The King of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was named Greatest World Leader in BBC World Histories Magazine. I remember hearing of him through stories told by my grandparents as a little girl. I remember hearing of his infamous battles and outstanding courage. To many, he wasn’t just a ruler. He was an advocate of tolerance, freedom, and cooperation. Referred to as the Lion of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was an exemplary leader.
Ranjit Singh was born in Lahore, in modern-day Pakistan. He was born in November of 1780 to parents Maha Singh and Raj Kaur. During his early years, the once-powerful Mughal Empire was on a steady decline on the Indian subcontinent. The British East India Company was trying to expand its resources and capabilities as the Mughal Empire retreated. Maha Singh, his father, was a ruler in a kingdom (Misls) set in modern Punjab (East Pakistan and Northwest India). The Misl was an example of the Mughal collapse and new emerging powers in the region.
When he succeeded his father at the mere age of twelve: he seemed like an unlikely candidate because smallpox had scarred his face, and he was blind in his left eye. Later on, Lord Auckland, Governor-General of British India referred to the Maharaja as a sun, stating, “the splendor and luminosity of his single eye are so great that I have never dared to look at his other eye.”
Ranjit Singh was born to be a courageous soldier on the battlefield, signified in his name, translated “Victor in Battle” in Punjabi. His first major conquest was of the city of Lahore in 1779, growing his image as a powerful military commander. Almost three decades later in 1801, the Sikh Empire was born after he proclaimed himself Maharaja of Punjab. In the years to follow, he began to expand and strengthen the empire. This was achieved by taking back Amritsar (the holy city), Srinagar, Peshawar, and Kashmir. Punjab was at its glory, stretching across the Indian subcontinent.
Military expansion in the ethnically diverse region of the empire wouldn’t guarantee stability. Thus, Singh balanced being a Sikh Ruler while protecting other religions in his empires such as Hinduism and Islam through rebuilding temples and allowing everyone to be free to practice their religion. Throughout his empire, forced conversions did not exist. In this modern world full of racial injustice and inequity, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s leadership showcases that despite our ethnicities and religions, we can all live peacefully as one.
One of his public campaigns was to restore Sikh temples: he was most known for restoring the Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple.
Like any empire, his empire did have many faulty corners. This malfunctioning leads to the empire’s collapse shortly after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death. One of these faulty corners was a harsh taxing system known as the Jagir system, causing a lengthening divide between the rich and the poor. His biggest failure was creating a system of government that couldn’t function without him, a system that wouldn’t outlive him. Thus, when he passed away due to medical conditions, the empire quickly dissolved through coups, assassinations, and intervention from the British East India Company. By 1849, his empire was a part of the British Empire. The King of Punjab, the last owner of the Kohinoor Diamond before the British.
Over a hundred years after his reign, the Golden Era of Punjab, Punjab now lies as a state split between Pakistan and India. An empire of tolerance is now divided with political and religious tensions.
“Who Was Maharaja Ranjit Singh?” HistoryExtra, 26 Nov. 2020, www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/maharaja-ranjit-singh-who-bio-profile-born-died-life-sikh-empire/.
India, Press Trust of. “Maharaja Ranjit Singh Named Greatest World Leader In BBC Poll.” NDTV.com, NDTV, 5 Mar. 2020, www.ndtv.com/india-news/maharaja-ranjit-singh-named-greatest-world-leader-in-bbc-poll-2190676.