Hari Singh Nalwa and the Sikh Empire ‘If Sardar Hari Singh were to cross the Indus, his majesty would soon be glad to make good his retreat…’ (1) 20th April: The man famed as being Nalwa, or the lion-ripper, tediously awaited his visitor. Ever since his monarch, Ranjit Singh, had started granting the occasional entry […]

Hari Singh Nalwa and the Sikh Empire

‘If Sardar Hari Singh were to cross the Indus, his majesty would soon be glad to make good his retreat…’ (1)

20th April: The man famed as being Nalwa, or the lion-ripper, tediously awaited his visitor. Ever since his monarch, Ranjit Singh, had started granting the occasional entry to foreigners a whole drove had arrived at his gates asking to interview him and spread his name in their nations. Unbeknownst to Hari Singh Nalwa however, this visitor would prove to be exceptionally varied. Baron Charles Hugh by no means was the run-of-the-mill European anthropologist or diplomat. He was a distinguished explorer and an avid traveller. Already having researched his subject, he surprised the Nalwa by recounting the exact legend which had led to him gaining his feared nomenclature. ‘I surprised him by my knowledge of whence he had gained the appelation of “Nalwa” and of his having cloven the head of a tiger who had already seized him as prey…’ (2) Surprised by the Baron’s knowledge Hari Singh gifted him with a portrait capturing his cleaving of the tiger, whilst subtly asking for intelligence regarding varied European states. This subtleness did not escape the Baron who would later conclude that their ‘conversation was very different from the majority of such interviews in India, and really consisted of a due exchange of ideas, and of references to events which had actually taken place.’ (3)


Hari Singh Nalwa battling Islamic radicals.
Hari Singh Nalwa battling Islamic radicals.


The Baron was only one of the many foreigners who would meet and elucidate upon the persona of the Marshall of the Khalsa forces. Parallel to him many sub-continental biographers and observers were captivated by him. But the greatest and most authentic sketch of Hari Singh Nalwa comes from the ballads of Pandit Sitarama, a Hindu cleric employed by Nalwa’s grandfather to record the military exploits of his generation and descendants. It seems that Sitarama’s primary manuscripts have been lost or he did not set to work until Hari Singh was born. Nonetheless his ballads still provide a profound insight into the Nalwa clan amongst who Hari Singh was born in 1791 A.D. Both his grandfather and father fell in the service of Ranjit Singh’s predecessors, in 1762 A.D. and 1798 A.D. Raised by his mother, Sitarama cites that at ten years old ‘he (Hari Singh) was initiated into the Khalsa fold which was a source of joy for all. In his eleventh year he displayed expert horsemanship, could roar like a lion and was blessed with immense God-bestowed strength. By the age of twelve he displayed leadership qualities, by the age of thirteen he could recite Gurbani from heart. At fourteen, says Sitarama, he aspired to become an expert swordsman and destiny fully favoured him in this endeavour.’ (4) By this time the political model in the Punjab had undergone a profound evolution. No longer were the Khalsa Misls or confederacies in power. A young Ranjit Singh, and his maternal mentor Sada Kaur, had succeeded in extrapolating their domains and crushing the said confederacies. Simultaneously they had also managed to encumber Afghani expansion towards North India and batted the latter for domination over the Punjab-Afghani border. By 1801 A.D. Ranjit Singh had succeeded in his aims, and Punjab was now renamed as the Sikh empire. His fame and fear was rife throughout the Punjab, other regions of North India and even up to China. Thus, when Hari Singh reached his court he did so with two minds. The foremost being to settle a familial dispute and the second to gain plausible employ in the mighty monarch’s military.

The Sikh Empire.
The Sikh Empire.

Ranjit Singh was entranced by the dashing youth who stood in front of him arguing his own defence and being his own prosecutor. Asking after his lineage he was stunned to discover that he was the grandson and son of warriors who had accompanied him and his ancestors in battle. Instantly settling the dispute in Hari Singh’s favour he offered the latter a position as a bodyguard in his forces, an occupation which the young Hari Singh readily accepted. In 1804 A.D. Ranjit Singh declared a special session of his court and honoured individuals who had assisted him in gaining his kingdom and consolidating his power. Ambivalence exists over why the young Hari Singh featured on this list. The oral tradition of North India cites that Hari Singh grappled with and slew a tiger which had attacked Ranjit Singh (Sitarama remains ambiguous on this matter despite stating that it transpired he does not mention, whence, where and with who), whilst European sources state that it was due to his success as a bodyguard. Whatever the cause Hari Singh soon found himself bestowed with the title of Nalwa, and promoted to the rank of Sardar or chief. Paradoxically Ranjit Singh broke his own policy regarding rank and file when he placed a battalion of 800 men, compromising both infantry and cavalry, under his young Sardar. (5) Not only did this boost Hari Singh’s popularity and influence, but as Baron Charles Hugh notes, it also gave him the time to indulge in a favourite past time. The taming and domesticating of tigers. (6)

'Nalwa.' By Sir John Mcqueen.
‘Nalwa.’ By Sir John Mcqueen.

Only sixteen years of age, Hari Singh was called to a military commune where Ranjit Singh outlined his strategy to storm Kasur. The latter was an Islamic citadel, ruled over by the Kasuria Pathans. The latter enjoyed close proximity with the Afghans, who continually rankled in Khalsa eyes. Ranjit Singh had made three abortive attempts to gain the city prior to his imperial ascendency but failed due to many factors. Naturally fortified Kasur presented an impregnable front to the Khalsa but it did not deter the latter from invading it in early February. Cutting off all foreign provisions the Khalsa besieged the town until February, when it’s chief Katub-ul- Din Khan surrendered before it. Hari Singh’s role in this campaign has not been noted, but Griffin notes that he was allocated a land grant for his ‘prominence in the entire affair.’ (7) Sitarama poetically elucidates upon the latter victory, ‘in the twinkling of an eye Hari Singh accepted the challenge with a roar. He told Ranjit Singh that he would immediately go an conquer Kasur via his own blade. The “Sarkar” (monarch’s) heart overflows at witnessing such such promptitude and courage…’ (8) Following on from this victory, Hari Singh’s name finds mention in the memoirs of Khushwaqt Rai, an aboriginal spy espionage agent working for the British who notes his prominence and perpetual presence at Ranjit Singh’s side. Subsequently European accounts mention a mass body of Sikh cavalrymen marching towards Haridwar located in British India. Incensed at the latter movement, British spies kept a continual watch on the body until it reached Haridwar. There they witnessed Hari Singh paying obeisance at the site where Guru Nanak Dev had questioned the Hindu orthodoxy, and also donating land and money towards his familial genealogists and advisers. Succeeding in obtaining a document related to the incident, the British were awed to learn that Nalwa was now known as Singh-Sahib. An exclusive title reserved for Ranjit Singh and his military/religious companions. Simultaneously an espionage agent, dispatched by the Deccan Peshwa, reported the following change in Hari Singh’s status: ‘the noble ruler (Ranjit Singh) came out to the Saman tower and inspected the drill of orderly youths. He kept on inspecting the parade of the miscellaneous horsemen until the day had advanced one and a half quarter, and afterwards giving them 2,000 Rupees to meet their expenses, sent them to join the army of Hari Singh Nalwa.’ (9) This army was none other than the special detachment named after it’s commander Rajman Sardar Hari Singh Wali.

The Nalwa detachment.
The Nalwa detachment.

Despite achieving intrinsic prominence in his role as chief marshal of the Sikh empire, Nalwa’s greatest achievement was yet to come. In 1793 A.D. Timur Shah, the ruler of Afghanistan, died causing mass internal strife to arise between his successors. When Shah Mohammad succeeded in detaining and dethroning his brother Shah Shuja and blinding another brother, Shah Zaman he succeeded in gaining his ancestral throne for the second time. Yet this was the catalyst for a dissatisfied governor, Atta Muhmmad Khan Bamzai, to declare independence and invite Shah Shuja to assist him. Shuja however faced his own hell, with his ruling brother having placed a mercenary at his side to kill him if he showed any signs of mutiny. Thus in such a stupefying environment, Ranjit Singh found himself host to different Afghani factions seeking his aide in rendering the opponent immobile. Towards the end of 1812 A.D. a new player entered the scene, dispatched by Shah Mohammad himself. The latter was the Shah’s own Vizier, Fateh Khan Barakzai who offered a message from his master. The said message depicted the respect which the Sikhs had earned in the eyes of the Afghanis, especially due to their hostile blockading of the latter’s North Indian domains. Mohammad had decided to cooperate with the Sikhs, rather than confront them at the crest of their prowess. Thus he offered the plausibility of a coalition via which he hoped to subdue Bamzai, especially since the latter governed Kashmir which bordered the Sikh empire. Ranjit Singh readily agreed and a joint force of both Sikhs and Afghans set out for Kashmir across the Pir Panjal mountains. Whilst in Kashmir however tensions arose between both sides, the Sikhs had succeeded in liberating a dispossessed Shah Shuja who decided to accompany them back to Lahore. Stunned at this unseen blow, Barakzai refused to pay them their financial dues. Appointing his brother as governor of Kashmir, Barakzai commenced his march towards another rebellious corner of his master’s empire. Attock.

Hari Singh marching towards Attock.
Hari Singh marching towards Attock.

Frightened by Barakzai’s approach the custodian of the Attock fort opened back channel negotiations with Ranjit Singh. The latter catalysed in the Sikhs taking over the Attock fort and beginning a mass campaign of expansion right in the very precincts of Afghanistan itself! Chagrined and perplexed at this decisive evolution of events, Barakzai requested aide from Shah Mohammad and a new game of political back manoeuvring commenced. Plotting assassinations of prominent Sikh figures Mohammad was hampered at each turn by Ranjit Singh’s superior espionage services. Penultimately the angered Shah formed a new plan. With the Sikh forces, under Hari Singh, juxtaposed at Attock against the Afghans; Mohammad invited Barakzai’s brother in Kashmir to march upon Lahore. In a letter, intercepted by Sikh forces, Mohammad chalked out his strategy, ‘as we worship the same God, it is our duty to jointly extirpate the tribe of Infidels who are so many thorns in the garden of Punjab. As soon as the flames of war are kindled and troops put under the aegis of Vazeer Fateh Khan who will motion them towards that quarter, God-willing, we shall soon put them in confusion and order then divide the Punjab between us!’ (10) But ironically for the Shah, Barakzai had hinged his hopes upon another plot fathered by Shah Shuja. Ultimately this too was foiled by Sikh espionage agents, and Mohammad was forced to engage in the battle of Attock. Under the command of Diwan Mokham Chand the Sikhs proved valorous, despite rebellion by Islamic cognitives in their own ranks. June 1813 A.D. saw the retreat of a heavily demoralised Afghani force, whilst Sikh war cries resounded joyously all over Attock. Realising that this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, Ranjit Singh dispatched Hari Singh to guard Attock and also expand Sikh territory into Afghanistan itself! Realizing that most of the Afghani economy and sociality thrived upon burglary, violence and fundamentalism Hari Singh set about pacifying the Attock region. In June 1815 A.D. Hari Singh defeated a mutinous chieftain, Sherbaaz Khan, incorporated his domains into the Sikh empire and forced him into exile. The subsequent year Hari Singh, Fateh Singh Alhuwalia, Misr Deewan Chand, Illahi Baksh, Nihal Singh Attariwali and seven companies attacked and captured Mankera south of the Indus salt range.

The Khalsa at Attock.
The Khalsa at Attock.

In 1810 A.D. Hari Singh lead a strong force of Sikhs against Multan. The latter was a strategic location situated on the Kabul-Bengal trading route and originally the home of pagan sun worshippers. Barbarically persecuted by Muslims, they were ultimately relieved of their constraints by Hari Singh. The military nucleus of Multan however proved resilient against the Sikh invaders. Ultimately in 1818 A.D. after an eight year long battle it surrendered to the heavy guns of the Sikhs. Subsequently Hari Singh also incorporated Muzzafargarh and Sikandrabad into Sikh domains in the following year with the aide of Akali-Nihung Sadhu Singh Ji. (10) This conquest of Multan finally ended the decades long Afghani presence in the Bari Doab. Sitarama elucidates upon the victory as being so momentous that, ‘the people of Hindustan were simply rendered speechless with awe.’ (11) Yet whilst the Sikhs were giddy with victory, other more dark events were occurring in the Afghani polity. Shah Mohmmad’s son killed his father’s Vizier in 1818 A.D. The subsequent consequences catalysed in three courses. One, Mohammad was forced to flee from Kabul to Persia where he was stripped of his former prestige and became a vassal of the state. Two, Barakzai’s brothers bested all other competition and established themselves as the power holders in Kabul, and three, the Sikhs finally crossed into Peshawer. The latter region was in the possession of Barakzai’s stepbrothers who upon hearing news of the Sikh forces’ arrival fled towards the hill. Subsequently they attacked via stealth but were crushed by Hari Singh who routed their entire forces in battle. By 1822 A.D. both brothers were paying tribute to Ranjit Singh to avail themselves of the mighty Nalwa’s aggressive presence. By 1819 A.D. Hari Singh finally succeeded in subduing the Afghanis and consolidating the Sikh power across the Indus. In recognition of this Ranjit Singh made him chieftain of the central Afghan domains and also deputed him towards other North Indian regions as viceroy.

A senior Hari Singh.
A senior Hari Singh.

After introducing swift reforms in the Kashmir sociality and religiosity, whilst simultaneously forcing Ladakah into submission Hari Singh was finally called back to Afghanistan in 1837 A.D. The Barakzai Mohammad Khan had gathered a herculean force of 29,000 (12) warriors to hamper the Sikh invasion of Jalalabad. Forced to see the abduction of Punjab, Multan, Kashmir, Derajat, Hazara and Peshawar the second important socio-political region in Afghanistan; Khan hoped to turn the tides against the Sikhs. In 1836 A.D. Hari Singh captured the strategic village of Jamrud, blockading the mouth of the Khyber Pass. Subsequently he also succeeded in defeating Fatteh Khan, a pro-Barakzai chieftain who expressed extreme mutiny against the Sikhs. The subsequent year saw a mass portion of the Jamrud garrison being deployed to Lahore for the wedding of Ranjit Singh’s grandson. Receiving intelligence orbiting the wedding, Mohammad Khan, his sons and 29,000 warriors rushed to dislodge Hari Singh from Jamrud. The initial attack was fought off by the Nalwa and his 800 warriors whilst a message was dispatched to Ranjit Singh requesting reinforcements. Whilst the Sikhs were still collecting the spoils of the battlefield, a much stronger force of Afghanis returned which succeeded in inflicting grave casualties upon the defenders. Embroiled in the heat of the battle, Hari Singh was wounded in the head and carried to the garrison headquarters by his orderlies. Ordering his captains to battle to the very end, and veil news of his demise, the Lion-Shredder breathed his last just before a 10,000 strong Sikh force arrived from Lahore and routed the Afghanis. (13) A warrior to the very end his demise was greatly mourned by friend and spectator alike. An individual of heroic proportions, Hari Singh succeeded in stamping out the Islamic radicalism seeping into Afghani society and paid the Afghanis their just dues in the same coin which they employed to persecute the infidel.

“Some people might think that Napoleon was a great General. Some might name Marshall Hendenburgh, Lord Kitchener, General Karobzey or Duke of Wellington etc. And some going further might say Halaku Khan, Changez Khan, Richard or Allaudin etc. But let me tell you that in the North of India a General of the name of Hari Singh Nalwa of the Sikhs prevailed. Had he lived longer and had the sources and artillery of the British, he would have conquered most of Asia and Europe….” (14)


(1) Mohan Lal Kashmiri, Travels in the Panjab, Afghanistan and Turkistan. 1846 A.D.
(2) Baron Charles Hugh, Travels in Cashmere and the Punjab, Containing a particular account of the Sikhs. 1815 A.D. John Petterman, London.
(3) ibid.
(4) Accessed from http://www.harisinghnalwa.com/early_life.html
(5) Vanit Nalwa, Hari Singh Nalwa Champion of the KhalsaJi. Manohar Publishers and Distributors. 2009. pg. 26.
(6) ibid pg. 25.
(7) ibid pg. 28.
(8) ibid pg. 28.
(9) ibid pg. 30.
(10) ibid pg. 35.
(11) ibid pg. 41.
(12) Accessed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Jamrud
(13) Patwant Singh. The Sikhs. Doubleday religious publishing group. 2001.
(14) Tid-bits, 1881 A.D.