The Sikh Empire

Posted on 23/07/18 by The Brunei Gallery

Over 100 dazzling artworks and objects tell the story of a
cosmopolitan empire that almost ended British rule in India

This summer heralds a major exhibition telling the story of the last great native kingdom which challenged the British for supremacy of the Indian subcontinent. ‘Empire of the Sikhs’ is now on view at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS until the 23rd September 2018.

The Sikh Empire (1799–1849), which spanned much of modern day Pakistan and northwest India, was forged by the ‘Napoleon of the East’ Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839). He became known as Sher-e-Punjab, the Lion of Punjab, over his forty-year reign during which he established a powerful military meritocracy that included many European officers. The one-eyed king of Lahore was a trusted ally of the British but also a potentially formidable opponent and his empire offered a crucial buffer between them and incursions via the Khyber Pass.

The inevitable clash with the came in the form of two bitterly fought Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845–46, 1848–49) in which British pre-eminence hung in the balance as they came within hours of a total surrender. But through treachery, victory was turned into defeat for the Sikhs whose territories, treasury and fighting men became incorporated into British dominion.

A source of great interest to western visitors to the Sikh royal court prior to annexation was the Koh-i-nûr diamond, which was wrested from Afghan hands in 1813. The fabled jewel was eventually presented to Queen Victoria on 3 July 1850 in the armlet that Ranjit Singh had specially made for it. Fitted with a rock crystal replica of the original, uncut Koh-i-nûr, it is now preserved as part of the Royal Collection and will be one of the highlights on display along with a stunning array of over 100 objects and works of art from leading private and public collections.
Among them will be glittering jewellery and weaponry from the Sikh Empire including personal items that belonged to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the most famous of his thirty ‘official’ wives, Maharani Jind Kaur. They were the parents of the deposed boy-king Maharaja Duleep Singh and grandparents to prominent suffragette (and goddaughter to Queen Victoria), Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.


On the Sikh Empire being proclaimed a part of British India in 1849, Governor-General Lord Dalhousie ensured that one of the terms of the Treaty of Lahore required that the Koh-i-nûr diamond be surrendered ‘by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England’.

The infamous stone came from a Sikh empire that spanned northern India and shared its borders with Afghanistan and British India. It was in Britain’s name that the world’s first multi-national corporation, the East India Company, fought against it in what were some of the bloodiest battles ever faced by the British in the subcontinent. The Koh-i-nûr diamond was shipped to England and presented to Queen Victoria in time for the East India Company’s 250th anniversary on 3 July 1850.

In the first war (1845–46), the powerful Sikh army – comprising of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh soldiers who had received training from over 70 Americans and Europeans, several of them ex- Napoleonic officers – was defeated owing less to British military superiority than by the state of anarchy in the Sikh government and treachery in its senior military ranks. So bitter were some of these contests that during the Battle of Ferozeshah (1845), the British governor-general came within hours of offering an unconditional surrender.

Ultimately, the Sikh Empire was defeated after a second brutal conflict (1848–49). Its rich and fertile territories, treasury – the world’s richest at that time – and modernised military establishment were annexed to British India, ushering in a new era of Raj under Queen Victoria.

When the boy-king, Maharaja Duleep Singh, was exiled to England in 1854, Queen Victoria thought him exotic and beautiful. He became close to the Prince of Wales and lived life as an English country squire, but later failed in his attempt to regain his lost empire and the Koh-i-nûr. A daughter, Princess Sophia, inherited his rebellious spirit, becoming a suffragette whose role was recently commemorated by the Royal Mail with a new stamp.

Under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Court of Lahore became not only the most magnificent in India but almost certainly the most cosmopolitan in the world at that time. The far-sighted maharaja created a state that employed talented individuals from as far afield as Europe and America. In preparation for the inevitable clash with the East India Company, he utilised these firangis (foreigners) to develop a powerful army modernised along western lines.
They ranged from seasoned ex-Napoleonic officers in search of gainful employment to wily adventurers such as Alexander Gardner and Josiah Harlan, two Americans whose exploits became the inspiration for Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.

Speaking before the exhibition, Chair of the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA), Amandeep Singh Madra OBE said:
UKPHA are excited to tell the story of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the briefly-lived but hugely influential Sikh Empire. When today we hear of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, that is ultimately a result of the empire’s expansion into those mountainous regions.

Equally the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – and Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, previously known as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) under the British – is one inherited from Sikhs' conquests over Afghan territories.
When we speak of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the eponymous gilding is also a result of the lavish patronage of the maharaja and others at a time when Sikh arts and culture flourished and the lavish Court of Lahore rivalled any in the world.
The riches of the empire's treasury included the much contested Koh-i-nûr diamond that now sits, albeit in a much reduced form, in the Queen Mother's Crown. That such treasures are now considered integral to the British state, whilst others were sold off in auction, is part of the legacy of the rise and fall of the Empire of the Sikhs – a fascinating story that resonates strongly to this day.
A registered charity, UKPHA is a highly-regarded heritage body with a proven track-record in major exhibitions, publishing and publicly-funded outreach projects. It is run almost entirely on a voluntary basis and comprises a predominantly London-based network of committed volunteers with a passion for their Punjabi and Sikh heritage.
The organisation was founded in 2001 by published historians Amandeep Singh Madra OBE and Parmjit Singh and attracts a wide range of audiences globally.
This impressive modern venue in the heart of central London will be hosting UKPHA’s ‘Empire of the Sikhs’ exhibition. Part of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), it hosts a number of temporary exhibitions focusing on the art, culture and heritage from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Located off Russell Square just a few minutes’ walk from the British Museum, it features on London’s ‘Museum Mile’.
The gallery has previously hosted UKPHA’s two ground breaking exhibitions, ‘The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past’ (2011) and ‘Empire Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One’ (2014). Both attracted nearly 50,000 visitors overall and received extensive print and broadcast media coverage in The Times, BBC London News, ITV London News, BBC Radio Four, BBC Radio Two and Sky News.
Exhibition Opening Times:
Tuesday to Sunday 10.30 – 17.00, Thursdays late until 20.00, closed Mondays.
Admission to ‘Empire of the Sikhs’ is free. For more details see

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