The History of Punjab: The Afghan Invasions, Dal Khalsa, the establishment of the Sikh Empire and its Golden Age, 1716 – 1839 CE.


The early modern period i.e. 16th-19th century has been one of the most remarkable and consequential eras in Punjab’s history. This magnificent time span witnessed the rise and establishment of Mughals in Punjab, the onset of Sikhism, and the path of 10 great Sikh Gurus, the Marathas, and the Durranis, and ultimately the unification of the Punjab state under the Sikh empire. 

The Marathas and the Durranis in Punjab

The 18th Century was a fascinating period in the history of Punjab where Sikhs, Marathas, Persians, Afghans, and the remnants of the Mughal empire clashed to rule over the State. The era of Mughals and the onset of Sikhism was a vital chapter in Punjab’s vast and glorious history. However, as the Mughal rule in Punjab waned, the state was in for a sharp new ordeal. The period from 1716-99 CE was a highly turbulent time politically and militarily in the Punjab region. The principal cause was the overall decline of the Mughal empire in Punjab, which left a power vacuum in the state.

For a short span, Punjab also went through the hands of another foreign power, the Durrani Empire. Also known as the Afghan empire, its founder Ahmad Shah Durrani invaded India eight times between 1748-67 CE. Ahamd Shah made several attempts to capture Punjab but was repelled each time. At the same time, Marathas were also present in Punjab. The latter joined forces with the Sikhs and the remaining Mughals in the state against the Durranis. 

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Ahmad Shah, the founder of the Durrani Empire. Source: Pinterest

The Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 CE, however, gave way to the Duraanis, which thus ended the Maratha foray into the Punjab heartland. Following which in all his next invasions, Ahmad Shah fought against the Sikhs on multiple occasions. Each time he was less successful and Sikhs became stronger. In the end, the Sikhs drove Ahmad Shah Durrani away from India all the way back to the Indus. By the end of 1761, the Sikhs had begun to occupy much of Punjab.

In 1762, Ahmad Shah crossed the passes from Afghanistan for the sixth time to crush the Sikhs. He assaulted the cities of  Lahore and Amritsar, massacred thousands of Sikh inhabitants, destroyed their temples, and desecrated their holy places. Soon, the Sikhs rebelled again, and Ahmad Shah launched another campaign against them in 1764 CE.  However, he soon had to depart from India and hastened westward to quell an insurrection in Afghanistan, ending his rule in Punjab. 

The Dal Khalsa, the 12 misls of Punjab

During all this time i.e. the late 18th century, the Sikhs were united under the banner of the Dal Khalsa, a rearrangement of the Khalsa inaugurated by Guru Gobind Singh. Dal Khalsa was the name of the combined forces of 12 misls, that operated in 1735-80 CE in the Punjab region. Misl referred to the sovereign states of the Sikh Confederacy that rose during the 18th century in Punjab. The 12 misls were the Phulkian, Ahluwalia, Bhangi, Kanheya, Ramgarhia, Singhpuria, Panjgarhia, Nishanvali, Sukerchakia, Dallewalia, Nakai, Shaheedan Misls

The Map of Sikh Confederacy, 1707-99. Source: Wikipedia

In this tumultuous period of the 1700s, Punjab was ruled by these 12 independent misls. They were able to rule over most of Punjab and successfully resisted the invaders and protected its people. However, once the foreign threat was removed, the Misldars fought among themselves for power. They didn’t remain united and constantly warred with each other over revenue collection, disagreements, and local priorities. Later only one Misldar was able to unite these independent clans and form a unified state. 

Towards the end of the 18th century, the five most powerful misls were those of Sukerchakia, Kanheya’s, Nakai’s, Ahluwalias, and Bhangi Sikhs. The Sukerchakia misl was founded by Charat Singh, a Jat of the Sandhawalia clan. In 1790 CE, his grandson Ranjit Singh became the misldar of Sukerchakia misl. In 1789 CE, the Kanheya misl was headed by Rani Sada Kaur, an intelligent and ambitious woman; she was also the mother-in-law of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Therefore, through marriage, Ranjit Singh had a reliable alliance with Kanheyas and also the Nakais.

The onset of the Sikh Empire

Ranjit Singh’s fame grew in 1797, at age 17, when the Afghan Muslim ruler Shah Zaman, of the Durrani Empire, attempted to annex the Punjab region into his control. The battle was fought in the territory that fell in Ranjit Singh’s controlled misl, whose regional knowledge and warrior expertise helped resist the invading army. This victory gained him recognition. In 1798 CE, the Afghan ruler sent in another army, which Ranjit Singh did not resist. He let them enter Lahore, then encircled them with his army, blocked off all food and supplies, burnt all crops and food sources that could have supported the Afghan army. Much of the Afghan army retreated back to Afghanistan.

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Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire. Source: Wikipedia

In 1799 CE, Ranjit Singh’s army of 25,000 Khalsa, supported by another 25,000 Khalsa led by his mother-in-law Rani Sada Kaur of Kanheya Misl, in a joint operation attacked the region controlled by Bhangi Sikhs centered around Lahore. The rulers escaped, marking Lahore as the first major conquest of Ranjit Singh. The Sufi Muslim and Hindu population of Lahore welcomed the rule of Ranjit Singh. Also, the ruler of the Jammu region ceded control of his region to Ranjit Singh.

In the following year 1801 CE, Ranjit Singh proclaimed himself as the Maharaja of Punjab, marking the formal start of the Sikh empire, with the unification of Misls creating a unified political state. Ranjit Singh called his rule Sarkar Khalsa,  and his court Darbar Khalsa. Therefore, in 1801 CE began the glorious age of the mighty Sikh empire under the rule of one of the greatest leaders, not just India but the world ever witnessed, the ‘Sher-e-Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh.’ 

In his second year of reign, he took over Amritsar from the Bhangi Sikh misl and announced to restore the Harmindar Sahib, left plundered by the Durranis. In January 1806 CE, Ranjit Singh signed a treaty with the British officials of the East India Company, in which he agreed that his Sikh forces would not attempt to expand south of the Sutlej river, and the Company agreed that it would not attempt to militarily cross the Sutlej river into the Sikh territory.

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The court of Ranjit Singh at the Fort of Lahore. Gouache highlighted with gold, by Bishan Singh, Circa 1860. Credits: Toor Collection

The Sikh empire prospered under the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh for almost 39 years. This splendid era in Punjab and the Sikh Empire’s history was known as the Golden Age. The empire saw stability, economic prosperity, and great expansions in its reign.  The government was run by an elite corps drawn from many communities, giving the empire the character of a secular system of government, even when built on theocratic foundations. With his military expertise, Ranjit Singh was able to bring the provinces of Kashmir, Multan, Peshawar within his empire. In all its vastness, the main geographical footprint of the empire existed from the Punjab region to Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north, Sindh in the south, and Tibet in the east.

Art and Architecture during the Sikh Empire

This period in Punjab’s history also saw art and architecture at its zenith. Artists from hills settled in Punjab plains and produced some of the most unique artworks. As a result,  miniature art was prevalent and highly popularised in Punjab, under the influence of Pahadi artists. He encouraged the artists to draw and paint dignitaries and guests. The famous Pahari painter Nain Sukh was closely associated with the Lahore Court. Years later, the descendants of Nain Sukh created several magnificent paintings for the Patiala rulers. The records at the Sikh Court of Lahore include lists of several Pahari painters working there. European influence had also started to take root in the aesthetic consciousness in Punjab, this was best exemplified in a portrait of Sher Singh, one of the many sons of the Maharaja by Emily Eden, an English poet, and artist. 

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A distinct style of architecture was born under the tutelage of the Sikh rulers, namely the Sikh Architecture. The style was heavily influenced by Mughal and Islamic styles. The onion dome, frescoes, in-lay work, and multi-foil arches, were Mughal influences, more especially from Shah Jahan’s period, whereas chattris, oriel windows, bracket supported eaves at the string-course, and ornamented friezes were derived from elements of Rajput architecture. Some prominent examples include the Ram Bagh Palace, Amritsar, Hazuri Bagh Baradari, Lahore which is a baradari of white marble built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to celebrate his capture of the Koh-i-Noor diamond from Shuja Shah Durrani in 1813. The maharaja was also well known for rebuilding the holy Sikh place, Harmandir Sahib in marble and copper in 1809, and overlaid the sanctum with Gold foil in 1830, which led to the name the Golden Temple.

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The baradari is in the center of the Hazuri Bagh quadrangle and is directly west of the Lahore Fort’s Alamgiri Gate. Source: Wikipedia

End of the Golden Age in Punjab

A French traveler compared Ranjit Singh to Napoleon in miniature, while other observers praised him as a military genius and his empire as “the most wonderful object in the whole world.” The British agreed, marveling at the Sikh empire, the “Napoleonic suddenness of its rise” and “the brilliancy of its success”.However, this golden age in Punjab didn’t last forever, in the year 1838, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was taken ill and later died in Lahore in June 1839, almost exactly 40 years after he had entered the city of Lahore as a conqueror. 

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