Maharaja Ranjit Singh is the stuff of legend. The history of the Indian subcontinent is incomplete without the stories of this very-loved and respected King; who still remains a binding thread between divided Punjab. Yet, history books in school don’t dedicate more than a line to him. 

 

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With Aurangzeb’s death, the downfall of the Mughal Empire had started. The Sikh army led expeditions against the Mughals and Afghans; and as the army grew, it eventually split up into 12 misls. It was the coronation of Ranjit Singh as ‘Maharaja’ that would lead to the unification of these 12 misls and the formal start of the Sikh Empire. 

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The Coronation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh | Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum

Born on the 13th of November in 1780, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was known for his formidable leadership and continues to live in the imagination of Punjab. Here’s why he remains relevant even today. 

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Maharaja Ranjit Singh looked at everyone with ‘one eye’ : 

Any portrait of the Maharaja makes his physical handicap amply clear. At a young age, he lost one eye to small pox. But the irony of his appearance isn’t lost on the reputation he gained – that of being a secular King. After all, he “looked at everyone with one eye”, irrespective of caste or creed. This is especially evident in his employment of the three Muslim brothers employed as the court-physicians. They would later rise to indispensable roles, and remain with the Maharaja till the end. 

 

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It has also been noted by several historians that Ranjit Singh’s rule was marked by efficiency and glory. He chose the right people for the right jobs, based on merit, and from diverse communities. Given the vast size of his Empire, it was necessary for him to have capable and loyal ministers.

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Darbar of Maharaja Ranjit Singh  | Photo: Wikimedia

Maharaja Ranjit Singh: A Man with a Vision! 

No matter what historian’s account you read, there’s one thing about Maharaja Ranjit Singh that remains common : he was a popular king, always meeting and connecting with his subjects and addressing their grievances. And so it goes, that the Maharaja being uneducated himself, decided he wanted his subjects to write to him. 

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Katibs at the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh | Photo: Twitter @tuhfatulhind

Consulting his education minister, Ranjit Singh had 5000 copies of a course book made. The book would enable people to learn Farsi and basic arithmetic. These copies were then distributed amidst Numberdaars (rich landlords) with the agenda that they would further make copies and distribute it amidst the local community. Of course, accountability was important, and they had to send a report back to Maharaja Ranjit Singh with details on who they had distributed the books to. 

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A Sikh guru with pupils, Lahore | Image: V&A London

According a historian’s account, by the end of a couple of years, 87% of Lahore, and 78% of Punjab was able to read, write and communicate in Farsi. 

Maharaja Ranjit Singh had ‘An Eye for Art’

Under the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh empire flourished. In the capital city of Lahore, forts, palaces, and havelis were built.  All these buildings had jharokas with intricate woodwork; domes with decorated inlay, carvings, and paintings. According to an article in the Marg Magazine :

Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the Harmandar Sahib – which was gilded during his reign.

…lacquer workers, mirror workers for the ceilings of the rooms of the zenanas, weavers of shawls for presentation, tailors for the costumes for the courtiers, armourers to make swords, shields, and helmets for the army, the thathiars to mature utensils for households, painters of portraits of the grandees, coincers of currency – there was the need of all the crafts to build the new life.

As the Maharaja brought peace to Punjab through promoting art and culture, his popularity only soared.

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Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a bazaar from the Howard Hodgkin collection

With the promotion of art and culture, secularism, and in creating access to education – Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule became a legacy. 200 years on, we are yet to see a leader like him. 

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