The History of Punjab: The Decline of Sikh Empire and the British Annexation, 1839-49 CE.

punjabTwo Sikh cavalry soldiers, ca. 1830. Credits: Sikh Museum

The glorious Sikh Empire was established in 1801 CE under the leadership of one of the world’s greatest rulers Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The empire took Punjab on its zenith, for almost 40 years under Ranjit Singh’s reign. However, the stability, glory, and vastness the state was known for didn’t prevail much longer after the death of its founder. After Ranjit Singh’s death, the empire failed to establish a lasting structure for the Sikh government or stable succession, and then the once glorious and vast Sikh Empire began to decline.

The Golden Age of Punjab under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Source: Wikipedia

Maharaja Kharak Singh

Punjab went next into the hands of Maharaja Kharak Singh, Ranjit Singh’s first legitimate son. He took over the throne in June 1839, however, his coronation was described as a dark day for Punjab, by an Austrian Physician Johann Martin, present than in his court. Though courageous and good in battle, Kharak was regarded as simple-minded. It was believed he lacked his father’s diplomatic skills and wasted himself by consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and opium. The Maharaja was poisoned in the same year itself and a few months later he died, making his reign last just for a mere 103 days.

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Maharaja Kharak Singh. Source: Wikipedia

Maharaja Nau Nihal Singh

Born in 1820, Nau Nihal Singh was the third Maharaja of the Sikh empire. The third Maharaja was Nau Nihal Singh, the son of Maharaja Kharak Singh and Maharani Chand Kaur. He was raised outside the court politics at Lahore however at the age of eighteen and forced by his father’s incapacity to rule, he returned to Lahore. He was instructed to govern in the name of his father under the direction of the vizier, Dhian Singh. Nau Nihal was popular with the royal courtiers as well as the general public and was seen as a worthy successor to his father during the latter’s sickness.

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Maharaja Nau Nihal Singh. Credits: Sunday Guardian Live

However, Nau Nihal Singh’s reign too lasted for a very brief time of 1 year 29 days as the Maharaja was assassinated at the age of 20 years. His death was even more tragic because it was on the same day when he was returning from performing his father’s last rites. The Haveli of Nau Nihal Singh still stands tall in Lahore, Pakistan. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of Sikh architecture and is the only Sikh-era haveli that preserves its original ornamentation and architecture.

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The exteriors of Haveli of Nau Nihal Singh, Lahore. Credits: Youlin Magazine

Maharani Chand Kaur

Following the deaths of two consecutive Maharajas, Punjab was again in a power vacuum. After Nau Nihal’s death, a court faction proclaimed his uncle Sher Singh as the rightful heir, while another declared his mother Chand Kaur as the ruler. The latter claimed her right and so Punjab got its first Maharani on the throne of the Sikh empire. Chand Kaur was proclaimed the Maharani of Punjab on December 2, 1840, with the title “Malika Muqaddasa”, the Empress Immaculate. Chand Kaur’s ambition was matched by her courageous spirit.

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Maharani Chand Kaur. Credits: National Army Museum

She would cast aside her veil, don a turban-like a Sardar, and inspect the parades of the Khalsa troops as their monarch. She once remarked, “Why should I not do as Queen Victoria does in England?” But, her reign didn’t last long either. Soon after her coronation, on 13 January, Sher Singh arrived in Lahore. Most of the empire’s regiments went over to him, leaving the Maharani’s army greatly outnumbered. Chand Kaur’s troops fought for two days, but on 17 January, a ceasefire was arranged. Chand Kaur was persuaded to accept a pension and give up her claim to the throne. The empire went over to Sher Singh. Chand Kaur retired to her late son’s palace in Lahore and lived on a pension, but was still seen as a threat, hence was murdered by her servants in 1842. Even though Chand Kaur’s reign lasted a mere 73 days, she was the first female ruler of Punjab and fought bravely against her enemies. 

Maharaja Sher Singh

Sher Singh the fifth ruler of the mighty Sikh empire was the son of the empire’s founder Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Maharani Mehtab Kaur. From early on in his life, Sher Singh was operational in the expansion of the Sikh Empire under his father Ranjit Singh’s rule. After overthrowing the brief rule of Maharani Chand Kaur, he claimed the throne in January 1841. During his reign of 2 years and 240 days, Sher Singh was seen as a great diplomatic Maharaja. The maharaja assured the people of Lahore peace and security. Nevertheless, the stability and peace in the empire didn’t last long under him. Similar to his predecessors, Sher Singh was assassinated by Ajit Singh of the Sandhavalias clan in lieu of politics and power in the year 1843. 

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A painting made in Vienna, from a preliminary study made in Lahore in 1841. Source: Wikipedia

Maharaja Duleep Singh

After Sher Singh, Punjab had its sixth and last Maharaja, Duleep Singh. the son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Maharani Jind Kaur was the last Maharaja of the mighty Sikh Empire. After the death of Sher Singh and his minister Dhian Singh, at the mere age of 5, Duleep Singh was proclaimed Maharaja of the Sikh Empire in 1843, with his mother Maharani Jind Kaur as Regent.

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Maharaja Duleep Singh. Source: Wikipedia

The Anglo-Sikh Wars, 1846-48

After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, the Sikh Empire was severely weakened by instability, internal divisions, political mismanagement, and no long-lasting successor. This opportunity was used by the British East India Company to launch the Anglo-Sikh Wars. The First Anglo-Sikh War was fought between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company in 1845 and 1846 in and around the Ferozepur district of Punjab. It resulted in defeat and partial subjugation of the Sikh kingdom and cession of Jammu and Kashmir as a separate princely state under British suzerainty. Punjab witnessed several impacting wars under this first Anglo-Sikh war such as the Battles of Mudki, Ferozeshah, Badowal, Aliwal, Sobraon among others. The result was The Treaty of Lahore, the Sikhs were made to surrender the valuable region of the Jullundur Doab between the Beas River and Sutlej River. The Lahore Durbar was also required to pay an indemnity of 15 million rupees. Because it could not readily raise this sum, it ceded Kashmir, Hazarah, and all the forts, territories, rights, and interests in the hill countries situated between the Rivers Beas and Indus that came under the empire to the East India Company, as equivalent to ten million of rupees.

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The First Anglo Sikh War, Art by H Martens / Wikimedia Commons

After the 3-month long first Anglo-Sikh war in 1846, the Punjab region was greatly fragmented and weak in the war’s aftermath. In 1848, another military conflict arose between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company, lasting almost a year, and came to be known as the Second Anglo-Sikh War.  A rebellion arose shortly after Lord Hardinge handed the reins of his office to Lord Dalhousie. After Dewan Mulraj, a Hindu viceroy who governed the city of Multan was unable to pay the 20 lac rupees asked by the British resident, he was accused of rebellion. He resigned and a large number of Sikh soldiers deserted the Durbar regiments and prepared to rebel. This rebellion soon led to a full-scale war. Several wars of varying scales were fought such as The Battles of Kinyari, Sudussain, Ramnagar, Sadulpur among others. 

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The Battle of Chillianwallah, 13th January 1849 during the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Source: British Battles.

The Battle of Chillianwala marked the worst defeat of the British since their occupation in India. Nevertheless, the Sikhs ultimately lost with the Battle of Gujarat, permanently ending their resistance to the British. Ultimately, it was the Second Anglo-Sikh War that eventually gave away the great State of Punjab to the British.

The British Annexation of Punjab, 1849

As a result, Lord Dalhousie proclaimed the annexation of Punjab on 29 March 1849 with young Prince Dalip Singh stepping down from the Sikh empire’s throne at last. Punjab’s Sikh Empire’s tale starts off as glorious but in the end, seems unfortunate to see such a vast empire fragmented and ultimately handed over to the British. The direct Sikh royal line also ended shortly, with Duleep Singh in exile in Britain, he had eight children, but all of them died without any legitimate issue. 

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The geographical extent of the Sikh Empire at its zenith. Source: Bahadur Supply Co.

Hence, in 1849, an illustrious era came to an end. In a little more than six years after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death, the Sikh state had collapsed because of the internal strife prodded by the British. Clive Dewey, a noted historian has argued that the decline of the empire after Ranjit Singh’s death owes much to the jagir-based economic and taxation system which he inherited from the Mughals and retained. After his death, a fight to control the tax spoils emerged, leading to a power struggle among the nobles and his family from different wives. This struggle ended with a rapid series of palace coups and assassinations of his descendants, and eventually the annexation of the Sikh Empire by the British.

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