Maharaja Ranjit Singh named 20 world’s greatest leaders

The Lion of Punjab, who ruled a Sikh empire from 1801–1839, was great because he forged a modern empire of toleration, writes a historian

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Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of Punjab’, sits before ministers, an astrologer and holy men in an idealised depiction of the Sikh court from c1830. (Image by Bridgeman / BBC)
By Asia Samachar Team UK |

Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Mughal emperor Akhbar were among the 20 leaders who caught the attention of a group of historians and authors challenged by the BBC to name the world’s greatest leaders.

They were asked to nominate the greatest leader – someone who exercised power and had a positive impact on humanity – and to explore their achievements and legacy.

Ranjit, listed as the Ruler of the Sikh empire 1801–39, was great because he forged a modern empire of toleration.

Dubbed the Lion of Punjab, his reign marked a golden age for Punjab and north-west India.

“Though a devoted Sikh who embarked on a campaign to restore the great monuments of his religion – including the Harmandir Sahib or ‘Golden Temple’ at Amritsar – he also went to great lengths to ensure religious freedom within his lands,” writes Matthew Lockwood, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama.

The list appeared in a recent issue of the BBC World Histories Magazine.

It includes Amenhotep III (Egypt’s greatest pharaoh when Egypt ruled the ancient world, c1390–1352 BC), Isabella of Castile (the Queen of Castile, 1474–1504, whose influence reshaped the western world) and Oda Nobunaga (Japanese feudal lord in the 16th century who succeeded in unifying Japan, 1534-1582).

Maharaja Ranjit Singh painting by Sarabjit Singh, uploaded on 12 August 2015.

The full entry on Maharaja Ranjit Singh:

Maharaja Ranjit Singh: 

Ruler of the Sikh empire 1801–39

For most of the 18th century, India was a fractured and war-torn place. As the once-dominant Mughal empire entered its period of terminal decline, it left behind a power vacuum. Punjab was not exempt from this problem. By the time Ranjit Singh was born in 1780, Afghan raids, chronic infighting among Punjab’s various misls (sovereign states) and the looming presence of British expansion left the region politically fragile, economically weak and religiously splintered. All this changed with the rise of Singh, the ‘Lion of Punjab’.

By the early decades of the 19th century, he had modernised the Sikh Khalsa army, embraced western innovations without abandoning local forms and institutions, unified the fractious misls, stabilised the frontier with Afghanistan, and reached a mutually beneficial detente with the British East India Company. Singh, however, was more than a mere conqueror. While the Indian subcontinent was riven with imperial competition, religious strife and wars of conquest, Singh was, almost uniquely, a unifier – a force for stability, prosperity and tolerance.

His reign marked a golden age for Punjab and north-west India. Though a devoted Sikh who embarked on a campaign to restore the great monuments of his religion – including the Harmandir Sahib or ‘Golden Temple’ at Amritsar – he also went to great lengths to ensure religious freedom within his lands. He patronised Hindu temples and Sufi shrines, attended Muslim and Hindu ceremonies, married Hindu and Muslim women, and even banned the slaughter of cows to protect the religious sensitivities of Hindus. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Europeans were all employed in the modernised army and administration of his empire. Under his leadership, infrastructure was improved, commerce opened and expanded, and the arts flourished.

This golden age would not survive him. After his death in 1839, Ranjit Singh’s empire of toleration unravelled. The British invaded, the Sikh empire collapsed and instability returned to the region. Though certainly an imperialist, Ranjit Singh represented a different, more enlightened, more inclusive model of state-building, and a much-needed path towards unity and toleration. We could still benefit from his example.

You can read the full article, ‘Who is the greatest leader in world history?’,  here

 

RELATED STORY:

Was Maharaja Ranjit Singh an Indian or a Panjabi? (Asia Samachar, 28 June 2019)

 

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