ARMY OF MAHĀRĀJĀ RAṆJĪT SIṄGH, a formidable military machine that helped the Mahārājā 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 misldārī days, comprised almost solely horsemen, without any regular training or organization. Everyone brought his own horse and whatever weapon he could afford or acquire. What held these troopers together was their personal loyalty to the leader. The tactics followed were those of the guerrilla warfare. The system had stood the Khālsā in good stead during the turbulent and anarchic eighteenth century, but was unsuited to the needs of the changed times and to Raṇjīt Siṅgh's ambition to establish a secure 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 in warfare was a well-drilled infantry as well as artillery. In 1802, soon after his occupation of Amritsar, he engaged some deserters from the army of the East India Company to train his own platoons of infantry. He even sent some of his own men to Ludhiāṇā to study the British methods of training and tactics. As Sikhs generally looked down upon infantry service, he recruited Pūrbīās, as soldiers of fortune from Gangetic plain were called, Punjabi Muslims and Afghāns and, later, Gurkhās as well. These troops were soon tested during the short campaign against Ahmad Khān Siāl of Jhaṅg and the zamīndārs of Uchch during the winter of 1803-04. Their success and the fact that the Mahārājā himself regularly saw them train made the infantry an enviable service and Sikhs too started joining its ranks in large numbers. Raṇjīt Siṅgh gave equal importance to artillery which had, till his time, been limited to the use of zambūraks or swivels only. He increased the number of guns. The casting of guns of larger calibre as well as the manufacture of ammunition was undertaken on a large scale. The reorganization and training of cavalry, however, waited until the induction into Sikh service of European officers.

        The arrival of Jean Baptiste Ventura and Jean Francois Allard, two veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, at Lahore in 1822, was the starting-point. Raṇjīt Siṅgh gave them employment after considerable initial hesitation and elaborate verification. He charged them with the raising of a special corps of regular army, the Fauj-i-Khās or Fauj-i-Ā'īn. General Ventura trained battalions of infantry and General Allard trained the cavalry. Artillery, its training and command and ordnance were under Punjabi generals, Ilāhī Bakhsh and Lahiṇā Siṅgh Majīṭhīā, until the arrival of a French officer, General Claude Auguste Court in 1827 and the American Colonel Alexander Gardner in 1832. Lahiṇā Siṅgh Majīṭhīā continued to head the armament workshops, and Dr John Martin Honigberger, a Hungarian physician, was entrusted with the mixing of gunpowder.

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

Year Infantry Cavalry
    Regular Irregular
1819 7, 748 750 3, 577
1823 11, 681 1, 650 7, 300
1828 15, 825 4, 315 7, 200
1838 26, 617 4, 090 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 jāgīrdārī faujor feudal levees for which no figures are available. This force consisted almost entirely of horsemen which the jāgīrdārs had to maintain and produce in time of need or at the annual general reviews, normally held at the time of Dussehrā in October. There were, besides, the king's bodyguards, Fauj-i-Qilājāt or garrison infantry to guard important forts, and a 4000-strong crack brigade of Akālīs or Nihaṅgs.

        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 kumedān or commandant, assisted by an adjutant and a major, was the standard administrative and manoeuvring unit. Its administrative staff included, besides the usual camp followers and tradesmen, a munshī or clerk, a mutsaddī or accountant, and a granthī or priest and scripture-reader. A battalion had eight companies of 100 men each, further divided into sections of 25 men each. Similarly, regular cavalry was organized in risālās, regiments, sub-divided into turps or troops, and artillery into ḍerās 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 topkhānā kalāṅ, heavy artillery and topkhānā khurd, light artillery. Zambūraks or swivels, usually carried on camels, were attached to infantry units. Horse drawn artillery was introduced in 1810. During the same year, a special artillery corps, known as topkhānā-i-khās or topkhānā-i-mubārak, was formed as the royal reserve under Ghaus Muhammad Khān, popularly known as Mīāṅ Ghausā. In 1827, General Court reorganized the artillery into three wings. Topkhānā jinsī, literally personal artillery (reserve), was a mixed corps with batteries of gāvī, bullock-driven, aspī, horse-driven, filī, elephant-driven, guns and the hobobs or howitzers. Topkhānā aspī or horse driven artillery consisted of batteries for attachment to divisions of irregular army. Zambūraks or camel-swivels and ghubārās or mortars were organized into ḍerās or camps sub-divided into batteries. Batteries were sub-divided into sections of two guns each, with provision for even a single gun functioning as a sub-unit.

        The entire field army was divided into fauj-i-a'īn or regular army, fauj-i-beqavā'id or irregular army and jāgīrdārī faujor feudal levees. Fauj-i-A'īn, with five infantry battalions under General Ventura, three cavalry regiments under General Allard and 34 guns under General IIāhī Bakhsh, formed the hard core troops under the overall command of General Ventura. Fauj-i-Beqavā'id forming a larger bulk consisted of ḍerās of ghoṛchaṛhās, or irregular cavalry grouped into divisions, each under one of the many distinguished generals such as Harī Siṅgh Nalvā, Dīwān Mohkām Chand, Misr Dīvān Chand, Fateh Siṅgh Āhlūvālīā, and Fateh Siṅgh Kāliāṅvālā. Each ḍerā comprised several smaller groups, misls, composed of members of a clan or their close relations commanded by heads of respective clans known as misldārs. Ḍerās of jāgīrdārī 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. Raṇjīt Siṅgh himself was the supreme commander. He also led some expeditions personally. The crack brigade of Akālīs under their famous leader, Phūlā Siṅgh, was virtually an autonomous formation pressed into service when needed by the Mahārājā 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 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 head-dress - white, red, green or yellow. The Gurkhās had green jackets and black caps. Postīns or fur-coats, or padded jackets were used during winter.

        The gunners wore white trousers and black waist-coats with cross-belts. Officers were not bound by rules of uniform. They used gaudy dresses of bright-coloured silks each dressing differently. The ghoṛchaṛhās 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 Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh in 1836 and inspected a cavalry parade. "I never beheld, " he wrote of a troop of ghoṛchaṛhās, "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 misls in the Fauj-i-Beqavā'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 well-defined system of reward and punishment was enforced to maintain discipline and morale. The system of faslī or six monthly payment, or payment through jāgīrs was later replaced by regular monthly payment in cash. Rates of pay ranged between Rs 400-500 for a general, Rs. 17-25 for an infantry soldier and Rs. 22-26 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 jāgīrs. There was no provision for retirement benefits, but allowances were sometimes sanctioned from out of the dharamārth 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 jāgīrs 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 high-sounding Persian expressions, which the recipients and their bards and ushers could use before their names, such as Hizbar-i-Jaṅg (the lion of battle), Zafar Jaṅg Bahādur (victorious, brave in war) Samsam ud-daulah (sharp sword of the State), Shujā' ud-daulah (valour of the State), Tahavur-panāh (asylum of bravery), and so on. The titles of Rājā and Dīwān, sparingly bestowed, were essentially for distinguished service on the civil side. For military officers, the title of Sardār was considered one of considerable distinction. Towards the end of his reign or, to be more exact, on the occasion of the marriage of Kaṅvar Nau Nihāl Siṅgh in March 1837, Raṇjīt Siṅgh instituted an Order of Merit named Kaukab-i-Iqbāl-i-Pañjāb (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 Mahārājā 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 semi-globular head of the star. The kaukab was of three different classes representing the three grades of the Order, distinguished by the size and quality of the inset precious stones. 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 Mahārājā 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 kaukabs was 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

Gulcharan Siṅgh