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MISL is a term which originated in the eighteenth century history of the Sikhs to describe a unit or brigade of Sikh warriors and the territory acquired by it in the course of its campaign of conquest following the weakening of the Mughal authority in the country. The 'Misldar' was the leader or commander of the 'Misl' or 'army group'.

Scholars trying to trace the etymology of the term have usually based their interpretation on the Arabic/Persian word "misi". According to Stcingass, Persian-English Dictionary, the word means "similitude, alike or equal", and "a file" or collection of papers bearing on a particular topic.

David Ochterlony defined misi as "a tribe or race;" Wilson as "a voluntary association of the Sikhs;" Bute Shah as "territory conquered by a brave Sardar with the help of his comrades," Sayyid Imam udDin HusainI as a "derah or encampment."

Ratan Singh Bhangu uses the term at several places in the sense of a "thdnd" or military/police post; M'Gregor uses it in the sense of "a friendly nation;" Lawrence in that of "a brotherhood;" Syad Muhammad Latif in that of "a confederacy of clans under their respective chiefs leagued together;" and so on.

Misl in the meaning of a file or record (maintained according to some, at Akal Takht, under the commander of the entire Sikh army, the Dal Khalsa) pertaining to a Sardar's fighting force and territorial acquisitions has been mentioned by Sita Ram Kohli. J.D. Cunningham had taken note of this connotation of the word, too. He also traces the etymology of the word to maslahai which, according to Steingass' dictionary, means "a front garrison, a border fortification; armed (men), warlike (people), guards, guardians."

Guru Gobind Singh and Misl system?

The term misl was first used by Sainapati, a Punjabi poet contemporary with Guru Gobind Singh. In his "Sri Guru Sobha", Sainapati uses the word misl primarily in the sense of a group or troop or sub-unit of armed warriors or soldiers. The use of the term misl occurs in the account of the Battle of Bhangani between Guru Gobind Singh and the hill rajas in AD 1688.

Sainapali writes that the horsemen of Guru Gobind Singh assembled under their banners at the beat of wardrum. In the battlefield morchds'were set up at various places which were allotted to misis (groups). Sainapati again uses the word misi in reference to the last days of Guru Gobind Singh at Nanded. He says that the people came there in misis (groups).

The misl system is sometimes said to have originated with Guru Gobind Singh, who had conferred the sovereignty of the land on the Khalsa. The Sikhs literally claimed it as a boon granted them by the Guru; and in this manner it is claimed to have received divine sanction. But in order to understand the genesis and evolution of the misl system in a historical perspective, we must go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Banda Singh Bahadur

From Nanded in the Deccan, Guru Gobind Singh had deputed Banda Singh Bahadur to go to the Punjab with a group of five prominent Sikhs and a bodyguard of 25 Sikh soldiers. As he arrived in the Punjab, men of grit and daring began to rally round his banner. Within two months, 405,000 horsemen and 708,000 foot had volunteered to join him. In the course of one year 3,040,000 troops were under him.

In May 1710 the entire province of Sirhind, between the Sutlej and the Yamuna and, between the Sivalik hills and Panipat, worth 52,00,000 rupees annually fell into the hands of the Sikhs. But the Sikh power did not last long. The leader, Banda Singh Bahadur, was captured in December 1715 and executed six months later in June 1716. With the execution of Banda Singh, the Sikhs were deprived of a unified command. Hunted out of their homes, the Sikhs scattered in small jathas or groups to find refuge in distant hills, forests and deserts, but they were far from vanquished.

Armed with whatever weapons they could lay their hands upon and living off the land, these highly mobile guerilla bands or jathas remained active during the worst of times. It was not unusual for the jathas to join together when the situation so demanded. Ratan Singh Bharigu, Prdchin Panth Prakdsh, records an early instance of the warrior bands of the Ban Doab (land between the Rivers Beas and Ravi) being organized into four tummansor squadrons of 200 each, with a specified area of operation and provision for mutual assistance in time of need. Moreover, it was customary for most Jathas to congregate at Amritsar to celebrate Baisakhi and Divali.

Nawab Kapur Singh

Diwan Darbara Singh (d. 1734), an elderly Sikh, acted on such occasions as the common chief. In 1733, Khan Bahadur Zakariya Khan, the Mughal governor of Lahore, having failed to suppress the Sikhs by force, planned to come to terms with them and offered them a jagir or fief worth one lakh rupees a year and the title of "Nawab" to their leader. Additionally, unhindered access to and residence at Amritsar was promised them. The Sikhs accepted the offer and chose Kapur Singh from among themselves to be invested with the title of Nawab. Sikh soldiers grouped themselves around their leaders most of whom were stationed at Amritsar.

In consideration of administrative convenience, Nawab Kapur Singh divided the entire body of troops into two camps, called Buddha Dal (the elder group) and Taruna Dal (the younger group), respectively. Taruna Dal was further divided into five jathas (groups), each with its own flag and drum. This arrangement with the government ended in 1735 and, under pressure of renewed persecution, the Khalsa was again forced to split into smaller groups. Almost every village in the Majha or midlands embracing the districts of Lahore and Amritsar produced a sardar who attracted soldiers to join him and form a derah or jatha or misl of his own.

Nadir Shah's invasion in 1739 gave a severe blow to the crumbling Mughal empire, and this gave the Sikhs a chance to consolidate themselves. At their meeting on the occasion of Divali following the death, on 1 July 1745, of Zakariya Khan, they gathered at Amritsar, passed a gurmata (or resolution) and reorganized themselves into 25 groups, each consisting of 100 horses. The old division into the Buddha Dal and Taruna Dal was maintained, but the new derahs generally belonged to the latter. The derahs spread quickly.

By March 1748 there were 65 groups operating in different parts of the Punjab. They carried out their operations generally independent of one another, though they still acknowledged the prominent position of Nawab Kapur Singh. By this time, a new claimant to power had appeared on the scene. Ahmad Shah Durrani had launched his first invasion of India and occupied Lahore on 12 January 1748. Roving bands of the Sikhs issued forth from their hideouts, harassed the Afghan forces, and on the return of the Shah to Afghanistan, swarmed round Amritsar and engaged in skirmishes with the Lahore forces.

Formation of Misls

On the day of Baisakhi, 29 March 1748, the Sikhs gathered at Amritsar to celebrate the festival. A Sarbat Khalsa (a general assembly of the Sikhs) was convened which decided to offer organized resistance to Mughal oppression, and the entire fighting force of the Khalsa was unified into a single body called the Dal Khalsa, under the supreme command of Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia.

The 65 bands of fighters were grouped into 11 Misls or divisions each under its own sardar or chief having a separate name and banner as follows:

See Also: The Eleven Sikh Bands

The first six misls were under Buddha Dal and the latter five under Taruna Dal. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia chosen to be in joint command of the entire Dal Khalsa, while Nawab Kapur Singh continued to be acknowledged as the supreme commander. Phulkiari under Baba Ala Singh of Patiala was the twelfth misl, but it was not part of the Dal Khalsa command.

Phulkian Misl under Baba Ala Singh of Patiala was the twelfth misl, but it was not part of the Dal Khalsa command. The Dal Khalsa was a kind of loose confederacy, without any regular constitution. Every chief maintained h`is independent character. All amritdhari Sikhs were eligible for membership of the Dal Khalsa which was mainly a cavalry force. Anyone who was an active horseman and proficient in the use of arms could join any one of the eleven misls or independences having the option to change membership whenever desired. The misls were subject to the control of the Sarbatt Khalsa, the biannual assembly of the Panth at Amritsar.

A Confederacy with 11 Misls

The Dal Khalsa was a kind of loose confederacy, without any regular constitution. Every chief maintained his independent character. All amritdhari Sikhs were eligible for membership of the Dal Khalsa which was mainly a cavalry force. Anyone who was an active horseman and proficient in the use of arms could join any one of the eleven misls or independences having the option to change membership whenever desired. The misls were subject to the control of the Sarbat Khalsa, the biannual assembly of the Panth at Amritsar.

The frequent use made of the Sarbat Khalsa converted it into a central forum of the panth. It had to elect leader of the Dal Khalsa, and to lay down its political goal and plans of its military strategy. It had also to set out plans for strengthening the Khalsa faith and body politic, besides adjudicating disputes about property and succession. The Akal Takht was the symbol of the unity of the Dal Khalsa which was in a way the Sikh state in making. The Dal Khalsa with its total estimated strength of 70,000 essentially consisted of cavalry; artillery and infantry elements were almost non-existent.

Dal Khalsa

The Dal Khalsa established its authority over most of the Punjab region in a short time. As early as 1749, the Mughal governor of the Punjab solicited its help in the suppression of a rebellion in Multan. In early 1758, the Dal Khalsa, in collaboration with the Marathas, occupied Sirhind and Lahore. Within three months of the Vadda Ghallughara, the Great Massacre of 5 February 1762, the Dal Khalsa rose to defeat Ahmad Shah's governor at Sirhind in April-May 1762 and the Shah himself at Amritsar in October the same year. Sirhind and its adjoining territories were occupied permanently in January 1764. The Khalsa thenceforward not only had the Punjab in their possession, but also carried their victories right up to Delhi and beyond the Yamuna into the heart of the Gangetic plain.

With the conquest of Sirhind in January 1764 had begun the final phase of the emergence of the Dal Khalsa into a confederacy of sovereign political principalities or misis in the Punjab. The misis now occupied welldefined territories over which their sarddrs ruled independently while maintaining their former links as units of the Dal Khalsa. The misis of the Buddha Dal spread themselves out broadly as follows: Ahluvalia in the neighbourhood of Kapurthala, in the Jalandhar Doab, with some villages in the Majha such as Sarhali, Jandiala, Bundala, Vairoval and Fatehabad; Singhpuria in parts of Jalandhar Doab and ChhatBanurBharatgarh areas south of the Sutlej;

Karorsinghia in a long strip south of the Sutlej extending from Samrala in the west to Jagadhari in the east; Nishanarivali in area Sahneval, Doraha, MachhivaraAmloh with pockets around Zira and Ambala; Shahid in area ShahzadpurKesari in presentday Ambala district, and territory around Rania and Talvandi Sabo; and Dallevalia in parganahs of Dharamkot and Tihara to the south of the River Sutlej and Lohiari and Shahkot to the north of it. Of these Ahluvalia survived as the princely house of Kapurthala and a branch of Karorsinghia as Kalsia. Others divided into several small chieftainships were cither taken over by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the British East India Company or absorbed into the Phulkiari states ofPatiala, Nabha andJind.

From among the Taruna Dal misis only one sarddr of the Bharigi family, Rai Singh, had participated in the partition of Sirhind territory. He occupied 204 villages around Buna and Jagadhari. The remaining sarddrs of the Taruna Dal had their eyes fixed on the northern Doabs of the Punjab. The Bharigis controlled a major part of the city of Lahore and extended their hegemony over Multan and subsequently occupied Jharig, Khushab and Chiniot in the west and Sialkot and Gujrat in the east. Kanhaiya misi ruled over the area comprising a major part of the present Gurdaspur district and Mukeriari tahsil of Hoshiarpur district, while the Nakais held sway over the country south of Lahore, between the Ravl and Sutlaj.

The territory of the Ramgarhias lay on both sides of the River Beas and included villages around Miani and Urmur Tanda in Jalandhar Doab. They also held sway over the hill states of Chamba, Nurpur, Jasvan and Haripur. In 1776, they were defeated by the combined forces of Kanhaiyas and Raja Sarisar Chand Katoch of Karigra and their territory annexed by the victors. The SukkarchakkTas under Charhat Singh established themselves around Gurjrariwala which they made their headquarters and extended their territory up to Rohtas beyond the River Jehlurn. Charhat Singh's grandson, Maharaja Rarijit Singh, became the ruler of the entire Punjab from the Sullej to the Khaibar, subduing the intervening misls.

The misl as a means of organizing Sikh life during that transitional period was crucial. The 77m/was important from about 1760 to the establishment of the Sikh kingdom under Ranjit Singh in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Basically the internal affairs of each mislv/cre administered by the misl itself.

Cunningham's definition of the misi organization as "a theocratic confederate feudalism" is only partially correct. Devotion to Guru Gobind Singh's ideals of faith and community was a paramount requirement, but no priestly interference or domination was allowed. Rather, the whole community was itself standing in covenant with God through the Gurus and the scriptures. The Akalis were in charge of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, but they did not infringe the sovereignty of the misls. By displaying a rare spirit or magnanimity towards the erstwhile persecutors of their faith, by supporting the cause of the poor, the helpless and the innocent and by preserving social and economic equality in their ranks the Sikh misls made Sikh religion popular with the young and daring men in the villages.

The misi chief exercised full authority within his domain. His rule was benign, based on the good will of all classes of people. Each village, a sort of a small republic, administered its affairs through a panchdyat which was generally a council of five elders representing the collective will of the people. The village headman exercised general superintendence over all the affairs of the village on behalf of the panchdyat, as well as on behalf of the government. The village patvdn was responsible for maintaining record of the lands and registered every document connected with it. The village watchman was the most vigilant character. He kept an eye on suspicious characters and provided aid to the police. He was the repository of village information and gossip.

Above the village's panchdyat there was the court of the misi chief. He administered justice according to local customs and traditions derived mainly from the holy scriptures of the Sikhs, Hindus or the Muslims. Evidence, common sense and secret personal investigation in disguise weighed heavily in the investigation of crime. Trackers were freely employed in cases of thcfl and murder. The army took the main responsibility for checking crime.

Both parties had to pay for justice, the convict with chatti or jurmdnd or fine, and the guiltless had to shell out shukrdnd (thanksgiving). Fines were imposed not according to the gravity of the crime, but in accordance with the financial position of the culprit. The panchdyats tried to maintain equity and justice in the village. Their decisions, were not backed by any physical force. Social pressure was the strongest sanction; defiance by any member of the community could lead to his being excommunicated.

The misi soldier owned his own horse and musket; his loyalty lay with one or the other powerful chief who could lead him to conquest and glory. As a rule, the Sikh soldier was a horseman. He hated to serve as infantryman, and to be away from the field on any excuse. He was equipped with both offensive and defensive weapons; priming horns, ammunition pouches, two blankets, a grain bag and halters. On the march the blankets were put beneath the saddle. Both artillery and infantry were practically unknown to the misls. Their armies were unencumbered by heavy ordnance, and possessed amazing speed and manoeuvrability. With their scanty accoutrement, they could cover from 100 to 200 kilometres daily for days on end and could encamp or decamp in a few minutes. The misi soldier was adept in predatory warfare which could earn him a share in the booty, for he received no salary. As the misls settled down to their permanent possessions, some minor leaders also acquired territory as part of their share of conquests. Holders of such possessions were called misldars.

Generally, Sikhs offered themselves for recruitment and they were enlisted irrespective of their caste or creed. Enlistment was voluntary. Prospective recruits could opt for a misi of their choice and had the freedom to transfer their allegiance to any other. The soldier received no organized training in drill, discipline or military tactics; this deficiency was made up by his religious fervour and singleminded devotion to the cause of the confederacy. The misi troops were organized into smaller groups based generally on kinship or territorial affinity. Their methods of war were unconventional. They seldom fought pitched battles, but adopted hitandrun tactics. George Thomas, who fought them frequently, observes: "The Sciks are armed with aspear, matchlock and scymetar... mounting their horses, ride forth towards the enemy with whom they engage in a confined skirmish advancing and retreating until man and horse become equally fatigued."

The overall military strength of the Sikh misis is variously estimated. According to one estimate, the Dal Khalsa could muster about 70,000 horse as under: the Bhangis 20,000 horse, the Ahluvalia 3,000, the RamgarhTas 3,000, the Kanhaiyas 3,000, the Dallevalias 7,500, the Nishanarivalias 12,000, the Shahids 2,000, the NakaTs 2,000, the Sukarchakkias 2,500, the KarorSinghia 12000, the Singhpuria 8,000, and the Phulkias 5,000. George Forstcr who visited the Punjab in 1783, reckoned the military strength of the misis at over 2,00,000 horse. James Browne in 1783 estimated the strength of the cisSullej Sikh misis 3.t 18,225 horse and 6,075 foottotal 24,300 and total strength of the Sikh armies at 2,48,000 which estimate may be exaggerated.

The main source of the income of the misis in the initial stages was plunder, augmented later by rdkhi imposts. Rakhi, lit. protection, was, like the chauth of the Marathas, a levy of a portion, usually onefifth of the revenue assessment of a territory, as a fee for the guarantee of peace and protection. Rdkhi continued to be collected from territories in the ('.angelic Doab and the country between Dcllii and PanTpal right up to 1803 when the British East India Company established its power in the region. But as the sarddrs settled down as sovereign rulers in their domains, land revenue became the major source. As a rule, the Sikh sarddrs followed the baiai system. Onefifth of the gross produce was deducted before the division for expenses of cultivation. Out of the remaining fourfifths, the sarddr's share varied from onehalf to onequarter. The general proportion was 55% cultivator's share, 7.5% proprietor's share and 37.5% government share. The revenue was commonly rcali/cd in kind, except for cattle fodder, vegetables, and fruit which were chargeable in cash or kind per bighd.

Producers of a few crops such as cotton, sugarcane, poppy and indigo were required to pay revenue in cash. The Khalsa or crownlands remained under the direct control of the wm/chiefs. According to James Browne, a contemporary East India Company employee, the misi chiefs collected a very moderate rent, and that mostly in kind. Their soldiery never molested the husbandman; the chief never levied the whole of his share; and in the country, perhaps, never was a cultivator treated with more indulgence. The chief also did not interfere with old and hereditary landtenures. The rules of haq shufd did not permit land to be sold to an outsider. New fields, or residential sites could be broken out of waste land as such land was available in plenty. Duties on traders and merchants also brought some revenue. The Sikh chiefs gave full protecion to traders passing through their territories. George Forster, who travelled to northern India in 1783, observed that extensive and valuable commerce was maintained in their territories which was extended to distant quarters of India, after the British withdrew from India.

  • Time Line of the rise of Sikh Misl's to power.
  • The first Khalsa Raj founded (1707-1716)
  • A lot of wars, and Struggle to reestablish Khalsa Raj, (1716-1733)
  • Sikh Misl's come into being and take power, (1733-35)
  • Khalsa wars against the Mughal Empire, (1735-1739)
  • Invasion of Nadir Shah, of Persia, (1739-40)
  • Sikhs, seize territories in the Punjab, (1740-1759)
  • Sikhs managed to take power in Punjab, and expel the Afghan invaders, (1759-1765)
  • The Sikh Misl, finally establish, an strong Khalsa Raj, in Punjab, (1765-1791)
  • The Sikh Misl's, begin to become weaker, because of their wars on each other, (1791-1799)
  • Because of the Sikh Misl's, becoming weaker, the Afghans invade the western part of Punjab, (1799)
  • Chieftain Ranjit Singh, expels, the Afghans, from western Punjab area, and takes power, (1799-1801)
  • Ranjit Singh, becomes, the Maharaja of Punjab, after uniting the torn apart Sikh Misl's, (1801-1811)
  • Maharaja Ranjit Singh, expands the boundaries of Sikh Empire, from Kashmir to Peshawar, (1811-1839)
  • Maharaja Kharak Singh, is proclaimed as the Emperor of the Sikh Empire, (1839)
  • Maharaja Nau Nihal Singh takes power, and puts down his father Kharak Singh, (1839-40)
  • Maharani Chand Kaur, is the Empress of the Sikh Empire, (1840-1842)
  • Maharaja Sher Singh, takes power, (1842-1844)
  • The rule of the Dowager Empress Rani Jind kaur, and Shahzada (prince) Duleep Singh, (1843-1849)
  • The fall of the Sikh Empire, after the two Anglo Sikhs Wars of 1845-46 and 1848-49)

Article 2

Misl refers to a fighting clan. The period from 1716 to 1799 in Punjab was a highly turbulent time politically and militarily. This was caused by the overall decline of the Mughal Empire, particularly in Punjab caused by Sikh military action against it. This left a power vacuum that was eventually filled by the Sikh Confederacy. This Confederacy was made up of individual Sikh kingdoms that were ruled by Sikh barons. Each of these barons has his own army, which was commanded by and loyal to him. Each individual army had its own specific name, but the armies were referred to in general as misls.

General military structure

Each Misl was made up of members of soldiers, whose loyalty was given to the Misl's Baron (Misldar). A Misl could be comprised of a few hundred to tens of thousands soldiers. Every solider was free to join any Misl he chose and free to cancel his membership of the Misl to whom he belonged. He could if wanted cancel his membership of his old Misl and join another (provided certain procedures were followed). The Barons would allow their armies to combine or coordinate their defence together against a hostile force if ordered by the Misldar Supreme Commander. These orders were only issued in military matters affecting the whole Sikh community. These orders would normally be related to defence against external threats, such as, Afghan Military attacks (typically initiated by Afghan Kings).

The head Barons of each kingdom, in a council, democratically elected the Misldar Supreme Commander. Previous Supreme Commanders include Nawab Kapur Singh and Jassa Singh Ahluwalia.

The Sikh Confederacy is a description of the political structure, of how all the Barons' Kingdoms interacted with each other, (politically), together in Punjab.

Prominent misls

Bhangi or Dhillon Sardar's Army first by Baron Sardar Chajja Singh Nihung Singh Dhillon, then by Hari Singh Dhillon -(Strength - 20,000 regular horsemen)
Karorh Singhia Army (also known as Panjgarhia), first led by Baron Karora Singh Dhariwal -(Strength - 10,000 regular horsemen)
Nakai Army, first led by Baron Hira Singh Nakai Sandhu-(Strength - 7,000 regular horsemen)
Ahluwalia Army, first led by Baron Jassa Singh Ahluwalia -(Strength - 6,000 regular horsemen)
Ramgarhia Army, first led by Sardar Khushal Singh Nihung Singh ( Sikh Sandhu Jatt ) and then by Jassa Singh Ramgarhia -(Strength - 5,000 regular horsemen)
Kanahiya Army, first led by Baron Jai Singh Kanhaiya Sandhu-(Strength - 5,000 regular horsemen)
Dallewalia Army, first led by Baron Gulab Singh Dallewalia -(Strength - 5,000 regular horsemen)
Shaheed Army, first led by Baron Baba Deep Singh Nihung Singh ( Sikh Sandhu Jatt ) -(Strength - 5,000 regular horsemen)
Faizalpuria or Singhpuria Army, first led by Baron Nawab Kapur Singh Virk -(Strength - 5,000 regular horsemen)
Shukarchakia Army, first led by Baron Naud Singh Sandhawalia -(Strength - 5,000 regular horsemen)
Nishanwalia Army, first led by Baron Dasaundha Singh Gill -(Strength - 2,000 regular horsemen)

Expelled from Sikh Confedaracy and Dal Khalsa by royal order -1765

Expelled from Sikh Confedaracy and Dal Khalsa for anti-Sikh practices, such as making alliances with the enemy (Afghans), betraying and attacking other Sikh misls.
Phulkia Army, first led by Phul Singh Sidhu -(Strength - 2,000 regular horsemen). Expelled by royal order of Sikh Panth (Sikh Nation) at Amritsar - August 1765.

See also