In this episode of the BBC RADIO 4 podcast, Melvin Bragg and his guests discuss Sikhism and the Sikh Empire, its rise after the fall of the Mughal Empire, traditions, and the empire under Ranjit Singh. They trace the origins of Sikhism to 1469 CE with the birth of Guru Nanak, the first Guru (Tillotson, 2016). Nanak was religiously significant in India and had a massive following in his lifetime, especially from the Punjab region. His message of equality among Sikhs, or followers, appealed to many people. After Nanak’s death, nine Gurus followed and developed Sikhism over the next decades. They established places of worship, and the holy book, and observed pilgrimages (Tillotson, 2016). The Sikhs fought against oppression despite being a minority, especially in the hands of the Muslims and Hindus. With time, the Sikhs thrived in the political sphere as they were appointed to the military (Khalsa) and civil administration.
The Mughals, invaders from Central Asia, had a profound influence that extended into the Sikh period and Ranjit Singh’s reign. They had brought with them the Persian language and architecture as well as Iranian culture. The Mughal Empire declined in the 18th century as it was attacked and destroyed by the Afghans. The different factions in the empire at the time were unable to unite to fight off the Afghans until Ranjit Singh became the Maharaja at the age of 20 (Tillotson, 2016). He united the Sikhs and the other factions through a combination of strength of personality and policy, thereby pushing back the Afghans. He had been groomed into this role, having experienced warfare at a young age. He demonstrated humility as Maharaja, and this made him popular among the people. He often dressed modestly in his court, but he wore expensive clothes and jewelry when the occasion warranted. There was also a sense of magnificence in the court, which had a golden throne.
Singh’s empire had a strong army that grew out of the Sikh fighting forces in the 18th century. He incorporated modern war tactics in terms of artillery, cavalry, and infantry. The army was mainly comprised of Sikhs but also included Gurkhas, deserters from the East India Company, and European officers who trained his army in modern warfare (Tillotson, 2016). As a devout Sikh, Ranjit Singh rebuilt the Amritsar, which the Afghans had destroyed, and often visited it for worship. The Amritsar was built in Mughal architecture and was the spiritual heart of Sikhism. Singh acknowledged other faiths in his empire and was regarded as equally generous across all the religious communities. He, as a result, earned the people’s loyalty both in the army and civil service.
Sikhism and the Sikh Empire were significantly impacted by the death of Singh. With Singh dead, the British waged bloody wars against the Sikhs and defeated them by 1849 (Tillotson, 2016). The British annexed the Punjabi, possessed the spoils, and put Dr. John Logan in charge of the treasury and Duleep Singh, Ranjit’s son, who had been separated from his mother. The British took the treasure back to England, gave some to Duleep, and auctioned the rest in Lahore.
The Sikhs were disillusioned after having lost their empire. Their fortunes only changed during the Indian war of independence as they were recruited in large numbers by the East India Company to provide support. Ranjit Singh left a legacy of equality and unity among the Punjabi people and the idea of creating a state around a military meritocracy that even the current Indian and Pakistani military epitomizes (Tillotson, 2016). He is considered a significant figure in world history. By summarizing this podcast episode, I now appreciate the role of religion in successful governance and the importance of personal traits in leadership. Also, I now have a better understanding of colonialism and how it affected various nations and empires.
Tillotson, S. (Executive Producer). (2016). The Sikh Empire. [Audio podcast episode]. In In ou Time: Religion. BBC RADIO 4.