Ranjit Singh was one of 20 leaders nominated by expert historians in BBC World Histories Magazine. Other contenders included Winston Churchill, Elizabeth I, Boudica, Abraham Lincoln and Oliver Cromwell. Read the full results of the poll here.
Here, Matthew Lockwood, assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama, explores the life and achievements of Ranjit Singh…
On 27 June 2019, a statue was unveiled in Lahore Fort in Pakistan. The equestrian sculpture had been commissioned to mark the 180th anniversary of the death of one of Lahore’s most famous and significant historical figures. But even more than that, in a region riven by ethnic and religious strife, in an era scarred by rising religious fundamentalism and growing tension between India and Pakistan, the statue was intended to be a symbol of a previous age of toleration and stability, and the near-mythical ruler who presided over it: Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Ranjit Singh had come of age in a similarly fractious age. When he was born in Gujranwala just north of Lahore in November 1780, the once-mighty Mughal empire which had dominated the Indian subcontinent for centuries was in the last stages of terminal decline. As its power dimmed across the 18th century, a host of local and regional powers emerged to fill the vacuum. In the south the sultans of Mysore and the nizams of Hyderabad carved out independent kingdoms. In the basin of the river Ganges, the nawabs of Oudh and Bengal struggled with the Maratha Confederacy to fill the gap left by the Mughal retreat.
Ranjit Singh: a biography
Born: 13 November 1780 in Gujranwala (in modern Pakistan)
Died: 27 June 1839 in Lahore (modern Pakistan)
Reigned: Misalder (chief) of Sukerchakia Misl from 1792 to 1801, and as first and founding Maharaja of the Sikh empire for 38 years from 1801 to his death in 1839
Coronation: Proclaimed himself Maharaja of the Sikh empire on 12 April 1801 after his conquest of Lahore
Parents: Maha Singh (Misalder of Suckerchakia Misl) and Raj Kaur (known affectionately as Mai Malwain after marriage)
Spouse(s): At least 18 wives and as many as 46 (according to an interview given by his son Duleep Singh in 1889), including: Mehtab Kaur, daughter of the ruler of Kanhaiya Misl, and Datar Kaur, daughter of the ruler of Nakai Misl
Children: Eight sons, though he only acknowledged his eldest, Kharak Singh, and youngest, Duleep Singh (the so-called ‘Black Prince of Perthshire’) as his biological children
Cause of death: There is much speculation, but likely the result of complications from a stroke and possibly liver failure. Long use of alcohol is often cited as a contributing factor to his death
Succeeded by: Kharak Singh
Famous for: Building the Sikh empire; reconstructing the Golden Temple at Amritsar; owning the Koh-i-Noor diamond; religious toleration
Everywhere, the rapacious British East India Company and its French counterpart vied to grasp the spoils now seemingly up for grabs. In the Punjab, in what is now eastern Pakistan and northwest India, Ranjit Singh’s father was ruler of one of 14 Misls or kingdoms that emerged in the wake of the Mughal collapse.
Twelve of the Misls, including Ranjit’s Suckerchakia, were ruled by Sikhs; one was ruled by a Muslim, and one by the Irish sailor turned mercenary, George Thomas, the so-called “raja from Tipperary”. The 12 Sikh Misls were bound together by ties of marriage and religion and could band together as the Sikh confederacy to fend off the numerous Afghan raids that plagued the period – but competition between the Misls was fierce and conflict constant.
Warfare was central to Ranjit Singh’s upbringing – the name Ranjit, meaning “victor in battle”, was given to him as a child to commemorate his father’s victory over a regional rival. But when his father died in 1792, the 12-year-old heir to Sukerchakia Misl – small in stature, his left eye blinded and his face scarred by smallpox – was an unlikely candidate for the founder of an empire. He might well have foundered after his father’s death if not for the support of a succession of formidable female relations. At first, his mother, Raj Kaur, acted as regent and advisor, a role she continued to occupy after his marriage to Mehtab Kaur, daughter of the ruler of Kanhaiya Misl, in 1796. When his mother died sometime around 1798, he turned to his mother-in-law, Rani Sadar Kaur, now ruler of Kanhaiya Misl in her own right and every inch the Sikh warrior-chief. Her council came at a critical juncture.
The first king of Punjab
Ranjit had begun to make a name for himself the previous year when he led an army that turned back the invasion of Zaman Shah, ruler of the Afghan Durrani empire. Further victories over the Afghans in 1798 burnished his growing image as the Punjab’s foremost military commander. With the direction and aid of Sadar Kaur, in 1799 he translated his prestige into power with his first major conquest, the city of Lahore. By 1801 he had sufficiently consolidated his control of the region and proclaimed himself Maharaja of Punjab. The Sikh empire was born.
With Sadar Kaur often by his side a string of victories followed, expanding the empire and solidifying its borders. Amritsar, holy city of the Sikhs, was taken. In 1807 Ranjit struck northwest, conquering the lone Muslim Misl of Kasur. In 1818, Multan and Majhan were incorporated into the empire. By 1819, Srinagar, Peshawar, and most of Kashmir were added to the Sikh fold, the Afghans finally pushed out of the Punjab.
How many wives did he have?
To secure the internal stability of the empire, Ranjit married a series of women – at least 18, but as many as 46 – from the ruling families of the region. Plural marriage was common practice among Punjabi elites at the time, a symbol of status but also a crucial means of cementing alliances.
To ensure external security, the army was reformed and modernised and a treaty sought with the British, establishing a firm boundary at the river Sutlej and occasional co-ordination against their common enemy, the Afghans.
The stunning rise of the Sikh empire made Ranjit Singh a celebrity. A French traveller compared him to Napoleon in miniature, while other observers praised him as a “military genius” and his empire as “the most wonderful object in the whole world.” The British agreed, marvelling at the Sikh empire, the “Napoleonic suddenness of its rise” and “the brilliancy of its success”.
Even his physical impairments were transformed into strengths. When a curious Lord Auckland, Governor-General of British India, enquired about Ranjit’s blind eye – his left eye was blinded and his face scarred by smallpox – his foreign minister countered that the Maharaja was like the sun, which also only had one eye, continuing that “the splendour and luminosity of his single eye is so great that I have never dared to look at his other eye”. Ranjit Singh had become a Sikh Napoleon, a Punjabi sun king. Sikhs, however, did not have to reach to European history to find comparisons; Ranjit Singh was simply the most dazzling in a long line of Sikh warrior-chiefs and soldier-saints stretching back to the 17th century.
What did Ranjit Singh do for Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus?
In a religiously diverse region, however, military might alone could not ensure stability. Ranjit Singh thus struck a careful balance between his role as a faithful Sikh ruler and his desire to act as friend and protector of his empire’s Muslim and Hindu peoples. He thus embarked on a public campaign to restore Sikh temples – most notably rebuilding the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, at Amritsar in marble (1809) and gold (1830) – while also donating a tonne of gold to plate the Hindu Kashi Vishwanath temple to Lord Shiva in Varanasi. He patronised Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Sufi shrines, and in a nod to Hindu sensibilities banned the slaughter of cows. In his lands, forced conversions were largely unheard of, and even his Muslim and Hindu wives were freely allowed to practice their faiths. On a few occasions he did convert mosques to other uses – Lahore’s Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) became Moti Mandir (Pearl Temple) – but he tried, with some success, to limit the destruction of conquered religious sites. He was a conqueror, even a unifier, not a crusader.
Ranjit Singh presided over a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-caste empire of remarkable toleration and inclusivity. The army, the empire’s predominate institution, included Hindus, Muslims, and European Christians – French, Spanish, Polish, Russian, and Prussian, though not British, who history showed should be kept at arm’s length – as well as Sikhs.
His administration was likewise a diverse affair; his prime minister was a Dogra Rajput (a Dogri-speaking member of the Rajput warrior caste or clan group), his finance minister a Brahmin (a member of the high-status Hindu priestly caste), his foreign minister a Muslim. Indeed, even today, numerous castes and clans lay claim to Ranjit Singh as an ancestor, a reflection of both his tolerant rule and his appeal as a symbol of unity and inclusion. Such religious policies at times brought Ranjit Singh into conflict with more stringent Sikh leaders, but he managed to deftly placate his orthodox co-religionists while continuing his more humane policies.
What were Ranjit Singh’s failures?
Though in many ways a bastion of stability, prosperity, and toleration in a sub-continental sea of strife, Ranjit Singh’s reign was not without its shortcomings. Investment in infrastructure failed to keep pace with military spending and the hated jagir tax system, inherited from the Mughals, went unreformed. By farming out tax collection to local landowners in return for a set annual tribute, the jagir system incentivised harsh taxation as tax farmers could keep any revenue above the set tribute. This caused both abuses of the peasantry and constant infighting among the elites that would burst forth into open conflict after Ranjit’s death. This was perhaps his greatest failure; he had created a system of government so dependent on his force of will that it could not outlive him.
Without a lasting framework for future governance, when Ranjit Singh died in 1839, his empire quickly devolved into a series of succession struggles, coups, and assassinations as his heirs and other elites vied for power and control of the spoils of the jagir system. Internal divisions upset the delicate balance of power Ranjit Singh had forged and gave the British East India Company opportunity and cause to intervene. By 1849, after two Anglo-Sikh wars, Ranjit Singh’s former empire was incorporated into the British empire.
In the 180 years since Ranjit Singh’s death, much has changed. The area he forged into an empire of tolerance is now divided between Pakistan and India and has once more succumbed to religious and political divisions. In the face of renewed instability, perhaps the life of Ranjit Singh can provide an example worth celebrating.
Matthew Lockwood is assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama and author of To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe (Yale University Press, 2019).
Read the full results of BBC World Histories Magazine’s poll: Who is the greatest leader in world history?