On Thursday, a statue of Ranjit Singh, who ruled Punjab for almost four decades (1801-39), was inaugurated in Lahore. June 27 is his death anniversary. His legacy endures for Punjabis around the world:
Life and times
Ranjit Singh was born on November 13, 1780 in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. At that time, Punjab was ruled by powerful chieftains who had divided the territory into Misls. Ranjit Singh overthrew the warring Misls and established a unified Sikh empire after he conquered Lahore in 1799.
He was given the title Lion of Punjab (Sher-e-Punjab) because he stemmed the tide of Afghan invaders in Lahore, which remained his capital until his death. His general Hari Singh Nalwa built the Fort of Jamrud at the mouth of the Khyber Pass, the route the foreign rulers took to invade India.
At the time of his death, he was the only sovereign leader left in India, all others having come under the control of the East India Company in some way or the other.
Wide, powerful reign
He combined the strong points of the traditional Khalsa army with western advances in warfare to raise Asia’s most powerful indigenous army of that time. He also employed a large number of European officers, especially French, to train his troops. He appointed French General Jean Franquis Allard to modernise his army. In 2016, the town of St Tropez unveiled the maharaja’s bronze statue as a mark of respect.
Dr Indu Banga, professor emerita of history at Panjab University, said Ranjit Singh’s army was a match for the one raised by the East India Company. During the Battle of Chillianwala, the second of the Anglo-Sikh wars that followed Ranjit Singh’s death, the British suffered the maximum casualties of officers in their entire history in India, says Banga.
Ranjit Singh’s trans-regional empire spread over several states. His empire included the former Mughal provinces of Lahore and Multan besides part of Kabul and the entire Peshawar. The boundaries of his state went up to Ladakh — Zorawar Singh, a general from Jammu, had conquered Ladakh in Ranjit Singh’s name — in the northeast, Khyber pass in the northwest, and up to Panjnad in the south where the five rivers of Punjab fell into the Indus. During his regime, Punjab was a land of six rivers, the sixth being the Indus.
The maharaja was known for his just and secular rule; both Hindus and Muslims were given powerful positions in his darbar. The Sikhs take pride in him for he turned Harimandir Sahib at Amritsar into the Golden Temple by covering it with gold. Right at the doorstep of the sanctum sanctorum of the temple is a plaque that details how in 1830 AD, the maharaja did sewa over 10 years.
He is also credited with funding Hazoor Sahib gurudwara at the final resting place of Guru Gobind Singh in Nanded, Maharashtra.
Today, his throne is displayed prominently at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Exhibitions on his rule are frequent in western countries home to the Punjabi diaspora. Last year, London hosted an exhibition that focused on the history of the Sikh Empire and the international relations forged by the maharaja.