Sikh Missionary Society
Sikh Missionary Society U.K. (Regd)
10, Featherstone Road. Southall, Middx, U.K. UB2 5AA
Tel: +44 020 8574 1902
Fax: +44 020 8574 1912
Reg Charity No: 262404
The Sikhs and Their Way Of Life
The Sikhs and Their Way of Life

Sikh Missionary Society: Publications: The Sikhs and Their Way of Life:

After the Guru period

From Persecution to power (Banda Singh Bahadur)

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

The Fall of Sikh Raj (Maharaja Daleep Singh)

Sikhs During British Raj

Sikhs Since 1947 (Struggle for Panjabi Suba)

Further Struggle Ahead (Between Two Tercentenary Celebrations)

“Nanak preached the gospel of peace, but there was no peace for Sikhs in the empire of the Mughals. Just as Romans sought, by unremitting persecution, to stamp out Christianity, so the Mughal Emperors sought to stamp out the Khalsa. Like the Romans, they succeeded only in strengthening that which it was their purpose to destroy.” C.H. Payne

From Persecution to Power

Banda Singh Bahadur (1670-1716)Gurbax Singh, alias Banda Bairagi soon to be called Banda Bahadur for his bravery, arrived in Panjab with a reputation for having mystical powers. His conversion to Sikhism and his appointment as the first commander of the Khalsa Fauj (Sikh Armies) by Guru Gobind Singh himself was a great source of excitement and inspiration to the demoralised Sikh peasantry in Panjab. They flocked to him in droves and joined his army ranks. His immediate mission was to capture Sirhind, the provincial capital, whose Governor Wazir Khan had committed great offences against the Sikhs in general, and against the Guru’s family in particular.

On 24th May 1710, Banda stormed Sirhind inflicting a crushing defeat on the Armies of the Governor, who was also killed in the battle. Emboldened by this victory more troops joined under the command of Banda Singh. Further victories in other districts of Panjab enabled him to be the virtual master of a vast territory between Lahore and Panipat. However, Banda Singh Bahadur, who was previously a hermit and a mystic, had become too powerful too quickly. Although a vast area of Panjab had come under his administration he had no experience of Government. He was becoming overbearing and autocratic day by day, which was contrary to Sikh principles. This situation led to dissension and division in the Khalsa Armies. Soon they found themselves divided into two groups, one who supported Banda, and the other, which opposed his methods.

Soldiers of Banda’s army being executed in DelhiFarrukhsyar, the new Emperor of Delhi now saw his chance and exploited the division among the Sikhs. Consequently, by 1713 the Mughal Armies were able to recapture Sirhind putting Banda in retreat. In the next two years, playing cat and mouse games, Banda was eventually arrested after a long and fierce battle in the wilds of Gurdaspur district. In February 1716, he was brought to Delhi in chains along with hundreds of fellow prisoners. They were all given a choice between accepting Islam and facing death. All the 780 crusaders called ‘infidels’ by Muslims were first tortured and then executed in batches, starting on 5th March 1716 and ending in the beheading of Banda on 19th June 1716.

The next fifty years of Sikh history were a period of extreme hardship, suffering and religious persecution. At one time between 1740-50, people were offered rewards by the Governors of Lahore and Sirhind for hunting down Sikhs @ --’5 rupees for information, 10 rupees after arrest, 15 rupees for a severed head and 50 rupees for bringing a Sikh alive to the police station.’ (Foster, a contemporary Briton, in his book ‘Journey from Bengal’).

These events made the Sikhs even more daring and revengeful. All able-bodied male Sikhs joined the Khalsa armies and camped in forests of the Panjab. Soon they became masters of guerrilla warfare. The persecutions and executions of most of the Sikh women and children left behind simply increased their hatred for the Mughal Government and made them more determined to resist oppression.

According to Malcolm, another chronicle writer, “The Sikh nation, throughout their early history, has always appeared like a suppressed flame to rise into higher splendour from every attempt to crush them.” A contemporary Muslim historian during Meer Mannu’s Governorship wrote in his book ‘Ibrat Namah Alla - Ud -Din’ that the Sikhs used to sing in Panjabi:

“Mannu cuts us with a sickle, and we are his crop of ‘Soay’
The more he cuts us the more we grow, in every house or hut.”


By the year 1765, the Mughal Empire had lost much of its power and glory. The Afghans’ invasions from the northwest, the Marathas from the south and the British influence from the east, all helped to weaken the strength of the Delhi Government. This was an opportune time for the Sikhs to seize power in Panjab.

This they did before the end of 1767 when they chased away Ahmed Shah Abdali across the Indus River to Afghanistan and also killed Sarfraz khan, the Governor of Panjab. They then divided themselves into 12 Misals (confederacies) each controlled by a powerful chieftain. The system of administration and justice was then completely re-organised. Complete religious freedom was granted and capital punishment abolished. An eminent Hindu historian, Gokal Chand Narang thus writes in his book called ‘Transformation of Sikhism’:

“The nation started with a rosary and ended by snatching the sceptre from the oppressing
hand if its tyrannical masters. The political organisation of the Sikhs was now complete
and the sovereignty of the land of five waters had now permanently passed to the children
of the Khalsa to keep in custody for a great power

Maharaja Ranjit Singh


“Ranjit Singh grasped the more obvious characteristics of the impulse given by Nanak and Gobind; he dexterously turned them to the purpose of his own material ambition, and he appeared to be an absolute monarch in the midst of willing and obedient subject.”
J.D. Cunningham, ‘History of the Sikhs’ P.15

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839)

Maharaja Ranjit Singh also popularly known as the ‘Lion of Panjab’ for his extra ordinary courage, stamina and generous character. His father was a local chief who died in battle when Ranjit Singh was only 12 years old. As if a born ruler with a natural genius of command he took over the complete control of his principality by the age of 17. He quickly realised that rivalry and disputes among the Sikh chieftains, ruling different confederacies, were inevitable. Therefore, when he was barely 25, Ranjit Singh started to carry out the task of abolishing these confederacies and completed it within four years, by sitting on the throne of Lahore in 1809 and bringing most of Panjab under his rule. He achieved this miracle not only through conquest by war, but also through diplomacy and negotiations.

It soon became apparent and appropriate for the British Government of the then India to extend a hand of friendship to the all-powerful Maharaja of Lahore. As such on 25th April 1809 and under the leadership of Sir Charles Metcalfe a treaty of non-aggression was signed between the two powers (see appendix). And again, on 26th October 1831 a meeting of ‘abiding friendship’ took place at ROPAR between the Maharaja and the British Governor General, Lord William Bentick. The treaty of non-interference with the British gave Ranjit Singh an opportunity to extend and consolidate his empire towards the north and west of Panjab, annexing Kashmir and N.W. Frontier Province including the Khyber. In 1839 Ranjit Singh had a second attack of paralysis, and on June 27th the ‘Lion of Panjab’ passed away.


Victor Jacquemont (‘Letters from India’, 1834)

“The Panjab and its inhabitants please me much. Perhaps you will say that it is because I see them through a shower of gold; but the unsophisticated Sikhs of this country have a simplicity and open honesty of manner which a European relishes the more after two years’ residence or travelling in India.”

“His (Ranjit Singh’s) conversation is like a nightmare. He is almost the first inquisitive Indian I have seen .…. He asked a hundred thousand questions to me about India, the British, Europe, Bonaparte, this world in general and the next, hell, paradise, the soul, God, the devil and a myriad of others of the same kind.”

Captain W. Murray (‘History of the Panjab’, 1846)

“Ranjit Singh has been likened to Mehemet Ali and to Napoleon. Mr Jacquemont terms him “a Bonaparte in miniature.” There are some points in which he resembles both; but estimating his character with reference to his circumstances and position, he is perhaps a more remarkable man than either.”

“It is difficult to suppress admiration in contemplating the career of such a man, who, with so many disadvantages, succeeded, with so few crimes, in elevating himself from a simple Sardar to be the Sovereign of a large kingdom, including Hindus and Mohammadans, as well as Sikhs, the only state in India not substantially under British Dominion.”

Lt.-Col Steinbach (‘The Panjab’, 1846)

“The treasure (of Maharaja Ranjit Singh) may be estimated to have amounted at his decease to about eight ‘crore’ of rupees in cash, or the same number of millions of pounds sterling, with jewels, shawls, horses, elephants etc., and several million more . . . . . . It is doubtful if any Court in Europe possesses such valuable jewels as the Court of Lahore.”

Alex Gardner (‘Soldier and Traveller - Memoirs of Alex Gardner’)

“The Maharaja was indeed one of those master-minds which only require opportunity to change the face of the globe. Ranjit Singh made a great and powerful nation from the disunited confederacies of the Sikhs and would have carried his conquests to Delhi or even farther, had it not been for the simultaneous rise and consolidation of the British Empire in India.”


When Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839, the agents of the British East India Company had already started making clever plans to annex the last remaining independent territory in India. Very soon special cantonments were set up along the border with Panjab, and the seeds of dissent and dissatisfaction were sown among the contenders for the throne of Lahore as well as among ministers and generals.

Maharaja Daleep Singh and some artefacts of the Sikh KingdomBy 1843, within a period of four years almost all important male members of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s family and successors to the throne of Lahore were killed one after another, as a result of counter conspiracies affected by the two senior ministers. They were the two Dogra brothers, namely Dhian Singh and Gulab Singh* who were formerly honoured with the title of Raja Ji by the late Maharaja for their services. They had their own plans, which also suited their British friends very much. The only surviving member of the royal family was a young prince, aged six, named Daleep Singh. He was proclaimed as the Maharaja with his mother Maharani Jind Kaur acting as regent.

Apart from the throne, there was similar infighting and rivalry for the prime-minister ship and for the command of the Sikh Armies. The Sikh Generals had become too powerful in their own right. Soon the British agents were able to corrupt two of them as well, with promised rewards. They were Tej Singh and Lal Singh who later played a key role in the defeat of Sikh Armies during the Anglo-Sikh Wars between 1846-1849, the details of which, although extremely interesting, are not relevant in the present context.

Finally, on 29th March 1849 the young Maharaja Daleep Singh was removed from the throne of Lahore and his kingdom formally annexed to the British Empire. At first he was exiled from Panjab to Fatehgarh in U.P. (India) where he was converted to the Christian faith on 8th March 1853. Then he was taken to England in 1854, where he spent practically the rest of his life. In England, the young prince was, for some time, taken care of by the royal quarters under the patronage of Queen Victoria. Having grown up, he began to question the British of his rights of proper princely allowances and the restoration of his kingdom as was apparent from the treaty of Lahore in 1849. As his repeated requests were turned down, he became more desperate and erratic in his behaviour; he even tried to seek the help of the Ztar of Russia with a ‘childish’ plan to over throw the British from Panjab and eventually from India. Frustrated and disappointed he contacted some relatives in Panjab and left for India. After reaching Aden he renounced Christianity and reconverted to Sikhism. However, he was held by the British authorities and brought back. He was now totally demoralised and depressed. He had lost whatever little princely allowances he had and began to live the life of a pauper in Paris. He died of a broken heart on October 22, 1893.

*Extracts from Lord Harding’s letter to his wife Emily Harding.

10th February 1846: “I have a communication from Raja Gulab Singh which may lead to overtures for an arrangement; he is to be made a minister and says he is ready to do whatever we like to order.”

19th February 1846: “well, I have the ablest scoundrel in all Asia close to my camp - the Wazir Raja Gulab Singh - a good looking, clever-eyed man of 50 and yesterday he brought the little Maharaja to my Durbar tent to make his submission and pay tribute.”

1st March 1846: “I cannot say whether my policy in dealing with the Sikh nation will be approved or not . . .. .I have annexed a very rich district bounded by the river Beas to the Indian Empire chiefly to improve our frontiers. . . . . . I have made all the hill tribes touching our hill frontier independent of the Sikhs. . . . .. I have placed all these countries under a Rajput dynasty chief Raja Gulab Singh who is by religion a Hindu.”

The Extent of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Empire

Sikhs During British Raj

After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1838, leading to infighting and cross killings of the contenders of the throne of Lahore, the Sikhs soon found themselves leaderless, resulting in the annexation of Panjab into the British Raj in 1849. They had already shown their political immaturity by playing into the hands of two Dogra brothers who collaborated with the British during the Anglo Sikh Wars. In religious terms also, they found themselves devoid of any distinct religious personality that could guide them clear of re-asserting Brahmanism, which was creeping through the back doors of Udasis and so called Sehajdhari Sikhs who were mainly in control of the Sikh shrines. Most of these managers cum priests allowed the ‘pooja’ (worship) of Hindu idols within the Gurdwara precincts, and were hence called poojaris.

Indeed, in the second half of the 19th century Sikhs faced onslaughts from various sides: from ‘poojaris’ who were the enemies within, from Christian missionaries who had just arrived with the British Raj, from Ahmadiyas who contended that Guru Nanak was a Muslim, and from the Arya Smajis who contended that the Sikhs were a sect of Hinduism and not a separate religion. Although, initially, the Sikhs seemed to be losing their sense of identity and strength of their community, they soon woke up to challenge all such onslaughts of the anti Sikh forces. A brief chronology of some of the important events relating to the Sikhs for almost a hundred years of British Raj in the Panjab (1849-1947) is given below for reference.

Apart from the lack of solid unified leadership and political naivety the Sikhs can blame themselves for losing out a sovereign homeland for two main reasons:

a) They wasted much time and argument in a futile effort to stop the creation of Pakistan which they feared would partition Panjab through most of their holy land;
b) They placed undue trust in the verbal assurances of the Congress leaders ‘Nehru and Gandhi,’ but did not bother to have any cast iron constitutional guarantees written down in the ‘transfer of power’ agreement as hinted by the out going and sympathising British Government.

It is in this context that we would see the frustrations of the Sikhs unfolding in the form of Morchas (agitation) in their continuing struggle, first to achieve a Panjabi speaking state (Panjabi Suba), and then to redress the imbalances created by the Boundary Commission in the demarcation of the newly created Panjab State; denying its rightful capital city, Chandigarh, and other important areas including the Bhakhra Dam power project.

Sikhs since 1947 (Struggle for Punjab Suba)

Whether individually or collectively, the Sikhs are, generally, known to be, a carefree, a complacent or cavalier type of people, and as such they are often caught unaware of, and unprepared for the approaching dangers. However, the good and the great thing about them is that when they suddenly wake up in the thick of a storm or a crisis, they rise to the occasion and face the challenge head on without any fear or fudge. Often they do so at their peril, with death defying determination, and they usually find themselves fortunate in achieving their set vision of victory, though later rather than sooner. But, by then they may have suffered a lot of unnecessary and avoidable damage to their physical and social being, as well as a needless waste in time and energy due to the original complacency. The events leading to the independence of India in 1947 and the resultant repercussions affecting the Sikhs in the years ahead give a good idea about Sikhs in history. A brief chronology of some important events in Sikh history since 1947 leading to the formation of a Panjabi Suba in 1966 is given below as a short reference: -

Further Struggle Ahead

(Between Two Tercentenary Celebrations)

Guru Gobind Singh was born in December 1666, and the Sikhs were fortunate enough to celebrate the 300th year of his birth with formal recognition by the Central Indian Government of their long-standing demand for a ‘Panjabi Suba’, which would be regarded by them as their ‘homeland’. However, during the actual process of demarcation of the boundaries of the newly formed state of Panjab they felt cheated by the Governments’ appointed ‘Shah Commission’ which denied the state its Capital city and some other strategic areas, and for the re-installing of which they then committed themselves to further struggle ahead. Almost thirty-three years on, in 1999 the Sikhs were celebrating another important landmark in their history i.e. the 300th birthday (inauguration) of the Khalsa Panth. However, the period between these two tercentenary celebrations proved to be rather volatile and violent. In this period, the Sikhs in general, were seen to be experiencing the ups and downs of a political roller coaster, which shook them off their habitual complacency and gave them a rude awakening in the real world of politics and power. For reasons of brevity, only a chronological diary of some important events during this period of Sikh history is given below as a short reference -

The Operation Blue Star:

The Delhi Massacre: October 31 - November 3 1984.

Since the inception of Khalsa Panth in 1699, just over three hundred years ago, there have been many instances when Sikhs have faced a variety of onslaughts on their way of life, their identity, and indeed their very existence. But like a wild perennial which is seen to grow more luxurious after cutting, the Sikhs seem to come out better after each crisis, whether caused by forces within, or outside the Sikh community.

Of the two such major recent crises, one was the partition of Panjab in 1947, and the other was the Indian Army attack on Sri Akal Takhat (the Golden Temple complex) and about other 40 Gurdwaras in Panjab in June 1984 and a further massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and some other cities a few months later in November. The Sikhs as a community not only survived both these crises well, but they also seem to have prospered more through their spirit of adventure, resilience and faith in ‘Charhdi Kala’ (omni optimism). The signs are that with the dawn of the new Millennium, the Sikh community is becoming politically more mature, socially more spread, economically stronger and culturally richer.

Sarbat Khalsa*: A representative gathering of Sikhs from all sections of the community.

SGPC**: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (supreme Sikh Council for the management of Gurdwaras).

Previous Chapter - Chapter 3 : Guru Nanak’s Successors
Next Chapter - Chapter 5 : Some Sikh Institutions & Concepts

Return to the top of the page.

Copyright (©)2011 by Sikh Missionary Society (U.K.)
All Rights Reserved.