A Sikh tragedy: the Indian kingdom that fell foul of the British empire

Why did the Sikh empire fall? The end of the mighty empire in the 1840s has long been attributed to the death of its brilliant leader, Ranjit Singh, a few years earlier. But the truth is far messier. Priya Atwal reveals how miscalculation, misogyny and British ruthlessness sealed the fate of the Indian powerhouse

Empire builder Maharajah Ranjit Singh sits astride a horse as an attendant holds a parasol over him. Singh is historically credited with growing his ancestral warrior-clan, the Sukerchakia misl, into a grand imperial dynasty. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Despite the summer heat enveloping the walled city of Lahore in late June 1839, a chilling sense of anxiety and grief pervaded the hearts of Punjabi ministers and courtiers gathered inside the royal chambers of the imperial palace. Their master, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, lay senseless and on the verge of death in his opulent bedchamber, inside the Lahore Fort. Countless prayers were being offered for his recovery, and vast sums of alms – gold, jewels and elephants, no less – were given away from the fabulous riches of the Sikh imperial treasury, in the desperate hope of saving Ranjit Singh’s life, or at least procuring God’s mercy for his soul.

The palatial apartments occupied by the ailing maharajah were originally constructed centuries before by the great Mughal emperors, but they had been restored to a different kind of glory by Ranjit Singh, who, as a 19-year-old, had conquered Lahore in 1799.

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Priya Atwal

Famed as the ‘Lion of Punjab’, Ranjit Singh was a self-made king who established the rule of his ancestral warrior-clan, the Sukerchakia misl, at the head of a new empire in northern India. With Mughal rule entirely decimated, the Sikh king’s might came to equal that of his greatest ally and rival, the British East India Company – the enormously powerful trading organisation that, by the early 19th century, was acting as an agent of British imperialism in India.

These two new powers established competing empires during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but in Ranjit Singh’s lifetime an alliance was cemented between them that kept the ambitions of both sides in balance.

Within six years of his death, however, the picture was utterly transformed. Ranjit Singh’s erstwhile allies, the British, were at war with his heirs. Four years after that, in March 1849, the East India Company subjected his entire kingdom to its rule, effectively cementing British imperial predominance in south Asia. Despite all this, the Company’s leading authorities claimed that they had consistently shown unstinting loyalty to the friendship and memory of the late, great maharajah. How could this be fairly squared?

Colonial mythologies

The answer to this messy political history lies in the mythology spun around Ranjit Singh’s life – most prominently by the Company’s political officers working in and around the Punjab. Across a growing array of press coverage, fictional writings and government proclamations, a compelling narrative was offered about Ranjit Singh’s personality and glowing career as an empire builder. The maharajah was viewed – according to European colonial logic – as an admirable exception among the “oriental despots” of his day. “For his age and country, he may truly be called a great, and in some respects, a good king,” wrote Henry Lawrence (who became Resident at Lahore in 1846) in his 1845 novel, Adventures of an Officer in the Service of Runjeet Singh. “Kind and liberal to those within his sight, he is much beloved by his personal followers.”

On the other hand, Lawrence’s novel portrayed the maharajah’s eldest sons variously as an “imbecile” and a “dissolute vagabond”, and generally, as being “far from clever”. These negative characterisations fed into the British story that these sons were ‘inferior’ successors, signally incapable of ruling the kingdom that Ranjit had so brilliantly crafted. The only option, therefore, was to step in and do it on their behalf.

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.

A 19th-century depiction of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The acts of aggression that followed extinguished the power of one of 19th-century India’s few remaining independent kingdoms and effectively cemented the Company’s imperial predominance in south Asia. And this aggression was fundamentally based on a misrepresentation of the truth. For all his impressive qualities, Ranjit Singh was not the sole architect of Sikh power, and his successors weren’t worthy of nothing but disdain. Only by acknowledging this can we begin to fully understand the forces, ideas and people who contributed to the rise and fall of the once mighty Sikh empire.

Glory and gold

There is no doubt that Ranjit Singh was a talented man and a much-loved ruler. The Sukerchakia misl was among the smallest of the 12 Sikh warrior-bands that fought off Mughal supremacy and Afghan invasions to dominate the Punjabi landscape by the end of the 18th century. After the untimely death of his father, Ranjit Singh became chief of the Sukerchakias at the tender age of 10; by his mid-twenties, he would be well on his way to outstripping the power of the other misls.

During his 40-year reign, Ranjit Singh successfully made vassals of almost all the other Sikh chieftains and subsumed their territories into his burgeoning empire. His kingdom grew rapidly beyond the Punjab to encompass the hill fortresses of Kangra, the valley of Kashmir, and the mountain passes bordering Afghanistan.

With Ranjit Singh’s death, the British hawkishly began ramping up their antipathy towards his heirs

Such conquests were completed by a formidable army, with cutting-edge infantry and artillery regiments – the creation of which was one of Ranjit Singh’s greatest achievements. The maharajah studied closely the mercenary forces of European colonial powers in India and hired talented soldiers from around the globe to modernise his army, some of whom had formerly been employed by Napoleon Bonaparte.

These troops were deeply loyal to Ranjit Singh and formed the bedrock of the imperial state that he constructed, emanating from his capital in Lahore. The new Sikh royal court built within the city’s Mughal palaces deliberately echoed the rule of the third Mughal emperor Akbar ‘the Great’, with its cosmopolitan and tolerant culture, and plethora of talented Sikh, Hindu and Muslim ministers working closely with Ranjit Singh and his family.

Yet the Sikh court was also much less of a hierarchical and formal environment than the Mughals had formerly imposed. Ranjit Singh – though clearly not someone to challenge – was a relatively humble and humane ruler. He refused to mint coins in his own name or image, accepted punishment from Sikh religious authorities when they felt he had overstepped his bounds, and gave generously to his people, actively promoting education for all and banning the killing of criminals or conquered enemies.

It is for good reason, then, that Ranjit Singh’s era is remembered as a golden age – quite literally so. Such was the amount of wealth generated during the maharajah’s reign that he had the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar (the pre-eminent Sikh shrine) covered in gold-plated sheets, so giving the place of worship a name by which it is known the world over: ‘the Golden Temple’.

Bathed in gold Ranjit Singh had the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, the pre-eminent Sikh shrine, covered in gold-plated sheets. As a result, it is now known the world over as the ‘Golden Temple’. (Photo by Getty Images)
Bathed in gold: Ranjit Singh had the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, the pre-eminent Sikh shrine, covered in gold-plated sheets. As a result, it is now known the world over as the ‘Golden Temple’. (Photo by Getty Images)

Yet for all his wealth and power, the maharajah was no superman. By focusing on him alone, we overlook the wider dynamics that contributed to his rise. As the eminent Sikh historian JS Grewal reminds us, “The obvious fact that Ranjit Singh was a ruler of the third generation in the Sukerchakia family has not been properly appreciated.”


Ghee Bowman tells the stories of a group of Muslims in the British Expeditionary Force who were part of the famous evacuation of 1940


It certainly helped Ranjit Singh that his parents and grandparents had been successful warriors and leaders within the Sikh community. They carved out a lucrative territorial niche in north-western Punjab, perfectly suited to founding a kingdom. Raj Kaur, his mother, administered this estate for him until he came of age. When the teenaged Ranjit then began engaging in battle and moved to conquer Lahore, he was supported by Sada Kaur, his mother-in-law, mentor and a formidable military ally. Indeed, Ranjit Singh would likely have lost the city had Sada Kaur not been there to tactfully make peace with its defeated Sikh occupants.

His uncle, Rajah Bhag Singh of Jind, brokered Ranjit Singh’s first contact with the East India Company: fatefully ensuring that as a newly anointed maharajah, Ranjit would not align himself with the rival Maratha empire or the French, but instead sign a friendship pact with the British in 1809.

This older generation of Sikh warri- or-chiefs and kings were pioneers, constructing a new balance of power by overthrowing Mughal and Afghan control during the 18th century. Their endeavours mirrored those of a host of nawabs, rajahs and begums who similarly seized power throughout India in that period – themselves in competition with the merchant-imperialists of European trading companies who were also making waves in the region.

Far from being an ‘exception’ then, Ranjit Singh effectively rose to power by standing on the shoulders of this earlier generation. However, on becoming maharajah in 1801, his burning ambition meant he wasn’t willing to share the limelight with his older relatives. Instead, he sidelined them by building himself an alternative network of familial allies through his marriages to a variety of women from across the classes, communities and regions of his growing kingdom. As they say, behind every great man, stands a great woman – and in Ranjit Singh’s case, we’re talking about at least 30 wives.

In 1837, when at the peak of his power, he hosted a constellation of Indian royals and leading Company men on a “most auspicious and fortunate day” to lavishly celebrate his grandson Nau Nihal Singh’s wedding. Reflecting on the scene, Ranjit Singh remarked to his second wife, Mai Nakain, that he “must thank the Almighty, for such a day was not vouchsafed even to my forefathers”.

Securing a place for his dynasty among the upper echelons of global royalty was the self-made maharajah’s ultimate goal. It would no doubt have delighted him to know how, on the eve of the Company and the Sikhs jointly going to war in Afghanistan in 1838 (in an attempt to reinstate the toppled monarch, Shah Shuja, as the region’s ruler), the young Queen Victoria confided in her journal that “we depend upon Runjeet Singh, who has always been our friend”.

Ranjit Singh certainly did all he could to put his family and court on prominent display. Occasions such as military reviews, princely weddings and courtly soirees were staged with spectacular grandeur to show off the greatness of Punjabi royal rulership. His queens, and a growing number of princely sons, were deployed as diplomats, military commanders and cultural patrons, to legitimise and expand the kingdom of the Sukerchakias as they transitioned from a minor misl to a grand imperial dynasty.

An “imbecile” heir?

The maharajah’s first-born son and heir-apparent, Kharak Singh, was a lead figure in such endeavours. From the age of six, the prince was sent to capture key fortresses and lead ambassadorial missions – all with a view to schooling him in the arts of war, diplomacy and administration. Despite the hard work of his childhood years, however, Kharak Singh has a dismal reputation.

It was the famous Company officer, Alexander Burnes, who first ridiculed him in writing by describing him as an “imbecile”, later followed by Henry Lawrence, who actually never met the prince. But not all Company men agreed with this assessment. Claude Martin Wade worked with the Lahore court for over 16 years and described Kharak Singh as a man with a “mild and humane disposition”, who was “loved by his dependants”. Wade went on to suggest that the prince appeared weak because – in an attempt not to provoke his father’s jealousy
– he had chosen to maintain a low profile.

Such supportive views were, however, rarely publicised within the English press or British policy documents. With Ranjit Singh’s death, they had spotted the potential for an expansion of British power and began hawkishly ramping up antipathy towards the dead maharajah’s heirs. And the fact that Kharak Singh’s power as maharajah was rather easily usurped by his adult son, Nau Nihal Singh, and prime minister, Rajah Dhyan Singh, appeared to support more derogatory representations of his character.

In any case, by mid-November 1840, both Kharak Singh and Nau Nihal Singh were dead, the former after being allegedly poisoned by white lead and mercury; the latter after being struck by a falling block of stone. Whether the men’s deaths occurred by accident or design remains a matter of controversy. But what is certain is that they inflicted two further shocks to a kingdom already struggling to regain its equilibrium.

The royal family managed to hold onto power, but its ability to govern effectively was fundamentally weakened by the turmoil that was unleashed after the winter of 1840. In the face of growing disorder, Ranjit Singh’s last wife, Maharani Jind Kaur – following in the footsteps of Raj Kaur and Sada Kaur – attempted to reimpose royal control when her infant son, Duleep Singh, was made maharajah in September 1843. “So long as the maharajah is sovereign of his own kingdom,” she declared, “it is the same as if I was sovereign myself.” But her power was thwarted by rebellious troops, disloyal ministers, and eventually, Henry Lawrence – none of whom liked having a woman in charge.

One of Ranjit Singh's greatest mistakes was to misjudge the value the British placed on their friendship

Lawrence perceived the Sikh queen as a “dangerous and bitter enemy” and “the main source of all difficulty” for his plans to establish control over the Lahore government. While claiming to be driven by a “sincere wish to maintain the dignity and honour of the family of the late Maharajah Runjeet Sing”, he separated Jind Kaur from her son and ousted her from the Punjab by 1848. When an anti-British rebellion then broke out, the entire kingdom was annexed a year later. Crucially, the East India Company justified its seizure of power by arguing that it was the Sikh queen, not the Company, who had been treacherous to the memory of her husband and his friendship with the British.

So, given the precipitous fall of his kingdom, was Ranjit Singh misguided in aligning himself so decisively with the East India Company? There was no way the maharajah could have predicted that his plans would go so awry – especially as the Anglo-Punjabi relationship had worked greatly in his favour during his lifetime. Yet it is clear that he overestimated the respect in which his dynasty was held by East India Company officials and fatally misjudged the value they placed on his friendship.

What the Sikh empire’s history reveals is the intense rivalry for power that characterised India’s politics into the 19th century. Men, women and children could all stake claims to royal ascendancy, if they were ambitious and daring enough. But once the balance of power between the East India Company and the Sikh empire was disrupted, a new era of British dominance was ushered into being. India’s royalty could no longer aspire to be conquerors; they were now the subjects of a foreign, distant queen.

Priya Atwal is a historian and author. Her new book, Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire, will be published by Hurst in September. She presented the BBC Radio 4 series Lies My Teacher Told Me, which you can listen to here

This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine

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