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Home: Religion: Sikhism: History of Sikhim.

The History of Sikhism

Sikhism had its beginnings with the fifth Sikh Guru in the early 1600's.

Overview of the History of Sikhism

The history of Sikhism is closely associated with the history of Punjab and the socio-political situation in medieval India. Essentially Sikh history, with respect to Sikhism as a distinct political body, can be said to have begun with the martyrdom of the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev in 1606. Sikh distinction was further enhanced by the establishment of the Khalsa, by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. The evolution of Sikhism began with the emergence of Guru Nanak as a religious leader and a social reformer during the fifteenth century in Punjab. The religious practice was formalized by Guru Gobind Singh on March 30, 1699. The latter baptised five persons from different social backgrounds to form Khalsa. The first five, Pure Ones, then baptized Gobind Singh into the Khalsa fold. This gives the Sikhism, as an organized grouping, a religious history of around 400 years.

Sikhism and the Mughal rule of India

Generally Sikhism has had amicable relations with other religions. However, during the Mughal rule of India (1556–1707), emerging religion had strained relation with the ruling Mughals. Prominent Sikh Gurus were martyred by Mughals for opposing some Mughal emperors' persecution of minority religious communities. Subsequently, Sikhism militarized to oppose Mughal hegemony. The emergence of the Sikh Empire under reign of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh was characterized by religious tolerance and pluralism with Christians, Muslims and Hindus in positions of power. The establishment of the Sikh Empire is commonly considered the zenith of Sikhism at political level, during this time the Sikh Empire came to include Kashmir, Ladakh, and Peshawar. Hari Singh Nalwa, the Commander-in-chief of the Sikh army along the North West Frontier, took the boundary of the Sikh Empire to the very mouth of the Khyber Pass. The Empire's secular administration integrated innovative military, economic and governmental reforms.

The months leading up to the partition of India in 1947, saw heavy conflict in the Punjab between Sikh and Muslims, which saw the effective religious migration of Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus from West Punjab which mirrored a similar religious migration of Punjabi Muslims in East Punjab.

History of the Sikh Empire

Early History
Ranjit Singh was crowned on April 12, 1801 to coincide with Baisakhi. Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendant of Guru Nanak Dev, conducted the coronation. Gujranwala served as his capital from 1799. In 1802 he shifted his capital to Lahore & Amritsar. Ranjit Singh rose to power in a very short period, from a leader of a single Sikh misl to finally becoming the Maharaja of Punjab.

There was strong collaboration in defense against foreign incursions such as those initiated by Ahmed Shah Abdali and Nadir Shah. The city of Amritsar was attacked numerous times. Yet the time is remembered by Sikh historians as the "Heroic Century". This is mainly to describe the rise of Sikhs to political power against large odds. The circumstances were hostile religious environment against Sikhs, a tiny Sikh population compared to other religious and political powers, which were much larger in the region than the Sikhs.

Before the Empire
The period from 1716 to 1799 was a highly turbulent time politically and militarily in the Punjab. This was caused by the overall decline of the Mughal Empire.[13] This left a power vacuum that was eventually filled by the Sikhs in the late 18th century, after fighting off local Mughal remnants and allied Rajput leaders, Afghans, and occasionally hostile Punjabi Muslims who sided with other Muslim forces. Sikh warlords eventually formed their own independent Sikh administrative regions (misls), which were united in large part by Ranjit Singh.

Map showing expansion of Sikh empire from 1765 to 1805


Formation of the Sikh Empire

The Sikh Empire (from 1801-1849) was formed on the foundations of the Punjabi Army by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Empire extended from Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north, to Sindh in the south, and Tibet in the east. The main geographical footprint of the empire was the Punjab. The religious demography of the Sikh Empire was Muslim (80%), Sikh (10%), Hindu (10%).

The foundations of the Sikh Empire, during the Punjab Army, could be defined as early as 1707, starting from the death of Aurangzeb and the downfall of the Mughal Empire. The fall of the Mughal Empire provided opportunities for the army, known as the Dal Khalsa, to lead expeditions against the Mughals and Afghans. This led to a growth of the army, which was split into different Punjabi Armies and then semi-independent misls. Each of these component armies were known as a misl, each controlling different areas and cities. However, in the period from 1762-1799 Sikh rulers of their misls appeared to be coming into their own. The formal start of the Sikh Empire began with the disbandment of the Punjab Army by the time of Coronation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1801, creating the one unified political Empire. All the misldars who were affiliated with the Army were nobility with usually long and prestigious family histories in Punjab's history.

End of the Sikh Empire

After Maharaja Ranjit Singh's death in 1839, the empire was severely weakened by internal divisions and political mismanagement. This opportunity was used by the British Empire to launch the Anglo-Sikh Wars. The Battle of Ferozeshah in 1845 marked many turning points, the British encountered the Punjabi Army, opening with a gun-duel in which the Sikhs "had the better of the British artillery". But as the British made advancements, Europeans in their army were especially targeted, as the Sikhs believed if the army "became demoralised, the backbone of the enemy's position would be broken". The fighting continued throughout the night earning the nickname "night of terrors". The British position "grew graver as the night wore on", and "suffered terrible casualties with every single member of the Governor General's staff either killed or wounded"

British General Sire James Hope Grant recorded: "Truly the night was one of gloom and forbidding and perhaps never in the annals of warfare has a British Army on such a large scale been nearer to a defeat which would have involved annihilation". The Punjabi ended up recovering their camp, and the British were exhausted. Lord Hardinge sent his son to Mudki with a sword from his Napoleonic campaigns. A note in Robert Needham Cust's diary revealed that the "British generals decided to lay down arms: News came from the Governor General that our attack of yesterday had failed, that affairs were disparate, all state papers were to be destroyed, and that if the morning attack failed all would be over, this was kept secret by Mr.Currie and we were considering measures to make an unconditional surrender to save the wounded...".

However, a series of events of the Sikhs being betrayed by some prominent leaders in the army led to its downfall. Maharaja Gulab Singh and Dhian Singh, were Hindu Dogras from Jammu, and top Generals of the army. Tej Singh and Lal Singh were secretly allied to the British. They supplied important war plans of the Army, and provided the British with updated vital intelligence on the Army dealings, which ended up changing the scope of the war and benefiting the British positions.

The Punjab Empire was finally dissolved after a series of wars with the British at the end of the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1849 into separate princely states, and the British province of Punjab that where granted a statehood, and eventually a lieutenant governorship stationed in Lahore as a direct representative of the Royal Crown in London.

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