Sikh Empire

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Not to be confused with Kingdom of Sikkim.
Sikh Empire
امپراطوری سیک
ਸਿੱਖ ਖਾਲਸਾ ਰਾਜ
Nishan Sahib (flag) Khanda (Coat of Arms)
Deg Tegh Fateh
Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Sikh Empire at its peak
Capital Lahore
Languages Persian (court)[1]
Religion Sikhism
Government Federal monarchy
 •  1801–1839 Ranjit Singh
 •  1839 Kharak Singh
 •  1839–1840 Nau Nihal Singh
 •  1840–1841 Chand Kaur
 •  1841–1843 Sher Singh
 •  1843–1849 Duleep Singh
 •  1799–1818 Jamadar Khushal Singh[2]
 •  1818–1843 Dhian Singh Dogra
 •  1843–1844 Hira Singh Dogra
 •  1844–1845 Jawahar Singh Aulakh
Historical era Early modern period
 •  Capture of Lahore by Ranjit Singh 7 July 1799
 •  End of Second Anglo-Sikh War 29 March 1849
Currency Nanak Shahi Rupee
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Sikh Confederacy
Durrani Empire
Maratha Empire
Company rule in India
Today part of  Afghanistan
Part of a series on the
History of India
History of India

The Sikh Empire (also Sikh Khalsa Raj, Sarkar-i-Khalsa or Punjab Empire), was a major power in the Indian subcontinent, that arose under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who established a secular empire[3] basing it around the Punjab. 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.[4][5] 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. It was the last major region of the subcontinent to be conquered 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 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.[6] 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, Multan, Peshawar, and Kashmir from 1799 to 1849.


The Harmandir Sahib, known as the Golden Temple at Amritsar


The Sikh religion began around the time of the conquest of Northern India by Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire. His grandson, Akbar, 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 Sikh gurus enjoyed a positive relationship with the Mughals until his death in 1605.[7] 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,[8] to change the passage about Islam in the Adi Granth. When the Guru refused, Jahangir ordered him to be put to death by torture.[9] 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.[10] 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 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.[10]

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.[11]

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 the 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. The establishment of the Khalsa united the Sikh community against various Mughal-backed claimants to the guruship.[12] 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.[13]

In August 1708 Guru Gobind Singh visited Nanded. There he met a Bairāgī recluse, Madho Das, and converted him to Sikhism, giving him a new name, Banda Singh.[13][14]

Banda Singh Bahadur (also known as Lachman Das, Lachman Dev and Madho Das[14]), (1670–1716) met Guru Gobind Singh at Nanded and adopted the Sikh religion. 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[15] 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.[17]

Formation of the Sikh Empire[edit]

Miniature painting of Maharajah Ranjit Singh of Punjab in 1830. From Photo album of princely families in the Sikh and Rajput territories by Colonel James Skinner (1778–1841)
Ranjit Singh holding court in 1838.

The formal start of the Sikh Empire began with the merger of these "Misls" by the time of coronation of Ranjit Singh in 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 histories in the Sikhs' history.[4][18] The main geographical footprint of the empire was the Punjab region to Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north, to Sindh in the south, and Tibet in the east. The religious demography of the Sikh Empire was Muslim (70%), Sikh (17%), Hindu (13%).[19] The population was 3.5 million, according to Amarinder Singh`s The Last Sunset: The Rise and Fall of the Lahore Durbar. In 1799 Ranjit Singh moved the capital to Lahore from Gujranwala, where it had been established in 1763 by his grandfather, Charat Singh.[20]

End of the Sikh Empire[edit]

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 especially targeted, as the Sikhs believed if the army "became demoralised, the backbone of the enemy's position would be broken".[21] 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".[22] 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."[22]

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.[23]

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.


The charge of the British 16th Lancers at Aliwal on 28 January 1846, during the Anglo-Sikh war

The Punjab region 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 dogra general Gulab Singh thereafter as reinforcement and he crushed the Pashtun rebellion harshly.[30] 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.[31]

Religious policy[edit]

The Sikh Empire was idiosyncratic in that it allowed men from religions other than their own to rise to commanding positions of authority.[32]

A ban on cow slaughter, which can be related to Hindu sentiments, was universally imposed in the Sarkar Khalsaji.[33][34] Ranjit Singh willed the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was under his possession, to Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha while on his deathbed in 1839.[35] Ranjit Singh also donated huge amounts of gold for the construction of Hindu temples not only in his state, but also in the areas which were under the control of the Marathas, with whom Sikhs had a cordial relation.

The Sikhs made attempt not to offend the prejudices of Muslims, noted Baron von Hügel, the famous German traveller,[36] yet the Sikhs were referred to as being 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".[37]


  • 1699 - Formation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh.
  • 1710–1716, Banda Singh defeated the Mughals and declared the Khalsa rule.
  • 1716–1738, turbulence, no real ruler; Mughals did get back the control for two decades but Sikhs engage in guerrilla warfare
  • 1733–1735, The Khalsa accepts, only to reject, the confederal status given by Mughals.
  • 1748–1767, invasion of Ahmad Shah Durrani
  • 1763–1774, Charat Singh Sukerchakia, Misldar of Sukerchakia misl, established himself in Gujranwala.
  • 1764–1783, Baba Baghel Singh, Misldar of Karor Singhia Misl, conquered the Delhi and surrounding areas, and imposed taxes on Mughals.
    The Battle of Sobraon in 1846. Contemporary picture
  • 1773, Ahmad Shah Durrani dies and his son Timur Shah launches several invasions into Punjab.
  • 1774–1790, Maha Singh becomes Misldar of the Sukerchakia misl.
  • 1790–1801, Ranjit Singh becomes Misldar of the Sukerchakia misl.
  • 1799, Formations of the Sikh Khalsa Army
  • 1801 (12 April), coronation of Ranjit Singh as Maharaja.
  • 12 April 1801 – 27 June 1839, reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
  • 13 July 1813, Battle of Attock, this was the first significant Sikh Empire's victory over the Durrani Empire.
  • March – 2 June 1818, Battle of Multan, the 2nd battle in the Afghan–Sikh wars.
  • 3 July 1819, Battle of Shopian
  • 14 March 1823, Battle of Nowshera
  • 30 April 1837, Battle of Jamrud
  • 27 June 1839 – 5 November 1840, reign of Maharaja Kharak Singh
  • 5 November 1840 – 18 January 1841, Chand Kaur was briefly Regent.
  • 18 January 1841 – 15 September 1843, reign of Maharaja Sher Singh.
  • May 1841 – August 1842, Sino-Sikh war
  • 15 September 1843 – 31 March 1849, reign of Maharaja Duleep Singh.
  • 1845–1846, First Anglo-Sikh War.
  • 1848–1849, Second Anglo-Sikh War.
Preceded by
Durrani Empire
Sikh Empire
Succeeded by
British East India Company

See also[edit]



  1. ^
  2. ^ Grewal, J.S. (1990). The Sikhs of the Punjab. Cambridge University Press. p. 107. ISBN 0 521 63764 3. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  3. ^ "Ranjit Singh: A Secular Sikh Sovereign by K.S. Duggal. ''(Date:1989. ISBN 8170172446'')". 3 September 2015. Retrieved 2009-08-09. 
  4. ^ a b Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, (Edition: Volume V22, Date: 1910–1911), Page 892.
  5. ^ Grewal, J. S. (1990). The Sikhs of the Punjab, Chapter 6: The Sikh empire (1799–1849). The New Cambridge History of India. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0 521 63764 3. 
  6. ^ The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, section Sāhib Siṅgh Bedī, Bābā (1756–1834).
  7. ^ Kalsi 2005, pp. 106–107
  8. ^ Markovits 2004, p. 98
  9. ^ Melton, J. Gordon (Jan 15, 2014). Faiths Across Time: 5,000 Years of Religious History. ABC-CLIO. p. 1163. Retrieved Nov 3, 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Jestice 2004, pp. 345–346
  11. ^ Johar 1975, pp. 192–210
  12. ^ Jestice 2004, pp. 312–313
  13. ^ a b Ganda Singh. "Gobind Singh Guru (1666-1708)". Encyclopaedia of Sikhism. Punjabi University Patiala. Retrieved 11 August 2014. 
  14. ^ a b "Banda Singh Bahadur". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 15 May 2013. 
  15. ^ a b Singh 2008, pp. 25–26
  16. ^ Nesbitt 2005, p. 61
  17. ^ Singh, Kulwant (2006). Sri Gur Panth Prakash: Episodes 1 to 81. Institute of Sikh Studies. p. 415. ISBN 9788185815282. 
  18. ^ "MAHARAJAH RANJIT SINGH ... - Online Information article about MAHARAJA RANJIT SINGH". Retrieved 9 August 2009. 
  19. ^ "Ranjit Singh: A Secular Sikh Sovereign by K.S. Duggal. ''(Date:1989. ISBN 81-7017-244-6'')". 1 February 2009. Retrieved 9 August 2009. 
  20. ^ World and Its Peoples: Middle East, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. Marshall Cavendish. 2007. p. 411. ISBN 9780761475712. 
  21. ^ Ranjit Singh: administration and British policy, (Prakash, p.31-33)
  22. ^ a b Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the last to lay arms, (Duggal, p.136-137)
  23. ^ Frasier, G.M. (1990) Flashman and the Mountain of Light, Harper-Collins, London
  24. ^ The Masters Revealed, (Johnson, p. 128)
  25. ^ Britain and Tibet 1765–1947, (Marshall, p.116)
  26. ^ Ben Cahoon. "Pakistan Princely States". Retrieved 9 August 2009. 
  27. ^ The Khyber Pass: A History of Empire and Invasion, (Docherty, p.187)
  28. ^ The Khyber Pass: A History of Empire and Invasion, (Docherty, p.185-187)
  29. ^ Bennett-Jones, Owen; Singh, Sarina, Pakistan & the Karakoram Highway Page 199
  30. ^ Hastings Donnan, Marriage Among Muslims: Preference and Choice in Northern Pakistan, (Brill, 1997), 41.[1]
  31. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica - Ranjit Singh
  32. ^ Kartar Singh Duggal (1 January 2001). Maharaja Ranjit Singh: The Last to Lay Arms. Abhinav Publications. pp. 125–126. ISBN 978-81-7017-410-3.
  33. ^ Lodrick, D.O. 1981. Sacred Cows, Sacred Places. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 145
  34. ^ Vigne, G.T., 1840. A Personal Narrative of a Visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan, and a Residence at the Court of Dost Mohammed..., London: Whittaker and Co. p. 246
  35. ^ The Real Ranjit Singh; by Fakir Syed Waheeduddin, published by Punjabi University, ISBN 81-7380-778-7, 1 Jan 2001, 2nd ed.
  36. ^ Hügel, Baron (1845) 2000. Travels in Kashmir and the Panjab, containing a Particular Account of the Government and Character of the Sikhs, tr. Major T.B. Jervis. rpt, Delhi: Low Price Publications, p. 151
  37. ^ Masson, Charles. 1842. Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab, 3 v. London: Richard Bentley (1) 37


Further reading[edit]

  • Volume 2: Evolution of Sikh Confederacies (1708–1769), By Hari Ram Gupta. (Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers. Date: 1999, ISBN 81-215-0540-2, 383 pages, illustrated).
  • The Sikh Army (1799–1849) (Men-at-arms), By Ian Heath. (Date: 2005, ISBN 1-84176-777-8).
  • The Heritage of the Sikhs By Harbans Singh. (Date: 1994, ISBN 81-7304-064-8).
  • Sikh Domination of the Mughal Empire. (Date: 2000, Second Edition. ISBN 81-215-0213-6).
  • The Sikh Commonwealth or Rise and Fall of Sikh Misls. (Date: 2001, revised edition. ISBN 81-215-0165-2).
  • Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Lord of the Five Rivers, By Jean-Marie Lafont. (Oxford University Press. Date: 2002, ISBN 0-19-566111-7).
  • History of Panjab, By Dr L. M. Joshi and Dr Fauja Singh.

External links[edit]