The howitzer is huge: an ornately-wrought artillery weapon, clad in dark wood and embossed with gilt effigies of Sikh warriors, it immediately attracts attention. Built with a combination of French engineering skills and Sikh ingenuity, the howitzer was deployed during the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-’46), and is the first thing that greets visitors at a new exhibition on the Sikh Empire in London.
Empire of the Sikhs, which is running at the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Brunei Gallery until September 23, seeks to highlight an overlooked aspect of the history of the Sikh Empire and its charismatic ruler, Ranjit Singh, by telling his story from a global context. Going beyond his much-vaunted role as the king who posed the last challenge to the British, Empire of the Sikhs focuses on Singh as a world leader and his international relations. And it does so through 130 objects from the period of the short-lived empire, which fell to infighting and treachery after Singh’s death from a stroke in 1839.
With the majority of the objects coming from the collections of private collectors, and accompanied by detailed explanations by experts from the UK Punjab Heritage Association, the exhibition is eclectic and compelling in the story it tells of the Sikhs’ challenge to the British, and their eventual downfall and consolidation into the Empire.
The emphasis is on Singh’s territory, how the Sher-e-Punjab (Lion of Punjab) expanded his fledgling empire to encompass the majority of the northwestern Indian subcontinent, and protected that part from external invasions.
For instance, Firangis of the Kingdom, the title of a major section in the exhibition, focuses on the French and other Western mercenaries and military officers that Singh recruited to help modernise his army, giving his Sikh warriors a fighting chance against the East India Company.
Singh’s journey to the throne
Born in 1780, the one-eyed Ranjit Singh rose to fame after repelling several invasions from Afghanistan, declaring himself the Maharajah of Punjab at the age of 21. His military prowess, and ambition, led him to expand his empire across much of what is now northwestern India and Pakistan after taking advantage of the disunited Sikh misls, or confederacies, that had dominated Punjab from the beginning of the 18th century after the decline of Mughal power in the area.
Taking Lahore as his capital, the Sikh king would sponsor many great civic and religious works across his domain, including the gilding of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, which he captured in 1802.
A shrewd diplomat as well as a capable warrior, Singh would safeguard the borders of his kingdom by signing a treaty with the British in 1806 which guaranteed that neither party would cross the Sutlej river. His victory over a succession of Afghan warlords culminated in a march past Kabul in 1838.
This story is told throughout the exhibition via objects which range from weapons and armour, including a gilt shield belonging to Singh’s most trusted general, Hari Singh Nalwa, to Kashmiri shawls, contemporary paintings by European artists fascinated with the legend of the one-eyed king, and exquisitely crafted jewellery belonging to the maharajah and his wives. A selection of coins bearing the names of the Gurus shows Singh the statesman, and illustrations of how municipalities in his territory developed during his reign show his emphasis on civic works.
“We wanted to show how Ranjit Singh was more than an Indian maharajah fighting the British,” said Harbaksh Grewal, one of the exhibition’s curators. “He was a shrewd and canny world leader well aware that military might alone would not be enough to safeguard his kingdom. They posed the last challenge to the English certainly, but the empire was more than that – its strategic position along the Silk Road meant it was the true gateway to India, and we wanted to highlight its diverse population as well.”
The syncretic and cosmopolitan nature of the Empire is of no surprise to anyone familiar with the nature of the subcontinent’s past: as contemporary art, drawn from private collections of Sikh, British and French artists on display, emphasises.
Of particular interest is a selection of illustrations by a Punjabi artist, Sani. Called Peoples of Punjab, it highlights how the kingdom’s diversity came from its strategic position along the Silk Road, with trade routes into central Asia.
These illustrations are reminiscent of the Peoples of India, an Orientalist ethnographic project commissioned by Lord Canning to document the Company’s Indian subjects. Sani’s drawings are interesting because they provide an insight into how members of the Sikh kingdom viewed each other, not how the Western eye did.
War, unsurprisingly, plays a significant role, both in the story of Singh, and in his kingdom’s eye on international affairs. After observing a regiment of the East India Company on patrol in 1805, Singh realised that he would need to rapidly modernise his army if he was to pose any challenge to the British.
Singh’s army was a traditional medieval army, which eschewed infantry regiments in favour of heavy cavalry. The maharaja reached out for foreign military advisers – and, in a stroke of luck, hired four European commanders formerly under the employ of a certain Napoleon back in Europe.
Allard, Ventura, Court and Avitabile: these men, along with around 60 other mercenaries, adventurers and former military officers were responsible for modernising the Sikh army, and issuing manuals both in French and Persian instructing the Sikh Khalsa Army in how to fight in 1822, examples of which are part of the exhibition.
Elite regiments like the Fauj-i-Khas were raised and trained by Bonaparte’s former military officers, and inventors like Lehna Singh Majithia found a new role in developing artillery in French-built foundries, producing arms that out-rivalled the British.
“The Sikhs adapted existing weapons, marrying their expertise with that of the French,” said Parmjit Singh, a lead curator behind Empire of the Sikhs. “The French at the time were the best in the world when it came to manufacturing artillery, so Singh made full use of their talents.”
By employing French soldiers, Singh not only found able military commanders and, later, governors, but also diplomatic allies. An 1835 letter from Emperor Louis-Phillipe reveals the gratitude that the French felt for the patronage of their officers: “We...strive with Your Majesty to preserve his lustre in the bond of our friendship.”
After Singh’s death
Singh died in 1839, but left behind a military that clashed several times with the British, inflicting major casualties in the First Anglo-Sikh War, before treachery and infighting between Singh’s “official” wife Jind Kaur and his Sikh generals led to their defeat in the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-’49).
The British regarded them as worthy opponents, or as worthy as the rapacious Company allowed them to be. Hugh Gough, the British commander in the First Anglo-Sikh War, remarked in a letter to Prime Minister Robert Peel that “policy precluded me publicly recording my sentiments on the splendid gallantry of our fallen foe…”
The defeat meant the renewal of Western intervention into the lands beyond the Khyber Pass that persists to this day. It also led to the fabulous wealth and art of the Lion of Punjab being seized by the British, and the eventual gift of the Kohinoor, the diamond which has passed, often violently, from one owner to another for 5,000 years, to Queen Victoria.
The story of the Sikhs does not end in their defeat: recognised for their valour, they were incorporated into the Raj’s fighting ranks on the same footing as other designated martial races like the Gurkhas.
Singh’s line ended with his son Duleep being kidnapped at the age of five and raised in England, and his granddaughter, Sophie, becoming a prominent suffragette. The Sikh forces would go on to fight as part of the British Indian Army, playing a key role in both World Wars, a contribution that has only recently been acknowledged by Britain.
Near the entrance to the exhibition is a timeline which concisely places the events of the Sikh Empire parallel to that of the rest of the world. If history is largely a matter of interpreting the past to tell a certain story, the London exhibition’s narrative of the Sikhs, positioned as a gateway kingdom into India, proves to be a compelling and thought-provoking one.
Aditya Iyer is an independent journalist based in London.