Explained: Who was Hari Singh Nalwa, Sikh warrior who won many battles against Afghans?

Hari Singh Nalwa, a legendary Sikh commander, had once tamed the turbulent forces in Afghanistan and earned the reputation of being the "most feared Sikh warrior".

Hari Singh Nalwa is seen seated in full armour and adopting a military stance in this painting by Sir John Mcqueen. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since the US announced its decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan, many reports have been resorting to that old cliché that states the country is a “graveyard of empires”.

Over the years, Afghanistan has been notoriously difficult to govern, with the US now and erstwhile USSR in 1988 deciding to pull out their forces after having once established control in the region.

But Hari Singh Nalwa, a legendary Sikh commander, had once tamed the turbulent forces in Afghanistan and earned the reputation of being the “most feared Sikh warrior”.

Who was Hari Singh Nalwa?

Hari Singh Nalwa was one of the most trustworthy commanders in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. He was the Governor of Kashmir, Hazara and Peshawar.

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Nalwa shot to fame after defeating the Afghans and establishing control over various regions along the boundary of Afghanistan. He also prevented Afghans from entering Punjab through the Khyber Pass, which was the main route that foreign invaders used to enter India from 1000 AD till the early 19th century.

“In Afghan folklore, mothers used to use Nalwar’s name to scare and quieten their unruly children. A common refrain among mothers would be: ‘If you don’t stop crying, Haria Ragle (Hari Singh Nalwa) will turn up’,” said former Guru Nanak Dev University vice-chancellor Dr S P Singh.

Dr Singh further said that it was Nalwa who took control of several regions along the Afghanistan border and the Khyber Pass, thereby preventing the Afghans from making inroads into the northwest frontier.

“When the Afghans were trying to make repeated incursions into Punjab and Delhi, Maharaja Ranjit Singh decided to take steps to build a secure empire. He formed two types of armies. For one of these, he employed French, German, Italian, Russians and Greeks soldiers, and also brought in modern weaponry. For the other army, he handed over the charge to Nalwa, who had by then defeated thousands of Hazars, a tribe based in Afghanistan, with less than three times their strength,” added Dr Singh.

To celebrate his unmatched bravery, the Government of India in 2013 released a stamp featuring the name of Nalwa.

Why did the Afghans start fearing Nalwa?

Historian Dr Satish K Kapoor said Nalwa fought many successful battles, after which the Afghans lost their territories.

“For instance, in 1807, at the age of 16, Nalwa fought the battle of Kasur (which is now in Pakistan) and defeated Afghani ruler Kutab-ud-din Khan. Then in the battle of Attock in 1813, Nalwa along with other commanders won against Azim Khan and his brother Dost Mohammad Khan, who fought on behalf of Shah Mahmud of Kabul. This was the first major victory of the Sikhs over the Durrani Pathans. In 1818, a Sikh army under Nalwa won the battle of Peshawar. Moreover, Nalwa took control over Jamrud in 1837, a fort at the entryway to Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass.”

Dr Kapoor, who is also the former registrar of DAV University and currently the director of Hindu Kanya College of Kapurthala, added that the Afghans were also defeated in the battles fought in Multan, Hazara, Manekera and Kashmir.

“These victories expanded the Sikh empire. And they also created a huge fear of Nalwa among the Afghans. Nalwa, thereafter, remained stationed in Peshawar to keep an eye on the Afghan-Punjab border,” he said.

What happened in Nalwa’s final battle?

The battle of Jamrud proved to be the final battle for Nalwa.

In that battle, Dost Muhammad Khan along with his five sons participated fought against the Sikh army, which only had around 600 men and limited supplies. Nalwa, who was in Peshawar at that time, marched towards Jamrud to save the Sikh army which was surrounded by Dost Mohammad’s troops.

When the Afghan army came to know about Nalwa’s sudden arrival, the Afghans were taken aback and started leaving the battleground in haste. However, during that time, Nalwa got seriously injured and later died.

But before his death, he told his army to not disclose the news of his demise till the forces from Lahore arrived to support them.

Before this battle, Nalwa had been invited to attend the wedding of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s grandson Nau Nihal Singh in Lahore. But he chose not to go because he had feared that Dost Muhammad Khan would take advantage of his absence and launch an attack on Jamrud. Nalwa had come to know that Khan was also invited to attend the wedding but decided not to attend it.

What difference did these victories against Afghans make for India?

Historians maintain that if Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his commander Nalwa would have not taken control of Peshawar and the northwest frontier, which is part of Pakistan now, then these areas could have been part of Afghanistan. This, in turn, could have led to more Afghan incursions into Punjab and Delhi.

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Why was he called Nalwa despite having been born in an Uppal family?

Hari Singh was born in 1791 in an Uppal family in Gujranwala (now in Pakistan). His father Gurdial Singh died when he was just seven in 1798 and his maternal uncle raised him.

Hari Singh got the ‘Nalwa’ title attached to his name after he reportedly killed a tiger at a very young age. He was also called ‘Bagh Maar’ (killer of tiger) for the same reason.

According to folklore, a tiger had attacked him suddenly during one of his hunting expeditions, surprising him and leaving him with no time to pull out his sword. In a last-ditch attempt, he had held the tiger’s jaw, pushed the animal back and then drawn out his sword, with which he killed the animal.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, after hearing this incident, had reportedly said, “Wah Mere Raja Nal Wah!”

As narrated in the Mahabharata, Nala, the king of the Kushwah kingdom and the son of Veerasena, was well known for his bravery.

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