shapes man in its crucible, but there have been men who changed even
the course of time and left their footprints on the shores of history.
One such monarch in the recent times was Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He did
not wear a crown or sit on the throne, ruled in the name of the Khalsa
and had secular and cosmopolitan outlook. He was powerful and yet
so humble as to smear his forehead with the dust of the feet of holy
men of all faiths. He allowed himself to be tied to a tamarind tree to
receive stripes on his bare back, in full public view on a charge of
moral depravity. The Maharaja did not award capital punishment to a
single person during the 40 years of his rule, he never treated even
the vanquished with contempt by way of public flogging. Despite being
a devoted Sikh, he restored the Sunehri Masjid to the Muslims of
Even though illiterate, Ranjit Singh was a man of profound knowledge. He was inquisitive about everything — ranging from politics and methods of warfare to the customs and manners of European— from guns, forts, wines, medicines and horses to hell, Paradise, God and the devil. His name commanded respect and honour, both among his courtiers and his subjects.
Victor Jacquemont, a French traveller, observed: "He is better obeyed by his subjects than the Mughal Emperors at the zenith of their power." His genius was conspicuous from the moment he uttered the first word, conversed with the wisest or the manner in which he bestrode a horse or handled his opponents. His memory was phenomenal, and like Napoleon Bonaparte, he could recall at will, the names of persons and places without straining himself.
Born on November 13, 1780 at Gujranwala to S. Maha Singh and Raj Kaur (daughter of Gajpat Singh of Jind) Maharaja Ranjit Singh assumed the charge of the Shukkarchakkia Misl after the death of his father when he was hardly 12 years old. With exceptional courage, he was able to transform a tiny principality into a vast kingdom that extended over an area of 100436 square miles. His kingdom extended from Ladakh to Sindh and from the Sulaiman ranges to the Sutlej river. In the process, he threw off the Afghan yoke, subdued the warring array of Sikh misldars and Muslim and Rajput chieftains and acquired control over such cities as Lahore, Amritsar, Attock, Multan and Peshawar.
He employed the services of Avitabile Ventura (Italian), Claude Auguste Court and Allard (French) and Alexander Gardiner (British), among others, to modernise his army. He reshaped the infantry on the western model, exposed his soldiers to regular drill and discipline and gave the artillery pride of place in the Sikh army. Ranjit Singh set up the Fauj-i-khas to meet certain eventualities, besides maintaining Fauj-i-Ain (regular Army) and Fauj-i-Beqawaid (irregular force). Disparate soldiers were converted into valiant fighters, who were conversant with the art of warfare. With his military skill, the Maharaja was able to stem the tide of foreign aggressions from the north-west for the first time in Indian history.
He knew how far he could go in the fulfilment of his territorial ambitions. Aware of the strength of the British, he deliberately avoided an open clash with them. He knew that any attempt to forge a united front with the Marathas, Gurkhas, Rajputs and others would prove to be an exercise in futility since each of them had self-centric motives to fulfil. His desire to subjugate the Cis-Sutlej region was checkmated by the Treaty of Amritsar, which he signed with the British in 1809. The treaty was ample proof of his political sagacity. His prophecy that the British would acquire control over the whole of India in the near future (Ek din sab lal ho jayega) came true about a decade after his death.
The pageantry of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court reminded one of the times of the Mughal emperor Shahjahan. Sitting cross-legged on a majestic chair, sporting a Kalgi on his forehead, a string of pearls around his waist and the Koh-i-noor diamond on his arm on special occasions, the Maharaja, was clad in a simple attire that was often white but light yellow during feasts and festivities. His clothes were made up of pure Kashmiri pashmina in winters and of Dacca muslin in summer. He seemed conspicuous among the galaxy of courtiers who were wearing costly costumes. "My sword is all the distinction I require", he once told Baron Charles Hugel. Such was the arrangement of the court that only Prince Kharag Singh, Prince Sher Singh, and Hira Singh were provided with chairs, while all others sat on the floor.
Faqir Azizuddin, the foreign minister stood in front of him and Dhian Singh, the Prime Minister, behind his chair. "I believe few, if any other, courts either in Europe or the East could show such a fine-looking set of men as the principal Sardars," wrote Captain William G. Osborne, who visited the Durbar in 1838.
The etiquette and discipline of the Maharaja’s court was quite akin to that of the Victorian times, and impressed the foreign dignitaries, one of whom remarked that all that the imagination could conceive of human grandeur, all that the most exorbitant fancy could desire in its endeavour to portray the scene of royal splendour was embodied in the court of the Maharaja. The rich treasure of paintings bequeathed to us by August Theodar Schoefft, Emily Eden and Godfrey Vigne, the court painters of the Maharaja, bear testimony to this.
The Maharaja had, in his possession, a huge stock of costly pearls, diamonds, shawls, various kinds of bridles dotted with gold and silver or with diamonds, and other valuable items. It is doubtful if any court in Europe possessed such valuable gems as the Court of Lahore, wrote Lt Col Steinbach. But more than the lustre of costly gems, the Maharaja was attracted towards gems among men belonging to different castes, clans, regions and religions. His court presented a multi-ethnic bouquet of people from the Brahmin, Sikh, Afghan, Rajput and European stock.
Merit was the sole criterion for appointing people to positions of trust and responsibility. If Hari Singh Nalwa could, by dint of his military acumen, rise to the position of the Commander of the Sikh army, so could Faqir Azizuddin become a foreign minister from his humble position of a royal hakim.
Prominent among the Hindu and Sikh courtiers of the Maharaja were, Diwan Mohkam Chand, Diwan Moti Ram, Maharaja Gulab Singh, Raja Suchet Singh, Diwan Bhawani Das, Sham Singh Attariwala, Raja Dhian Singh and Khushal Singh. Colonel Alex Gardener noted that there were 39 military officers and three medical officers in the Maharaja’s service.
The Maharaja’s fascination for horses was matched only by his inclination towards liquor, aphrodiasics and women. He could stay in the saddle the whole day without being exhausted. Sometimes, he would make surprise visits to far-off areas for surveillance. The royal stables had a large number of thoroughbred Arab and Persian horses, some of which like Gohar Bar and Sufaid Pari were reserved exclusively for the Maharaja. The legendary horse Laili, for which he had to pay heavily, both in terms of men and money, reminds one of Bucephalus, the famous Greek horse in whose memory Alexander the Great founded a city.
The Maharaja loved to remain in the lap of nature for as long as he could. Beautiful gardens at Amritsar, Lahore, Gujranwala and Dinanagar were laid out. He restored the Shalimar garden to its old Mughal glory and renamed it as Shalabagh, as the former name in Punjabi meant "the killer of love".
The kingdom of the Maharaja was not theocratic but secular. There was no place for coercion or conversion in his polity. Cold-blooded religious persecutions, so common during the medieval times, were absent. Himself a devout Sikh, the Maharaja paid obeisance to the Adi Granth and listened to the rapturous hymns of Gurbaani every morning. Whenever he faced a dilemma or planned to launch a military or diplomatic move, he turned to the Holy Granth for inspiration. He visited Harmandar Sahib, Amritsar, the sacred Sikh shrine, specially on holy days or festive occasions like Amavasya (New Moon Night), Samkranti (first day of the solar month), Baisakhi (first day of Vaisakha), Dasehra and Divali for ardaas(prayer), samkalpa (mental resolve), tuladana (the giving of charitable objects equal to one’s weight) or for making large offerings in cash and gold.
The Toshakhana of the Harmandar Sahib contains some invaluable articles donated by the Maharaja. He was also instrumental in embossing the shrine with marble and gold, and for giving it a facelift. His benevolent acts have been preserved in a gold-plated inscription on the main entrance to the Golden Temple.
Such was the Maharaja’s devotion to his faith that he did not allow his name or portrait to be inscribed on his coins. He described himself as the kukar (dog) of the Guru and the Khalsa Panth, and issued the Nanakshahi rupee and mohar, bearing the figure of Guru Nanak Dev. He called his government as Sarkar-i-Khalsa or the government of the Khalsa Commonwealth, in which he was a mere drum (nigarah) to be played upon by the Almighty and engraved the words Akal Sahai (‘God be with us) on his royal seal. The Sikh salutation, Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh (Khalsa belongs to the Lord; Victory is therefore Lord’s own) was in vogue among his army men.
He created a garden at Amritsar after the name of the fourth Guru, Guru Ram Das. He named the fort at Amritsar, Gobind Garh, after the name of the tenth Sikh Guru, even though his courtiers wanted it to be called Ranjitgarh. When the Nizam gifted an expensive canopy to the Maharaja, he donated it to Harmandar Sahib.
Despite being a devout Sikh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh respected other religions. Sufis and bhakts, pandits and maulvis, Christians and udasis were all welcome in his court, and given due respect. Festivals like Dasehra, Divali, Basant, Holi and Baisakhi were celebrated at the court with much fervour; so were the Id, the Muharram and the Milad-un-Nabbi. The Maharaja visited tombs of Muslim faqirs and temples with as much religious fervour as he did the Harmandar Sahib.
He held the Jawalamukhi temple, Kangra, in special veneration and sanctioned money and gold for guilding its roof, besides presenting two golden umbrellas. During his last days, he deputed his son Kanwar Naunihal Singh to pray for his well-being at the shrines of Jawalamukhi and Kangra and perform yajnas or sacrificial rites and santi prayogas (occult practices for inducing a peaceful state) so that he might regain health. The Maharaja donated six quintals of gold to some temples at Banaras, and wished to donate the Koh-i-noor diamond (which he had obtained from Shah Shuja, the fugitive Amir of Kabul) to the Jagannath temple, Puri. His last wish was never carried out and the invaluable jewel finally passed on to the British. It may be mentioned that the Maharaja’s last rites were performed a day after his death on June 28, 1839, mostly in the Hindu manner and his ashes were immersed in the holy water of the Ganges.
Four of his principal wives — Kundan (also known as Gudan), Hardevi, Raj Kunwar and Banali — along with seven slave girls— burnt themselves on his funeral pyre in conformity with the custom of Sati.
His efforts to negotiate the return of the Sandal Gates of the Somnath Temple which Mahmud had taken away to Ghazni, his attempts to safeguard and support Muslim tombs such as those of Hazrat Shah Balawal and Hazrat Data Ganjbaksh, and his order to Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa not to destroy the religious library of Hazrat Omar Sahib while invading Peshawar clearly reveal how liberal and tolerant he was towards other religions.
The Maharaja reminds us of the legendary Vikramaditya who was known for his benevolence, dramatic gestures of goodwill and uncanny faith in human dignity. Loved by his people to whom he was a Paras (or the Philosopher’s Stone), respected by his courtiers and admired by foreign dignitaries, the Maharaja’s name struck terror in the hearts of anti-social elements. One could safely travel in his kingdom without the least fear of being misguided, robbed or killed. Such was his concern for peasants and the development of the means of irrigation, that while British India underwent a recurrent phase of famines no such calamity befell his kingdom.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s true greatness lies not merely in the story of his rise, not even in his military valour or diplomatic skill but in the fact that he emerged as a symbol of resurgent Punjab and united Punjab and provided as it were, the first "glimmerings of a nascent Punjabi nationalism". Even though the political edifice he had so assiduously created tumbled to the ground within a decade after his death, the echoes of its splendour and cosmopolitan character can be heard to this day.
The Maharaja was no Attila, yet he was relentless in the battlefield and firm in the saddle. He was a devout yet not a puritan like Oliver Cromwell and had all the vices of medieval monarchs.
Despite his frailties, he was the
perfect model of a king like Ashoka and Alfred the Great. What
Tweedsmuir said of Julius Caesar may aptly be said of him: "His
culture was as wide as that of any man of his day: combined in him in
the highest degree were the realism of the man of action, the
sensitiveness of the artist, and the imagination of the creative dreamer
— a union not paralleled elsewhere."