Ranjit Singh: Sikh, Warrior, King


A new exhibition in London explores the life and legacy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), the founder of the Sikh Empire (1799-1849), and the Lion of Punjab, Sher-e-Punjab. In a period ridden with anarchy following decades of Afghan invasions, Ranjit Singh emerged as the Punjab region’s undisputed maharaja by the turn of the 19th century. Possessed with an indomitable sense of destiny, his meteoric rise to power brought about the hugely influential Sikh Empire – a kingdom that created seismic change in the region, impacting the fortunes of the Mughal and British Empires and shaping the future of the Indian subcontinent.

Objects on View from Ranjit Singh’s Court

Co-curated by Wallace Collection Director, Dr Xavier Bray, and guest curator and scholar of Sikh art, Davinder Toor, the exhibition features weaponry, miniature paintings, and jewellery from the Sikh Empire, drawn from major public and private collections. Featuring historic objects from Ranjit Singh’s court, courtiers, and family members, including those personally owned by the maharaja and the most famous of his wives, Maharani Jind Kaur, the exhibition also displays objects intimately connected with their son, Maharaja Duleep Singh – the deposed boy-king, who was a favourite of Queen Victoria and the father of the prominent suffragette, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

Davinder Toor holds one of the most significant collections of Sikh art existing today, and is a passionate collector. In an interview with Asian Art Newspaper from June 2019, Toor stated: ‘Sikh art is scarce, as it was produced over a period of only about 50 years – that is why you cannot find much of it about. The patrons, who commissioned the art, could only do so when they were a sovereign state, when they were free, and when they had money to spend freely – this period only existed from about 1790 to 1840’.

The Sikh Religion

The Sikh religion is one of the youngest world religions and was founded more than 500 years ago (1469) in Punjab, North India, by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, in response to a spiritual revelation. The Sikhs were first roused to militancy by their oppression by the Mughal empire from the 17th century onwards. It was the 10th and last guru of the religion, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), who encoded the development of the Sikh’s martial ethos when he formed the Khalsa, the community of Sikh warriors or brotherhood on 30 March 1699 by conducting the initiatory rites, khande di pahul (rites by khanda or double-edged sword).

The formation of the Khalsa helped create a cohesive identity and was when all male Sikhs began to adopt the name ‘Singh’, meaning lion and all female Sikhs adopted the name ‘Kaur’ meaning princess. Sikhs, to demonstrate their faith, carried the five outward emblems or ‘five K’s’ that Guru Gobind Singh had prescribed to be worn: the steel sword (kirpan); uncut, long hair (kes); cotton underwear (kaccha); comb (kanga); and the steel bangle (kara). The collections of his writings were also collated by Bhai Mani Singh in 1730 to form the scripture, the Dasam Granth or Dasven Padshah ka Granth, ‘Book of the Tenth King’, which also includes a catalogue of weapons, as well as devotional works and the Guru’s autobiography, in Braj Hindi, Persian, and Punjabi.

Sikh Identity

The strength of the Sikh identity was critical at the turbulent time when Ranjit Singh rose to power in the ancient region of Punjab, an area that today spans Pakistan and India. Overcoming smallpox and loss of sight in one eye, he was just 17 years old when he successfully led Sikh troops into battle. Although he was driven in his youth by an insatiable ambition for conquest, Ranjit Singh was a savvy ruler, who formed beneficial political alliances. He also became a patron of the arts. Under his rule, he brought about an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity to the region, noted for its religious tolerance and diverse, multicultural make-up.

A considered and strategic rule over the region allowed Ranjit Singh to establish an extravagant durbar, or royal court, in the imperial walled city of Lahore. Sumptuous objects were produced to reflect the vibrant and potent power of his empire, objects from this period can be found in the exhibition demonstrating the sheer variety of cultural and artistic influences of the kingdom. Under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the court of Lahore became not only the most magnificent in India, but almost certainly the most cosmopolitan in the world at that time.

Ranjit Singh and the East India Company

Despite increasing tensions on the Sikh monarch’s southern border with the British East India Company (EIC), Ranjit Singh maintained cordial relations with his foreign neighbours, but alert to their territorial ambitions, and began to modernise his army. Part of this process involved the recruitment of Europeans – collectively known as Firangis (‘Franks’, or foreigners) that included EIC deserters, mercenaries, and surgeons from Europe. The far-sighted maharaja created a state that employed these talented individuals in preparation for the inevitable clash with the EIC, and utilised these firangis to develop a powerful army modernised along Western lines.

The recruits ranged from seasoned ex-Napoleonic officers in search of gainful employment to wily adventurers, such as Alexander Gardner and Josiah Harlan – two Americans whose exploits later became the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s novel The Man Who Would Be King (1888). Foremost amongst these firangis were four ex-Napoleonic officers, who were instrumental in developing Franco-Sikh relations. Acknowledging Ranjit Singh’s remarkable feat of holding back the threat of a British invasion for four decades, they nicknamed their Sikh sovereign ‘The Napoleon of the East’.

With his dominions centred in the plains adjacent to the Khyber Pass, Ranjit Singh was forced to quash the ambitions of the aggressive, but disunited Afghan tribes on his northwestern border, resulting in the two Anglo Sikh Wars 1845-46 and 1848-49. To seal his victories in the first war, the maharaja took the fabled and much-contested Koh-i-noor diamond from the Afghans, which had been previously looted from the famous Peacock Throne of the Mughal Empire during the invasions of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah (r 1736-1747). This fabled throne (Takht-i-tavus) was first commissioned by Shah Jahan in the 17th century and was placed in the Red Fort in Delhi.

Weakening of the Sikh Empire

The Sikh Empire was significantly weakened and was ultimately defeated after the second brutal Anglo Sikh War, which had resumed in 1848. Its fertile territories, treasury (the world’s richest at that time), and modernised military establishment were annexed to British India, ushering in a new era of the Raj under Queen Victoria and her government. When the boy-king, Maharaja Duleep Singh, was exiled to England in 1854, Queen Victoria thought him exotic and beautiful. The boy became close to the Prince of Wales and lived life as an English country squire, but later failed in his attempt to regain his lost empire and the Koh-i-noor. This infamous diamond currently remains part of the British Crown Jewels with numerous claims on its rightful ownership.

Highlights of the exhibition include a miniature painting of Ranjit Singh and his favourite, depicted in vibrant crimson, emerald and gold, on public display for the first time from the Toor Collection. There is also the spectacular throne made by Hafez Muhammad Multani for Ranjit Singh, a major loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Covered in thick beaten gold and lavishly ornamented, the golden throne epitomises the splendour of the maharaja’s court.

It is also a chance for the Wallace Collection to show their important group of Sikh arms and armour, with particular focus on a sword mounted with gold and gemstones, thought to have belonged to the maharaja himself. For the first time in the museum’s history, the exhibition places the collection’s Sikh holdings in their historic and artistic context, alongside other import Sikh works of art on loan from a private collector and other institutions.

Until 20 October, 2024, The Wallace Collection, London, wallacecollection.org