"Ranjit Singh has been likened to Mehmet Ali and to Napoleon“ – the Death of Ranjit Singh and the Fate of the Sikh Empire in the Punjab

27 June 1839, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Lion of the Punjab and founder of the Sikh Empire in the Northwest of the Indian subcontinent, died today in Lahore at the age of 58.

“Which it was, until '39, when the Sikh maharaja, old Runjeet Singh, died of drink and debauchery (they say he couldn't tell male from female at the end, but they're like that, you know). He'd been a great man, and a holy terror, who'd held the Punjab solid as a rock, but when he went, the struggle for power over the next six years made the Borgia intrigues look like a vicarage soiree.“ (George MacDonald Fraser, “Flashman and the Mountain of Light”)

The Darbar (council) of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (contemporary Punjabi painting)

Friedrich Schiller coined the phrase that “the most pious man cannot live in peace if it does not please his wicked neighbour“ and it was the grim reality of intolerance down to open persecution that made Guru Gobind Singh initiate the Sikh Khalsa as a military force into a peaceful religious community in 1699. With a strict and quite chivalrous code of conduct along with a rigorous training at arms, the Khalsa became very, very good in their new role. And while the Mughal Empire finally went to pieces after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and while Marathas, Afghans, Persians and local Muslim and Hindu leaders were about to distribute the power vacuum in the Punjab among themselves, the Sikhs already began to organise their own independent territories, the misls, and defended them against all domestic and foreign threats. A time remembered by Sikh historians as something of a Heroic Age. However, most Heroic Ages are subject to at least some infighting and after repelling an Afghan invasion in the late 1790s, young Ranjit Singh, leader of the Sukerchakia Misl took the momentum of his victory, seized the opportunity of occupying the Bhangi Misl, weakened by decades of power struggles of their Sikh rulers, made Lahore his capital and was about to become Sher-e-Punjab, Lion of the Punjab. In April 1801, 21 years old Ranjit Singh had conquered the other 10 Misls and declared the Land of the Five Rivers to be the united Sikh Empire henceforth, stretching from the Khyber in the west, Kashmir in the north, Sindh in the south and Tibet in the east.

Ranjit Singh sitting on his golden throne in full dress armour
(by Manu Kaur Saluja, 2009)

The remnants of the Afghan Durrani Empire, for a few decades of the 18th century the second-greatest Muslim monarchy in history, proved to be a thorn in Ranjit Singh’s side for the next years and probably led him to improve upon Gobind Singh’s idea of the Khalsa. Producing European-style muskets and ordnance on site in the Punjab, importing what he couldn’t manufacture himself and hiring European mercenaries, mostly French like Jean-François Allard and some Germans, Italians and Americans, to serve as officers and military instructors, Ranjit Singh’s Khalsa, 40,000 strong, became arguably the finest and best equipped army in Asia, including that of the British East India Company whose domains by then bordered to the Sikh Empire’s on the Sutlej, the easternmost tributary of the Indus. Some of Ranjit Singh’s European employees were trusted with governing Sikh provinces, like Paolo Avitabile in Peshawar or became legendarily colourful figures like Gordana Khan, born Alexander Gardner from Wisconsin or Josiah Harlan from Pennsylvania who would later inspire Rudyard Kipling to write “The Man who would be King”. Relations with the Honourable East India Company were quite good and neither they nor the governors-generals of India from Amherst to Auckland had any reasonable interest to pursue something of an “aggressive forward policy” into the quite stable situation of Ranjit Singh’s Punjab and the turmoil beyond its frontiers. Back home, Ranjit Singh furthered the traditional Sikh tolerance towards other religions despite an arrangement that looks, at first glance, like a military dictatorship of 20% Sikh over 70% Muslims and 10% Hindus in the Punjab. All was well, by and large, but somehow, the Maharaja overdid it in private domestic affairs. He died at the age of 58, an exhausted man, allegedly paralysed and with his succession, to sum it up, a mess.

Maharani Jind Kaur at the age of 45, a year before her death

What followed made indeed look Borgia intrigues rather tame. Legitimate sons, their wives and his illegitimate offspring murdered each other as well as the respective followership with glee until the Khalsa, who played a role not unlike that of the Praetorian Guard in Ancient Rome, proclaimed five years old Duleep Singh as Maharaja with his mother Jind Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s last wife, acting as ruling Queen Mother. Ranjit may or may not have been the father of Duleep, Rani Jindan was just 18 years old when he married her, the daughter of overseer of the royal kennels, she a renowned beauty and the Maharaja already a shadow of his former self. The court intrigues continued with a vengeance, fuelled by infighting of the Sikh ruling class and the growing influence of the local Hindu Dogra lords while the Khalsa was incited to itch for a fight with John Company, who had just got his nose bloodied in Afghanistan anyway. When Rani Jindan’s brother Jawahar Singh, Vizier of Lahore, was murdered in public by the Khalsa, she swore revenge and, on the other hand, promised them rich plunder across the Sutlej and relations with the British went pear-shaped. The Khalsa already had become something of a rather uncontrollable state within the state, continuously crying for increased pay or receiving pay at all, depending on who ruled in Lahore for the moment. British agents like George Broadfoot fed Delhi with news of debauchery of the Sikh court, Rani Jindan became known as the Messalina of the Punjab, but certainly the uncontrollability of the Khalsa, even without Ranjid Singh still one of the most dangerous armies in the region, made the Company and Governor-General Hardinge seriously question the stability of the former buffer state on the traditional road taken for invading India since Xerxes and Alexander the Great, especially with the Russians calling for the next round in the Great Game after the British disaster in Kabul in 1842. British military presence on the Sutlej was continuously strengthened, the Khalsa felt provoked and finally crossed the river into British India in December 1845. The First and then the Second Anglo-Sikh War followed in 1849 and the Khalsa was finally destroyed, “by treachery, folly, and idiot courage beyond belief. And most of all, by blind luck“, Rani Jindan had revenged herself upon the Khalsa, if she had wanted or not and Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire ceased to exist in 1849, ten years after his death.

Sikh Trophy Guns, taken after the end of the first Anglo-Sikh War in 1846

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