13th November 1780: Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire, was born

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire, was born on November 13, 1780, to Maha Singh and Raj Kaur in Punjab’s Gujranwala area.

He was initially named Buddh Singh but it is said that his father decided to rename him Ranjit (victor in war) as Maha Singh had just defeated the Chattar chieftain in a battle.

During the latter half of the 18th century, most of Punjab was ruled by a loose confederation of Sikh chiefs who had divided the land among groups that were called misls. Maha Singh headed one such faction called the Sukerchakia misl, which was based in the western part of Punjab. After Maha Singh died, Ranjit Singh’s mother and mother-in-law helped raise the boy. Ranjit Singh lost an eye after suffering smallpox as a child.

Ranjit Singh started his military campaigns by defeating the heads of other misls. On July 7, 1799, still a teenager, he tasted his first major victory, capturing Lahore from the Bhangi misl. He would in the next few decades establish unified Sikh rule in all the lands between British India and the Durrani Empire.  

At the age of 20 Ranjit Singh was crowned Maharaja of Punjab on April 12, 1801. The writer and journalist Khushwant Singh describes the day in his book A History of the Sikhs thus: “. . . Sahib Singh Bedi daubed Ranjit Singh’s forehead with saffron paste and proclaimed him Maharajah of the Punjab. A royal salute was fired from the fort. In the afternoon the young Maharajah rode on his elephant, showering gold and silver coins on jubilant crowds of his subjects. In the evening, all the homes of the city were illumined.”

After his Lahore conquest, Ranjit Singh expanded the Sikh empire by taking over the rest of Punjab. He then focused his attention beyond Punjab, and his territories included Kashmir, the Himalayan areas and the Pothohar region, among other areas. In 1802, he annexed Amritsar. In 1807, he defeated the forces of Afghan chief Qutb ud-Din and captured Kasur. Multan fell in 1818, and Kashmir in 1819.

The Afghans and Sikhs fought several battles between 1813 and 1837. The 1837 Battle of Jamrud was the last encounter between the two sides. One of Ranjit Singh’s best generals, Hari Singh Nalwa, was killed in this encounter, and the Afghans retreated to Kabul for strategic reasons.

Ranjit Singh was keen on having a modern army and was open to adopting western methods of warfare. Besides his Indian generals such as Hari Singh Nalwa, Pran Sukh Yadav, Gurmukh Singh Lamba, Dewan Mokham Chand, and Veer Singh Dillon, he employed Europeans in his army. Prominent among the foreigners were Jean-François Allard (French), Jean-Baptiste Ventura (Italian), Paolo Di Avitabile (Italian), Claude August Court (French), Josiah Harlan (American) and Alexander Gardner (possible Scott-Irish origin).

Gardner continued to be part of the Sikh army after Ranjit Singh’s death. After the First Anglo-Sikh War, Gardner joined the forces of the Maharajah of Kashmir and reportedly spent his last years in Srinagar. The French soldier, mercenary and adventurer Jean-François Allard had served in Napoleon’s army and after travelling through Asia and Europe, became a part of Ranjit Singh’s army in 1822. Here he was in charge of a corps of dragoons and lancers, and later was made leader of the European officer corps serving the Maharajah. 

“. . . Ranjit Singh changed the entire organisation of the Khalsa army. The cavalry ceased to be the most important arm and the infantry became the favourite service,” Shiv Kumar Gupta wrote in The Tribune in April 2001. “Creation of the artillery was started from scratch. The change was facilitated by the employment of European Officers, Frenchmen, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Germans, Austrians and the English . . . All these officers were basically engaged by Ranjit Singh for modernisation of his troops. He never put them in supreme command.”

After ruling for nearly four decades, Ranjit Singh died in 1839. The rule then passed on to Kharak Singh but the empire began to quickly disintegrate on account of poor governance and infighting. Following the Anglo-Sikh War of 1845, the British took effective control of Ranjit Singh’s erstwhile empire.

Describing Ranjit Singh’s rule in Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “Ranjit Singh was remarkably humane at a time when India and the world seethed with callousness and inhumanity. He built up a kingdom and a powerful army, and yet he disliked bloodshed. He abolished the death sentence for every crime, however heinous it might be, when in England even petty pilferers had to face death.”

Also on this day:

1942 — Ambika Soni, Congress leader and Minister of Information and Broadcasting, was born

1945 — Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, Congress leader from West Bengal, was born

1967 — Juhi Chawla, Hindi film actress, was born

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