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Early Life


Ranjit Singh was born on 13 November 1780, to Mahan Singh Sukerchakia and Raj Kaur – the daughter of Raja Gajpat Singh of Jind, in Gujranwala, in the Majha region of Punjab (now in Pakistan). His birth name was Buddh Singh, after his ancestor who was a disciple of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, a Khalsa, and whose descendants created the Sukerchakia Misl before the birth of Ranjit Singh, which became the most powerful of many small Sikh kingdoms in northwestern Southern Asia in the wake of the disintegrating Mughal Empire. The child’s name was changed to Ranjit (literally, “victor in battle”) by his father to commemorate his army’s victory over the Muslim Chatha chieftain Pir Muhammad.

Ranjit Singh contracted smallpox as an infant, which resulted in the loss of sight in his left eye and a pockmarked face. He was short in stature, never schooled, and did not learn to read or write anything beyond the Gurmukhi alphabet, however, he was trained at home in horse riding, musketry and other martial arts.


At age 12, his father died. He then inherited his father’s Sukkarchakkia Misl estates and was raised by his mother Raj Kaur, who, along with Lakhpat Rai, also managed the estates. The first attempt on his life was made when he was age 13, by Hashmat Khan, but Ranjit Singh prevailed and killed the assailant instead.[20] At age 18, his mother died and Lakhpat Rai was assassinated, and thereon he was helped by his mother-in-law from his first marriage.


In his teens, Ranjit Singh took to alcohol, a habit that intensified in the later decades of his life, according to the chronicles of his court historians and the Europeans who visited him. However, he neither smoked nor ate beef, and required all officials in his court, regardless of their religion, to adhere to these restrictions as part of their employment contract.

Geography of the Sikh Empire

Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire at its peak

The Sikh Empire, also known as Punjab, the Sikh Raj and Sarkar-i-Khalsa, was a region called by historians as “Punjab” or “Panjab”, comprises two words “Punj/Panj/Panch” and “Ab”, translating to “five” and “water” respectively in ancient Indian languages as well as Persian. When put together this gives a name meaning “the land of the five rivers”, coined due to the five rivers that run through the Punjab. Those “Five Rivers” are Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Chenab and Jhelum, all tributaries of the river Indus.


The geographical reach of the Sikh Empire under Ranjit Singh included all lands north of Sutlej river, and south of high valleys in the northwestern Himalayas. The major towns in the Empire included Srinagar, Attock, Peshawar, Bannu, Rawalpindi, Jammu, Gujrat, Sialkot, Kangra, Amritsar, Lahore and Multan.

The Sikh Khalsa Army under Ranjit Singh


The army under Ranjit Singh was not limited to the Sikh community. The soldiers and troop officers included Sikhs, but also included Hindus, Muslims and Europeans. Hindu Brahmins and people of all creeds and castes served his army, while the composition in his government also reflected a religious diversity. His army included Polish, Russian, Spanish, Prussian and French officers. In 1835, as his relationship with the British warmed up, he hired a British officer named Foulkes.


However, the Khalsa army of Ranjit Singh reflected regional population, and as he grew his army, he dramatically increased the Rajput and Jat Sikhs who became the predominant members of his army. In the Doab region his army was composed of the Jat Sikhs, in Jammu and northern Indian hills it was Hindu Rajputs, while relatively more Muslims served his army in the Jhelum river area closer to Afghanistan than other major Panjab rivers.



Ranjit Singh changed and improved the training and organisation of his army. He reorganised responsibility and set performance standards in logistical efficiency in troop deployment, manoeuvre, and marksmanship. He reformed the staffing to emphasise steady fire over cavalry and guerrilla warfare, improved the equipment and methods of war. The military system of Ranjit Singh combined the best of both old and new ideas. He strengthened the infantry and the artillery. He paid the members of the standing army from treasury, instead of the Mughal method of paying an army with local feudal levies.


While Ranjit Singh introduced reforms in terms of training and equipment of his military, he failed to reform the old Jagirs (Ijra) system of Mughal middlemen. The Jagirs system of state revenue collection involved certain individuals with political connections or inheritance promising a tribute (nazarana) to the ruler and thereby gaining administrative control over certain villages, with the right to force collect customs, excise and land tax at inconsistent and subjective rates from the peasants and merchants; they would keep a part of collected revenue and deliver the promised tribute value to the state. These Jagirs maintained independent armed militia to extort taxes from the peasants and merchants, and the militia prone to violence. This system of inconsistent taxation with arbitrary extortion by militia, continued the Mughal tradition of ill treatment of peasants and merchants throughout the Sikh Empire, and is evidenced by the complaints filed to Ranjit Singh by East India Company officials attempting to trade within different parts of the Sikh Empire.


According to historical records, states Sunit Singh, Ranjit Singh’s reforms focused on military that would allow new conquests, but not towards taxation system to end abuse, nor about introducing uniform laws in his state or improving internal trade and empowering the peasants and merchants. This failure to reform the Jagirs-based taxation system and economy, in part led to a succession power struggle and a series of threats, internal divisions among Sikhs, major assassinations and coups in the Sikh Empire in the years immediately after the death of Ranjit Singh; an easy annexation of the remains of the Sikh Empire into British India followed, with the colonial officials offering the Jagirs better terms and the right to keep the system intact