration formed about one third of the population in the 1830s; half of the Sikh population of this core region was in the area covered by the later districts of Lahore and Amritsar. [32] In 1799 Ranjit Singh moved the capital to Lahore from Gujranwala, where it had been established in 1763 by his grandfather, Charat Singh. [33]

Ranjit Singh holding court in 1838 CE Ranjit Singh holding court - Court and Camp of Runjeet Singh - pg203.jpg
Ranjit Singh holding court in 1838 CE

Hari Singh Nalwa was Commander-in-Chief of the Sikh Khalsa Army from 1825 to 1837. [34] He is known for his role in the conquests of Kasur, Sialkot, Multan, Kashmir, Attock and Peshawar. Nalwa led the Sikh army in freeing Shah Shuja from Kashmir and secured the Koh-i-Nor diamond for Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He served as governor of Kashmir and Hazara and established a mint on behalf of the Sikh empire to facilitate revenue collection. His frontier policy of holding the Khyber Pass was later used by the British Raj. Nalwa was responsible for expanding the frontier of Sikh empire to the Indus River. At the time of his death, the western boundary of the Sikh Empire was the Khyber Pass.


Indian subcontinent in 1805 CE. Joppen1907India1805a.jpg
Indian subcontinent in 1805 CE.

The Punjab was a region straddling India and the Afghan Durrani Empire. The following modern-day political divisions made up the historical Sikh Empire:

Jamrud District (Khyber Agency, Pakistan) was the westernmost limit of the Sikh Empire. The westward expansion was stopped in the Battle of Jamrud, in which the Afghans managed to kill the prominent Sikh general Hari Singh Nalwa in an offensive, though the Sikhs successfully held their position at their Jamrud fort. Ranjit Singh sent his General Sirdar Bahadur Gulab Singh Powind thereafter as reinforcement and he crushed the Pashtun rebellion harshly. [45] In 1838, Ranjit Singh with his troops marched into Kabul to take part in the victory parade along with the British after restoring Shah Shoja to the Afghan throne at Kabul. [46]


The Sikh Empire was idiosyncratic in that it allowed men from religions other than their own to rise to commanding positions of authority. [47]

The Fakir brothers were trusted personal advisors and assistants as well as close friends to Ranjit Singh, [48] particularly Fakir Azizuddin, who would serve in the positions of foreign minister of the empire and translator for the maharaja, and played important roles in such important events as the negotiations with the British, during which he convinced Ranjit Singh to maintain diplomatic ties with the British and not to go to war with them in 1808, as British troops were moved along the Sutlej in pursuance of the British policy of confining Ranjit Singh to the north of the river, and setting the Sutlej as the dividing boundary between the Sikh and British empires; [49] negotiating with Dost Muhammad Khan during his unsuccessful attempt to retake Peshawar, [49] and ensuring the succession of the throne during the maharaja's last days in addition to caretaking after a stroke, as well as occasional military assignments throughout his career. [50] The Fakir brothers were introduced to the maharaja when their father, Ghulam Muhiuddin, a physician, was summoned by him to treat an eye ailment soon after his capture of Lahore. [51]

The other Fakir brothers were Imamuddin, one of his principal administration officers, and Nuruddin, who served as home minister and personal physician, were also granted jagirs by the Maharaja. [52]

Every year, while at Amritsar, Ranjit Singh visited shrines of holy people of other faiths, including several Muslim saints, which did not offend even the most religious Sikhs of his administration. [53] As relayed by Fakir Nuruddin, orders were issued to treat people of all faith groups, occupations, [54] and social levels equally and in accordance with the doctrines of their faith, per the Shastras and the Quran, as well as local authorities like judges and panches (local elder councils), [55] as well as banning forcible possession of others' land or of inhabited houses to be demolished. [56] There were special courts for Muslims which ruled in accordance to Muslim law in personal matters, [57] and common courts preceded over by judicial officers which administered justice under the customary law of the districts and socio-ethnic groups, and were open to all who wanted to be governed by customary religious law, whether Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim. [57]

One of Ranjit Singh's first acts after the 1799 capture of Lahore was to revive the offices of the hereditary Qazis and Muftis which had been prevalent in Mughal times. [57] Kazi Nizamuddin was appointed to decide marital issues among Muslims, while Muftis Mohammad Shahpuri and Sadulla Chishti were entrusted with powers to draw up title-deeds relating to transfers of immovable property. [57] The old mohalladari system was reintroduced with each mahallah, or neighborhood subdivision, placed under the charge of one of its members. The office of Kotwal, or prefect of police, was conferred upon a Muslim, Imam Bakhsh. [57]

Sikh warrior helmet with butted mail neckguard, 1820-1840, iron overlaid with gold with mail neckguard of iron and brass Sikh helmet.jpg
Sikh warrior helmet with butted mail neckguard, 1820–1840, iron overlaid with gold with mail neckguard of iron and brass

Generals were also drawn from a variety of communities, along with prominent Sikh generals like Hari Singh Nalwa, Fateh Singh Dullewalia, Nihal Singh Atariwala, Chattar Singh Attariwalla, and Fateh Singh Kalianwala; Hindu generals included Dewan Mokham Chand Nayyar, his son, and his grandson, and Misr Diwan Chand Nayyar; and Muslim generals included Ilahi Bakhsh and Mian Ghaus Khan; one general, Balbhadra Kunwar, was a Nepalese Gurkha, and European generals included Jean-Francois Allard, Jean-Baptiste Ventura, and Paolo Avitabile. [58] other notable generals of the Sikh Khalsa Army were Veer Singh Dhillon, Sham Singh Attariwala, Mahan Singh Mirpuri, and Zorawar Singh Kahluria, among others.

The appointment of key posts in public offices was based on merit and loyalty, regardless of the social group or religion of the appointees, both in and around the court, and in higher as well as lower posts. Key posts in the civil and military administration were held by members of communities from all over the empire and beyond, including Sikhs, Muslims, Khatris, Brahmins, Dogras, Rajputs, Pashtuns, Europeans, and Americans, among others, [59] and worked their way up the hierarchy to attain merit. Dhian Singh, the prime minister, was a Dogra, whose brothers Gulab Singh and Suchet Singh served in the high-ranking administrative and military posts, respectively. [59] Brahmins like finance minister Raja Dina Nath, Sahib Dyal, and others also served in financial capacities. [58] Muslims in prominent positions included the Fakir brothers, Kazi Nizamuddin, and Mufti Muhammad Shah, among others. Among the top-ranking Muslim officers there were two ministers, one governor and several district officers; there were 41 high-ranking Muslim officers in the army, including two generals and several colonels, [58] and 92 Muslims were senior officers in the police, judiciary, legal department and supply and store departments. [58] Thus, the government was run by an elite corps drawn from many communities, giving the empire the character of a secular system of government, even when built on theocratic foundations. [60]

A ban on cow slaughter, which can be related to Hindu sentiments, was universally imposed in the Sarkar Khalsaji. [61] [62] Ranjit Singh also donated large amounts of gold for the plating of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple's dome. [63] [64]

The Sikhs attempted not to offend the prejudices of Muslims, noted Baron von Hügel, the Austrian botanist and explorer, [65] yet the Sikhs were described as harsh. In this regard, Masson's explanation is perhaps the most pertinent: "Though compared to the Afghans, the Sikhs were mild and exerted a protecting influence, yet no advantages could compensate to their Mohammedan subjects, the idea of subjection to infidels, and the prohibition to slay kine, and to repeat the azan, or 'summons to prayer'." [66]


The Samadhi of Ranjit Singh is located in Lahore, Pakistan, adjacent to the iconic Badshahi Mosque SORS1.jpg
The Samadhi of Ranjit Singh is located in Lahore, Pakistan, adjacent to the iconic Badshahi Mosque

After Ranjit Singh's death in 1839, the empire was severely weakened by internal divisions and political mismanagement. This opportunity was used by the British East India Company to launch the Anglo-Sikh Wars.

The Battle of Ferozeshah in 1845 marked many turning points, the British encountered the Punjab Army, opening with a gun-duel in which the Sikhs "had the better of the British artillery". As the British made advances, Europeans in their army were specially targeted, as the Sikhs believed if the army "became demoralised, the backbone of the enemy's position would be broken". [67] The fighting continued throughout the night. The British position "grew graver as the night wore on", and "suffered terrible casualties with every single member of the Governor General's staff either killed or wounded". [68] Nevertheless, the British army took and held Ferozeshah. British General Sir James Hope Grant recorded: "Truly the night was one of gloom and forbidding and perhaps never in the annals of warfare has a British Army on such a large scale been nearer to a defeat which would have involved annihilation." [68]

The reasons for the withdrawal of the Sikhs from Ferozeshah are contentious. Some believe that it was treachery of the non-Sikh high command of their own army which led to them marching away from a British force in a precarious and battered state. Others believe that a tactical withdrawal was the best policy. [69]

The Sikh empire was finally dissolved at the end of the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1849 into separate princely states and the British province of Punjab. Eventually, a Lieutenant Governorship was formed in Lahore as a direct representative of the British Crown.


Preceded by
Sikh Confederacy
Sikh Empire
Succeeded by
East India Company

List of rulers

S. No.NamePortraitBirth and deathReignNote
1 Maharaja Ranjit Singh MaharajaRanjitSIngh - L Massard.gif 13 November 178027 June 183912 April 180127 June 183938 years, 76 daysThe first Sikh rulerDied in office
2 Maharaja Kharak Singh Kharak Singh.jpg 22 February 18015 November 184027 June 18398 October 1839103 daysSon of Ranjit Singh
3 Maharaja Nau Nihal Singh Nau Nihal Singh.jpg 11 February 18206 November 18408 October 18396 November 18401 year, 29 daysSon of Kharak SinghAssassinated
4 Maharani Chand Kaur
Chand Kaur.jpg 180211 June 18426 November 184018 January 184173 daysWife of Kharak Singh and the only female ruler of Sikh EmpireAbdicated
5 Maharaja Sher Singh Sher Singh.jpg 4 December 180715 September 184318 January 184115 September 18432 years, 240 daysSon of Ranjit SinghAssassinated
6 Maharaja Duleep Singh Maharajah Duleep Singh dressed for a State function, c. 1875.jpg 6 September 183822 October 189315 September 184329 March 18495 years, 195 daysSon of Ranjit SinghDeposed
Maharani Jind Kaur
Maharani Jind Kaur.jpg 18171 August 186315 September 184329 March 18495 years, 195 daysWife of Ranjit SinghDeposed

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The Sikh Rule in Lahore initiated from the invasion and rule of the Sikh Misls and extended till the Sikh Empire of Ranjit Singh which ended in 1849. The Sikhs began gaining power following the decline of the Mughal Empire in Punjab and consisted of a collection of autonomous Punjabi Misls, which were governed by Misldars, mainly in the Punjab region.

Akali Phula Singh Prominent Sikh leader

Akali Phula Singh Nihang was an Akali Nihang Sikh leader. He was a saint soldier of the Khalsa Shaheedan Misl and head of the Budha Dal in the early 19th century. He was also a senior general in the Sikh Khalsa Army and commander of the irregular Nihang of the army. He played a role in uniting Sikh misls in Amritsar. He was not afraid of the British who at many times ordered for his arrest but were not successful. During his later years he served for the Sikh Empire as a direct adviser to Maharajah Ranjit Singh. He remained an army general in many famous Sikh battles up until his martyrdom in the battle of Naushera. He was admired by the local people and had a great influence over the land and his settlement was always open to help the poor and helpless. He was well known and was a humble unique leader and prestigious warrior with high character. He was also known for his effort to maintain the values of Gurmat and the Khalsa panth. His 14th generation still lives in faith chak. His 14th granddaughter is Jagdish Kaur.

Banda Singh Bahadur Sikh military commander

Banda Singh Bahadur, was a Sikh warrior and a commander of Khalsa army. At age 15 he left home to become a Hindu ascetic, and was given the name ‘’Madho Das’’. He established a monastery at Nānded, on the bank of the river Godāvarī, where in September 1708 he was visited by, and became a disciple of, Guru Gobind Singh, who gave him the new name of Banda Bahadur. He came to Khanda in Sonipat and assembled a fighting force and led the struggle against the Mughal Empire. His first major action was the sacking of the Mughal provincial capital, Samana, in November 1709. After establishing his authority and Khalsa rule in Punjab, Banda Singh Bahadur abolished the zamindari system, and granted property rights to the tillers of the land. Banda Singh was captured by the Mughals and tortured to death in 1715-1716.

Punjabi nationalism

This article refers to the ideology that asserts Punjabi cultural solidarity. For the militant separatist movement aimed at creating an independent Sikh country, see Khalistan.



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Further reading