Hari Singh Nalwa and the subjugation of north-western frontier

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Dr. Kirpal Singh The greatest legacy of Hari Singh Nalwa is the conquest of Hazara and Peshawar and consolidation of the north-western frontier. But for the achievement all the regions along with the entire trans-Indus territories would have been lost to India forever and in that case these territories would not have been part of the British Empire. Nor Pakistan would have inherited them. These would have been in Afghanistan. Hence Hari Singh Nalwa’s achievement in this context is of international importance. The purpose of this paper is to examine and analyse the circumstances in which this was achieved and to discuss how Hari Singh Nalwa as able to consolidate the defence of the frontier in these areas.

In order to appreciate the heroic work of Hari Singh Nalwa it is very essential to comprehend the political situation and historic background of the trans-Indus territories. According to Ain-i-Akbari all these areas were included in the Kabul province which was one of the provinces like Lahore Province (Punjab) or Multan Province, Kapul Province and Pakhly viz Hazara (modern district of Hazara) as one of the Sarkars like that of Kabul, Sewad (Peshawar area) Issa Khvl, etc. Though these areas were under the control of Mughals they were never subdued. In the Attock (2) District Gazetter it has been stated: “But the Mughal sway was always more nominal than real. They appear to have been content to levy revenue and there is nothing to show that any serious government was attempted. The whole district paid only about half a lakh of rupees and the heads of each tribe were practically independent”. (1)

This nominal sway of the Mughals ended after the Nadir Shah invasion which created a lot of disturbance in the whole of north-western India in 1738-39 A.D. The Mughal Emperor Mohammed Shah could not resist the massacre loot and plunder of the foreign invader. (2) Nadir Shah established a very strong force on the north-western frontier. The Afghans continued the work that Nadir Shah had begun. With the Khaibar pass and Peshawar district in foreign hands, Punjab became a starting point for the expeditions against the Delhi government. (3) All the trans-Indus areas and some portion of the west Punjab was brought under the control of Kabul kingdom by Ahmad Shah Abdali, founder of modern Afghanistan. The repeated invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali could not crush the Sikhs. On the other hand these had their rise to political power.

The Sikhs were successful in wrestling most of the territory of Punjab from Ahmad Shah Abdali. Gazi Nur Mohammad in his famous Jang Namah gives the details of the Sikh possessions. He concludes: “From Sarhind to Lahore, Multan and Derajet the whole country has been divided by these wretched dogs (4) among themselves”.

The Sikh Chiefs had very nominal control over the western part of Sindh Sagar Doab - viz areas of Fatehjang, Pindigheb and Bhakhar. Hari Ram Gupta writes, "Even the Afghan invaders had not subdued them because they were off the highway in a country difficult of access and Ghebes satisfied themselves by presenting a small tribute consisting of a horse or a few heads of cattle as the invader passed and thus secured his goodwill.” Gujar Singh Stangi could not make an impression on them to any remarkable degree. Charat Singh Sukerchakia overran the southern part of Rawalpindi - he could not get much out of hardy Ghebas and his supremacy over this tract also remained nominal (5):. It was left to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his general, Hari Singh Nalwa to effectively subdue and control both the cis Indus and trans-Indus turbulent tribes. The rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799 - 1839) will ever remain a watershed in the annals of the trans-Indus regions. Maharaja Ranjit Singh undertook to subdue and control effectively these ferocious tribes. After the conquest and annexation of Jultan and Kashmir he led his legions across the Indus. This was a big challenge to the valiant Afghans who raised a cry of Jehad under Azim Khan Burkzai, ruler of Kabul. A big army was collected on the bank of the river Kabul at Naushehra. Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory and Ghazis was dispersed in 1823.

Consolidation of Defence in Hazara

Hazara, the country west of Kashmir, east of Peshawar and Northwest of Attock was conquered and annexed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1820. Its first Nazim under Ranjit Singh was Amar Singh Majithia who ruled over the territory for two years. He was successful in suppressing the rebellion of Muhammad Khan Tarin and was able to defeat Dhund, Tarin, Tanel and Kharel tribes who were fighting against him. Lepel Griffin writes about the battle: “The battle was over, the enemy had taken to flight and the Sikh forces had retired from the field, when Amar Singh, thirsty and fatigued, went down to the little stream Samandar to bathe and drink. He had only a few horsemen with him, and a number of the enemy returning and seeing the weakness of the little party, came down and killed Amar Singh and his followers after a desperate defence (7)”.

After the death of Amar Singh Mejithis who is also known as Amar Singh Kalan, Hari Singh Nalwa was appointed the Nazim of Hazara. He was not known to the Hazara tribes. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh led his army to conquer Makerm in 1821, he ordered Hari Singh Nalwa, who was in Kashmir, to join him there. At that time, Hari Singh had only seven thousand army. On the way he was opposed by twenty thousand wild mountaineers living in the Pakhly hills. Pakhly or Hazara was the spot dreaded by merchants for these tribes demanded toll on the merchandise. Hari Singh, after his vain efforts to induce the enemy to yield him a passage, attacked them with vigour and storming their stockade defeated them with great slaughter. (8) This was no mean achievement to defeat about twenty thousand Hazara tribes with seven thousand men. Maharaja was much pleased over this exploit of Hari Singh Nalwa. This incident indicates how precarious were the conditions N.K. Sinha has rightly states, “In Pakhli Damtaur, Torbel and Darband region, Sikh sway was still precarious. Hari Singh Nalwa was about this time sent there to create a tradition of vigorous and efficient administration”. (9) According to Griffin, “Hazara was the most turbulent province under the Sikh rule.” (10) Hari Singh Nalwa joined his assignment in Hazara in February, 1822 and undertook to punish the murderers of Amar Singh, his predecessor. He attacked Hasham Khan who was supposed to have had a hand in the murder. He surrendered and produced the real culprits who were punished. Hasham Khan promised to be loyal. (11)

In order to understand the defence measures of Hari Singh Nalwa it is essential to understand the geographical conditions of this region as well as tribal distribution. Hasham Khan belonged to the northern area and was the leader of the Krel tribe (or Karlani tribe which is a branch of the Khattak tribe). In order to have full control over this area Hari Singh built a fort at Nara, modern Tehsil Abbottabad. (12) Army was stationed there to keep in check the Pathans on this side. On the western side of Hazara territory partly the River Indus partly forms the natural defence but on the north and eastern side is bounded by partly River Jhelum and partly by the mountainous range known as Pakhli range.

In the Ain-i-Akbari the entire territory is known as Pakhil. (13) The word Pakhli appears to have been derived from Pactyan nation, mentioned by Herodotus. (14) According to Ibbetson the following tributes chiefly occupied the Hazara territory - Dilzak, Swati, Jadun, Tanaoli and Shilmani. (15) In the lower range, according to Prem Singh, the main Pathan tribes were Tarin, Utmanzai, Tarkhoali and Mashwani. (16) Tanaoli and Tarkhoali appear to be identical. In order to check these ferocious tribes Hari Singh Nalwa adopted a well thought out policy. He built a very strong fort in the valley surrounded by mountains and named it after the eighth Guru of the Sikhs as Harkrishangarh (17) and also founded a town named Haripur. The town was surrounded by a wall which was four yards thick and sixteen yards high and had only four openings. Drinking water was provided to the town by digging a tank. Many small drains were dug to carry sullage water. (18) Baron Hugel visited the town on December 23, 1835 and he found the town humming with activity. (19)

In the upper ranges of Pakhli there lived mainly Jadun, Tanawali and Swatis. (20) They were very warlike tribes and it was very difficult to control them. There were the tribes who blocked the passage of Hari Singh Nalwa in 1821 and had been defeated by him with much lesser force. Since Hazara had been annexed with the kingdom of Ranjit Singh and Hari Singh being Nazim of Hazara adopted measures to keep under control these warlike tribes. The measures were to build forts at strategic places and garrison them with an army. The roads were built to link them so that reinforcement could be sent from one fort to another fort at the time of crisis. This policy of building forts proved very successful and very deterring for these tribes. The forts built in the upper ranges of Pakhli were: Fort Nowan, Shekar, Fort Dhamtaur, Fort Darband and Fort Shinkiari. (21) An old fort at Tarbel was repaired.

Consolidation of North-western Frontier

When Peshawar was conquered and annexed, Hari Singh Nalwa was appointed its Governor in 1834 A.D. (22) The occupation of Peshawar and the trans-Indus region by Maharaja Ranjit Singh proved to be the gravest crisis in the history of Pathans. Despite a surging sea of Afghan cries of “Lohagaza” (great Jehad) under Azim Khan, they had been defeated in 1823 in the battle of Nawshehre, (23) and Azim Khan died of the shock. Again Afghan tribes were fighting jehad under the stirring leadership of Syed Ahmad Barelvi who claimed to be the apostle born to serve the Pathans.

In two decisive battles of Saido in 1827 and Balakot in 1831, (24) he was defeated. In the latter battle he was killed while fighting against Hari Singh Nalwa and other generals. (25) The Afghans and Pathan always consider themselves superior and considered people of Indian stock as inferior. They used to look down upon Indian Muslim and used to call them with contempt “Hindko”. Their pride was pricked for the first time as they had been defeated by the [Sikh]s whom they considered as infidels. Undoubtedly they were agitated and used to say, “Khalsa Hum Khuda Shurda” (Khalsa too has become equal to God). (26) It was under these circumstances that Hari Singh Nalwa was appointed Governor to control these unruly tribes. (27)

It is very important to understand the tribal distribution in the Peshawar region. Khattaks were predominantly settled in Khattak, a country from the south of the Kabul river on the low lands from Indus to Nowshera. They were fanatical people and never liked the Sikhs. Yusafzais, the most numerous of the Peshawar tribes, were extremely warlike. Muhammad Zai inhabited the area Northeast of Peshawar. The Gigianis had their settlements south of Muhammad Zai areas and they were in open rebellion as their lands had been given to Barakzai Chiefs under the Sikh Government. Afridis ruled supreme in the Khaibar area. Besides these there were other tribes like Khalils Mohammands, etc. (28) The tribesmen in each Khel looked to his own Malik or Khan or council of elders viz jirga for guidance in matters of common interest and not to the ruling authority at Peshawar. (29) As such he was ever ready to take up arms when called upon by Chief against the infidel Sikhs.

Hari Singh Nalwa knew how to match the Sikh hatred by Afghans. He set up a very strong administration in the Peshawar valley. He levied a cess of rupees four per house on the Yusafzais. This cess was to be collected in cash or in kind. For its realization personal household property could be appropriated. There was scarcely a village which was not burnt. In such awe were his visitations held that his name was used by mothers as a term of fright to hush their unruly children. (30)

It was prudently realized that although the spell of Afghan supremacy was broken the region predominantly populated by turbulent and warlike Muhammadan tribes could not be securely held unless a large army was permanently stationed there. A force of twelve thousand was with Hari Singh Nalwa to quell any sign of turbulence and to realize the revenue. The terror of the name of the Khalsa resounded in the valley. Part of the city of Peshawar was burnt and the residence of the Barkzai governors at Bala Hissar was razed to the ground. Hari Singh Nalwa strengthened the Sikh position by garrisoning the frontier forts. (31)

In order to consolidate the defence of the north-western frontier, Hari Singh Nalwa examined the topography of the Peshawar region. There were three rivers following from Afghanistan to Peshawar forming three water routes as well as land routes. The highest tributary of the river Indus on the western side is the River Kabul. Kabul the capital of Afghanistan and Jallalabad are situated on the banks of this river. Nawshehra where a decisive battle had been fought in 1823 A.D. between the Afghans and Sikhs is also situated on the bank of this river.

The second important river is Barba River. It is a tributary of River Kabul and joins it from the southern side. Peshawar which the capital of the region is situated on its banks. The Swat River which is also a tributary of River Kabul joins it from the north. Hari Singh Nalwa decided to build forts in this terrain in order to check infiltration of, and the invasion of the Afghans on all these routes. The nearest mountainous pass to Peshawar is the Khaibar which is only nine miles from Peshawar. On the previous occasions all important invaders had invaded India through it. Hari Singh Nalwa decided to construct forts on all these strategic points.

On the bank of the River Kabul, Michni, a fort, was constructed and it was put under the command of Nichhatar Singh, (32) son of a well-known general Dhanna Singh malwai. In this fort were stationed 300 infantry men, 100 horsemen, 10 artillery men, two big and two small cannon. (33)

On the bank of the River Barha also a strong fort was built. It was named Barha fort. Three hundred infantry, 100 cavalry, three cannon pieces were placed there and the required provisions were supplied. It was placed under Jhanda Singh Butalia. (34)

On the Swat river there was a strategic place where three routes met. These three routes were one from Kabul, another from Hashatnagar which was an Afghan settlement on the extreme north, and the third was Gandhav Pass a minor opening. Hari Singh constructed a fort here. It was names as Shankargarh. There were stationed 500 infantry, 300 cavalry, 35 artillery men, two big and 10 small cannons. It was placed under lehna Singh Sandhanwalia, a well-known warrior. (35) But the most important route was through the Khaibar Pass which had been the traditional route for the invaders since the times immemorial.

After surveying the entire area Hari Singh spotted a small mound on the eastern end of Khaibar Pass which was a part of the nearby village of Jamrud. It had the remains of a small mud fort. Hari Singh decided to build a fort there. Necessary material was collected and a foundation of a very strong fort was laid there on October 17, 1836. Hari Singh Nalwa himself laid the foundation of the fort after offering prayers. The masons and the labourers were working there continuously and they were able to finish this historic fort after a month and twenty-five days. Its walls were four yards wide, 12 yards high. It was named as Fatehgarh Sahib. (36) Inside this fort were stationed 800 infantry, 200 cavalry, 80 artillery men, 10 big cannons and 12 small cannons. Maha Singh, a seasoned general, was appointed the commander of the fort. The fort faced scarcity of water which was overcome by harnessing a nearby stream that was under the control of the Afridis. The Afridis were offered a jagir worth Rs. 122/ - in return for control over the stream. An alternate arrangement of water was also made within the fort to face any eventuality by digging a big well. (37)

Another important fort was built on the road leading to this fort linking Peshawar. It was just in the middle of the way between Jamrud and Peshawar. (38) It was named Burj Hari Singh and 100 men were stationed there. Besides this Hari Singh got repaired the old forts like Attock, Khairabad, Shubkadar and Jehangir. (39)

This line of forts on the north-western side were linked by roads so that reinforcements could reach each fort in the time of crisis. Peshawar was strongly fortified and was linked with Attock by a line of towers erected at a distance of every two Kos. (40)

All these defence measures of Hari Singh Nalwa alarmed the Afghans Dost Mohammad and Burkzai Chief of Kabul. The Afghans apprehended that their dangerous neighbours would make an inroad beyond the formidable defence. Therefore, they resolved to put a stop to any further advance of the Sikhs into the tribal area. A force of 8,000 strong with 50 cannons under Akbar Khan and Abdul Samad Khan proceeded towards the Khaibar to dislodge the Sikhs from Janrud. The cry of jehad swelled their ranks to 20,000 horse and foot. Hari Singh Nalwa was killed in the battle of Jamrud most valiantly in 1837 A.D. (41) Thus ended the life of a great general who had become a terror to Afghans.

According to Griffin, Hari Singh Nalwa was the “bravest of the Sikhs Generals - the most dashing general - fertile in recourse and prompt in action”. Edward Lincoln writes, “Hari Singh Nalwa carried the title of ‘Ney of Punjab’ and whose exploits in extending the Sikh dominion were hardly eclipsed by those of Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself”. (42)


  1. Aveen Akbary, Francis Gladwin (tr.) Vol. II, Calcutta 0 1784, pages 191-204
  2. Attock area was east of the River Indus but was adjoining the Hazara District which was north of District Attock.
  3. Attock District Gazette, Lahore, 1932, page 47.
  4. For the effects of Nadir invasions see Sarkar, J.N.; Fall of Mughal Empire, Vol. I, Calcutta - 1971, p. 2-3
  5. Sinha, N.K., Rise of the Sikh Power, Calcutta - 1973, p. 8.
  6. Qazi Nur Mohammad, Jang Namah, ed. Ganda Singh, Amritsar, 1939, p. 60.
  7. Gupta, Hari Ram History of Sikhs, Vol. II, Delhi, 1978, pg. 239-45.
  8. Hoshiarpur, The Life and Times of Ranjit Singh, 1977, p. 60.
  9. Griffin Lapel H. The Chiefs and Families of Note in the Punjab, Vol. I, Lahore, 1940, p. 415.
  10. cit.op, Vol. II, p. 87.
  11. Sinha N.K. Ranjit Singh, Calcutta, 1968, p. 60.
  12. Chiefs and Families of Note, cit. op., Vol II, page 87.
  13. Hoti Prem Singh hari Singh Nalwa, (Punjabi) Ludhiana, 8th edition, p. 164-65.
  14. Ibid, Surinder Singh Johar, Hari Singh Nalwa, New Delhi, 1982.
  15. Ain-i-Akbari, cit, op., page
  16. The Ibbetson, Punjab Castes, Lahore, 1916, p. 63.
  17. Ibid, p. 64
  18. Prem Singh, Hari Singh Nalwa (Punjabi) cit. op. p. 165.
  19. Baron Von Hugel, Travels in Punjab & Kashmir cit. op. p. 207.
  20. Surinder Singh Johar, Hari Singh Nalwa, cit. op., p. 93.
  21. Baron Von Hugel, Travels in Punjab & Kashmir cit.op. p. 207.
  22. Ibbetson, Punjab Castes, Lahore, 1916, p. 63.
  23. Prem Singh, Hari Singh Nalwa (Punjabi) cit. op p. 267. Shinkiari is in modern tehsil of Manera (dist. Hazara) and is at eleven miles from Mansera.
  24. Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, (Oxford University Press, 1918, p. 199).
  25. N.K. Sinha Ranjit Singh, Calcutta, 1968, p. 62.
  26. Ibid page 80, Oalif Carv, The Pathans, London, 1962, p. 150.
  27. Sham Singh Attariwala was one of them. For details see Kirpal Singh Sham Singh Attariwala, (Punjabi) Patiala, 1978, p. 204.
  28. Sita Ram Kohli, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (Punjabi) Delhi, 1951, p. 153.
  29. Sinha N.K. Ranjit Singh cit. op. p. 110, Griffin Chiefs & Families of Note in Punjab, vol. II cit.op. page 88.
  30. Hasrat B.T. Life & Times of Ranjit Singh, Hosiarpur, 1977, p. 134-35.
  31. Idea.
  32. Peshawar District, page 70, Quoted in Life and Times of Ranjit Singh. cit. op., p. 137.
  33. Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, cit.op., p. 136.
  34. Ibid, page 245.
  35. Surinder Singh Johar, Hari Singh Nalwa, New Delhi, 1984, p. 148.
  36. Ibid, p. 148.
  37. Ibid, p. 242.
  38. Ibid, p. 243.
  39. Ibid, p. 243-44.
  40. Sinha N.K. Ranjit, cit.op., p. 111.
  41. Ibid, p. 111.
  42. Chiefs and Families of Note in Punjab, Vol. II, Lahore, 1944, pages 87,89,90.
  43. Gujranwala District Gazetter part A, Lahore, 1935, p. 29.