The History of Punjab: the Mughals and the Dawn of Sikhism

punjabA painting attributed to Bichitr depicting Emperor Aurangzeb seated on a golden throne in his durbar, circa 1660. Credits: OPEN Magazine

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. 

From ancient times, Punjab has always been the first and the foremost region to receive foreign influences. The State has been a natural linking bridge between the grounds of Central Asia and fertile lands of the Gangetic plains. It was considered an easy getaway for foreign invasions being the only geographical barrier that came prior to the vast lands of North, Central, and South India. Like the earlier multiple foreign empires that passed through the lands of Punjab such as the Aryans, the Scythians, the Greeks, the Mongols, and the Turks, in the mid 16th century the great Mughals first moved to Punjab and eventually expanded to the rest of India. 

The onset of the Mughal empire in Punjab

Zahīr ud-Dīn Muhammad Babur
Credits: Wikipedia

In 1526 CE, Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, a Timurid descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan from the Fergana Valley (modern-day Uzbekistan) was overthrown from his ancestral domain in Central Asia. Babur turned to India and crossed the Khyber Pass. From his base in Afghanistan, he was able to secure control of the great State of Punjab.

The actual onset of the Mughal empire in India began after the invading army of Babur defeated the Lodi dynasty, the last dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate in 1526 CE. This battle was the First Battle of Panipat, which was fought on the grounds of the city of Panipat, Punjab (present-day Haryana). This battle has been one of the most crucial battles fought on the lands of Punjab as it marked the beginning of the great Mughal empire which went on to rule over India for almost 300 years.

The battle of Panipat

At Babur’s death in 1530 the Mughal Empire encompassed almost all of Northern India, after having defeated the Rajput confederacy and the remnants of the Delhi Sultanate. Babur was succeeded by Humayun followed by Akhbar, Jahangir, Shah-Jahan, Aurangzeb, and so on. 

The conflict of the Sikhs and the Mughals

Coincidentally, the Sikh religion began around the same time as the conquest of the Northern Indian Subcontinent by Babur. Guru Nanak Dev founded the Sikh religion in the 15th century.

19th-century mural painting from Gurdwara Baba Atal depicting Guru Nanak.
Credits: Wikipedia

The Sikh religion, rising in Punjab and the rest of North India was harmonious with the establishment of Mughal Rule in North India. However, this was just till Akhbar’s reign. The Mughal emperor Akhbar fully supported religious freedom.  Once after having visited Langar Sewa of Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru, the emperor got a favorable impression of Sikhism. As a result of his visit, he donated quite an amount of land to the Guru for Langar. This encounter of the Akhbar and Guru Amar Das made things peaceful and hence there was no conflict between them. This peace, however, only lasted for a while. Akhbar’s successor Jahangir saw the Sikhs as a political threat. He ordered Guru Arjun Dev, who had been arrested for supporting the rebellious Khusrau Mirza, the eldest son of Jahangir to change the content about Islam in the Adi Granth, the holy Sikh book. When the Guru refused, Jahangir ordered him to be put to death by torture.

Guru Arjan Dev’s martyrdom led to the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, declaring Sikh sovereignty in the creation of the Akal Takht and the establishment of a fort to defend Amritsar. Jahangir attempted to assert authority over the Sikhs by jailing Guru Hargobind at Gwalior but released him after a number of years when he no longer felt threatened.

guru arjan dev yj
Guru Arjan Dev was tortured by Jahangir’s order for 5 days before attaining martyrdom.
Credits: Pilgrimage Sikhi

The Sikh community did not have any further issues with the Mughal empire until the death of Jahangir in 1627. The succeeding son of Jahangir, Shah Jahan, took offense at Guru Hargobind’s sovereignty and after a series of assaults on Amritsar forced the Sikhs to retreat to the Sivalik Hills from Punjab and North-Central India. The next guru, Guru Har Rai, maintained the Guruship in these hills by defeating local attempts to seize Sikh land and playing a neutral role in the power struggle between two of the sons of Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, and Dara Shikoh, for control of the Mughal Empire. The ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, moved the Sikh community to Anandpur, Punjab, and traveled extensively to visit and preach in defiance of Aurangzeb, who attempted to institute Ram Rai as a new guru. When Guru Tegh Bahadur aided Kashmiri Pandits in avoiding conversion to Islam, he was arrested by Aurangzeb. When offered a choice between conversion to Islam and death, he chose to die rather than compromise his principles and was executed. 

Guru Gobind Singh assumed the guruship in 1675 CE and to avoid battles with Sivalik Hill Rajas moved the guruship to Paonta (present-day Himachal Pradesh). He built a large fort to protect the city and garrisoned an army to protect it. The growing power of the Sikh community alarmed Sivalik Hill Rajas who attempted to attack the city but the Guru’s forces routed them at the Battle of Bhangani. The Guru moved on to Anandpur and established the Khalsa, a collective army of baptized Sikhs, on March 30, 1699 CE.

battle of chamkaur yj
The Battle of Chamkaur, a part of the Mughal-Sikh wars. Credits: Indian Defence Review.

The establishment of the Khalsa united the Sikh community against various Mughal-backed claimants to the guruship. The Battle of Chamkaur, 1704 CE witnessed the Khalsa, led by Guru Gobind Singh, against the coalition forces of the Mughals led by Wazir Khan. In 1705 CE, a combined army composed of the Sivalik Hill Rajas and the Mughal army under Wazir Khan attacked Anandpur and, following a retreat by the Khalsa, were defeated by the Khalsa at the Battle of Muktsar in Punjab. In 1707 CE, Guru Gobind Singh accepted an invitation by Bahadur Shah I, Aurangzeb’s successor, to meet in southern India.

battle of muktsar yj
The battle of Muktsar, a part of Mughal-Sikh wars. Credits: Wikipedia.

In August 1708 CE, Guru Gobind Singh visited Nanded (presently in Maharashtra). There he met a Bairagi hermit, Madho Das, who had converted to Sikhism and rechristened as Banda Singh Bahadur. A short time before his death, Guru Gobind Singh ordered Banda Bahadur to reconquer the Punjab region and gave him a letter that commanded all Sikhs to join him. After two years of gaining supporters, Banda Singh Bahadur initiated an agrarian uprising by breaking up the large estates of Zamindar families and distributing the land to the poor peasants who farmed the land.

Banda Singh Bahadur started his rebellion with the defeat of Mughal armies at Samana and Sadhaura and the rebellion culminated in the defeat of Sirhind. During the rebellion, Banda Singh Bahadur made a point of destroying the cities in which Mughals had been cruel to the supporters of Guru Gobind Singh. He ruled the territory between the Sutlej river and the Yamuna river, established a capital in the Himalayas at Lohgarh, and struck coinage in the names of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh.

In 1716, his army was defeated by the Mughals after he attempted to defend his fort at Gurdas Nangal. He was captured along with 700 of his men and sent to Delhi, where they were all tortured and executed after refusing to convert to Islam. However, Sikhism in Punjab didn’t end with Guru Gobind Singh, it went on to be spread and preached by the masses as we see it today. The Sikhs played an extremely crucial role in Punjab to unify the state later on. 

The Mughal Impact

The Mughals had an impacting reign in Punjab, not just in terms of its political and geographical expansion but also in Architecture. Art and architecture were revolutionized by the Mughals in Punjab, the influence of which we even today see. The city that saw the peak of the Mughal empire’s glory in Punjab was Lahore. Lahore touched the zenith of its glory during the Mughal rule from 1524 to 1752 CE. The Mughals, who were famous as builders, gave Lahore some of its finest architectural monuments, some of which exist to date.  

lahore fort yj
Lahore Fort, Pakistan.

Lahore’s reputation for beauty fascinated the English poet John Milton, who wrote: “Agra and Lahore, the Seat of the Great Mughal” in 1670. During this time, the massive Lahore Fort was built. A few buildings within the fort were added by the Mughal emperor Jahangir, who is also buried in the city. Jahangir’s son, Shahjahan Burki, was born in Lahore. He, like his father, extended the Lahore Fort and built many other structures in the city, including the splendid Shalimar Gardens. The last of the great Mughals, Aurangzeb, who ruled from 1658 to 1707 CE, built the city’s most famous monuments, the Badshahi Masjid and the Alamgiri Gate next to the Lahore Fort.

As the Mughal rule dwindled and the Sikhs expanded further, the state of Punjab saw many more foreign powers come in and the start of a new era in its history. 


Punjab under the Mughals by Muhammad Akhbar.

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