Daring and courageous beyond his 18 years, Ranjit Singh began one of the most successful reigns in Indian history on July 12, 1799 when he drove Lehna Singh Majitha, Gujjar Singh Banghi and Suba Singh from Lahore. Ruling with a balanced approach to people of all faiths, Ranjit Singh would spend the next 40 years establishing the Sikh Empire in Punjab – between the Afghans to the west and British to the south and east high in the mountains of northern India.
Ranjit Singh had grown up in a divided territory. For decades before his birth, Lahore had been overseen by a team of chieftains paying tribute to the Afghan ruler, a Pashtun by the name of Amir Ahmad Shah Abdali. Working to secure the city and build infrastructure to promote growth, constructing small forts and digging wells to provide fresh water for residents.
The government came crashing down when Ranjit Singh arrived to besiege Lahore in 1799. The young baron (misl), had quickly consolidated power and sought to remove the ruling structure created by Lehna Singh Majitha, Gujjar Singh Banghi and Suba Singh – three men who had been spread around the city in forts of their own. When they fled, Ranjit Singh effectively became the first singular Sikh Maharaja in the area – a title he would officially gain when crowned by Sahib Singh Bedi on April 12, 1801.
Though he had conquered Lahore, Ranjit Singh maintained a capital at Gujranwala for nearly three years. In returning the center of government to Lahore in 1802, he signaled his intent to do more than submit to the status quo – his kingdom would expand. Afghan rulers began to press in from the west and north, an invasion he would thwart before pushing back into Pashtun territory. The resident Peshawaris, living in territory more recently made famous by the American hunt for Al-Qaeda, were the first in history to be subject to Punjabis. When Kashmir fell the following year in 1819, Ranjit Singh had succeeded in pushing out Muslims for the first time in a millennium.
Over the course of four decades in power, Ranjit Singh’s empire was remarkable for its religious tolerance. To a large extent, the government was secular – people of all faiths could (and often did) rise within his army. Whole battalions of the militia were, at one time, Christians led by Christian generals. Men from all faiths and a variety of nationalities rose to places of prominence in the Sikh army, including several Europeans and Americans. (Only mullahs were treated with suspicion, tensions held over from more than a thousand years of Muslim occupation.)
Within a decade of his death, the stability of Ranjit Singh’s empire had come into question on multiple occasions. The British East India Company swept in to take control after the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845, leaving a tiny remnant of the original army intact – one that would be eliminated four years later at the close of the Second Anglo-Sikh War when British India annexed Punjab for good.