Singh, Maharaja Ranjit

views updated


SINGH, MAHARAJA RANJIT (1780–1839), Sikh ruler of India. Maharaja Ranjit Singh ruled a large state in northwestern India that eventually encompassed the Punjab, Kashmir, several districts to the west of the river Indus, and the region around Multan. Ranjit Singh's grandfather, Charhat Singh, and his father, Mahan Singh, were petty rulers of a Sikh state around Gujranwala, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Lahore. Ranjit Singh was a great warrior who lost an eye on the battlefield and was thereafter called the "one-eyed lion of the Punjab." He conquered Lahore in 1799, Amritsar in 1805, Multan and Peshawar in 1818, and Kashmir in 1819. After the Afghan conqueror Ahmad Shah had defeated the Marathas at the battle of Panipat in 1761 and had then withdrawn, there was a power vacuum in the region, which was filled by a number of Sikh chieftains with their indomitable war bands (misls). They rarely acted in concert, proudly maintaining their autonomy. Ranjit Singh subdued them one by one, first compelling them to accept his suzerainty and to pay a tribute (nazrana) to him, then annexing their territory. The secret of his success was his devotion to modern warfare. He hired European officers as well as American artillerists and created a large disciplined army. For this he needed a constant flow of land revenue, which he collected more or less in the same manner as the Mughals had done before him. He also followed their example of giving military fiefs ( jagir) to his commanders. He did not emulate the Mughal system of a hierarchy of ranks (mānsāb), yet like the Mughal mānsabdārs, his jagirdars received two distinct assignments, one in lieu of their own salary and one to pay for the cavalry troops that they had to maintain. Ranjit strictly inspected these troops and reintroduced the Mughal practice of branding horses so as to make sure that his officers did not deviate from the norms set by him.

As long as Ranjit Singh was alive, he was able to fend off the British, though he knew that he was fighting a rearguard battle. When he was shown a map of India in which the areas captured by the British were colored red, he remarked that "one day soon" all of India would become "red." Under his weak successors, the control that he had established over the indomitable Sikhs soon lapsed, and the British vanquished them in two bloody Anglo-Sikh wars. This victory was mostly due to the Indian soldiers of the British East India Company's Bengal army, which was therefore hated by the Sikhs. During the mutiny of this army in 1857, irregular Sikh troops helped save the British Raj and thus emerged as one of the "martial races" that were recruited by the British in great numbers. The British thus seemed to be the heirs of Ranjit Singh, organizing Punjab's "lion-hearted" Sikhs as a disciplined force that was rarely matched on the field of battle.

Dietmar Rothermund


Bakshi, Shri Ram. History of the Punjab. New Delhi: Anmol Publishers, 1991.

Banga, Indu. Agrarian System of the Sikhs. New Delhi: Manohar, 1978.

Bhatia, Harbans Singh. Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Vol. 4 of Encyclopedic History of the Sikhs. New Delhi: Deep & Deep Publications, 1999.

Singh, Harbans. Maharaja Ranjit Singh. 1952. Reprint, New Delhi: Sterling, 1980.