At just twenty-one, Maharaja Ranjit Singh successfully built and strengthened his empire. His unwavering pursuit of knowledge aimed to enhance both his realm and his army. Like Napoleon, he keenly followed European events, absorbing information on wars, military structures, tactics, and weapons. Driven by curiosity, almost impatience, his focus was on upgrading his military capabilities, ensuring strength and efficiency. Facing hostile Afghans in the west and a potential British threat in the east, he remained vigilant despite apparent British friendliness. Their conquest of the rest of the Indian subcontinent hinted at their true goal – the eventual subjugation of his kingdom.

As the Napoleonic wars concluded, European soldiers sought new opportunities, with Persia becoming a favoured destination. Ranjit Singh's reputation had not yet reached the continent, but in Persia, tales of his military prowess spread. This attracted numerous soldiers, formerly of the French Army or their allies, to Lahore, offering their services. By the end of his rule in 1839, he had thirty-nine European officers, including six generals, and three doctors in his service.

Sikhs as military men 

In 1822, the Lahore Army underwent a significant reorganization, adopting modern strategies and consolidating its forces. At that time, the focus was primarily on cavalry and artillery, with infantry mainly assigned to garrison duties. The Sikhs, known for their horsemanship skills, placed a strong emphasis on cavalry. However, the arrival of European officers and Ranjit Singh's realization of the crucial role played by infantry in major battles, such as those between Wellington and Napoleon, prompted a reorganization of the infantry along European army lines. Consequently, the Sikhs acknowledged the infantry's importance in battles, leading many to choose to join its ranks.

The strength of Ranjit Singh’s army in 1821 stood at 50,000. The Fauj-e-Khas comprised 11,000 Ghorcharras divided into 15 Derahs led by eminent sardars, amongst them Sham Singh Attari, Gurmukh Singh Lamba, Hari Singh Nalwa, and two by non-Sikhs, the Mulraj Derah and the Dogra Derah`85

Respectful leadership of Raja Ranjit Singh 

Ranjit Singh earned the British's respect for his leadership and army. They saw him as a valuable ally while consolidating control over India. The British, recognizing his effectiveness, sought to counter the aggressive Afghan rulers by forming an alliance with him. In 1809, Charles Metcalfe led a mission to Lahore, resulting in a friendship treaty. Ranjit Singh, acknowledging British military prowess, upheld the Treaty of Amritsar throughout his life. His realistic and politically astute nature guided him, as he understood both his strengths and weaknesses.

In his autobiography, Colonel Alexander Gardner recounts an incident during Metcalfe's mission that left a lasting impact on Ranjit Singh's perception of discipline. This event, which occurred in 1809, involved the Akalis, a fervent Sikh group renowned for their valour and often pivotal in battles. Witnessing the religious practices of Metcalfe's Hindustani sepoys, the Akalis, led by Akali Phula Singh, impulsively launched an overwhelming attack on the British mission's camp. With only two companies of native infantry to defend, the escort, though initially surprised, swiftly regrouped and repelled the assault. Ranjit Singh, displeased not only by the Akalis' defeat but also by the inconvenience caused, became even more resolute in his determination to model his army on European discipline.

Building a strong army 

Ranjit Singh appointed numerous foreign soldiers as generals in his durbar. Many of them had proven themselves in battles, while others were elevated to this rank. Despite this, Ranjit Singh was preoccupied with determining his future commanders. He leaned towards choosing military leaders from among his sardars, whether they were Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu, along with their sons.

Baron Hugel commented on General Ram Singh, noting that despite being only fourteen years old, his talents, vivacity, and thirst for knowledge showed promise for great achievements. However, Hugel also observed a general trend, stating that after the construction of an army, the Maharaja did not prioritize its preservation, allowing inexperienced individuals to assume command.

Contrastingly, the traveler McNaughton reported that General Officers were often selected from the sons of sardars, who had been meticulously trained in the European system of military tactics. These young leaders, usually around seventeen years old, displayed a remarkable military spirit according to McNaughton's observations.

Ranjit Singh had a keen eye for selecting leaders, be they in civil or military roles. It's hard to believe he'd pick anything but competent commanders for his regular army, given his track record of success.

Instances of ill health 

In 1836, when Ranjit Singh experienced a stroke, he entrusted General Ventura with the role of 'Chief General.' The exact nature of Ventura's duties remains unclear, but it seems akin to a modern chief of staff or deputy in today's armies. Given Singh's partial incapacitation and health worries following the stroke, he likely made this appointment to ensure preparedness in case of an unexpected battle during his indisposition.

Captain Osborne noted that the Lahore Army had a significant advantage over the British forces—their remarkable mobility. Unlike the British, the Sikh Army did not rely on wheel carriages during marches. Instead, their own bazaars transported all the necessities. Captain Osborne emphasized that moving 30,000 Sikh troops was not only more convenient but also less costly and time-consuming compared to relocating three regiments of the British East India Company on the Sutlej's opposite side.

In discussing Ranjit Singh's military leadership, the author sheds light on his character. The author observes that despite receiving unfavourable reports from Peshawar about the Sikh Army's struggles against Dost Mohammed Khan and his Afghans, Ranjit Singh appears surprisingly jovial. His favourite general suffered defeat, with over 500 soldiers killed or captured. Remarkably, the Maharaja reacts with composure, stating that occasional setbacks are beneficial as they instil caution in both soldiers and officers.

The magnificence of Ranjit Singh’s court 

In the seventh century, Punjab had gained international recognition under Harshvardhana of Thanesar, owing to the visit of the renowned Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang. Twelve centuries later, Ranjit Singh brought Punjab back into the spotlight, with the Sikh Army gaining global acclaim for its strength.

In 1832, Mohanlal Kashmiri, a 20-year-old traveller, attended a royal durbar in Mashad, Iran. Prince Abbas Mirza, the presiding dignitary, questioned Mohanlal about the magnificence of Ranjit Singh’s court compared to the Iranian spectacle. Mohanlal modestly asserted that Ranjit Singh's durbar surpassed in opulence, with tents made of Kashmir shawls, and the Sikh Army, led by Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa, could compel retreat across the Indus.

Ranjit Singh, utilizing this formidable army, established his kingdom, ensuring peace, order, and defense against foreign invasions. Despite its strength, the Sikh Army never assumed a position superior to civil authority, refraining from interference in administration or political maneuvers. It remained loyal to Ranjit Singh, upholding his authority without tyrannizing the people.

With strategic foresight, intelligence, and a blend of cunning, treachery, diplomacy, and military might, Ranjit Singh carved out Punjab from a hostile environment beyond the Sutlej River. His legacy endures, as he ruled a vast kingdom for 42 years, leaving an indelible mark on history.


*Based on an article by Amarinder Singh, published in The Tribune on 7th April 2010 


Dr. Amardeep Singh

Dr. Amardeep Singh

Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University

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