Ranjit Singh’s Fauj-i-Khas:Western-Modeled Military Units in the Sikh Army

(Ranjit Singh)

The decline of Mughal power in Punjab and the associated disintegration of the rule of law in the mid-18th century transformed the balance of power in the region, a condition which ultimately led to the rise of the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who would, by 1809, consolidate power in the region and endeavor to modernize the antiquated military practices of his dominion. Tracing their heritage to the 15th century Punjabi religious leader Guru Nanak, the Sikhs represented a sizable religious minority in Punjab, coming into conflict on numerous occasions with their Mughal overlords.[1] In 1699, the formation of the “Khalsa,” a martial community of initiated Sikhs, by the tenth and final Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, transformed the Sikh minority in Punjab into a community with martial and political influence. Indeed, only a year after Gobind Singh’s death in 1708, a group of his disciples under the command of the Sikh leader Banda Singh Bahadur established their own state in Mughal Punjab, continuing to fight Mughal forces until Bahadur’s death in 1716. It was, however, the invasions of Northern India by the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani, from 1748 to 1767, that cemented Sikh rule in the Punjab. Durrani’s campaigns devastated the last vestiges of Mughal power in the region, allowing for the rise of a loose confederation of 11 autonomous Sikh-led states, known as the Misls.[2] Among the Misls west of the river Sutlej, there arose a clear dominant power in 1799, when Ranjit Singh of the Sukerchaia Misl captured the city of Lahore. Two years later, in 1801, the young Ranjit would declare himself Maharaja of all of Punjab, marking the beginning of the Sikh Empire. By 1809, the voluntary submission to the East India Company by the remaining Misls East of the Sutlej bound the borders of the Maharaja’s nascent Empire, a status quo formalized by the Treaty of Amritsar, which barred Ranjit’s expansion South-East of the Sutlej, establishing peaceful relations with the East India Company and promising the Company’s recognition of the Maharaja’s autonomy within his Empire. Conducting extensive military campaigns over the next three decades, Ranjit expanded the borders of his Empire from the Sutlej to the Khyber, stretching as far south as Multan and as far north as the Kashmiri Himalayas, all the while endeavoring to transform the largely cavalry-based armies of the erstwhile Misls into a modernized force based on the practices of the armies of Europe and the East India Company.

Though Ranjit Singh’s reforms succeeded in transforming a decentralized force of irregular cavalry into a centralized, western-influenced, army in service of the state and the monarchy, Singh’s efforts were not sufficient to wholly modernize his armed forces, nor were his European officers used in an efficient manner. Exacerbating these issues, the financial resources allotted to these efforts proved wholly insufficient, impeding large scale reform at all ranks and levels of the Sikh military. Nonetheless, the westernized contingents of Ranjit Singh’s army proved valuable as a tool of internal power projection and assisted in establishing the Sikh Empire’s position as a regional power.

Foremost among Ranjit Singh’s methods of military reform was the employment of European officers, many of whom were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, now seeking personal enrichment in Punjab and Afghanistan following political persecution or loss of military employment in Europe. Among the leading white officers in the Lahore Durbar were Jean-Baptiste Ventura (given charge of the infantry), Jean-Francois Allard (given charge of the regular cavalry), Claude Auguste Court (given command of the artillery), Paolo Avitabile (given charge of the regular infantry), and Alexander Gardner (given a post in the artillery), all veterans of the armies of Napoleon, save for Gardner, who was an American adventurer.[3] Collectively, these officers were given charge of the care and modernization of a contingent of the Sikh Army, known as the Fauj-i-Khas.[4] Modeled after French and British forces, the infantry utilized smoothbore muskets (replacing the antiquated matchlocks used during the Misl period), carried a French battle-standard with a Gurmukhi inscription, and donned uniforms of bright scarlet, reminiscent of the red coats worn by their neighbors across the Sutlej. William Osborne, military secretary to the Governor General of India, who inspected these troops in 1838, remarked of them as working “in three ranks,” “by beat of drum, according to the French fashion,” firing “with greater precision and regularly, both volleys and file firing, than any other troops I ever saw.”[5] Indeed, the French-modeled infantry of the Fauj-i-Khas proved capable on the drilling grounds of Lahore, holding a tolerable formation and maintaining an astonishing rate of fire of five volleys a minute during exercises.[6] The artillery, Ranjit’s favorite arm of the military, represented perhaps the zenith of his reforms. Though it made use of a variety of guns, from obsolete behemoth siege cannons, like the Afghan Zam-Zammah, to western-styled cannons and howitzers, the bulk of Ranjit’s artillery was composed of brass nine and twelve pounders, whose crews could reliably hit targets at twelve hundred yards with exploding shells, displaying, in the words of Osborne, “extraordinary” precision, “creditable to any artillery in the world.” To equip his forces, Ranjit established at Lahore a foundry to produce brass cannons, copying the patterns of the East India Company. Seeing it further necessary to feed his guns with equally modern munitions, Ranjit Singh, inspired by the exploding shells of the British, erected a smithy in Punjab for producing shrapnel and cannon ammunition.[7]

(Sikh Howitzer Captured by the East India Company, Victoria & Albert Museum)

Marvelous though it may have been, beneath the excellent display of musketry by the infantry upon the parade grounds, the artillery’s precise fire upon the proving grounds, and the ceaseless casting of guns at the Lahore foundry, there existed evidence to suggest the Fauj-i-Khas was not as martially capable as their performance in firing volleys would suggest. Notably, regardless of their performance, the elite French-modeled troops accounted for only about eight thousand men, along with about fourteen thousand associated troops, a paltry sum when compared with the total Sikh forces of nearly eighty thousand, including irregular infantry and the extremely sizable irregular cavalry (numbering nearly twenty-seven thousand). The only force boasting considerable numbers was the artillery, which, according to British estimates, numbered about 376 guns, along with a considerable sum of smaller “jinjals,” or camel mounted swivel guns.[8] A perennial European observation of the infantry in particular was its lethargy while marching, an issue so significant, Osborne believed European light infantry would find “little difficulty” in overtaking them.[9] Ranjit himself, though ostensibly proud of his forces, intimated to the Austrian traveler, Baron Charles von Hugel, that his was but a close imitation of East India Company infantry. While nearly faultless against their European counterparts, the elite of Ranjit Singh’s artillery constituted only a small portion of his total artillery forces, with only the batteries attached to the French-modeled infantry regiments being well served and equipped.[10] Worst of all, the regular cavalry seemed to resist reform almost entirely, being, by Osborne’s description, “ill-looking, ill-dressed, and worse mounted.”

A significant contributing factor to these issues was the inefficient use of European officers within the Sikh Army. There existed at any one time, not more than a few dozen European officers in the military, with rarely more than one or two European officers to a single arm of the military. This deficiency of officers left for little instruction down the ranks, as the principle officers of the Fauj-i-Khas found it necessary to conduct the bulk of their work through subordinates, regularly facing difficulties in language and culture, and commonly resorting to abuse, creating a system in which “The commanding officer abuses and beats the major, the major the captains, the captains the subalterns, and so on till there is nothing left for the privates to beat but the drummer boys, who catch it accordingly.”[11] Maintaining the Fauj-i-Khas was a considerable effort, and the delegation of these responsibilities to only a handful of officers limited the extent to which institutional knowledge could be spread and retained. While neither an efficient or long-term solution, the rule of European officers by abuse provided only a limited degree of discipline and capability within the Fauj-i-Khas’s ranks, a reality Ranjit Singh was evidently aware of, as his discussions with Baron von Hugel indicate, but largely complacent with. As aware of the complex nature of his forces as he was, Ranjit possessed a remarkable admiration of his European officers, often allowing this admiration to worsen the inefficiency of his officer corps. Singh, seeing the success of his European officers in modernizing his forces, looked upon them as “men of universal talents,” regularly compelling them to undertake responsibilities wholly outside their original martial duties. Accordingly, Generals Ventura and Avitabile were appointed governors of imperial territories while still being expected to undertake their duties as commanders of the Fauj-i-Khas.[12] A particularly humorous anecdote related by Gardner mentions the Maharaja going so far as to enlist General Ventura and himself in the construction of a paddle boat.[13] These tangential duties without a doubt hampered the abilities of the European officers to conduct their (actual) responsibilities. The practices of the Maharaja’s antiquated irregular forces occasionally percolated into the modernized units as well, an instance of which the poor state of the regular cavalry is owed. While Ranjit Singh took great interest in the infantry, personally inspecting the recruits of these forces, the cavalry enjoyed no such royal interest, and instead had its ranked filled with recruits from the Sardars of the irregular cavalry, allowing for the intersection of nepotism and corruption into the regular cavalry.[14]

(Jean-Francois Allard)

By far the largest barrier to the effective reform of the Sikh military, however, was the profoundly inadequate funding provided for the salaries of the soldiers and officers of the regular army. Regarding arms and ammunition, there is no evidence to indicate a deficiency in expenditure. To the contrary, Ranjit regularly went to great lengths to ensure the technological parity (if not superiority) of his forces with those of his neighbors, as is plainly demonstrated by his establishment of the Lahore foundry, his procurement of smoothbore flintlocks to replace the obsolete matchlocks of the Misl era, and his construction of factories for the creation of gunpowder and artillery ammunition. Officially, this was the same in regard to salaries; the Maharaja’s government advertised the salaries of members of the regular army as equivalent to those of the sepoys of the East India Company and promised regular payment. In practice, the royal paymasters proved undependable. When he did pay, Ranjit rarely made good on his debts. Records Osborne, “…they (the soldiers of the regular army) are frequently upwards of a year, and seldom less than ten months in arrears. When they are half-starved, and growing desperate, and Runjeet (Ranjit) thinks they will bear no more, he makes a compromise with them, and giving half or one-third of what is due to them, half frightens and half cheats them into giving up all further claims.”[15] This unreliability encouraged desertion and often left even the most elite sections of the regular army starved for dependable manpower. Baron von Hugel recalls large sections of the regular cavalry, attached to the French-modeled infantry of the Fauj-i-Khas, upon “not receiving their pay regularly,” deserted en masse.[16] The otherwise well stocked and equipped artillery was no stranger to this issue either, with most batteries regularly finding themselves “deficient in regular gunners,” forcing artillery officers to “find both men and horses” when called to campaign.[17] Frequently understaffed and regularly forced to resort to the use of poorly trained soldiers, the authentic strength and quality of performance of the regular army was rarely equivalent to the army’s abilities on paper or upon the parade grounds. The royal treasury’s parsimoniousness scarcely limited itself to the enlisted population, European officers frequently found the reimbursement for their services wanting. Even the prestigious and politically influential General and Governor Ventura’s salary was regularly in arrear, at times in excess of 100,000 rupees. Upon request for the release of this sum, the Maharaja was apt to borrow a common Punjabi phrase “Is not all I have yours?”[18] Remarkably, few officers quit the Lahore Durbar over these unresolved debts, perhaps owing to the various other sources of income to be found in the Empire (indeed, Ventura himself was not wanting for funds). The officer’s personal opinions notwithstanding, the state of their salaries was indicative of the disorganized military administration of the state apparatus.

(Alexander Gardner, perhaps the most eccentric guest of the Lahore Durbar)

Inefficient and financially chaotic though it may have been, the Fauj-i-Khas served an invaluable function outside of defense and conquest along the Sikh frontlines, serving to centralize Ranjit Singh’s power and establish the Maharaja’s Empire as an influential regional power. The Sikh Empire, owing to Punjab’s incredibly recent history as a battleground for rival Misldars prior to the ascent of Ranjit Singh, was, inherently, the Empire of Ranjit Singh. The Maharaja served as the cornerstone for the Empire’s stability, his Durbar carefully balancing the rival powers vying for power in Punjab. In the Sikh Empire, the state, the institution could not be divorced from Ranjit Singh, the individual. As such, the defense and centralization of the state relied on the defense and centralization of the Maharaja’s Durbar. Though the greatest influence upon Ranjit Singh’s decision to modernize his forces was his observation of the East India Company’s military successes, the issue of maintaining the internal cohesion of his Empire no doubt proved another influence. In the days leading up to the treaty of Amritsar, this prompt came not from the subdued Misldars, but from another chronic annoyance to the Maharaja, the Akali Nihangs.[19] While visiting the Durbar, the envoy of East India Company representative Charles Metcalf was attacked by a group of Nihangs who had been incensed by the actions of the envoy’s Hindu members. Though lightly defended by only two infantry companies composed of native sepoys, the envoy’s forces repelled the Nihangs with ease, impressing Ranjit Singh considerably.[20] Nearly three decades later, Osborne related his account of the peacekeeping role of the Maharaja’s westernized forces. Having sent a rider a few days earlier, Osborne was awoken at night by the premature return of his messenger, having come back “covered with blood, and stripped to the skin, with the account of his having been attacked about seven miles from Lahore by a band of Akalees (Akalis).”[21] Taking quick action against the Akali highwaymen, Ranjit “sent some of his cavalry after the Akalees,” promising to deprive any prisoners taken by the horsemen of “one, if not both of their arms.”[22] Such is a testament to the transformation of Punjab under the rule of Ranjit Singh’s Durbar, that a region once dominated by rival Misldars could now be transverse freely by state cavalry forces, that too in search of recalcitrant Akalis. The Maharaja’s was a fearsome, if inelegant, projection of the Lahore Durbar’s power. Crucially, however, this projection was by no means limited to the borders of Ranjit’s empire. Keenly aware of the role of his polity as a buffer state between Northern India and both the Russian Empire and what the British later described as the “great ocean of Mahomedanism between India and Europe,”[23] Ranjit was fond of discussing the hypothetical performance of his troops against those of Dost Mohammad and the Tsar. The Sikh Empire’s role as a border guard of the Khyber proved an immense source of pride for the elderly Maharaja, who enjoyed describing any hypothetical clash in the area as a “vada tamasha,”[24] delighted by the opportunity to play the role of intermediator and ally. For their part, the agents of the East India Company considered a powerful (yet docile) Ranjit Singh “the best of all frontiers.”[25] Indeed, the strength of the Lahore Durbar was a vital source of the Sikh Empire’s status as a regional power, with both the strength of the Durbar and the broader relevance of the Empire relying heavily on the abilities of Ranjit Singh’s troops to maintain imperial cohesion.

(An Akali Nihang Bodyguard, c. 1865, colorized)

Dominated by armies composed overwhelmingly of irregular light cavalry during the Misl era, Ranjit Singh’s reforms largely succeeded in transforming the military of the Sikh Empire into a western-influenced force utilizing artillery and line infantry components. Despite the Maharaja’s efforts, however, the total number of western-styled forces in the army of the Sikh Empire remained small when compared to the large numbers of irregular cavalry still kept in service of the Maharaja and of the state. Contemporary European observers portrayed a mixed portrait of the Sikh armies, with certain aspects of its forces, such as the artillery, being efficient and capable, and others, like the cavalry, displaying extremely little professionalism. These disordered qualities were largely owed to the inefficient use of European commanding officers within the military’s command hierarchy, as well as the unreliable funding allotted to the maintenance of the military’s manpower. Regardless of these inefficiencies, however, the modernized contingents of the Sikh Army served a crucial purpose in centralizing the power of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his Lahore Durbar, while simultaneously allowing Ranjit Singh to establish himself as the leader of a significant regional power occupying a vital position upon the North-Western border of the East India Company’s territory. Though inefficient and far less capable in practice than it appeared upon paper, the western-styled forces of the Sikh military were a significant source of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s power in Punjab, serving him adequately for this purpose. Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 and the internal power struggle that followed would further deteriorate the condition of the army, though the Sikh forces fought capably during the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars of 1845 and 1848, dealing significant blows to the East India Company at the battles of Ferozeshah and Chillianwalah. The last of Ranjit Singh’s beloved Fauj-i-Khas, as well as the Empire he built, would ultimately be dissolved with the end of the Second Anglo-Sikh War in August of 1849.

[1] The fifth and ninth Sikh Gurus were executed by the Mughal Emperors Jahangir and Aurangzeb, respectively. [2]Kushwant Singh, History of the Sikhs. Vol. 1. 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): 127 [3]William Broadfoot, The Career of Major George Broadfoot (London: John Murray, 1888): 221 [4] Literally, “Important Troops” or “Notable Troops” [5] William Osborne, The Court and Camp of Runjeet Singh (London: Colburn, 1840): 102 [6] Karl Hugel, Travels in Kashmir and the Punjab (London: John Petheram, 1845.): 307 [7] Osborne, 80. [8] Hugel, 355. [9] Osborne, 155. [10] Hugel, 329. [11] Osborne, 155 [12] Broadfoot, 221. [13] Alexander Gardner, Soldier and Traveller: Memoirs of Alexander Gardner (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1898): 202-3 [14] Osborne, 165. [15] Osborne, 102. [16] Hugel, 355. [17] Ibid., 329. [18] Ibid., 353. [19] Literally “The Immortals” or “The Pure,” a Sikh military order tracing their lineage to Sahibzada Fateh Singh, the son of the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh. Enjoying significant military prominence during the Misl period and organizing themselves within their own fraternities with little regard for the ruling powers, the Nihangs were often characterized by Europeans and the Durbar as highwaymen and religious firebrands. [20] Gardner, 299-300. [21] Osborne, 181. [22] Ibid., 182. [23] Broadfoot, 315. [24] Osborne, 177; “ਵੱਡਾ ਤਮਾਸ਼ਾ,” in its original Gurmukhi; loosely translated as “great spectacle.” [25]William Broadfoot to Henry Hardinge, Governor General of India, June 29, 1845, in The Career of Major George Broadfoot, ed. George Broadfoot (London: John Murray, 1888), 315.


Broadfoot, Major William. The Career of Major George Broadfoot. London: John Murray, 1888.

Broadfoot, William. Letter to Henry Hardinge, 1st Viscount Hardinge. The Career of Major George Broadfoot. London: John Murray, June 29, 1888.

Gardner, Alexander Haughton Campbell. Soldier and Traveller: Memoirs of Alexander Gardner. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1898.

Hügel Karl Alexander. Travels in Kashmir and the Punjab. Edited by Thomas Best Jervis. London: John Petheram, 1845.

Osborne, William Godolphin. The Court and Camp of Runjeet Singh. London: Colburn, 1840.

Singh, Amarinder. The Last Sunset: The Rise & Fall of the Lahore Durbar. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2011.

Singh, Khushwant. History of the Sikhs. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.