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The Panjab and the rise of Sikh power

Guru Nanak and followers, Punjab, India, about 1870. Museum no. IM.2:33-1917

Guru Nanak and followers, Punjab, India, about 1870. Museum no. IM.2:33-1917. Woodcut on paper.

Sikhism began in the Panjab, the land defined by the five rivers (in Persian, 'Panj ab') which flow across its plains and now divide India and Pakistan. In 1469, a boy called Nanak was born into a Hindu family some forty miles from Lahore. He grew up to proclaim a message revealed to him by God, beginning with the simple statement: 'There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim', meaning all are equal before God regardless of caste or creed.

He travelled from one village to another, his inspired words attracting followers known as Sikhs (from Shishya, or 'disciple'). He was their Guru, and he taught that there is only one God, who is the abstract principle of truth.

Before Guru Nanak died in 1539, he appointed Angad as his successor, beginning a line of spiritual descent that ended with the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. Guru Gobind Singh passed the succession to the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism, which thus became the eternal Guru.

On 30 March 1699, Guru Gobind Singh baptised his followers at Anandpur in a ceremony initiating the Khalsa, or 'Fellowship of the Pure'. From this time, the outward emblems of Sikhism were adopted and, to this day, identify millions of Sikhs all over the world.

The rise of Sikh power

'Maharaja Ranjit Singh', probably Lahore, India, about 1835-40. Museum no. IS 282-1955

'Maharaja Ranjit Singh', probably Lahore, India, about 1835-40. Museum no. IS 282-1955. Watercolour on paper.


The Panjab was the wealthiest province of the Mughal empire in the late 16th and 17th centuries. As the empire weakened in the 18th century, the Panjab was repeatedly invaded. Nadir Shah of Iran's invasion of 1738 dealt a particularly devastating blow to the Mughals. His troops swept through the Khyber Pass and across the Panjab plains to Delhi, laying waste to the capital and looting the imperial treasury. When he returned to Iran the following year he took with him historic jewels including the Koh-i- nur diamond.

Sikhism, meanwhile, had evolved from the original gentle emphasis given to it by Guru Nanak. Religious persecution meant that the Sikhs had to fight back in order to survive, and the formation of the Khalsa (Sikh brotherhood) helped create cohesive identity.

By the 18th century, Sikhs had formed twelve loose groups, or misls, to protect themselves and their territories. The Afghans invaded the Panjab nine times between 1747 and 1769, and Mughal persecution was often brutal. Internal squabbles prevented the misls from uniting to control the region until the twelve-year-old Ranjit Singh became head of the Sukerchakia misl in 1792.

By 1799 he had captured Lahore and, two years later, was proclaimed Maharaja of the Panjab in this former Mughal capital. By his death in 1839, the Sikh kingdom stretched over the Panjab Hills and Kashmir, over the Himalayas as far north as Ladakh. His rule was characterised by his tolerance, with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims all holding equally high office at court.

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