Sikhi and sacrifice
My favourite part of visiting new places is listening to local stories and histories. Its easy to read about different cultures online, but completely different hearing someone tell the stories about their people with passion. It also allows me to contextualise the history of my own ancestors.
Every culture is told they have they have an exceptional history and Sikhs are no different. There are many cultures, countries and religions that have extraordinary individuals and histories. Christians and Muslims were both persecuted during their formative years, Jews were persecuted for almost 2 millenia, Hindus at one point had a culture that extended from Iran all the way to Vietnam. The Inca tell the stories of Tupac Amaru, the Americans of George Washington, the French have Charlemagne and the English have Richard the Lionheart. In fact, in the presence of a few common factors, it is almost inevtiable that extraordinary individuals or events will arise.
Sikhi was borne into a situation where all three of the above factors were prevalent, however it still doesnt explain the disproportinate number of events in Sikh history nor the large number of extraordinary individuals in the Sikh nation within such a short period of time. For this there is the presence of an extra couple of elements, the first of which is Sikh philosophy.
English company men from the East India Company were astounded when watching the execution of Banda Singh Bahadur and his Sikhs in 1716 by the Mughal Empire. Not only did every Sikh refuse to save his/her life by converting to Islam, but Sikhs were actually fighting with each other to be executed first. The earliest English explorers termed Sikhi as a death cult, erroneously claiming the Sikhs worshipped death and that they would cry at the birth of a child and celebrate the death of a fellow Sikh. In fact, what the British were seeing was the concept of Chardi Kala a central part of Sikh philosophy that focuses on optimism, even in adversity. They were also witnessing the power of Naam where a Sikh in a meditative state of mindfulness can divert their attention from physical pain to a state of serenity.
Sikhs have been a militarised people since the 5th Guru, Arjan was executed by the Mughals. The 6th Guru, Hargobind was the first to wage wars against the Mughal Empire, picking up the twin swords of Miri and Piri and creating the Akaal Sena, the first standing Sikh Army. The 9th Guru, Tegh Bahadur continued this tradition by taking part in a number of battles but it was the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh that formalised the Sikhs as a separate fighting nation and created the Khalsa. With this, fighting was no longer left to just the Sikh Army but every Sikh had an obligation to fight against tyranny.
I was lucky enough to meet Jathedar Akali Nihaal Singh Nihang of Harianvela in 2015 and I had an hour of his time to myself. Nihaal Singh is famous for being the only 'Jinda-Shaheed' or living martyr in Sikhi after being shot multiple times in the 1960s whilst liberating a Gurdwara from an abusive caretaker where 11 other Sikhs were killed. Nihang Singh tradition states that Guru Nanak was actually the first Sikh warrior, passing on his Shaster Vidya (knowledge of the art of fighting) to Baba Buddha who then held onto the knowledge until the Sikh Nation was in danger. After the execution of the 5th Guru Baba Buddha realised it was time to impart the knowledge and gave it to the 6th Guru, Hargobind.
According to many puraatan (ancient) Sikh texts, the Singh Khalsa are those who constantly wage war. This brings me onto the final element in Sikhi that gives rise to a large number of extraordinary individuals. Whilst many other cultures, countries and religions have fought for self preservation, the Sikhs are expected to fight wherever there is tyranny, whether that is against Mughal atrocities in the sub-continent, colonial rule or Nazi atrocities in Europe. This began with the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Guru, who gave his head for the protection of another religion, Hinduism, and has continued at varying levels since; from the Sikh Misls who freed captive Hindu girls from Persian and Afghan invaders in the 18th century, to the 80000+ Sikhs who died during the two World Wars in the 20th century protecting North America and Western Europe.
The list below doesn't necessarily list the top Sikh's in order of achievement, but its the 20 whose stories I find personally fascinating, individuals I look up to. Other than Mai Bhago, I have not included any of the Guru's or individuals during their period, including the 40 liberated ones, the Sahibzada's or individuals such as Bhai Bachittar Singh or Baba Biddhi Chand. The biographies I have written below are an introduction to each individual, so feel free to do further research into any of them. Where possible, I have included only information that is corroborated by a number of sources during my research. I have a list of sources at the end of the article for further reading.
The most recent omission is Gurbachan Singh Manochahal who led the Sikh resistence until he died fighting in 1993. He has a story and life as strong as any of those on the list below. Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwala is another recent Sikh warrior who also led the Sikh resistance against Indian Army operations in the late 1980s who again deserves an honourable mention.
The earliest ommission is Amar Singh Bandai, the Jathedar of the Bandai Khalsa who despite being killed by Tat Khalsa Singhs died a death so heroic it was immortalised by Gyani Gian Singh in Panth Prakash.
Bhai Mani Singh is another person not included, despite a history of taking part in a number of wars and the heroic nature of his death. On refusing to convert to Islam, he was sentenced to death by beign chopped up by every joint. As the executioner began by making an incision on his wrist, Mani Singh stopped the executioner, telling him his first joint started with his finger tips. I haven't included him in the list because, although involved in battles, he is more reknowned for his scholarly work and his battles are less documented.
Then there is Nawab Kapur Singh Virk, the first unanimously elected leader of the Sikhs following Banda Singh Bahadur and the individual who created the Sikh confederacy and Misl system as well as being the leader of the Singhpuria Misl, one of the most successful of its time.
The Misl system gave birth to many Sikh warriors such as Charat Singh Sukerchakkia, Chajja Singh Dhillon of the Bhangi Misl, Hari Singh Dhillon, another Bhangi leader and first leader of the Taruna Dal of Nihangs, Phul Singh Sidhu of the Phulkian Misl, Jai Singh Sandhu of the Kanheya Misl and Dasaundha Singh Shergill of the Nishanwalia Misl,
Jassa Singh Ramgharia is also a big ommission. As with Amar Singh, his frequent clashes with other Sikh's meant I couldnt include him on my list, but there is no doubting that he was one of the most politically astute Sikhs in history.
The Namdhari movement in the 1870's has also not been included despite tremendous sacrifices for the Sikh nation nor have the Sikhs from the Akhand Kirtani Jatha who lost their lives in 1978. The list here is subjective, you may not agree with all the individuals, or the order they are in, but one thing that is hard to argue - they all deserve a mention.
20. Maharaja Ranjit Singh
The only ruler of a united Sikh Empire, Ranjit Singh is more commonly known as Shere-e Panjab (the lion of Panjab) equally famed for contributing to the rise and fall of Sikh power.
Ranjit Singh was born in 1780 to Mahan Singh Sukerchakia, the leader of one of Panjab's leading Misls (conferederacies). His youth was spent fighting Afghan invaders, local rajas and other Sikh Misls in order to gain power in Panjab, in fact, he joined his father in his first battle aged just 10. A bout of smallpox at an early age disfigured his face and he lost the sight of one eye, but by the age of 12 he had risen to leadership of his Misl. By his teens, the young leader began drinking alcohol, a habit that would increasingly lead to alcoholism in his older age and contribute to illnesses that would take his and his son's life and leave a power vacuum after his death.
Ranjit Singh was constantly waging battles in his youth and in 1797, at the age of only 17 he fought against invading Afghans and killed their leader, Shah Zaman. Victories over rival Misls left him in command of the one of the strongest military forces in Panjab. By the age of 21, Ranjit Singh, together with Sada Kaur of the Kanheya Misl jointly entered Lahore and Ranjit Singh was crowned Maharaja of Panjab by defeating the Bhangi Misl.
His first decade was spent consolidating his power by either signing treaties of peace with other Sikh chiefs (as with the Ahluwalia or Kanheya Misls) or conquering their territories by force (as with the Bhangi Misl). However he also showed the intelligence that would serve him well. After the Marathas were defeated by the British, one of their leaders, Jaswant Rao Holkar entered Panjab to ask for Sikh help to attack the British. Ranjit Singh, along with Fateh Singh Ahluwalia entered a British camp in disguise to estimate British power. Taken aback by the power of English weaponry and resources, the young Ranjit Singh refused Holkar any assistance until he felt the Sikhs were in a better position to fight.
After subduing his rivals, he began an expansionist policy that saw the height of centralised Sikh power. After centuries of being the gateway of invasions to India, Ranjit Singh reversed the history of Panjab and built an empire that extended from India into present day Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and Nepal. An astute strategist, he solidified his southern boundary with the British and increased the strength and prestige of his nation which reached its extent by the time he died in 1839.
In 1818 the Maharaja conquered Multan, and a year later Kashmir also fell to his forces. and by 1834 he had taken Peshawar, a city on the border with Afghanistan. Whilst some of his forces battled the Chinese in north, others ensured the integrity of the border in the south with the British where many Sikhs had chosen to stay under British protection than fall under the dominion of Ranjit Singh, these Sikhs would eventually be the nail in the Empire (Sarkar Khaksa) Ranjit Singh built up during his life.
Ranjit Singh modernised the Sikh Army, bringing in Europeans to build an army modelled on that of Napolean in France. Jean Francois Allard, Jean Baptiste Ventura (Italy) and Claude Auguste Court are some of the most famous names, however American, Spanish and Dutch soldiers are also documented to have been employed by the Sarkar Khalsa. The country was also the only one in Asia at the time capable of producing its own modern war munitions and had become completely self sufficient in weaponry.
Unlike previous rulers of Panjab, Ranjit Singh goverened without prejudice to religions and therefore Muslims, Christians and Hindus rose to high positions. Most of these stayed loyal to the Sikh nation, in particular Muslims such as Fakir Azizuddin, Hindus such as Dewan Mokham Chand and Europeans such as Jean Francois Allard, however others such as Gulab Dogra helped end the Sarkar Khalsa through deceipt and treachory. British records show that the court officials Gulab Dogra, Tej Singh and Lal Singh, commanders in the Sikh Army were under British pay and were rewarded handsomely for betraying the Sikh army, Gulab Dogra was given the kingship of an independent Kashmir by the East India Company for his services and the commanders Lal Singh and Tej Singh were respectively given the roles of Prime Minister and handsome jagirs.
That's not to say the fall of the Sikh Nation was entirely the fault of others. Aristocratic families such as as the Sandhwalia's held dreams of becoming rulers and assasinated Sher Singh, the second son of Ranjit Singh, Maharani Jindan, a wife of Ranjit Singh played the Sikh army with false promises, ultimately leading to a demoralised Sikh army being rendered leaderless and confused. During his rule, the Maharaja, conscious of British superiority in arms, resources and organisation was careful never to provoke a confrontation, however the Dogra's threw the Khalsa Army at the British hoping to cripple its power, whilst simultaneously giving away its secrets. Ranjit Singh himself also sowed the seeds for his nations disintegration.
Despite modernising the army, he failed to modernise other aspects of the Sarkar Khalsa, key amongst which was taxation. In fact, the Sarkar Khalsa continued to use the taxation system based on the Mughals and therefore, the British were able to buy off leading generals with the promise of better jagirs (land based revenue based off taxes).
Simply put, he had not built an infrastructure that could survive his death. The power of certain elements of his court grew unchecked and he himself became an alcoholic. This was passed onto his son, Kharak Singh who was not only an alcoholic but also an opium addict and was only on the throne for a month, proving to be an extremely ineffective leader.
Ranjit Singh had a number of character flaws, failure to control his base urges meant that he was publically reprimanded by the leader of the Nihang Singh's, Phula Singh, despite being ruler of Panjab. His administration, though an improvement on the confederacy period was still short of the efficiency of European States and his drinking habits coupled with questionable appointments to his court was ultimately the undoing of all his hard work. The Sarkar Khalsa lasted barely a decade after his death, most of which was spent in continuous civil war. However there is no doubting his positive qualities either. Almost all European visitors were in awe of his inquisitive mind - in fact some specifically commented on the fact the Maharaja would ask questions about every fact, personal to political. Ranjit Singh built up one of the earliest intelligence agencies and also proved to be an astute politician, a significant reason why Panjab proved to be the last part of the subcontinent to come under European control.
19. Rani Sada Kaur
The first of three female warriors on my list, Sada Kaur was responsible for the rise of the Sikh Empire through her battlefield bravery and strategic foresight.
After the Afghan ruler, Ahmed Shah Abdali's invasions of India had receeded, the Sikh's not having an external enemy began fighting with each other. The era of the Sikh Confederacy, or Misls was characterised by a number of competing Sikh kingdoms that would come together when presented with an external enemy, but would go back to intra Sikh fighting once any danger receeded. Sada Kaur took the leadership of the Kanheya Misl following the death of her husband in a battle against the Sukerchakia Misl and the death of her father-in-law the famous Jai Singh Kanheya. At her disposal, Sada Kaur had over 10,000 cavalry and other sizeable resources. In what is widely regarded as one of the most farsighted decisions supporting Sikh growth, she arranged for the marriage of her daughter, Mahitab Kaur Kanheya with the son of the Sukherchakia Misl, Ranjit Singh. Sada Kaur then pushed her troops to support Ranjit Singh in his quest to become the premier Sikh chief, She also realised that anyone that wanted to control Panjab first had to control the capital Lahore and pushed Ranjit Singh to enter the city.
Sada Kaur and Ranjit Singh entered Lahore together as joint rulers, however Sada had Ranjit Singh crowned Maharaja of Panjab. Sada Kaur joined Ranjit Singh in a number of battles against rival Sikh chiefs until he was unquestionably the dominant leader of the Sikh nation. Her later years were marked by increasing hostility to the new King, especially when he decided to remarry, thereby leaving Sada's daughter. She threatened correspondence with the British and began penning letter to Sir Charles Metcalfe to guarantee her possessions, in response Ranjit Singh decided to put her under strict surveillance. She died in 1832, just seven years before her son-in-law Ranjit Singh. Her son, Sher Singh, eventually became Maharaja, if only for a short time.
18. Sukha Singh & Mehtab Singh
Sukha Singh and Mehtab Singh were the first of the generation that grew up in the shadow of 1716 when organised Sikh political power was destroyed. In this era, Sikhs had either left for the jungles and mountains of Panjab, becoming roving bands of guerilla fighters or had moved into employment as soldiers outside of Panjab.
One such band of guerilla's were based in the deserts of Rajasthan led by one Shaam Singh. In 1740 this band of warriors were visited by Bulaka Singh and Tej Ram from Panjab. The two narrated stories of the state of Sikhi in its ancestral home, mentioning how Singh's no longer visit Harimander Sahib and that the entire temple complex had been turned into a brothel under the control of Massa Khan Rangar. In response, Mehtab Singh stood up and started questioning the Sikhs in Panjab, wondering where their pride and strength had gone. Bulaka responded that Mehtab had fled from Panjab to Rajasthan and therefore was in no position to questions those Singh's who had stayed behind. On hearing this Mehtab Singh vowed to bring back the head of Massa Rangar. Another Singh, Sukha, also arose and said he would accompany Mehtab Singh back to Amritsar and complete the task,
The two assasins dressed up as Muslim landlords from Patti and headed on their long journey north. On reaching Amritsar, they tethered their horses to a berry tree and went inside. As they entered the main hall, they saw Massa Rangar, smoking sheesha and surrounded by his harem. The Singh's threw a bag on the floor and told them they were here to pay their revenue from Patti. Massa Rangar leaned down to pick up the bag and in a flash Mehtab Singh cut the head of Massa Rangar and threw it in a sack. Sukha Singh meanwhile attacked the surprised company of Rangar and within seconds the Singh's threw of their disguises and jumped onto their horses, riding away shouting 'Akaal'.
Following another long journey south, they presented the head of Massa Rangar to the Sikhs in Rajasthan. After a quarter of a century of hiding, the Singh's showed they still had the capabilities and the projective power to strike their enemies. Mehtab Singh was eventually caught by the Mughal authorities and in 1745 he was tortured and his body broken on a wheel, an event still commemorated by Sikhs at the end of every prayer. Sukha Singh died fighting against Afghan invaders led by Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1752.
17. Avtar Singh Brahma
Avtar Singh was born in 1951 and joined the Bidhi Chand Dal of Nihangs in 1966 where he learnt the art of Shastar Vidhya as well as Sikh philosophy from the ancient Nihang order. His fame first grew from a wager within the group of Nihangs. After reading about a Frenchman who could ride a horse at full gallop and spear a target in the ground with a lance, Avtar Singh boasted that he could do it whilst riding on two horses - standing up. The Nihangs, not believing this to be possible took Avtar Singh up on the wager and were left astounded when he managed the feat.
Avtar Singh was under the tutorship of Baba Daya Singh, a close companion of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale. By 1982, Sikhs had launched the Dharam Yudh Morcha against the Indian government (more below) and Avtar Singh Brahma travelled to Amritsar to join Sant Bhindranwale in defence of Harimander Sahib. Bhindranwale however told Avtar Singh he would be of greater value continuing the fight instead of sacrificing his life within the complex. Bhindranwale mentioned that a few months down the line, Avtar Singh would be approached by a number of Singhs but until then to return to his village.
Following the desecration of Harimander Sahib, 37 Gurdwaras across Panjab and the Sikh Genocide in Delhi, Avtar Singh was approached by a group of Singhs who mentioned the time had arrived to lead a resistance. Although Sikhs had not been fighting for an independent Sikh nation, the desecration of their spiritual home for the second time in 30 years by the Indian Army meant that freedom was now a stated goal, formalised at a gathering of over a million Sikhs at the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa. The Sikhs arranged themselves similar to their fight with the Mughals 250 years previously, separating themselves into Misls.
Avtar Singh joined the Khalistan Liberation Force, rising to be its leader following the death of Arur Singh. The Sikhs under Avtar Singh waged war against Indian government, defeating imperial soldiers at the Battle of Baler and the Battle of Manakpur. It was at the Battle of Mand that Avtar Singh's fame spread beyond his own Misl by becoming the first Sikh to shoot down a helicopter. Avtar Singh was one of the first Sikh leaders to notice the danger posed by 'Black Cat Commandos'. These were undercover government agents that would dress as Sikhs and terrorise the local populace to turn them against the resistance.
Bhai Avtar Singh was finally killed in a skirmish with government forces on 22 July 1988, leaving the Panjab in a state of quasi independece. For the first time in 140 years, Sikhs were in control of large areas of Panjab.
16. Bota Singh & Garja Singh
During the Battle of Chamkaur, the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh would send pairs of soldiers out to fight against the besieging Mughal forces. It was at this battle that the Sikh concept of the two tigers was born. Following the execution of Banda Singh Bahadur in 1716, Khalsa Sikhs survived by living in the jungles and mountains of Panjab. Contemporary Mughal chroniclers note that Khalsa Singhs were scarecely heard from for a generation leading many to consider living Khalsa's as a myth.
It was into this environment of harsh persecution that Bota Singh and Garja Singh not only revived the concept of the two tigers but also revived the Sikhs as a political and military force. Bota Singh Sandhu and Garja Singh Mazhabi were walking along a highway to Lahore when they spotted a Mughal patrol approaching and hid themselves off the main road into the jungle nearby. Waiting for the patrol to pass they heard a bystander tell the patrol about two Singhs he had just spotted on the road. The Mughals dismissed the notion out of hand, calling the Singhs a myth whilst another mentioned that those that used to rule the area and called themselves lions were now jackals hiding from the government. The Singhs had realised that in order to revive Khalsa prestige and Sikh power they would have to make a stand and give their lives.
The next day, both Singhs posted themselves on a bridge near Noordin's Inn on the Tarn Taarn Road to Lahore. They started collecting taxes from any traveller that wished to cross the bridge, anyone that refused would be beaten on the spot. At that instance, on one small bridge, the two Singh's had reawakened independent Sikh sovereignty. As news of the Singhs began to spread, Bota Singh decided to write an open letter to the local Mughal Governor to create a large scene and ensure publicity. In the letter he goaded the governor by teasing the governor's wife and proclaiming the bridge to be under Khalsa taxation. The letter had its desired effect.
Within a day a force led by Jalal Din approached the Singh's on the bridge. Refusing to surrender the Singhs asked for four of his best soldiers to fight. On defeating the Mughals in combat, the commander decided to throw his force at the two Singhs, killing them on the bridge in 1739. The aims of the two Singh's however had been realised. The myth of the Khalsa was now a reality and after two decades of hiding in the jungles, the death of Bota and Garja Singh revived and reawaked Sikh aspirations. Within 2 years Sikh were once again waging wars with the Mughals and within 26 years they had conquered the capital of Panjab, Lahore. In fact, it would be a little over 60 years before Sikhs were masters of the whole of Panjab.
The two tiger concept revived on that day in 1739 has been used often times since. A year later Sukha Singh and Mehtab Singh struck Massa Rangar in Amritsar. At that point, anytime Mughals would see two Singhs together they would attack, regardless of intentions, such was the psychological fear of the concept. The concept has continued to this day with the killing of Indira Gandhi by Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, or the assasination of General Vaidya, Chief of the Army staff that invaded the Golden Temple in 1984 by Harjinder Singh and Sukhdev Singh in August 1986.
15. Baghel Singh Karora Singhia
Despite being the only Sikh to conquer Delhi, very few people know about the extraordinary life of Baghel Singh Dhaliwal.
Born in 1730 to humble origins, Baghel Singh joined Sardar Karor Singh of the Karora Singhia Misl during the age of the Sikh Confederacy in the 1750s. In 1764, Baghel Singh was one of the Sikhs caught up in the Wada Ghallughara (the Great Holocaust) where two thirds of the entire Sikh population in existence at the time was wiped out in a campaign led by Ahmed Shah Abdali. Baghel Singh fought day and night over a period of weeks protecting a slow moving baggage train of Sikh civilians whilst the Afghan invaders would constantly break through the cordon of Sikh fighters, slaughter thousands of women, children and the elderly and then disperse. Even Sikh historians noted the effectiveness of Afghan attacks and their Muslim soldiery.
Showing great leadership potential, bravery on the battlefield and an excellent understanding of politics, Baghel Singh succeeeded Karor Singh to become the leader of his Misl in 1765 and according to Mughal comentator Syed Ahmad Latif, he had 12000 men under his command.
Following the Great Holocaust, Sikh power not only recovered quickly but became stronger than ever as Sikh Chiefs began conquering the Panjab city by city, village by village, each Misl hoping to become the most powerful. The area around Lahore, Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Gujranwala was conquered by Ramgharias, Bhangis and Sukerchakkias, the central area of Panjab was under the rule of the Faizalpuria, Nakai and Nishanwalia Misls leaving the Korara Singha Misl to extend east and south.
Having already defeated the Rohilla's in battle, they eventually defeated Zabita Khan and overran the entire Rohilla terrirtory by 1775, a year later they did something remarkable, defeating the Imperial Mughal Army in a pitched battle at the Battle of Ghanaur. The Mughals tried to check the power of Baghel Singh by attacking a Sikh military post but on 11 March 1783, Baghel Singh made history as he led a coalition of Sikh and anti-Mughal armies into the capital, planting the nishaan of his Misl on top of the Red Fort. It is said he sat on the famous Peacock Throne from where Mughal Emperors had ordered the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Sikh Guru.
Understanding that he didn't have a force large enough to govern Delhi, Baghel Singh came to an agreement with the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II, where Baghel Singh would receieve at least a tenth of all tax collected by the Mughals in Delhi and that Singh's would be allowed to build Gurdwara's within the city. Baghel Singh eventually watched over the building of at least 7 large Gurdwara's, including Sis Ganjh where just over 100 years earlier the Mughals had executed the 9th Guru.
The aged Baghel Singh continued to carry out expeditions until his death in 1802, in fact in 1799 he had two battles against the Irish mercenary, George Thomas. After defeating Thomas in the princely state of Jind, he was repulsed by the very same man when he tried attacking him again during Thomas' retreat. It is also worth noting that despite the fame Baghel Singh had across Panjab for his heroic capture of Delhi, and therefore the reputation that went with it, the Karora Singhia's remained one of the lesser Misls, never achieving the territorial extent of the Ahluwalia's, Bhangi's, Kanheya's, Phulkia's or Sukerchaks.
14. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
Sikh history is filled with famous last stands, but one of the best documented was the last stand at the Battle of Saragarhi by 21 Sikhs of the British Indian Army.
Following 1849, British Indian soliders, in particular Purbiya's were promoted to high civilian posts in Panjab. To add further insult to Sikh injury, these Indian soliders would constantly remind the Sikh's that they had defeated the Khalsa Army. The Sikhs felt that the treachory of their leaders coupled with superior British Arms were the cause of their downfall and they began to resent the foreign Indian Purbiya's. When the Mutiny happened in 1857, the Sikhs decided to side with the British against the Indians and help put down the rebellion. For their support, the British, who were hesitant to raise soldiers from the fiercely independent Sikhs, began to employ Khalsa soldiers in large numbers. Within decades, Sikhs made the backbone of the British Indian Army, making up a quarter of the Indian Army officers despite being less than 2% of the population.
The Battle of Saragarhi took place on the North-West Frontier Province, the volatile border area between British India and Afghanistan, an area formerly controlled by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs. Despite British suzerainty, the tribal Afghans would attack the area from time to time. To counter this, the British decided to consolidate a series of forts that Ranjit Singh had built in the area nearly 75 years earlier. On 12 September 1897, 10,000 Afghan tribesmen decided to attack a signalling post at the village of Saragarhi to ensure communications would be lost between the forts, therefore ensuring local army units would be isolated and defeated.
The Sikhs were led by Ishar Singh, and the battle is very well recorded due to the presence of Gurmukh Singh who signalled the events using a heliograph to the British. At 9am he signalled that the post was under attack and in response the British replied that they would not be able to send reinforcements the same day. At this point Ishar Singh decided the Singh's would continue the ancient Sikh tradition of dying on the battlefield. Bhagawan Singh was the first casuality and by midday the British had estimated that the Saragarhi signalling post was under attack by 10,000-14,000 Afghans. After making two strong attempts to breach the post, but being repulsed by the Singh's on both occasions, the Afghans began making promises of safety and riches to entice the Singh's to leave the post. The 21 Sikhs rejected all offers. Later that afternoon, the Afghans finally managed to breach the walls and the Singh's met them with fierce hand to hand combat. Ishar Singh ordered all his men into the inner layer of defences while he provided cover, falling on the field after ensuring the safety of his men.
As Singh's started falling around him, Gurmukh Singh communicated to the British that he was the last of the 21 alive. He signed off by communcating that he was going to join the battle. From his communication of the battle, and the bodies the British found the next day, Gurmukh Singh is stated to have killed 20 Afghans by himself, the tribesmen having to set fire to the post to finally kill him.
The Afghans finally took control of the signalling post, but the defence put up by the Sikhs meant they had lost too much time and reinforcements soon arrived to drive the tribesmen away. The British were astounded to see the scene that they arrived to, Fallen Sikhs in the signalling post still clutching their swords and guns, and the bodies of approximately 600 Afghan tribesmen scattered around them.
The battle is compared to that at Thermopylae where 300 Spartans fought to the death against the invading Persians. In this instance, just 21 Singhs held off 10,000 Afghans and like the Spartans, and Singhs before them, they all chose to fight to the death.
13. Deep Kaur
Deep Kaur is the second female warrior on my list and one who's actions are needed in a country where sexual abuse of female's has reached epidemic levels.
Living in northern India, her husband had joined a group of Singh's who went to visit the 10th Guru. Deep Kaur had remained at home to protect the house as her family were the only Sikhs in a relatively hostile area. Having a change of heart she left to join her husband and visit the 10th Guru for herself, however, after travelling a short while on the outskirts of the village she came across a contingent of Mughal solders (Turkish mercenaries according to some sources). At first trying to conceal herself off the main road, she was discovered by the group of 6 soliders. Various witnesses describe the leader of the group making sexual advances towards Deep Kaur, after spurning his advances, he finally decided to force himself on her. As he pulled her close to him, she pulled out her dagger and stabbed him in the stomach.. She then snatched his sword and began stabbing at the other soliders. Two more fell although not after they had mortally wounded the warrior princess.
At this juncture, a passing Jatha of Singh's heard the commotion and rode over on their horses, frightening the remaining Mughal soliders into flight. On arriving at the scene, they saw a dying Deep Kaur surrounded by the bodies of Mughal soliders. The dying Deep Kaur was then taken by the Singh's to the Guru's court where the Guru bowed down to Deep Kaur in a sign of respect.
12. Sardaar Baaj Singh Bandai
Baaj Singh, alongside Ram Singh, Binod Singh, his son Kahan Singh and Fateh Singh are generally accepted to be the 5 Singh's dispatched from central India to return to Panjab as Banda Bahadur's advisory council to carry out a struggle against Mughal rule and to punish the local governor, Wazir Khan, who had ordered the execution of the Guru's two young sons.
Baaj Singh was present in all of Banda Bahadur's campaigns, with his most documented battle happening at Sirhind in 1710. Following the tactics developed by the Guru, Banda split his forces into 2 wings (subdivided into 5 misls) and commanded the centre himself. The left wing was commanded by Binod Singh and the right by Baaj Singh. Whilst the left wing struggled, the right wing was more successful, managing to slice through the Mughal ranks. Baaj Singh cornered Wazir Khan on the battlefield and Mughal battle comentator Mir Mohammed Ahsan described how after an exchange of spears and arrows, the two warriors raced towards each other, with Baaj Singh struck in the arm, Fateh Singh arrived at this critical juncture and sliced Wazir Khan in two from the shoulder to the waist. For his bravery and success in the battle, Baaj Singh was appointed Govenor of Sirhind.
After much campaigning, a schism developed between a number of the 5 Singh's that had travelled north with Banda Bahadur. The Singhs, led by Binod Singh and Kahan Singh took exceptions to some of the changes Banda had began making; Rattan Singh Bhangu in his book Panth Prakash comments that Banda had begun changing the traditions greeting of Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh to Darshan Fateh, wearing red uniforms instead of blue, and advocating a vegetarian diet, all of which Binod Singh's Sikhs, referring to themselves as the Tat Khalsa, or true Khalsa grew to resent. There is much debate about how many of these changes actually happened, and the role of the Mughal Court in creating this schism but by the Siege of Gurdas Nangal, a sizeable number of Sikhs had left Banda Bahadur.
Baaj Singh, a devout follower of Banda Bahadur continued his loyalty. As the weakened Sikhs were surrounded by a large Mughal force, Baaj Singh decided he would rather die with Banda Bahadur than defect. The protracted siege left Banda's depleted force in dire straights, Singh's began to fight each other in order to eat the bark from the trees, such was their hunger. Finally, after 8 months, under false Mughal promises of safety, Banda Bahadur's Sikhs opened the gates and were slaughtered by the Imperial forces. Baaj Singh, as a leading chief was taken in irons to Delhi where he was paraded infront of the Mughal Emperor. The Emperor, Farrukhsiyar, seeing the emancipated Sikhs started mocking Baaj Singh, questioning whether this was the man who had killed Wazir Khan. One of the British East India Company ambassadors, Edward Stephenson described the moment when Baaj Singh on goading the Emperor to open his chains, began attacking the soldiers in attendance with such ferocity that the Emperor ran for safety.
After executing cartloads of Sikhs, the time finally came to execute the Sikh leaders. After refusing to convert to Islam in exchange for his life, Baaj Singh was tortured in the most inhumane ways to give up knowledge on the Sikh treasury and on his refusal to share such information, he was finally beheaded on 7 June 1716.
11. Akali Baba Binod Singh Nihang
Very little is known about the man who changed the course of Sikh history in a way few others have.
Binod Singh was a decendent of the 2nd Sikh Guru, Angad and was one of the few armymen of Guru Gobind Singh that accompanied him on his travel south to Nanded in 1708. Binod Singh was one of the 5 council of advisors sent back north with Banda Bahadur to forment rebellion in Panjab and by most accounts was the most senior of those in attendance. He is specifically mentioned by name in the historical text Mahankosh by Kahn Singh Nabha. Binod Singh took part in all the battles fought by Banda Bahadur and commanded the left wing of the Khalsa Army at the Battle of Sirhind in 1710 where the Khalsa forces defeated Wazir Khan and became masters of Panjab.
Nihang oral tradition states that Binod Singh was the first Jathedar (leader) of the Nihang Dal, the Guru's own forces. They also state that Guru Gobind Singh only gave command of the Sikh forces to Banda Bahadur, giving leadership of the Sikh Nation to the Singh Khalsa represented by 5 Singhs, senior amongst those being Binod Singh.
After taking part in a further four battles, Binod Singh and his son Kahan Singh began having differences with Banda Bahadur. Whilst starting off small, the Mughal authorities, realising that it was the perfect moment to create a divide in the nascent Sikh nation used an adopted son of Mata Sundari (the widow of Guru Gobind Singh) to further differences of thought. Binod Singh and Kahan Singh began suspecting Banda Bahadur was attempting to usurp the power of the Singh Khalsa and position himself as the 11th Guru of the Sikhs, even though Gobind Singh had given the Guruship to Guru Granth Sahib. Historians such as Rattan Singh Bhangu mention that Banda Singh began changing the Sikh salutation, the Sikh dress code and also imposed a vegetarian diet. Taking advantage of this, the Mughals incercepted correspondence between the Sikhs in Panjab and those in Delhi led by Mata Sundari. Eventually, Kahan Singh deserted Banda Bahadur, taking a sizeable force with him. The defections continued until finally at the Siege of Gurdas Nangal, Binod Singh finally deserted Banda Bahadur, splitting the Khalsa into two, the Binod Singh led Tat Khalsa and the Banda Singh led Bandai Khalsa.
Binod Singh was killed not long after his defection along with up to 4000 of his followers during a skirmish with the Mughal forces.
Whilst writers from the 18th and 19th century generally praised the actions Binod Singh took, modern historians have questioned his actions. There is an increasing consensus that whilst Banda Bahadur may have committed a few errors, most of the accusations thrown at him were exaggerated by the Mughal government looking to divide and conquer the Sikhs. Whether his actions were correct or not, by splitting the Sikhs in two, Sikh political power was effectively curtailed for almost a quarter of a century and it was 75 years before the Sikhs were once again a sovereign nation.
10. Shaam Singh Attari
Shaam Singh was born in 1790, at the dawning of the independent Sarkar Khalsa. His father, Nihaal Singh had originally served under the Bhangi Misl before joining Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Shaam Singh was educated to a high level, learning Gurmukhi, Persian and English and was given the command of 5000 men. He took part in many victorious battles of the Sikh State (Sarkar Khalsa) including the battles of Attock, Multan, Peshawar as well as conquering Kashmir.
Eventually Shaam Singh became one of Ranjit Singh's most trusted advisors, arranging a meeting between the Maharaja and the British under Lord William Bentick in 1831 at Ropar. His influence was further extended when he married his daughter to Maharaja Ranjit Singh's son, Nau Nihal Singh.
Following the death of Ranjit Singh, Shaam Singh, considered a loyalist was positioned in the furthest corners of the Sikh State whilst the Dogra brothers put into plan their designs to take the throne. Shaam Singh was completing expeditions at the edge of the Sarkar Khalsa whilst the Dogra's murdered their way to become de factor leaders in Panjab. It was after the death of Nau Nihaal Singh, Shaam Singh's son-in-law and Ranjit Singh's grandson that convinced Shaam Singh to return to the plains of Panjab. Shaam Singh then led a campaign against the Dogra's driving them out of Panjab, defeating and killing Hira Dogra. The Dogra's, under British pay, were hoping to create chaos and bring the British into Panjab to support their quest for the throne. Shaam Singh, wise to Sikh weakness against British arms convinced the Sikh's to take care of their own house before fighting external enemies and looked to lead a final campaign against Gulab Dogra.
Meanwhile, the Sarkar Khalsa was ruled at the time by Maharani Jindan who had bought the Khalsa Army to support her leadership by promising to pay the soldiery large sums of money. When this money was not forthcoming, the army began to turn on her. In panic she threw the Khalsa Army at the British who had already began provoking Sikh's at the frontier. This coupled with the promises of support from the Dogra's were all the British needed to enter Panjab. Maharani Jindan chose Lal Singh and Tej Singh to lead the Khalsa Army. Unbeknown to Maharani Jindan, the Dogra's had inflitrated the highest posts within the Sarkar Khalsa, and British records show that both Sikh commanders, Lal Singh and Tej Singh were also under British pay.
The Battle of Mudki unearthed the first treacherous commander. With victory within Sikh sights, Tej Singh inexplicibly withdrew from the field, telling his soldiers that he felt the British were feigning a manoeuvre. At the Battle of Ferozeshah, the Sikhs were again within sight of destroying the East India Company, but again Lal Singh without any reason fled the battlefield and the reinforcements by Tej Singh failed to arrive. With Sikh power effectively curtailed by the commanders' treachory the Sikh state had fallen in all but name, however the Sikh Army continued the fight at Aliwal, despite having already lost a considerable number of men and guns.
Disgusted, Shaam Singh, who at this point was over 60 years old entered the final battle of the First Anglo-Sikh War at the Battle of Sabraon on 10 February 1846. Tej Singh again left the battle early, destroying a bridge behind him as he had promised to British to trap the Sikhs. The leaderless Sikhs were being comfortably routed until Shaam Singh entered the field, dressed in white robes, a white dastaar and riding a white horse. He rode from column to column calling on his men to fight until the last and the Sikhs roused from their demoralised state once again fought back. Shaam Singh rode into the thick of battle, and made a caurageous last stand, as famous as any made before him. The British aid-de-camp to the Govenor-General was present at the battle recorded that "although assailed on either side by horses and battalions of foot, no Sikh offered to submit and none asked for quarter... many rushed forth to meet assured death by contending with a multitude. The victors looked with stolid wonderment upon indomitable courage of the vanquished".
9. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia
Forty years before Ranjit Singh was made Maharaja of Panjab, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia conquered the provincial capital of Lahore and was bestowed the title Sultan-ul-Quam, the leader of the nation.
Jassa Singh spent his entire life during the darkest period of Sikh history, born in 1718, two years following the collapse of Banda Bahadurs Sikh state and dying in 1783, just under 20 years before Ranjit Singh's Sikh state. It was under Jassa Singh's leadership that the Sikhs managed to get through the difficult 18th century and its a testament to his leadership that they came out stronger than they entered.
Jassa Singh lost his father at the age of 5 and his mother entrusted him to the care of Mata Sundari, the widow of Guru Gobind Singh the 10th Guru and Bhai Mani Singh, one of the most revered Sikh scholars and a contemporary of the Guru. Mata Sundari gave the young Jassa Singh an education in spirituality and politics whilst Mani Singh taught him the secrets of the Sikh scriptures. Once Jassa Singh came of age, he was put under the guardianship of Nawab Kapur Singh, the leader of the Sikhs. Kapur Singh trained Jassa Singh in combat, passing on his knowledge of Shaster Vidhya (the art of fighting/weaponry) and made him a storekeeper of his troops.
Soon Jassa Singh began showing the combat skills and battlefield bravery that would launch him to the forefront of Sikhi. In 1739, the Persian conqueror, Nadir Shah swept down the plains of Panjab during his invasion of India. The Sikhs kept themselves hidden in the moutains and jungles and gave the Shah a clear path to Delhi where the Persians inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Mughals. After looting the imperial treasury, the Persian forces began to make their journey home to modern day Iran. The Persians were returning with the richest caravan of goods the subcontinent had ever seen including the famous Koh-i-noor diamond and Peacock Throne, in fact they had taken so many goods that the Shah stopped taxation in his native country for over three years. However, as soon as the caravan crossed from Delhi into Panjab, roving bands of Sikhs began to plunder the Persians of their wealth. Refusing to meet the experienced and large Persian army in combat, the Sikhs would strike in the middle of the night, shouting battle cries, relieving the Persian camps of their treasures and then riding off into the night sky almost as quickly as they arrived. They repeated this every night all the way until the Shah's army left Panjab. Incensed, Nadir Shah warned the Governor of Panjab that those who live in the jungles, will one day occupy the throne. A clear warning that the Sikhs were more than just a group of bandits that the Mughals had painted them to be.
Jassa Singh was only 21 at the time of Nadir Shah's invasion, but his bravery was rewarded with a command of a small force of soldiers. This was increased in 1746 following a skirmish with Mughal forces which ended with the beheading of the Mughal commander, Jaspat Rai. The Mughals responded by flooding the Panjab with a large imperial force led by Jaspat's brother Lakhpat Rai. Sikh civilians were executed on sight, whilst the Sikh armies attemped to escape back to their camps in the jungles and mountains. The Sikhs made a 60 miles trek with Lakhpat Rai in pursuit however on crossing two rivers the Sikhs found a coalition of hill rajas waiting on the other side. Caught between these two armies, the Sikhs were destroyed, losing a quarter of the total sikh population at the time. Some Sikhs who managed to break out of the cordon were swept away by the river. The others made a 150 mile trek to the Lakhi Jungle in the south where they finally found safety in the cover of the trees. This event is known as the Chota Ghallughara (the lesser Holocaust). Less than a year later, Mir Mannu, the new Governor of Panjab arrested Lakhpat Rai and handed him over to the Jassa Singh. The Khalsa threw him in a dungeon and after 6 months of torture, finally killed him.
By 1753, Nawab Kapur was falling to ill health. He split the Khalsa forces in 12 Misls, giving Jassa Singh the leadership of one. He also split the Nihang Singhs into the Buddha Dal (elders) and Taruna Dal (youth). Following Kapur Singh's death, at a gathering of all Sikhs known as the Sarbat Khalsa on 10 April 1754, the nation unanimously chose Jassa Singh Ahluwalia as its leader. It was decided that each Misl would have its own leader and independence, however at times of national emergency, the Misls would unite their forces under a single Dal Khalsa (Army of Sikhs) and overall leadership was given to Jassa Singh.
In 1759 the Sikhs continued their success by joining in a joint operation with the Marathas to plunder Sirhind. 1761 was a watershed year for the Sikhs. After half a century of persecution, they finally captured the capital of Panjab, Lahore under the leadership of Jassa Singh who defeated Mir Mohammed Khan. It was a city that had even eluded Banda Bahadur. However, before they could consolidate their gains, a new threat emerged as the Afghans under Ahmed Shah Abdali entered Panjab to invade Delhi. The Sikhs once again deserted the cities and retreated to the jungles and the mountains, giving the Afghans a free passage to Delhi where they destroyed the Mughals and Marathas in one of the largest battles fought on Indian soil at Panipat. The defeat effectively ended the Maratha power in northern India and severely weakened the Mughals. The Afghans returned with an innumerable amount of wealth. but as soon as they left Delhi and crossed into Panjab the Sikhs returned to their old tactics and began relieving the Afghans of their wealth. Every night the Sikhs would attack the Afghan camps but this time they began freeing slaves that the Afghans had taken. By the end of their operations, Sikhs had freed over 2000 Hindu girls and returned them to their families. For this action Jassa Singh was given the title Bandi Chor - the deliverer.
Frustrated at the actions of the Sikhs, Ahmed Shah Abdali returned with the explicit intention of destroying the Sikhs. When news of Ahmed Shah's return filtered into Panjab, the Sikhs again recoursed to deserting their cities and heading to the moutains and jungles. Wise to their tactics, the Afghan general did an impressive march, covering a large amount of land in a short space of time, overtaking and surprising the Sikhs. The Sikhs were caught unprepared, and most of their caravan consisted of noncombants. They decided they would try to march the large group of Sikhs to Barnala where they expected their ally, the ruler of Patiala to come to their aid. The historian Syed Mohammed Latif wrote how the Sikh fighters made a cordon around their women, children and elderly and were "fighting while they were moving, and moving while they were fighting, they kept the baggage train marching, covering it as a hen covers her chicks under its wing." Every so often the Afghans would break through the cordon and butcher thousands of Sikh women and children but the Sikh fighters would regroup and repulse the invaders. This continued for hundreds of miles until eventually the Afghans grew tired of killing. The Sikhs had been utterly destroyed, losing about two thirds of the entire Sikh population at the time. The Afghans turned to Amritsar and destroyed Harminder Sahib. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia himself suffered 64 different cuts on his body. This event is known as the Vadda Ghallughara, or the Great Holocaust.
Rather than ending Sikh power, the Sikhs recovered quickly and within four months the Sikhs under Jassa Singh Ahluwalia defeated the Governor of Sirhind and celebrated Diwali in Harimander Sahib that year after defeating another Afghan force in Amritsar. By 1764, the Khalsa Army defeated Zain Khan again in Sirhind and a year later beat Kabli Khan and once again entered Lahore. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia was invested with the title Sultan-ul-Quam and coins were minted proclaiming the sovereignty of the Sikhs.
In 1766, Ahmed Shah Abdali came down once again, incenced about the growing Sikh power but this time the Sikhs had gained in strength and number. Although they once again vacated Lahore, they defeated his general Jahan Khan in a pitched battle in Amritsar. As soon as Ahmed Shah returned to Afghanistan, the Sikhs once again took over the cities. Ahmed Shah realised that his influence spread only as far as his horses were. Frustrated he invaded Panjab one last time, but by now he was a spent force, the Sikhs repeatedly humiliating him in battle.
Once the external threat had receded the Sikh's began fighting amongst themselves for power. Each Misl fought for their own territory, the aged and venerable Jassa Singh making Kapurthala his headquarters. For all of his valour and leadership in battle at times of war, at times of peace Jassa Singh did not prove to be as able an administrator that the Sikhs needed and he himself fought against fellow Sikhs on a number of occasions (including running Jassa Singh Ramgharia out of Panjab at one point) but whereas many Sikh leaders lost their lives in this inter Misl warfare, there was still alot of respect for Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. One day when hunting, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia strayed into Ramgharia territory and was arrested by the rival Misl. However, its leader and namesake Jassa Singh Ramgharia quickly realised what his men had done and quickly released the aged Ahluwalia with apologies. Jassa Singh also saw some of his rival Misls increase their territory at his expense, by the time of his death the Bhangi's, Kanheya's, Phulkia and Sukherchak Misls were all considered stronger.
Eventually Jassa Singh Ahluwalia retired from active political life spending the last few years in service of the nation as a member of the Panj Pyare.
8. Akali Hanuman Singh Nihang
Following the death of Akali Phula, Hanuman Singh became Jathedar of the Budha Dal and leader of the Akali Nihang Singhs.
Hanuman Singh became leader during a period where the power of the Akali Nihang Singh was in decline. After leading the Sikhs through the troubles of the 18th century, they were increasingly seen as outdated and uncontrollable elements within the Sikh State. Unable to control Phula Singh, Ranjit Singh ensured that his predecessor, Hanuman Singh would remain loyal to the state. Nihang Singh's were a constant source of trouble for the Maharaja, not only disrespecting Ranjit Singh repeatedly in public, but also disrespecting British forces whenever they would pass through Panjab, itching to create a situation where they could do battle. The British repeatedly put arrest warrants out for Nihang leaders and pressed the Maharaja to arrest them.
To curtail their power, Ranjit Singh employed the Nihang's on the front line of his army where they would suffer the most casualities. Disgusted by the way his forces were being used, Akali Hanuman Singh withdrew his Nihangs from court intrigues. Although many Nihang Singh's fought in the Anglo-Sikh War under the command of the Sarkar Khalsa, the bulk of the Buddha Dal remained ambivalent. It was only after he was approached by Shaam Singh Attari did Hanuman Singh commit his forces into battle. The Battle of Sabraon was a desperate battle between the depleted Sikh Army and the British, it was also the first time the British came across considerable number of Akali Nihangs.
Although the Sarkar Khalsa was defeated and Shaam Singh was killed, the Akali Nihang's had left a strong imprint of the British who feared conquering Panjab would prove impossible unless the power of "this sect of warrior-priests adorned in blue and covered in iron' were defeated. The weaponry of the Akali Nihangs, especially the quoit was psychologically damaging to British morale, therefore after Sabraon the British gave an edict that any Sikh in a blue dastaar should be shot dead on sight. Hanuman Singh had pulled back his troops toward the end of the battle, hoping to regroup and continue a guerilla campaign against the British in the same way Nihang's a century earlier had defeated the Mughals and Afghans. Confident that the British would be forced to withdraw within a number of years once the Nihang's employed their ancient hit and run tactics due to the expense and material loss of administering Panjab, Akali Hanuman Singh encamped at Patiala, a state still under a Sikh ruler, Karam Singh. However, Karam Singh had already signed an agreement with the British that guaranteed his rule in return for loyalty to the British. On seeing the large body of Akali Nihangs camped outside his state, a frightened Karam Singh, worried the Akali Nihangs had come to punish his collaboration with the British communicated the location to his masters.
The Akali Nihangs were caught completely unprepared. The British arrived quickly and with the treacherous Patiala forces on one side, and the British on the other, the Akali's were completely surrounded. However, instead of surrendering, the Akali Nihangs ran toward the British cannons and guns. The Nihang's unprepared, with inferior arms and surrounded on all sides were annhilated and the 90 year old Akali Hanuman Singh died in the action. Colonial estimates record 15,000 deaths, whilst Nihang tradition records 32,000 deaths, with no surrender. The remaining Akali Nihangs were forced underground and those that were not shot on sight escaped south to Nanded where they regrouped at Hazoor Sahib. It was 50 years before Nihangs were seen in Panjab again in any large numbers, and despite leading the Sikh Nation for over 150 years they would never again be the effective fighting force nor wield the same power they had prior to 1846.
7. Mai Bhago
Not much is known about early life of the highest ranking female warrior on my list, but her later life is well documented.
Her father, Malo Shah, was a part of the Akaal Sena created by Guru Hargobind and passed on his Shaster Vidhya (knowledge of weaponry and fighting) to his daughter a young age.
In 1704 a large Mughal force attacked the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh at Anandpur. After defeating the expeditionary unit led by Saiyad and Ramjan Khan, the Mughals returned under Wazir and Zaberdast Khan in May to kill or capture the Guru. They began laying a protracted siege. During the siege, many of the Guru's followers began to doubt their leader, openly rebelling. In response, the Guru told his followers that they were free to leave after signing a document stating that he was no longer their Guru and they were no longer his Sikhs. After consultation, 40 Sikhs from the Majha area agreed to sign the document and escaped from the siege. According to Max Arthur Macauliffe, a noted British historian, the number of Sikhs that left the Guru was actually considerably more, however the Singhs from Majha formed a significant core of the Guru's army.
Following the Battle of Anandpur, Battle of Sirsa and the Battle of Chamkaur in 1704, the Mughal Army relentlessly pursued the Guru across Panjab. Meanwhile, the 40 Sikhs had returned back to their native villages. On hearing the Guru's plight, the wife of Nidhan Singh Patti, Mai Bhago told her husband to take care of the household as she would go fight for the Guru's cause. Donning her armour and taking their horse, she began to gather the women of the local village together. Feeling ashamed, the 40 Sikhs had a change of heart and decided to follow the warrior princess into battle.
With the Guru continously pursued, the 40 Sikhs decided to assist the Guru and fight a rearguard action to stall the Mughal advance. in 1705, Mai Bhago led the 40 Sikhs into battle at Muktsar. The battle was fierce, but the Sikhs put together a historic last stand, fighting to the last man. Following the battle, the Guru returned to the field and saw the bodies of dead and dying Singh's. As the Guru cradled the body of one Mahan Singh he asked for a dying wish which the Guru promised he would grant. Mahan Singh asked the Guru to tear up the document of desertion they had signed at the siege of Anandpur. Gobind Singh, on finding the document ripped it up and called Mahan Singh his Sikh. With this the 40 Sikhs from Majha became the 40 liberated ones.
Mai Bhago, although injured, survived the battle. The effect she had on Sikh history is incredible. The battle had brought the Guru considerable time and for the first time in over a year, the Guru was no longer pursued by the Imperial forces. From here the Guru was able to proceed to Nanded, relatively unmolested and so begin the next phase of his mission. Mai Bhago took up service in the Guru's bodyguard retinue and lived to an old age.
6. Akali Phula Singh Nihang
As far as Nihang's go, there are not many names more famous and celebrated than Phula Singh (second from the right). A thorn in the side of both the Sarkar Khalsa and the East India Company, Phula Singh exemplified the independence of the Nihang Singhs.
Born in 1761, Phula Singh grew up in a period of increasing Sikh ascendancy. After losing his father at a young age, the young Phula Singh was taken under the care of Akali Baba Naina Singh, the Jathedar (Chief) of the Nihang Buddha Dal, as well as the leader of the Shaheedan Misl. Unlike most Sikh Chiefs of the time who were busy increasing their territory, Phula Singh gave away most of his families territory in his youth, using the money to help the poor and ensuring he didnt have attachment to the world illusion (maya). He was trained in the art of Shaster Vidhya by Naina Singh, who himself was trained by Deep Singh. In the year 1800, Phula SIngh and his band of 3000 Nihangs shifted their headquarters to Amritsar where he took possession of Harimander Sahib, the Akaal Takht and many other Gurdwara's which had started to either fall into disrepair or was being run by disreputable people. Eventually, by 1807, Phula Singh was made the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, as well as succeeding Naina Singh as the leader of the Nihang Budha Dal.
During this period, Ranjit Singh was expanding his Misl and began systematically incorporating cities across Panjab into his domain and in 1801 he arrived at the gates of Amritsar, a city that was under the control of the Bhangi Misl. Phula Singh prevented a full scale battle between the rival Sikh Misls by mediating a settlement where the Bhangi's would withdraw in order and the territory would be ruled by Ranjit Singh's Sukerchaks. Up until now the Nihang Singh's stayed relatively clear from the inter Misl warfare that had plagued the Sikh's for the previous quarter century. The Shaheedan Misl of Nihangs although highly respected because of its history, wasnt one of the major Misls of the period. The Shaheedan Misl and Nishanwalia's were in fact the two Misls who stayed aloof from the politics of the Sikh Sardars and would come together only when they was an external enemy as they refused to fight fellow Sikhs. Phula Singh changed the dynamics of the Akali Nihang Singh's. For the first time in half a century, they became politicised, playing a major role in the Sarkar Khalsa. Phula Singh became an integral member of the Lahore Darbar, and even dressed as a Sikh Sardar, wearing a white bana and jewelled armour as opposed to the traditional blue bana of the Akali Nihangs.
Despite his place amongst the Sikh aristocracy, Phula Singh retained the fierce indepedence the Akali Nihang Singh's were famous for. By 1807, although formally under the leadership of Ranjit Singh, Phula Singh and his Nihangs had become defacto rulers of Amritsar and were beyond the control of Sarkar Khalsas leaders. This was most apparent during the early period of Ranjit Singh's reign as Maharaja. The Nihang's witnessed Ranjit Singh on an elephant sitting in the presence of a Muslim dancing girl. Insulted by his affront to the Sikh code of conduct, Phula Singh demanded the Maharaja present himself to the Akaal Takht for punishment.- and Ranjit Singh duly obliged. Phula Singh ordered the Maharaja to be flogged unless he publically asked for forgiveness and the sangat (congregation) forgave him. On making a public apology, those in attendance shouted their forgiveness and Ranjit Singh escaped with nothing more than a bruised ego.
Phula Singh became one of the nascent Sikh state's leading commanders in 1807 during the Battle of Kasur. Ranjit Singh, Jodh Singh Ramgharia, Hari Singh Nalwa and Akali Phula Singh were all involved in a fierce battle with Qutbuddin Khan, the Nawab of Kasur. After a week long siege, the Sikhs broke through, destroying the Pathan forces in hand to hand combat and forcing the Nawab to withdraw.
Until this point, the Nihang's made their living through plunder, a constant source of worry for the Sikh leader's who couldnt control the Akali Nihang's thirst for plunder - from friend or foe. Following the battle, Ranjit Singh decided to reward the Nihang Jatha with a jagir and Phula Singh came under central government pay. Ranjit Singh hoped this would achieve the twin function of having Phula Singh fight under his leadership, and control the Nihang's from roaming the countryside and threatening the rule of the Sikh aristocracy.
On the whole, this had the effect that was intended. Phula Singh led the Sikh's to a large number of successes, perhaps most famously at Multan. The Sikhs had attempted to take the Afghan controlled city 4 times over a 13 year period but in 1818 they finally succeeded, killing its leader Muzaffer Khan and his five sons in the battle. The turning point came in the early part of the battle when a group of Nihangs under Phula Singh distracted the Afghans by laying a mine under one part of the fort under heavy fire. A few days later another larger contingent of Nihangs breached the Khizri Gate, taking the defenders by surprise and occupying the fort. It was only after seeing the Nihang's in the fort that the rest of the Sikhs followed.
Phula Singh was the special advisor on all things related to the volatile Afghan border and led most attacks in this region, defeating Feroze Khan later in 1818 and then conducting mountain warfare in Kashmir in 1819. Phula Singh was also the strategic mastermind of the successful first Battle of Peshawar defeating Yar Mohammed Khan.
Despite his successes for the Sikh state, Phula Singh continued to display independence, on more than one occasion embarrasing Ranjit Singh and his son, Kanwar (Prince) Sher Singh. Europeans at the time couldnt believe the behaviour of Nihangs and the lack of power of the ruling Sikhs to control them, Emily Eden, a member of the British aristocracy called them 'alarming' and 'fanatical' mentioned the 'Maharaha was completely powerless' when trying to control them'. On one occasion the Nihangs threw mud at the Maharaja to demonstrate against the Europeanisation of the Sikh Army. Phula Singh was a proponent of the battle tactics developed by Guru Gobind Singh and would ridicule the European drill system and tactics that were brought in by European officers such as Jean Francois Allard.
The Nihang's who viewed the East India Company with suspicion had a number of encounters with the British, all of which greatly embarassed Ranjit Singh. The most infamous was in Amritsar in 1809 when Charles Metcalfe was meeting Ranjit Singh. As he passed through Amritsar, his Indian Muslim soldiers started shouting pro-Shia slogans during an important Islamic festival. The Nihang's hearing the commotion, viewed the Muslims shouting slogans as an affront to their power. The Nihang's confronted the British and Muslims and in the unsuing physicalities, the dastaar (turban) of a Nihang fell to the floor. On hearing of the incident, Phula Singh appeared from the Akaal Takht seething with anger and shots were fired. The incident escalated and firing became widespread with a loss of life on both sides. As more and more Nihang's began arriving on the scene, Ranjit Singh heard the commotion and realised the death of a British official would undoubtedly mean war and convinced the Nihang's to cease their attack. The matter was settled, but the British began pressing the Maharaja to arrest Phula Singh.
These noises became louder following a skirmish with a British regiment led by Captain White near Damdama Sahib, The Nihang's felt the British were operating on Sikh territory and preparing for an attack on Sikhs and so without asking questions, the Nihangs attacked the British camp, killing 6 and wounding 20. The British formally put an arrest warrent out for Phula Singh following this incident. A British government source described Phula Singh's men as "fanatical bordering on insanity, they seem to be at war with all mankind...they are lawless..."
Phula Singh eventually fell at the second Battle of Peshawar in 1823. Dost Muhammed Khan had replaced the previously defeated Afghan leader Yar Mohammed Khan and called for Jihad against Sikhs. As the Afghan border of the Sikh state became increasingly rebellious, the Maharaja decided to send Phula Singh, Hari Singh Nalwa, his son Kharak Singh, the Frenchman Allard and finally Ranjit Singh himself decided to lead a contingent of Sikh forces. This battle displayed all of Phula Singh qualities as well as his weaknesses. Prior to the campaign, the Sikh leaders had taken a oath to begin fighting that very evening and reconquer the territory, however, on arriving they realised General Allard was slightly delayed. Ranjit Singh decided to delay the attack until the morning, however Phula Singh stubbornly refused to break his oath and without warning launched his Nihang Singh's into battle. Vastly outnumbered, the early Sikhs forces were pushed back considerably by the Afghans. It was only when Ranjit Singh saw Phula Singh in the thick of battle did he decide to throw his forces into the battle. The Nihang determination had given the unprepared Sikhs the inspiration they needed and from defeat they began to turn the tide of battle. Phula Singh had a horse shot from underneath him, and in his desire to reenter the battlefield, he made the tactical mistake of jumping onto an elephant. The Aghans couldnt believe their luck, Phula Singh, a constant source of misery to the Afghans was in the middle of the battle and here he was standing out like a target on an elephant. The Afghans trained their muskets on him and riddled his body with bullets.
Following the eventual Sikh victory, Ranjit Singh himself viewed the body of Phula Singh and wept uncontrollably at the death of one of his finest generals but also a man who had for the previous two decades made his life difficult. The death of Phula Singh began the end of Nihang involvement in the Sarkar Khalsa and they only regained a small measure of political relevancy at the Battle of Sabroan in 1846, although this only lasted a number of weeks.
5. Akali Gurbaksh Singh Nihang
Most Sikhs will have heard of 90% of the individuals on this list, but very few have heard about the person ranked fifth. The reason? Akali Gurbaksh Singh's story is lost forever in the shadow of Baba Deep Singh.
Born in 1688, the noted Sikh historian Giani Kirpal Singh mentioned that Gurbaksh Singh was one of the first individuals to recieve initiation into the Khalsa on its founding day in 1699. Very little is known about the life of Gurbaksh Singh, other than he was tutored by Bhai Mani Singh, one of the most illustrious names in Sikh history. Gurbaksh Singh joined the Shaheedan Misl that usually made the vanguard of the Khalsa Army and is reputed to have been involved in most of the major battles with the Afghans and the Mughals.
It was following the death of Deep Singh in 1757 that Gurbaksh Singh came to a position of influence within his Misl. During the Great Sikh Holocaust of 1762, the Afghan leader, Ahmed Shah Abdali had blown up Harimander Sahib, the spiritual centre of Sikhi for the second time in 5 years. In November 1764, the general returned to the plains of Panjab with a force of approximately 30,000 soliders and once again headed toward Amritsar to attack the partially rebuilt Harimander.
The Sikhs, depleted in number since the Holocaust, once again returned to their old tactics of emptying the cities and retreating to the mountains, plundering the invaders during the darkness of night when they would return to their homelands. However, Gurbaksh Singh refused to leave the vicinity of Harimander Sahib. Following in the footsteps of Deep Singh, Gurbaksh Singh decided that he would give his life for Sikhi and that the Sikhs should put up resistence to deliver a psychological blow to the Afghans.
The 30,000 Afghans approached the spiritual home of Sikhi and could scarecely believe their eyes when they saw 30 Sikhs standing guard. What was even more strange about the sight was that it looked like the Singhs were having a celebration. Singing at the top of their voices, Gurbaksh Singh was wearing a garland around his neck dressed as a groom, whilst the other 29 Singhs formed the marriage party that was eagerly courting the bride-death. Unnerved the Mughals approached with caution, however once they came within a musket shot of the Gurdwara, Gurbaksh Singh and his warriors swooped down. It was an incredibly unequal fight but the Sikhs were determined to put on one of the greatest last stands recorded.
Qazi Nur Mohammed was a chronicler travelling with the Afghan Army and noted in his book the Jangnama that "when the King reached Amritsar, they did not see any infidels there. However there were a few men who stayed in a fortress and were bent on spilling their blood and sacrificing themselves for their Guru. They were only thirty in number and they did not have the least fear of death. They engaged the Ghazi's (Muslims) and spilled their blood in the process."
4. Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa
220 years after Gurbaksh Singh, another individual gave his life in another last stand defending the sanctity of the Darbar Sahib. To understand the reasons why Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale was forced to make the last stand its important to appreciate the historical context.
After losing their kingdom to the British, the Sikhs quickly became the most prosperous community in British India, forming a substantial proportion of the British Indian Army and helping surpress the Mutiny of 1857. Following tremendous sacrifices in the First World War, Sikhs expected a measure of autonomy, however in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, the British fired on a gathering of peaceful protestors, killing over 300 Panjabi's in the process. The Sikhs then formed the largest proportion of freedom fighters - in fact 90% of all revolutionaries hanged by the British were Sikh. The Sikhs also introduced the notion of courting arrest in large numbers with their Gurdwara Reform movement in the 1920's, an event that directly led to Mahatma Gandhi adopting similar tactics. As the Second World War approached the Sikhs put differences aside to fight against the Nazi's in Europe and the Japanese in Burma, meanwhile the Gandhi led Congress and the Jinnah led Muslim league continued to fight against the British. Despite being masters of Panjab prior to the arrival of the British, the colonial rulers dictated that Sikhs did not make up a substantial part of the population and therefore would not be getting their own country back. Furthermore, they split the homeland of Panjab in two, two thirds going to Pakistan and a third going to India. Sikhs were then told to pick a country.
The Congress leader, Jawahar Lal Nehru made promises to court the Sikhs and wrote in the Lahore Bulletin of 1930 "the brave Sikhs of Panjab are entitled to special considerations. I see nothing wrong in an area of set up in the north of India where the Sikhs can also experience the glow of freedom."
The Sikh leaders chose to side with India and in 1947 the largest population change in human history occured that resulted in over a million deaths as the Panjab was split in two, most of these deaths were Sikhs who were easily distinguishable. The Sikhs, refugees in a new country were forced to begin from scratch, Most Sikhs were homeless having lost all their lands in Pakistan, however they expected an autonomous area they could now call home. However, the Indian Government quickly changed their views. Within weeks of Independence, the same Nehru branded the Sikhs "a lawless people and a menace to law abiding Hindus, the government should take strict measures against them."
To add insult to injury, whilst the rest of India was reorganised along linguistic lines, Panjab was the only state to not be given this treatment as this would make Sikhs the majority of the population in their state, given them defacto autonomy. The Sikhs once again began peaceful protests which led to the government storming the Golden Temple in 1955 to halt the protests. In 1965 a war with Pakistan broke out where once again the Sikhs put their differences with the Indians aside to battle an external threat and in light of their sacrifices the Sikhs eventually won their linguistic rights, getting a smaller Panjab where they formed the majority. However the storming of the Golden Temple in 1955 had made the Sikhs realise they would not be safe in India.
There were many promises made for the new Panjabi state including the fair distribution of river waters and a capital (Panjab was the only state in India without a capital city). The Akali Dal (political party) who for the past 15 years had battled for a Panjabi state adopted the Anandpur Resolution in 1973 where they asked for the Indian Government to deliver on the promises made in 1930 and 1966.
Into this environment rose the figure of Sant Bhindranwale. A student of the Damdami Taksal, a 300 year old Sikh institution, Bhindranwale was an expert in Sikh philosophy, mastering the knowledge contained within all the Granths (Aad Granth, Dasam Granth, Sarabloh Granth) and able to share this knowledge in an easy to understand way. As Panjab began to rebuild and gain wealth through the hard work of Panjabi's. Bhindranwale urged Sikh's to listen and to take heed of the last time Sikhs amassed wealth in a substantial manner and to stay away from drugs. Even his harshest critics grudgingly accept that he saved countless families from destruction through addiction.
As his popularity rose, the Indian Government realised that they could use Bhindranwale to split the Sikh vote in two and have him go against the Akalis. However it became apparent that not only could they not control Bhindranwale, but unlike many of the leaders they had dealt with in Panjab, Bhindranwale couldnt be brought either.
As his fame grew, the government began creating false stories, reporting that the Sikhs were asking for a separate homeland. In a number of interviews that are easily viewable online, both Bhindranwale and the Akali's both explicitly denied wanting a separate country, instead saying they wanted to be treated as equal citizens in a united India.
April 1978 was a turning point for Bhindranwale as on this day the Indian government opened fire on a gathering of peaceful Sikh protestors, killing 13. The Sikhs then began the Dharam Yudh Morcha (action for righteousness) where they began courting arrest and stopped payment of tax and utilities to force the government to negotiate.
Indira Gandhi, who herself was removed from governing India a decade previously for corruption returned to power and declared Sant Bhindranwale enemy of the state. Bhindranwale decided to court arrest in September 1981 however he was released within days when the police had no evidence to implicate him in any crimes. The Sikh nation led by the Akali's invited Bhindranwale to take residence within the Golden Temple complex from where he could lead the protests.
In 1982 the Indian Government began preparations for the invasion of the Harimander Sahib complex for the second time less than 30 years, By continuing to present Bhindranwale as a seperatist they hoped to drive a secterian wedge within Panjab and turn the Hindus against the Sikhs, therefore giving them the mandate to make what they knew would be a controversial move. However, many Hindu's in Panjab continued to visit Bhindranwale as an arbitrator of disputes as he was seen as a fair and effective man, less corrupt than the police and judiciary system.
In June 1984, the Army began a siege of Amritsar called Operation Bluestar. As the Mughals had done 300 years before with Guru Gobind Singh and Banda Singh Bahadur, the Indians tempted the Sikhs with promises of safe passage if they surrendered. The leader of the operation, General Brar had told Indira Gandhi that a quick show of force would frighten the Sikhs into surrender, however Bhindranwale, outnumbered and outgunned made a last stand worthy of its place in Sikh history.
The Golden Temple complex has been militarised since 1606 when Guru Hargobind built the Akaal Takht and placed within it weaponry including guns and swords. Bhindranwale built on these fortifications with the help of Shabeg Singh a former Major in the Indian Army. Depite General Brar's predictions, 200 Sikhs kept out 10,000 Indian Army soliders for a week. General Brar later admitted they did not appreciate the resolve, organisation, capabilities or the commitment of the Singh's. Eventually, with the Indians suffering a large number of casualities they eventually brought tanks into the complex and blew the Akaal Takht, the centre of Sikh political power into rubble.
Official government sources state most of the 200 Sikhs lost their lives whilst 83 government forces were killed and 2360 were wounded Eyewitnesses describe over 400 soldiers of the Indian Army having lost their lives whilst the Sikhs lost thousands, mainly non combatant civilians.
Bhindranwale's last moments are well documented from eyewitness testimony. After refusing to surrender, Bhindranwale gave a speech where told his Sikhs that the "time to give our heads has arrived". He ordered those Sikhs with families to escape the complex and break through the siege. With the other Sikhs he did an Ardaas on the morning on 6 June, The last corroborated eyewitness account of Bhindranwale was watching him leave through the rubble of the Akaal Takht, firing his gun as he faced the Indian forces. His body was found infront of the Akaal Takht later that day.
Indira Gandhi had chosen the first week of June to attack to create a large number of casualities as this date coincided with a large Sikh festival. Joyce Pettigrew, an anthropologist, described the purpose of the attack as "not to eliminate a political figure or a movement but to supress the culture of the people, to attack their heart, to strike a blow at their self confidence." Amnesty International reported that as the Army gained control of the complex they tied Sikhs up using their turbans and shot them in cold blood. They also reported close to 10,000 civilian casualties.
Bhindwanwale, by making a heroic last stand had reawakened a nation that had lost its confidence. After 140 years of firstly fighting for the British, and then the Indians, the Sikhs finally had the strength to once again fight for themselves. Bhindranwale, an advocate of a united India, when interviewed, mentioned that a separate Sikh state would only come into being if the Indian Army ever attacked the Golden Temple. Indira Gandhi, the leader who ordered the attacks and General Vaidya the Chief of Army staff were both killed by Sikhs within the next two years. Following Operation Bluestar in June 1984 and the Sikh Genocide in Delhi in November 1984, the Sikh Nation unanimously voted for independence at a large gathering (Sarbat Khalsa) in April 1986.
3. Hari Singh Nalwa
There is a case to be made that in terms of their generalship on the battlefield, Hari Singh is the greatest Sikh on this list. Hari Singh Nalwa was the commander-in-chief of the Sikh Empire (Sarkar Khalsa) under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Times of London wrote an article in 1881 where they not only noted his battlefield prowess but also his success as an administrator and foresight. The article went onto state that "had he had the money and resources of available to European states, it would have been entirely possible that he could have reached the border of Europe."
Despite reaching lofty heights, Hari Singh Nalwa had humble beginnings. Born in 1791 as Hari Singh Uppal, the youngster, like so many others on this list, lost his father at an early age. In 1804 his mother sent him to the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to resolve a property dispute. While there Hari Singh explained that his father and grandfather had both fought under Ranjit Singh's Sukerchak Misl for both his father Maha Singh and his grandfather Charat Singh. The Maharaja decided the arbitration in Hari Singh's favour and impressed by his skill as a musketeer gave him a job as a personal attendant. Hari Singh's climb to fame began later that year during a hunt where his party was attacked by a tiger. In one of the most famous stories in Sikh history, Hari Singh killed the tiger by ripping it apart using his hands, this earned him the nickname Baagh Maar, or Tiger Killer. As his reputation grew from the story, he was commissioned as a Sardar and given 800 horses and footmen under his command.
Hari Singh led his first independant contingent into battle in 1807 at Kasur under the leadership of the Maharaja, Jodh Singh Ramgharia and Akali Phula Singh Nihang. Hari Singh's performance was rewarded by a jagir (land based revenue) and his fame continued to grow. A year later Hari Singh led his first command of an army at the Battle of Sialkot where the 17 year old defeated Jiwan Singh.
The young Hari Singh fought numerous battles over the coming years in Attock, Kashmir and Mahmudkot. During the Battle of Multan in 1818, Hari Singh Nalwa led a division of Sikhs against Muzzaffar Khan. The Muslim ruler put up one of the strongest fights the Sikhs had encountered and although instrumental in the victory, Hari Singh Nalwa was badly burnt from a firepot thrown from the fort, putting him out of action for a number of months. However, he was fully recovered by 1819 to lead the reaguard of the Sikh conquest of Kashmir. The victory ended 5 centuries of Muslim rule and the cities of Lahore and Amritsar were lit up in celebration for three nights.
The conquest of Kashmir ushered in a decade of rapid Sikh conquest, and Hari Singh Nalwa was involved in or led most of the major battles. The 1827 Battle of Saidu was one of the most comprehensive. Sayed Bareli had proclaimed himelf to be a messenger of the Prophet Muhammed tellling all his tribesmen that he would deliver the Muslims from Sikh rule As local Muslim rulers began to heed his call, he eventually managed to command an army of over 15,000 Muslims, ready to raise Jihad against the Sikhs. On 23 February, the Sikhs under Hari Singh and Budh Singh Sandhanwalia met the self proclaimed messenger in battle and routed his army. They then pursued the enemy for 6 miles, plundering and pillaging as they went. By 1834 the Sikhs occupied Peshawar. At this point Hari Singh's reputation had become so widespread that Afghan women used to scare their children to sleep by mentioning that if they stayed awake "Hari Singh and his Sikhs would get them".
Hari Singh Nalwa's success wasn't only on the battlefield, but also as an administrator. At the height of his success, he had control over almost a third of the Sikh Kingdom from Peshawar to Kashmir. He was an able ruler of the territories he had administrative control of and was firm but fair. He built a number of forts and even a planned town called Haripur. As a baptised Khalsa he also built a great number of Gurdwara's as well as mosques for the Muslims and mandirs for the Hindu's. However, against some enemies he would engage in behaviour that would now be considered tyrannical, especially his campaigns against the Yusafzai.
In 1836 Hari Singh Nalwa led his penultimate campaign against Fateh Khan of Panjtar. After defeating the Yusafzai Afghans, the Sikhs burnt the town of Panjtar to the ground. A year later the Sikhs were in control of the Khyber Pass and preparations were being made for an invasion of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in Lahore, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's grandson, Nau Nihaal Singh was getting married and the Maharaja recalled Sikh Chiefs from across the nation to converge on the capital for two reasons: firstly to join in with the celebrations and secondly as a show of strength against the British who were also invited. There are differing commentaries for Hari Singh's absence. The most commonly supported is a bout of illness prevented the commander-in-chief from attending and this is certainly backed up with contemporary evidence, including the fact that his subordinate, Mahan Singh Mirpuri led the defence at Jamrud. A second argument put forward is that Ranjit Singh wanted to keep Hari Singh in Peshawar due to his popularity. There is no doubt that Hari Singh Nalwa was unhappy at the decision of Ranjit Singh to make Prince Kharak Singh his heir, and Hari Singh Nalwa could put a viable bid for the throne. In any case, noting the lack of Sikh Chiefs in the vicinity, the Afghans decided to launch an attack against the fortress in Jamrud.
Defended only by 600 Sikhs led by Mahan Singh, the Afghans came very close to victory, but Hari Singh Nalwa, still not fully recovered from his illness rode into the battlefield. Orders from Lahore stated that Hari Singh shouldn't go into battle without reinforcements, but fearing a Sikh collapse, the commander-in-chief decided he couldn't wait. The tide of the battle turned, however, during the heat of combat, Hari Singh Nalwa was shot in the chest and fell from his horse. Asking his attendants to not communicate his condition to the Sikhs, Hari Singh Nalwa passed away with the battle ongoing. Reinforcements from Lahore finally arrived and the Afghans were driven back. It was a costly victory for the Sikhs. With Hari Singh's death, the border with Afghanistan and the Sarkar Khalsa was finally drawn.
2. Banda Singh Bahadur
Possibly the most controversial figure in Sikh history is also one of its most succesful and tragic. Such is the story of Banda Singh Bahadur that when a British traveller arrived in Panjab in the late 18th century, he was amazed that many in the country had either not heard of Banda Bahadur or those that did mentioned him with disdain. To this day there are many false stories about the man who gave a mortal wound to the Mughal Empire from which it never recovered.
Born as Lachman Dev in October 1670, he was an avid hunter who's world was turned upside down in one event where he killed a deer but noticed on closer inspection that it had immediately delivered twin foetuses. Heart broken at what he had seen, he renounced hunting and his way of life and began a career as a wondering ascetic under the name Madho Das. Spending his life meditating, he eventually settled in Nanded in Central India, over 1000 miles from Panjab where he spent the majority of the next 2 decades, building up quite a following. One day on returning from completing some errands, he came home to find some goats he had been keeping had been killed, cooked and were being eaten a group of soldiers. The description of a solar eclipse in contemporary sources allows modern historians to accurately comment on this event
In blind rage he demanded to know who their leader was, coming face to face with Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru. After failing to humiliate and defeat the Guru psychologically and physically, he realised he was in the presence of a man significantly more advanced than him, in the physical and spiritual realms. Falling at his feet, he was encouraged by the Guru to give up his present ways. Whilst Banda had renounced the world on watching one deer get killed, he was surrounded by a Mughal government that was slaughtering civilians throughout India. The Guru told him to once again pick up the gun and sword and to hunt the tyrants who were laying waste to the nation. The Guru gave him the name Gurbaksh Singh, however Gurbaksh stated that he was the Guru's slave, his Banda and his instrument of destruction and that is the name he is now most commonly known as.
The Guru gave Banda 5 of his bows and a handwritten Hukamnama (edict) as a sign of his authority that was vested to him by the Guru. 25 soliders and a council of 5 advisors that he was to consult on important decisions were also providd. With this the Guru sent Banda north to Panjab to forment rebellion and destroy Mughal power.
It took Banda a year to reach Panjab as he passed through government strongholds and areas that were already in revolt. In 1709 he reached Narnaul in present day Haryana where he took part in his first action, supressing local bandits. He began issuing letters to Sikhs of the Panjab to join him him his rebellion. Contemporary sources state that there were three types of followers who joined his crusade; veteran Sikhs who had fought under Guru Gobind Singh, newly annointed Sikhs who converted to Sikhi on hearing Banda speak and finally the third group was made up of thugs and lesser desired elements of society who joined purely for the plunder. These were also the first to desert Banda Singh when there was any trouble.
Banda seized government treasuries in Sonepart and Kaithal to finance his rebellion, before falling on Samana, the home of the executioner of the 9th Guru. The entire district was razed to the ground, as was Sadhuara according to contemporary Mughal comentator, Kafi Khan. Banda finally set up a new capital at Lohgarh, minting coins, the age old method of proclaiming independence. After spending the best part of the year governing the local area, Banda Singh marched to Sirhind to face Wazir Khan, the Governor who had ordered the execution of the 10th Guru's two youngest children a number of years earlier. The death of the two children, both under 12 years of age had been a turning point as many Muslims were also disguisted by the actions of the Governor, the Nawab of Malerkotla in particular chastised Wazir Khan. On 12 May 1710, Banda Singh's collection of warriors armed with swords, spears and farming instruments took on the Imperial Army of Wazir Khan. In one of the greatest upsets in modern history, Banda Singh routed the Mughals and Wazir Khan was killed, sliced in two by Fateh Singh one of the 5 advisors the 10th Guru had sent north with Banda.
For the next couple of years, Banda had set up an independent Sikh state, completely separate from the Mughal Empire. It was at the height of his power that his fall also began. Whilst almost all sources unanimously praise his generalship on the battlefield, sources are conflicted on his rule. Until recently, historians had noted that Banda Singh became increasingly egotistical. Whilst Banda Singh was given command of the Sikh Army, the Guru had actually vested power within the Singh Khalsa, the nation of Sikhs. Historians had, until recently, commented that Banda Singh began to do away with the traditional blue of the Khalsa, ordering his followers to wear red, to adopt a new greeting of 'Fateh Darshan' and finally to give up meat and become Vaishnav Sikhs, a sect that Banda Singh had followed prior to meeting with the Guru.
Modern historians paint a different picture. Most now agree that there was indeed a shchism between the Sikhs, however this was created, partly by Banda Singh, but consolidated by the Mughal Government who used the adopted son of Mata Sundari (the 10th Guru's wife), Ajit Singh (a character of such poor repute that Sikhs have almost completely forgotten about him). As soon as the Mughals heard about small ideological differences, they built on these to create a split. Many Sikhs identifying themselves as 'Tat Khalsa' left Banda Bahadur before his siege of Lahore. As the Mughals heard stories of more and more Sikhs leaving Banda Singh they sent a massive force to capture the leader and bring him back to Delhi or kill him on the field.
For the next 3 years Banda Singh and his depleted forces were chased across Panjab into mountains and jungles, returning to the plains when the Mughals would turn back to their capital. This continued until finally the large Imperial force laid siege to the Sikhs in Gurdas Nangal. During the siege, more and more Sikhs began deserting Banda Singh, joining with their Tat Khalsa brethren. The turning point came when Binod Singh, one of the most senior Sikh leaders and one of the original 5 sent by the Guru decided to leave Banda and fought his way out of the siege. Eventually on 17 December 1715, running out of ammunition and eating nothing but the bark from the trees, the Singh's eventually opened the gates to the fort and were almost immediately slaughtered by the Mughals. The Mughals returned to Delhi with 700 cartloads of Sikh heads as well as almost 1000 prisoners.
Banda Singh was returned locked in an iron cage, dressed in a mocking red turban to signify his perceieved royalty. His cage was guarded day and night by soldiers who were afraid that the rebel had magical powers.
The death of Banda Bahadur is extremely well recorded, from Persian, Mughal and British sources. After being tortured for months, Banda was finally given the choice of converting to Islam or execution. John Surman, a representative of the British East India company remarked on the execution of Sikhs "it is not a little remarkable with what patience the Sikhs undergo their fate, and to the last it is not found that even one apostasised from his new found religion". On 9 June 1716 the Mughals placed Banda Singh son, Ajay Singh in his lap and asked Banda to kill his own son. On his refusal, the executioner ran a sword through the 4 year old and hacked him to pieces, leaving Banda covered in the blood of his dead son. The executioner then removed the childs liver and thrust it into Banda Singh's mouth. Banda Singh was then sat in a circle made from the heads of dead Sikhs. Mohammed Amin Khan was a noted Mughal reporter of the day and watched the execution unfold, remarking that Banda was rebellious to the end, telling the Emperor that men like him will always be born to punish tyrants like the Mughal Emperor. Following this last bit of rebelliousness, the executioner stepped forward and thrust the point of his dagger into Banda Singh's eyeball. Following this his second eyeball was removed before his left leg was chopped out. The British agents reported that at this point Banda Singh sat unflinching, in what seemed a state of meditation, not making a single noise. Finally the executioner removed his other legs, both his arms and then hacked his remaining torso into bits.
The death of Banda began a period of 40 years where Sikh political power was completely finished, with most Singh's hiding in jungles. The fallout of his death led to the first big difference in the community as Tat Khalsa Sikhs and Bandai Khalsa Sikhs continued to have differences. This was finally settled with a skirmish in Amritsar, within Harimander Sahib where the Bandai Khalsa led by Amar Singh Bandai were defeated by the Tat Khalsa led by Kahan Singh. Most Bandai Khalsa then rejoined the Tat Khalsa whilst a small number decided to head north to Jammu where a small community of Bandai Khalsa exists to this day.
1. Akali Baba Deep Singh
After 19 incredible stories, what does it take to be first on this list? Not much, just cheating death, fighting whilst fatally wounded and changing the course of Sikh and Indian history.
He is the most celebrated Sikh warrior and in the period following Guru Gobind Singh's death is considered the greatest Sikh. His death gave rise to Sikh rule and his story has been noted as a personal inspiration for at least 8 individuals on this list. He is considered the founder of the Damdami Taksaal, a centre of scholastic and weaponry learning, a leader of a Nihang Misl that was named after his death, and considered one of the greatest Akali Nihang Singh's in their celebrated history.
Born as Deep Singh Sandhu in 1682, the young Sikh took Amrit in the presence of Guru Gobind Singh within a year of the establishment of the Khalsa, some sources state he actually took Amrit in 1699 at the founding of the Khalsa. His younger years were spent in the court of Guru Gobind Singh where he learned hunting, weaponry and other martial skills as well as reading, writing and understanding Gurbani under the tutelage of Bhai Mani Singh. He eventually mastered a number of languages including Gurmukhi, Persian and Arabic. His aptitude for learning was rewarded in 1705 when he was summoned by Guru Gobind Singh to make copies of Guru Granth Sahib at Takht Sri Damdama with Mani Singh.
Despite becoming a prolific scholar, Deep Singh continued practising his martial skills, joining Banda Singh Bahadur in two battles; Sadhaura and Sirhind. When Nawab Kapur Singh split the Sikh forces into 12 Misls in 1733, Deep Singh was given leadership of one of the Misls and this meant he was involved in the skirmishes with both Nadir Shah of Persia and Ahmed Shah Abdali of Afghanistan. It was during the latter's invasion of India in 1757 that Deep Singh took his place in Sikh history.
Deep Singh led a jatha (squad) of Sikhs during Abdali's return from Delhi. The Afghan invader had taken a significant amount of plunder from the Mughal treasury and as soon as he entered Deep Singh's territory near Kurukshetra, the Nihang warrior began relieving the Afghan camp of much of their treasures. Every night the Afghans camped in his area, Deep Singh and his jatha would attack in the middle of the night. Incensed at the behaviour of the Sikhs, Ahmed Shah Abdali appointed his son, Taimur Shah, to take revenge and humiliate the Sikhs as they had done to his camp. The young Governor of Lahore did just that, desecrating Gurdwara's across Panjab, culminating in the destruction of Harimander Sahib, the centre of Sikhi. The Gurdwara was blown up with explosives and the sacred pool (Sarovar) was filled with animal carcasses.
On hearing of the destruction that the holiest shrine in Sikhi had faced, Deep Singh vowed to liberate the Gurdwara and promised that Sikhs would celebrate Diwali that year within Harimander Sahib. Deep Singh left his scholastic home of Damdama Sahib and began to head toward Amritsar with a small group of Sikh soldiers from his Misl. As they approached Tarn Taarn, Deep Singh began addressing larger groups of Sikhs, urging them to join him in liberating the famous temple. He drew a line in the sand and quoting one of Guru Nanak's most famous compositions, asked if any of the Sikhs desired to play the game of love, and if they did to approach him with their heads placed in their hands. Some Sikhs took a step back, others crossed the line in the sand and joined Deep Singh. By the time he reached the gates of Amritsar, his group had swollen to 5000.
On 11 November 1757, the Sikhs led by Deep Singh, and the Afghans led by Taimur Shah's general, Jahan Khan, clashed at Gohalwar, just outside of Amritsar. Deep Singh, aged 75, led the battle from the front in fierce hand to hand combat. Despite his advanced age, Deep Singh had continued to hunt, even after giving up active military duty and he swung his 15kg Khanda with such ferocity that contemporary Afghan sources thought he was possessed by an evil spirit. Toward the end of the battle, Deep Singh and another Afghan leader, Attal Khan simultaneously struck a blow with their swords to each other. Attal Khan was decapitated on the spot, Deep Singh sustained a deep and mortal wound to his neck, knocking him to the floor. A group of Singh's surrounded Deep Singh's body picking up their wounded commander and asking whether his commitment to liberate Harimander Sahib was a lie. On hearing this, Deep Singh held his wounded neck in one hand and began swinging his Khanda sword in the other. This act of defiance in the face of death is one of the most famous images in Sikh history. Friend and foe alike stopped on the battlefield. The wound in the neck was so deep, Deep Singh's head was twisted and contorted, yet he continued to plough through the Afghan army. On seeing the risen Deep Singh, the Afghan army began to panic and fled in a disorderly retreat. The Sikhs, supporting Deep Singh reached the edge of Harimander Sahib where Deep Singh finally fell.
The spot where Deep Singh finally passed away is still marked within the area of Harimander Sahib, his 15kg Khanda sword still on show. The liberation of Harimander Sahib paved the way for Sikh ascendency, within 45 years of the Battle of Gohalwar they had created an independent and sovereign state. Such was the impact of Deep Singh's death, that his Misl was named after him - Shaheedan. The manner of his death gave the Sikh resistance renewed hope - here was a man who had illustrated the teachings of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh. The Sikhs, who had always called themselves Akal Purakh's Fauj (the army of the non-temporal/timeless energy) and now they truly believed they had the support of a higher energy or being. This belief in righteousness led numerous armies to victory, from the Muslims under Muhammed who were convinced they were fighting under God's chosen Prophet, to the Jews under David who were convinced they were God's chosen people, to the French under Napoleon who believed they were fighting and dying for the betterment of humanity with liberal and enlightened ideals.
What really separates Deep Singh from many others and puts him first on this list is his commitment to the Khalsa ideal and Sikh philosophy. Guru Nanak encouraged questions, research and peace. Deep Singh spent the majority of his life learning and teaching the Guru's message, making handwritten copies of Guru Granth Sahib and teaching young Sikhs about meditation. However, Deep Singh also followed the ways of the warrior, picking up his sword when all other methods of arbitration had been exhausted. Deep Singh was a learned scholar, a spiritual saint and a warrior of the highest order.
British Sikh in my twenties, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.