Popularly known as the Lion of Panjab (Sher-E-Punjab), Maharaja Ranjit Singh was not only the greatest man of his time in Panjab but is also among the few leading figures of the history of that period. Because of his extraordinary qualities as a fighter, conqueror and an empire-builder, he is often compared with the following great personalities:-
His reign was marked by benevolent rule, all round development, secular values and patriotic fervor. He was far ahead of his times in almost every sphere like army organisation, civil administration, foreign policy and, above all, the treatment of his subjects belonging to diverse faiths and cultures. He is also considered as one of the 3 Lions of India, the most famous and revered heroes of Indian history (Powerful Emperors like Rajendra Chola and Ashoka are not part of the 3 Lions). The other 2 Lions are:-
Rana Pratap Singh of Mewar
Shivaji, the Maratha.
He was the only ruler in India, who raised the flag of freedom during British time. At that time, most of India was occupied by the East India Company.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was born on November 13, 1780 at Gujranwala City, Punjab, which is now located in Pakistan. His father Sardar Mahan Singh was a Chieftain and a Warrior. He was given the name of Budh Singh. His father got the happy news of his birth in the thick of battle. Therefore, his name was changed to Ranjit Singh, meaning victor in the battlefield. True to his name, Ranjit Singh is known to be a warrior, who fought many battles, sometimes in adverse situations. He never suffered a major defeat in his long career.
During young age, Ranjit Singh suffered a virulent attack of small pox, which not only left permanent scars on his face, but also deprived him of his left eye. This attack did not deter him. he accompanied his father during most of the military campaigns while he was less than ten years of age. He led his first war at the age of 11 years and defeated the army of the ruler of Gujrat.
The sudden death of his father made Ranjit Singh the leader of the Sukerchakia Misl at the tender age of 12 years. Young Ranjit Singh appreciated the situation as under:
His kingdom was sandwiched between non friendly powers (the Afghans and the British).
Panjab was divided among twelve misls: Ahluvalia, Bhangi, Kanhaiya, Ramgarhia, Sukkarchakkia held lands north of Sutlej and Phulkian, Singhpuria, Krorsinghia, Nishania, Dalewalia, Nakkais, Shahids held lands south of Sutlej.
His vision was to establish a strong kingdom in Punjab.
He conquered the cities of Lahore and Amritsar within a decade and brought under his sway the neighboring territories of Sikh, Rajput and Muslim chiefs.
A grand durbar (Court) was organised at Lahore Fort on the Baisakhi day, April 12, 1801. Baba Sahib Singh Bedi, a direct descendant of Guru Nanak, daubed Ranjit Singh’s forehead with tilak and proclaimed him as the Maharaja of Panjab. He took a sword and tied it round the Maharaja’s waist, declaring him to be the sole leader of the Sikh community. All dissidents were asked to lay down their arms in favor of Ranjit Singh, which they did. When the ceremony was over, a royal salute was fired from the Lahore Fort heralding the establishment of Ranjit Singh’s rule in Panjab.
Ranjit Singh’s conquests of the nearby territories in quick succession greatly alarmed the British Government, which had by then established its hold on most of the Indian states. The British intervened to prevent Ranjit Singh’s move to further expand towards the east by subjugating the Sutlej Sikh states. These Sikh states also feared the expansionist policies of the Maharaja and took shelter under the British by signing subsidiary alliances with the British Government. In 1809, Ranjit Singh signed a treaty of friendship and peace with the British by which he agreed not to interfere in the affairs of the Sutlej Sikh chiefs. In return, the British Government acknowledged Ranjit Singh’s sovereignty over Punjab and, by implication, agreed to his expansion towards the North-west.
Ranjit Singh expanded his empire northwards and westwards. His remarkable achievements were conquests of the Afghan, principalities of Attock, Multan, Kashmir, Derajat and Peshawar. His empire extended from the Khybar Pass in the North-west, Sutlej in the East, China in the North and deserts of Sindh in the South.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a liberal ruler and did not bother about the colour, creed, caste or nationalities. His court was cosmopolitan, consisting of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, all of whom loved him dearly. He was able to rise above the communal prejudices of his time and treated all his subjects on equal footing. He is known for filling the leadership positions in his Darbar with men of varied Religions. People were recognized and promoted on their ability and not their religion. Besides the Singh (Sikh), the Khan (Muslim) and the Misr (Hindu Brahmin) feature as prominent administrators. The Christians formed a part of the militia of the Sikhs. In 1831, Ranjit Singh deputed his mission to Simla to confer with the British governor general, Lord William Bentinck. Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa,Fakir Aziz-ud-din and Diwan Moti Ram (a Sikh, a Muslim and a Hindu representative) were nominated at head of this mission. He ruled in a Democratic manner and never isolated himself from the masses. He was a very kind and generous ruler. He ruled in a truly Secular and just manner. He also encouraged development of educational institutions and industries by the different communities. He brought law and order, yet was reluctant to use the death penalty. There was no case of forced conversion, communal riot, language tension and second class citizenship in his reign. He stopped Indian secular style practices by treating Hindus and Muslims equally. He banned the secular “jizya” tax on Hindus and Sikhs. In his multi-ethnic empire he was famous for its religious tolerance. This was in sharp contrast with the ethnic & religious cleansing of past Mughal rulers. Ranjit Singh had created a state based upon noble traditions of the existing religions, where everyone worked together, regardless of background.
Maharaja was able to create a sense of Punjabi nationalism. He did what no other Indian ruler had done earlier by making people realise that being a Punjabi was more important than being Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. He is the founding father of Punjabiyat. His army and administration fully represented all the three communities. He engaged a number of English, Italian, German, French and American officers. They trained the Maharaja’s Army and improved its organisation & efficiency.
The respect shown by those who worked for the Maharaja is best highlighted, perhaps, by the his foreign minister, a Muslim named Fakir Aziz-ud-din, who while meeting with the British Governor General George Eden, 1st Earl of Aukland was asked, which of the Maharaja’s eyes was missing, he replied, “the Maharaja is like the sun and the sun has only one eye. The splendor and luminosity of his single eye is so much that I have never dared to look at his other eye.” The Governor General was so pleased with the reply that he gave his gold wrist-watch to the Maharaja’s Minister during their meeting at Shimla. The Empire was effectively secular as it did not give preference to Sikhs, or discriminate against Muslims, Hindus or even atheists.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh encircled himself with an array of strong generals and soldiers. They were men from different clans, castes and regions. These included:-
Hari Singh Nalwa
Sham Singh Atariwala
Veer Singh Dhillon later Jallaha of Gurdaspur
Sardar Gulab Singh Pahuwindia
Balbhadra Kunwar, Gorkhali General who served for Ranjit Singh after the Anglo- Gorkha War (1814–1816)
Akali Phula Singh
Jean Francois Allard
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the first Asian ruler to modernize his army to European standards. Maharaja developed a formidable military machine that helped him carve out an extensive kingdom and maintain it amid hostile and ambitious neighbors. From the scanty force that he inherited, comprised almost solely of horsemen, a force where everyone brought his own horse and whatever weapon he could afford or acquire, without any regular training or organization the Maharaja developed Asia’s only modern army, well ahead of the Japanese restructuring of the 1880s, one which was able to stop the British advance at the Satluj.
Early in his career, he had watched how the British troops with their systematic training and their discipline, had vanquished Indian forces vastly superior in numbers. He had also realized how crucial in warfare was a well-drilled infantry as well as artillery. In 1802, soon after his occupation of Amritsar, he engaged some deserters from the army of the East India Company to train his own platoons of infantry. He even sent some of his own men to Ludhiana to study the British methods of training and tactics. Army service was on a purely voluntary basis. There was no class composition on the basis of religion or nationality, nor was there a prescribed age limit for enrolment or retirement. Physical fitness and loyalty to the State were the essential conditions. However, the clannish basis of the misls in the Fauji Beqava’id ensured solidarity in the lower rungs of military administration. Similarly, bravery in the field and efficiency in the performance of duty were the only considerations for promotion and reward, which were also extended to the sons of those who died in action.
Ranjit Singh did not issue coins in his name as was the custom. On the contrary, the coins he issued bore the inscription: Degh-o-Tegh-o-Fateh Nusrat Bedrang Yaft az Nanak Guru Gobind Singh (Hospitality, sword, victory and conquest unfailing have been received from Guru Nanak – Gobind Singh.) Ranjit Singh preferred to be addressed as Singh Sahib, Bhai or Sarkar, and his government to be called Sarkar-e-Khalsa.
Though a devout Sikh himself, the Maharaja had the same reverence for the religious beliefs of other faiths. Soon after becoming the ruler of Lahore, the first act of the Maharaja was to offer prayer at the Badshahi Masjid adjacent to the Lahore Fort. The Maharaja gave liberal grants to the following Shrines:-
Jawala Mukhi in Kangra
Dargah of Mian Mir in Lahore
The birthplace of Baba Farid in Pak Pattan
Amritsar, being the spiritual capital of the Sikh religion, received special attention from the Maharaja. The Maharaja would visit the Harimandir quite often and listen to the singing of the holy hymns sitting on the floor of the temple complex.
It was because of the Maharaja’s devotion that the Harimandir was covered with gold plated copper sheets and came to be known as Swaran Mandir, or the Golden Temple. A gold plate at the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum records: “The Guru was kind enough to allow the privilege of service to the temple to his humble servant Sri Maharaja Singh Sahib Ranjit Singh.” Master craftsmen under Ranjit Singh’s instructions redecorated the Golden Temple, and he himself took a keen interest in the details of the work. The stone inlay and floral decorations were executed by expert Muslim artisans and the murals by painters from the famous Kangra School of Art. In terms of its architectural style, the Golden Temple stands out as unique among all the shrines of India.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh deeply loved and admired the teachings of the Tenth Guru of Sikhism Guru Gobind Singh, thus he promoted the teachings of the Dasam Granth (the Tenth Granth) and built two of the most sacred temples in Sikhism. These are:-
Takhat Sri Patna Sahib, the birth place of Guru Gobind Singh
Takhat Sri Hazur Sahib, the place where Guru Gobind Singh took his final rest or mahasamadhi at Nanded, Maharashtra in 1708
Maharaja Ranjit Singh possessed the world’s finest horses and the legendary Leili
He had also built a priceless collection of jewels, including the world’s most precious jewel, the Koh-i-Noor. The Koh-i-Noor remained a proud possession of Ranjit Singh and his family till 1849. When Ranjit Singh’s kingdom was annexed to the British Empire, the Koh-i-Noor and other valuables of the Maharaja were sent to England.
Kalgi of Guru Gobind Singh and Other Sikh Relics. Deeply religious, Ranjit Singh greatly valued the relics of the Sikh faith. Before starting his day’s work, he would listen to hymns, take a walk and finally kiss the kalgi (plume) of Guru Gobind Singh. With the passage of time, Ranjit Singh was able to build a valuable collection of the Sikh relics.
He made a special room in the Lahore Fort where he kept the original volume of Guru Granth Sahib prepared by Guru Arjan Dev.
The toshakhana also lists various weapons of Guru Gobind Singh and those of the Maharaja which were taken away by the British in AD 1849.
A garden known as Ram Bagh (in the name of Guru Ram Das) was prepared at Amritsar in 1818. It was built on the lines of Shalimar Bagh of Lahore. The garden was enclosed by a masonry wall (about fourteen feet high ramparts). Outside the wall a moat was filled with water from Hasli canal. A small ornamental burj or Kiosk (Tower) was built at each corner of the garden. A double story palace (summer palace) was built with a basement (tahkhana) as a cool underground chamber at the centre of the garden. Maharaja spent most of his time during summer at this palace. The work of the garden was executed under the supervision of Faqir Azizuddin, Sardar Desa Singh Majithia and his son sardar Lahna Singh. Faqir Azizuddin brought the workmen from Delhi. Red sandstone was used for construction.
The summer palace is now protected under the Punjab Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological sites and remains Act, 1964. It was converted into Museum during the 400th years celebrations of Amritsar City. The Museum is famous for its rare and priceless collections, particularly Paintings, Weapons and Amours, Manuscripts & Coins. Number of visitors and tourists visit this museum to see the valuable antiquities and art objects, related to 18th and 19th centuries.
Hero of many decisive battles, Ranjit Singh possessed unusual vigour and vitality. Like most strong men of his times, Ranjit Singh overstrained himself. More often he plunged himself into some of the most difficult operations because he was not used to giving up and achieved success in almost all cases. How could he be outdone by anyone in any field? Noticing that because of continuous exertions he had exhausted himself, his doctors advised him rest but he hardly listened to them. In spite of having been incapacitated by repeated strokes, Ranjit Singh retained his passion for horse riding. This great warrior, fearless soldier, able administrator, clement ruler, statesman and liberator of Punjab lost his battle of life on June 27, 1839.
His Samadhi (memorial) is located at Lahore, Pakistan.
The period of 40 years under the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the Golden era of Punjab. Muslims, Hindus and Sikh reaffirmed their Punjabi roots. Several schools were opened, especially Khalsa schools at Amritsar and Lahore run by Sikh academicians, which were open to all Punjabi population. Shah Mohammed (a famed Sufi poet of the Punjab) a Punjabi Muslims became part and parcel of the Sarkar-i-Khalsa (the Kingdom of Ranjit Singh), where in the past they had depended on the Afghans, Arabs, Pashtuns, Persians and Turks, who had consistently betrayed them. He wrote in his, Jang Namah on the decline of Ranjit Singh’s kingdom:
“Ranjit Singh was a born warrior king, who gave his feel to the country. He conquered Kashmir, Multan, Peshawar and made Chamba, Kangra and Jammu bow before him. He extended his territories up to Ladakh and China and struck his coin there. O Shah Mohammed! For fifty years he ruled with satisfaction, glory and power.”