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Who was Maharaja Ranjit Singh?

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839), founder of the Sikh empire who forged a modern empire of toleration and who famously ...

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839), founder of the Sikh empire who forged a modern empire of toleration and who famously owned the Koh-i-Noor diamond, has been voted the greatest leader in world history in a poll by BBC World Histories Magazine

Ranjit Singh was one of 20 leaders nominated by expert historians in BBC World Histories Magazine. Other contenders included Winston Churchill, Elizabeth I, Boudica, Abraham Lincoln and Oliver Cromwell. Read the full results of the poll here.

Here, Matthew Lockwood, assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama, explores the life and achievements of Ranjit Singh…

On 27 June 2019, a statue was unveiled in Lahore Fort in Pakistan. The equestrian sculpture had been commissioned to mark the 180th anniversary of the death of one of Lahore’s most famous and significant historical figures. But even more than that, in a region riven by ethnic and religious strife, in an era scarred by rising religious fundamentalism and growing tension between India and Pakistan, the statue was intended to be a symbol of a previous age of toleration and stability, and the near-mythical ruler who presided over it: Maharaja Ranjit Singh...


Ranjit Singh: a biography

Born: 13 November 1780 in Gujranwala (in modern Pakistan)

Died: 27 June 1839 in Lahore (modern Pakistan)

Reigned: Misalder (chief) of Sukerchakia Misl from 1792 to 1801, and as first and founding Maharaja of the Sikh empire for 38 years from 1801 to his death in 1839

Coronation: Proclaimed himself Maharaja of the Sikh empire on 12 April 1801 after his conquest of Lahore

Parents: Maha Singh (Misalder of Suckerchakia Misl) and Raj Kaur (known affectionately as Mai Malwain after marriage)

Spouse(s): At least 18 wives and as many as 46 (according to an interview given by his son Duleep Singh in 1889), including: Mehtab Kaur, daughter of the ruler of Kanhaiya Misl, and Datar Kaur, daughter of the ruler of Nakai Misl

Children: Eight sons, though he only acknowledged his eldest, Kharak Singh, and youngest, Duleep Singh (the so-called ‘Black Prince of Perthshire’) as his biological children

Religion: Sikh

Cause of death: There is much speculation, but likely the result of complications from a stroke and possibly liver failure. Long use of alcohol is often cited as a contributing factor to his death

Succeeded by: Kharak Singh

Famous for: Building the Sikh empire; reconstructing the Golden Temple at Amritsar; owning the Koh-i-Noor diamond; religious toleration...

...Warfare was central to Ranjit Singh’s upbringing – the name Ranjit, meaning “victor in battle”, was given to him as a child to commemorate his father’s victory over a regional rival. But when his father died in 1792, the 12-year-old heir to Sukerchakia Misl – small in stature, his left eye blinded and his face scarred by smallpox – was an unlikely candidate for the founder of an empire. He might well have foundered after his father’s death if not for the support of a succession of formidable female relations. At first, his mother, Raj Kaur, acted as regent and advisor, a role she continued to occupy after his marriage to Mehtab Kaur, daughter of the ruler of Kanhaiya Misl, in 1796. When his mother died sometime around 1798, he turned to his mother-in-law, Rani Sadar Kaur, now ruler of Kanhaiya Misl in her own right and every inch the Sikh warrior-chief. Her council came at a critical juncture...

...Even his physical impairments were transformed into strengths. When a curious Lord Auckland, Governor-General of British India, enquired about Ranjit’s blind eye – his left eye was blinded and his face scarred by smallpox – his foreign minister countered that the Maharaja was like the sun, which also only had one eye, continuing that “the splendour and luminosity of his single eye is so great that I have never dared to look at his other eye”. Ranjit Singh had become a Sikh Napoleon, a Punjabi sun king. Sikhs, however, did not have to reach to European history to find comparisons; Ranjit Singh was simply the most dazzling in a long line of Sikh warrior-chiefs and soldier-saints stretching back to the 17th century...

...What did Ranjit Singh do for Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus?

In a religiously diverse region, however, military might alone could not ensure stability. Ranjit Singh thus struck a careful balance between his role as a faithful Sikh ruler and his desire to act as friend and protector of his empire’s Muslim and Hindu peoples. He thus embarked on a public campaign to restore Sikh temples – most notably rebuilding the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, at Amritsar in marble (1809) and gold (1830) – while also donating a tonne of gold to plate the Hindu Kashi Vishwanath temple to Lord Shiva in Varanasi. He patronised Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Sufi shrines, and in a nod to Hindu sensibilities banned the slaughter of cows. In his lands, forced conversions were largely unheard of, and even his Muslim and Hindu wives were freely allowed to practice their faiths. On a few occasions he did convert mosques to other uses – Lahore’s Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) became Moti Mandir (Pearl Temple) – but he tried, with some success, to limit the destruction of conquered religious sites. He was a conqueror, even a unifier, not a crusader.

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