Army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

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Army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a formidable military machine that helped the Maharaja carve out an extensive kingdom and maintain it amid hostile and ambitious neighbours, was itself the creation of his own genius. His inheritance was but a scanty force which, in the manner of the Sikh misldari days, was comprised almost solely of horsemen, without any regular training or organization. *Everyone provided his own horse and whatever weapons he could afford or acquire.

  • What held these troopers together was their personal loyalty to the leader.
  • The tactics followed were those of guerilla warfare.

This system had served the Khalsa well during the turbulent and anarchic eighteenth century, but was unsuited to the needs of changing times and to Ranjit Singh's ambition to establish a secure kingdom for the Sikhs, one free of forign rule. Early in his career, he had watched how the British troops with their systematic training and their discipline, had vanquished Indian forces vastly superior in numbers. He had also realized how crucial a well drilled infantry and artillery was in warfare.

In 1802, soon after his occupation of Amritsar, he employed former soldiers from the East India Company's army to train his newly formed infantry platoons. He even sent some of his own men to Ludhiana to study the British methods of training and tactics. As Sikhs generally looked down upon infantry service, he recruited Purbias (soldiers of fortune from the Gangetic plains), Punjabi Muslims, Afghans and, later, Gurkhas as well. These troops were soon tested during the short campaign against Ahmad Khan Sial of Jharig and the zamindars of Uchch during the winter of 1803-04. Their successes and the fact that the Maharaja himself regularly attended training made the infantry an enviable service. Sikhs soon swelled its ranks in large numbers.

Ranjit Singh gave increased importance to artillery which had been sorely neglected in Sikh forces in the past being limited to the use of small zamburaks or animal mounted swivel guns. The manufacture of Canons of larger calibre and ammunition were undertaken on a large scale. The Artillery's training and command and ordnance were under Punjabi generals, Ilahi Bakhsh and Lahina Singh Majithia, until the arrival of a French officer, General Claude Auguste Court in 1827 and the American Colonel Alexander Gardner in 1832. Lahina Singh Majithia continued to head the armament workshops, and Dr John Martin Honigberger, a Hungarian physician, was entrusted with the mixing of gunpowder.

The reorganization and training of the Sikh cavalry was soon underway (the Napoleonic wars had ended in Europe) and soon experienced European officers hearing of the exploits of Ranjit Singh sought glory and riches in the Maharaja's army. Jean Baptiste Ventura and Jean Francois Allard arrived in Lahore in 1822. Ranjit Singh gave them employment after considerable initial hesitation and elaborate verification. He intrusted to them the raising of a special corps of regular army, the FaujiKhas or FaujiA'in. General Ventura trained battalions of infantry and General Allard trained the cavalry.

There was a rapid increase in the strength of the army during the years following 1822, as the following figures compiled by Professor Sita Ram Kohli from the records of the Sikh government show:

Year Infantry Cavalry
--------- Regular Irregular---
1819 7,748 750 3,577
1823 11,681 1650 7,300
1828 15,825 4315 7,200
1838 26,617 4090 10,795
Year Guns Swivels Personnel
1819 22 190 834
1823 Figures not available
1828 130 280 3,778
1838 188 280 4,535

The above table does not include the jagirdari fauj or feudal levees for which no figures are available. This force consisted almost entirely of horsemen which the jagirdars had to maintain and produce in time of need or at the annual general reviews, normally held at the time ofDussehra in October. There were, besides, the king's bodyguards, FaujiQHajat or garrison infantry to guard important forts, and a 4000strong crack brigade of Akalis or Niharigs. Infantry thus became the central force, with cavalry and artillery as supporting arms. It was organized into battalions of about 900 men each. A battalion, commanded by a kiimedan or commandant, assisted by an adjutant and a major, was the standard administrative and manoeuvring unit. Its administrative staff included, besides the usual campfollowers and tradesmen, a munshior clerk, a mutsaddi or accountant, and a graiittii or priest and scripturereader. A battalion had eight companies of 100 men each, further divided into sections of 25 men each. Similarly, regular cavalry was organized in risalas, regiments, subdivided into turps or troops, and artillery into deras and batteries. Artillery was further classified according to its mode of traction, which was generally determined by the size of the guns. In 1804, this arm had been bifurcated into topkhana kalan, heavy artillery and topkhana khurd, light artillery. Zamburaks or swivels, usually carried on camels, were attached to infantry units. Horsedrawn artillery was introduced in 1810. During the same year, a special artillery corps, known as topkhanaikhas or topkhanaimubarak, was formed as the royal reserve under Ghaus Muhammad Khan, popularly known as Mian Ghausa. In 1827, General Court reorganized the artillery into three wings. Topkhana jinsi, literally personal artillery (reserve), was a mixed corps with batteries of gavi, bullockdriven, aspi, horsedriven, fill, elephantdriven, guns and the Aobobs or howitzers. Topkhana aspi or horsedriven artillery consisted of batteries for attachment to divisions of irregular army. Zamburaks or camelswivels and ghubaras or mortars were organized into deras or camps subdivided into batteries. Batteries were subdivided into sections of two guns each, with provision for even a single gun functioning as a subunit. The entire field army was divided into faujia'in or regular army, Faujibeqava 'id or irregular army and jagirdari fauj or feudal levees. FaujiA'in, with five infantry battalions under General Ventura, three cavalry regiments under General Allard and 34 guns under General IIahi Bakhsh, formed the hard core troops under the overall command of General Ventura. FaujiBeqava'id forming a larger bulk consisted of deras of ghorcharhas, or irregular cavalry grouped into divisions, each under one of the many distinguished generals such as Hari Singh Nalva, Diwan Mohkam Chand, Misr Divan Chand, Fateh Singh Ahluvalia. and Fateh Singh Kalianvala. Each dera comprised several smaller groups, misJs, composed of members of a clan or their close relations commanded by heads of respective clans known as misldars. Deras ofjagirdari fauj, or feudal levees, were similarly organized forming part of one or the other division. Artillery formed a single central corps from which attachments were made to the divisions, depending upon the requirements of a particular campaign. Nominal overall command of a particular expedition was vested in one of the princes royal. Ranjit Singh himself was the supreme commander. He also led some expeditions personally. The crack brigade of Akalis under their famous leader, Phula Singh, was virtually an autonomous formation pressed into service when needed by the Maharaja through his personal influence and tact.

Standard deployment at the commencement of a battle was guns in the centre and slightly forward of the rest of the force, infantry a little behind and also covering the flanks of artillery, and cavalry on the extreme flanks. The battle usually commenced with an artillery barrage.

Regular troops wore distinctive uniforms prescribed for each arm. Cavalrymen were dressed in red jackets (French grey for lancers), long blue trousers with a red stripe, and crimson turbans. Woollen jackets were used during winter. The regiments were armed with varying combinations of weapons sword/sabres and carbines and matchlocks or lances. Infantry was clad in scarlet jacket/coat, white trousers with black belts and pouches. Different regiments were distinguished by the colour of their headdress white, red, green or yellow. The Gurkhas had green jackets and black caps. Postins or furcoats, or padded jackets were used during winter. The gunners wore white trousers and black waistcoats with crossbelts. Officers were not bound by rules of uniform. They used gaudy dresses of brightcoloured silks each dressing differently. The ghorcharhas or the irregular cavalry had no uniform laid down for them; yet they turned out remarkably well, as testified by Baron Hugel, a Prussian noble, who visited Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1836 and inspected a cavalry parade. " I never beheld," he wrote of a troop of ghorcharhas, "a finer nor a more remarkably striking body of men. Each one was dressed differently, and yet so much in the same fashion that they all looked in perfect keeping."

Recruitment to the army was on a purely voluntary basis. There was no class composition on the basis of religion or nationality, nor was there a prescribed age limit for enrolment or retirement. Physical fitness and loyalty to the State were the essential conditions. However, the clannish basis of the misis in the FaujiBeqava'id ensured solidarity in the lower rungs of military administration. Similarly, bravery in the field and efficiency in the performance of duty were the only considerations for promotion and reward, which were also extended to the sons of those who died in action. A welldefined system of reward and punishment was enforced to maintain discipline and morale. The system of fasli or sixmonthly payment, or payment through jagirs was later replaced by regular monthly payment in cash. Rates of pay ranged between Rs 400500 for a general, Rs 1725 for an infantry soldier and Rs 2226 for a horseman per month, including, in the last case, maintenance of a horse and accoutrements. European officers enjoyed much higher salaries. Ventura and Allard were, for instance, each paid Rs 25,000 per annum, in addition to certain jagirs. There was no provision for retirement benefits, but allowances were sometimes sanctioned from out of the dharamarth or religious charities fund to those permanently disabled on active service or to the dependants of those killed in action. Distinguished service in peace or war was also recognized through the award of civil and military titles, bestowal of khill'ats or robes of honour and grant of jagirs or landed estates.

There were three grades of khill'at marked by the number, variety and quality of the garments, ornaments and weapons comprising each of them. Military titles were highsounding Persian expressions, which the recipients and their bards and ushers could use before their names, such as HizbariJang (the lion of battle), ZafarJang Bahadur (victorious, brave in war) Samsam uddaulah (sharp sword of the State), Shuja' uddaulah (valour of the State), Tahavurpanah (asylum of bravery), and so on. The titles of Raja and Diwan, sparingly bestowed, were essentially for distinguished service on the civil side. For military officers, the title ofSardar was considered one of considerable distinction. Towards the end of his reign or, to be more exact, on the occasion of the marriage of Kanvar Nau Nihal Singh in March 1837, Ranjit Singh instituted an Order of Merit named KaukabiIqbaliPanjab (Star of the Prosperity of the Punjab). It was a gold medal, 2.25 inches across with five large and five small pointed branches issuing outwards alternately from a roundish centre bearing a likeness of the Maharaja in bust on one side, and his name on the other. It was meant to be worn round the neck suspended on a gold and scarlet riband passing through a ring on top of the semiglobular head of the star.

The kaukabwas of three different classes representing the three grades of the Order, distinguished by the size and quality of the inset preciousstones. Star of the first class, meant to be awarded only to members of the royal family and very few distinguished chiefs and nobles for their proven devotion and fidelity to the person of Maharaja and his House, was ornamented with a single large diamond. The Order of the second grade was bestowed upon loyal courtiers, governors of provinces, generals and ambassadors in recognition of political services. It had a diamond (of smaller size) and an emerald on it. The Order of the third grade, having a single emerald, was awarded to military officers of the rank of colonel, major or captain for bravery, resourcefulness, alertness and faithfulness; to civil servants for distinguished administrative ability and honesty; and to others enjoying greater confidence of the sovereign. Bestowal of the kaukabswas accompanied by appropriate khill'ats and titles for the awardees.


  • 1. Bajwa, Fauja Singh, Military System of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1964
  • 2. Balwant Singh, The Army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Lahore, 1932
  • 3. Ganda Singh and Teja Singh, ed., Maharaja Ranjit Singh: First Death Centenary Memorial Volume. Amritsar, 1939
  • 4. Cunningham, Joseph Davey, A History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej. London, 1849
  • 5. Osborne, W. G., The Court and Camp of Runjeet Sing. London,1840
  • 6. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, 2 vols. Princeton, 1963 and 1966
  • 7. Harbans Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Delhi, 1980