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Military System of the Misals

Military Organisation under Banda Singh Bahadur

As a background to the military system of the Misals it would be worthwhile to study briefly the army organisation and the fighting techniques that Banda Singh Bahadur adopted during his fight against the Mughals for seven long years.

When Banda Singh came to the Punjab from the Deccan he was accompanied by a few companions. From a military point of view he started from a scratch. Arriving in northern India he despatched the hukam-namas of Guru Gobind Singh to prominent Sikhs in the Punjab.1 His main target, to begin with, was Wazir Khan, the faujdar or governor of Sirhind, the killer of Guru Gobind Singh’s young sons.2 The leading Sikhs of the Punjab, Bhai Fateh Singh, Karam Singh, Dharam Singh, Nagahia Singh, Ali Singh and Mali Singh flocked round him along with their followers. According to Khafi Khan, in two or three months’ time, four or five thousand horsemen and seven or eight thousand foot soldiers joined him and their number soon rose to 40,000.3

After coming to the Punjab and gathering men around him Banda Singh set before him to build a Sikh political power in the Punjab. The Guru had organised the Sikhs to defend their rights and secure freedom of worship, freedom of expression and freedom of missionary activities. But Banda Singh was the first to organise the Sikhs to fight battles not only to weaken the Mughal power but also to replace it by a better one. He had, therefore, no alternative but to oust the Mughal government officials, appoint his own men, introduce changes in the government set up and adopt a policy that aimed at fulfilling the aspirations of the Sikhs.

Nearly the period of seven years, marked by ceaseless fighting against the Mughal imperialists and the meteoric rise and fall of Banda Singh, witnessed the first armed Sikh attempt though unsuccessful, to carve out an independent state.

His general policy at the very outset of his campaigns to distribute the conquered lauds among those who would fight for him and his land reforms after the conquest of Sirhind, conferring proprietorship upon petty cultivators in place of the zamindars and chaudharis made his cause popular, making him the rallying point of the poor agricultural classes, thereby broadening the base of his struggle. Thus, the bulk of his followers were the Jat Sikhs belonging to the villages of the Sikh rural community.

According to Indubhusan Banerjee, Guru Arjan is said to have converted almost the entire Jat peasantry of the Majha tract and there could be little doubt that by the time of Guru Hargobind the Jats formed, by far, the preponderant element in the Sikh community. The character of the Jats imperceptibly modified the Sikh system as it was bound to do.4 Almost all writers are, more or less, agreed that one of the fundamental traits in the Jat character has been the instinct of tribal freedom and of tribal kinship.5 The role of the Jats was of considerable importance in the Khalsa Panth, particularly for the developments which took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the change or shift from Khatri to Jat leadership in the community. The author of the Dabistan-i-Mazahib noted that though the Gurus had been the Khatris, they had made the Khatris subservient to the Jats who were considered the lowest caste among the Vaishyas. Thus, most of the big masands of the Guru were the Jats.6 The new features of Sikhism came to represent the dominance of the Jat culture7 which Guru Gobind Singh proclaimed in 1699, as the essentials of Sikhism. Love of freedom and warlike spirit of the Jats could no longer be denied a place within the system.8

Irfan Habib believes that the Jats were the peasants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who had to bear a heavy burden of land revenue and a great degree of oppression of the ruling classes of the Mughal empire. This situation was bound to provoke peasant revolts. Thus, the militant development of the Sikh community during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can have one major explanation in this resort to armed violence by the Jat peasantry, when the economic pressure became increasingly intolerable.9 The economic pressure on the Jats could be one of the reasons for arraying themselves on the side of Banda Singh but more powerful reason was the religious persecutions suffered by the Sikhs at the hands of the Mughal government. It led them to take up arms under the leadership of Banda Singh to replace the tyrannical government. Banda Singh was lucky to have such spirited and fearless people, known for their intrepidity and sacrifice, as his followers.

Banda Singh did not employ the Gurus’ defensive strategy. Like a shrewd general, he started with a strong offensive as a result of which he became the master of a large area in a short space of time. After his expulsion from his capital, Lohgarh, as a military strategy, he chose Kohistan, as the hilly areas were called, to be made into a military base from where he carried on irregular but well- planned inroads into the plains. He conceived the hill areas as a military base for operations in view of the security of his line of retreat. “Offensive and planning were not the only characteristics of Banda Singh’s military strategy. Its other important features were surprise, mobility, concentration, economy of force and security. His movements were like a storm and their very swiftness constituted the major element of surprise.”10

Banda Singh always displayed great vigilance in the matter of military intelligence. He not only spared no pains and measures to keep himself informed of the enemy’s designs and movements through his spies, but was always on guard against the enemy’s spies. Like his strategy, his tactical manoeuvres were also based on speed and mobility. He made up his lack of sinews of war by swift movements. His adversaries were often struck down by his dashing charges even before they were aware of the danger facing them.

Despite his being a competent strategist and a shrewd tactician Banda Singh was unsuccessful in his bid against the imperial government. The fact is, that his failure was not due to any flaw in his generalship, but to other factors such as shortage of resources, superiority of the Mughals in man-power and war material, defective army organisation and the gradual alienation of the upper classes from his cause.11 The greatest handicap of the Sikhs under Banda Singh was the shortage of arms, horses and man-power.  He had a few guns only. Hundreds of his men had to go without horses and they were pitted against an enemy who was far stronger in numbers, artillery, horses, weapons and equipment of war. Kamwar Khan the author of Tazkirah-i-Chnghtai writes, “The list of arms taken and money seized from Gurdas Nangal does not give a very exalted notion of either the military strength or of the wealth of the Sikh leader in the fortress of Gurdas Nangal, and it is really astonishing that with so scanty resources the Sikhs so determinedly resisted the greatest empire of the day for such a long time.”11a

Banda Singh’s task was far beyond his resources, limited as they were. And unfortunately for him, a strong man like Abdus Samad Khan was, then, the governor of Lahore. Banda Singh had no funds to enlist a substantial strength of paid soldiers, and consequently had to depend upon many such men whose bonafides were never above suspicion.

There were three types of men that had rallied round Banda Singh. Firstly, there were those Sikhs who had previously been with Guru Gobind Singh and were always ready to fight with a spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice. The second category comprised those who had been supplied by persons like Ram Singh and Tilok Singh of the Phul family and the third category constituted those who had flocked to them for the sake of plunder and booty.12 Those of the last category, the mercenaries, were mainly responsible for indiscriminate murders and plunder. Being without any leader they had no discipline in their ranks. They were not always reliable, and they constituted a fair number of Banda Singh’s followers. After the plunder of a place they would go home to unburden themselves of the booty and join again whenever they felt like doing so.13 Whenever they found a situation fraught with danger they would slowly melt away. So, before launching upon some big enterprise, Banda Singh had always to be sure of his force.

The hardcore of Banda Singh’s army was composed of devoted Sikhs of the above said first two categories who had joined him as volunteers from different parts of the Punjab. They were at one with him in the political objectives of the rebellion against the government and were ever ready to make a sacrifice for the cause.

In the flush of Sikh victory a large number of Hindus also seem to have joined the forces of Banda Singh to reap various benefits and enjoy the fruits of success over their Mughal masters.14 Many of the spirited and daring Hindus adopted Sikhism.15 Similarly, thousands of Muslims also joined Banda Singh. This has been borne out by many contemporary or semi-contemporary references. According to a report made to Emperor Bahadur Shah by an official news-writer, “the follower of Nanak (Banda Singh) was in Kalanaur up to 26th April, 1711. He had assured the Muhammadans that he would not in, any way, interfere with them and those who would join his ranks would be duly paid. They would enjoy full religious liberty including that of saying namaz and azan. As a result of this, 5,000 Muhammadans enlisted themselves in his army.”16 A similar reference was made by Amin-ud-Daula in June 1710 that, “the authority of that deluded sect (of the Sikhs) had reached such extremes that many Hindus and Muhammadans adopted their faith and rituals. Their chief (Banda Singh) captivated the hearts of all towards his inclinations and, whether a Hindu or a Muhammadan, whosoever came into contact with him was addressed as a Singh. A large number of Muhammadans abandoned Islam and followed the misguided path (of Sikhism) and took solemn oaths and firm pledges to stand by Banda (Singh).”17

According to Karam Singh, (a biographer of Banda Singh), the aggregate strength of Banda Singh’s army was not even as much as a Mughal faujdar could mobilise. But Khafi Khan’s exaggerated estimate put it at forty thousand. As referred to in one of the news of the Akhbar-i- Darbar-i-Mualla, it was brought to the notice of the Emperor that Nanak-worshippers to the tune of twenty-five thousand had assembled in the vicinity of Lahore. Hearing the news, Shams Khan, the faujdar of Doaba and Ali Khan the faujdar of Jammu, came with their armies to fight against the Sikhs. The said Khans died fighting along with many killed and wounded on both sides.18

The number of Banda Singh’s army could not be the same at all times. It varied considerably on different occasions. But any way, the strength must have been sufficient enough to keep the war going for seven long years, and Banda Singh’s remaining on the nerves of the Emperor of Delhi without any respite to him or his forces.

In spite of all this, there is no denying the fact that it was a war between the unequals. The Mughal government had a big army at its command. The Mughal army was well-equipped, well- officered and well-trained but the Sikh comrades of Banda Singh were handicapped in many ways. They were an untrained, undisciplined and improperly equipped rabble but their shortcomings were made up by their faith in the genuineness of their cause and their long tradition of undergoing sacrifice and suffering for a good and righteous cause. With all the limitations of resources Banda Singh’s bid for carving out an independent state was rather premature and was bound to be ultimately unsuccessful as it was. But the example set by Banda Singh Bahadur and his companions to live and die for a national cause and the idea of a national state given by them became a living aspiration for the Sikhs, which “although suppressed for the time being by relentless persecution, went on working underground like a smouldering fire and came out forty years later with a fuller effulgence, never to be suppressed again.”19

Organisation of the Dal Khalsa and its Constitution

Though the Sikhs bad been outlawed by the Punjab government, they secretly moved about in small groups. In 1734, Kapur Singh divided the disintegrated fabric of these Sikhs into two dals (groups). The word dal is a Punjabi expression meaning a horde and suggests the notion of a group with a definite mission or objective before it. As written earlier one group was named Budha Dal, the League of the Elders, which comprised men above the age of forty and the other was named Taruna Dal, League of the Young, which consisted of the young Sikhs below that age. The Budha Dal was assigned the duty of looking after the Sikh holy places and the propagation of the Sikh faith. The Taruna Dal was to undertake the more difficult task of the defence of the community. Though Sardar Kapur Singh was in charge of the first section, but because of his respectful position amongst the Sikhs, he acted as a common link between the two dais, that were organised under the leadership of the seasoned Sikh soldiers of the days of Banda Singh.20 Some of them had seen the days of Guru Gobind Singh. Later, Sardar Kapur Singh reorganised the Taruna Dal into five sections, each led by a separate jathedar (group leader). Gradually the number of the jathas (highly mobile bands or groups) rose. As ambitious and spirited young men formed their separate jathas they were welcomed by the leading Sardars who encouraged them to carry on a guerrilla warfare against the government. The dais served a very useful purpose of providing a number of leaders.

The Dal Khalsa took advantage of the confusion and lawlessness prevailing at Lahore after Zakariya Khan’s death and met at Amritsar at the very next Diwali which fell on October 14, 1745, and passed a gurmata to divide itself into twenty-five groups, each consisting of about 100 persons.21 This was probably the first important gurmata regularly passed by the Sikhs. This wonderful institution of gurmata gave each individual a personal participation in the affairs of the commonwealth and, thus, the attainment of status and influence came within the reach of every Sikh.22 The two institutions of the dal and the gurmata that were brought into the lime-light proved of vital importance to the Khalsa’s future success as they combined the benefits of centralised counsel with those of dividing their dal for the purpose of better organisation. These groups were united not only by religious ties but also by mutual interests and, therefore, a system of general confederation, for self-protection as well as for operations, came into being. When these groups combined their contingents during some big expeditions the booty was divided by the chiefs according to the strength of their followers.

These leaders were not created by some high authority, but came to occupy this position, as a matter of course, on account of their natural ability. If a Sikh, of however humble origin, possessed a daring spirit, ability to lead, quick perception, rapid decision and undaunted courage, he was sure to gather round himself a number of followers.23

Military talent amongst the Sikhs was most welcome to this career and despite the dangers ahead there was no dearth of young men who were always ready to jump into the jaws of death at- the signal of their leaders. These loosely knit groups of enthusiasts formed a strong basis of the first regularly organised national army of the Sikh community known as the Dal Khalsa.24

The Dal Khalsa has been defined differently by different writers. In the later part of the eighteenth century James Browne defined it as under:

“Since the Sicks (Sikhs) became powerful and confederated for the purpose of conquest, they have called their confederacy Khalsa Gee or the state, and their grand army Dull Khalsa Gee, or the army of the state.”25

According to James Browne the Dal Khalsa was formed by Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Charhat Singh Sukarchakia and Karora Singh.26 Browne refers to only three leaders of the Sikhs and not the Khalsa—the entire body of the Sikhs. John Malcolm gives us to understand that the term Dal Khalsa was used for the combined forces of the Sikh leaders at a particular time and place.27

To the mid-nineteenth century British historian, J. D. Cunningham, the Dal Khalsa, was the ‘army of the theocracy or Singhs.’28 The Muslim Persian writers of the period did not understand the institutions of the Sikhs. Ghulam Muhayy-ud-Din alias Bute Shah and Ali-ud-Din Mufti merely use the term ‘groh-i-Singhan’ for the Dal Khalsa.29 Rattan Singh Bhangu who wrote in the first quarter of the nineteenth century used the term dal for the Sikh national army of the eighteenth century.30 Sohan Lal Suri, the court diarist of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, writing about the formation of the Dal Khalsa says, ‘Sardar Bhag Singh Ahluwalia, along with his deputy Jassa Singh and Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia in the Doaba-i-Bist Jalandhar; Sardar Najja Singh and Hari Singh together in the Doab-i- Bari; and Sardar Sahib Charhat Singh in the Doaba-i-Rachina, strengthened their possession of the entire territory. They named their conquering armies as the Dal Khalsa Jio.”31

As we clearly understand the dal means an army and the Khalsa Ji means the entire body of the Sikhs and thus the dal Khalsa Ji may be defined as the entire fighting body of the Sikhs. N.K. Sinha has defined it as the grand army of the Khalsa confederacy.32

These groups of Sikhs started vigorous attacks against such of the chaudhris and muqadams as had helped the government against them. They took strong steps in the towns of Batala, Jalandhar, Bajwara and Phagwara.33 They sometimes killed the qazis and muftis, if they could get hold of them, as they pronounced death sentences on the Sikh captives.34 Both the government and the Sikhs remained unreconciled. But the government was in a more advantageous position to deal with the Sikhs in respect of fighting material and man-power but the Sikhs matched them favourably with their unsubdued spirits and unshakable determination to fight the government to the bitter end for their independence.

With the progress of the dals, a new development took place in their organisational structure. It meant to unite the whole body of the fighting Sikhs in the form of a standing army of the community. With the measures of government becoming more and more stringent and harsh the Sikhs felt the need of unity. Since the first division of the fighting Sikhs into twenty-five groups under as many Sardars, the number of the groups had risen to sixty-five,35 and it went on increasing.

After Ahmad Shah Durrani’s exit from the province, following his first invasion of India, the Sikhs met at Amritsar on the sacred day of Baisakhi, March 29, 1748, and on the proposal of Nawab Kapur Singh that the Panth needed solidarity and union, the entire fighting body of the Sikhs was named the Dal Khalsa Jio and placed under the supreme command of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. The various groups were leagued together under twelve prominent chiefs. Each group had a banner of its own; they later on established their principalities.

Constitution of the Dal Khalsa

Most of the leaders and followers of the Dal Khalsa had been hard-pressed, poverty-stricken tillers of the soil.36 They had undertaken a particular course in view of a particular situation. We cannot expect of them to have planned anything like an elaborate constitution. They only seem to have evolved a crude system, to meet the requirements of the organisation.

Before recruitment to the Dal Khalsa it was essential for every man to take amrit prepared with the double-edged sword and grow long hair and beard.

The system was not devised or purposely adopted, therefore, it was rather incomplete and temporary. Every Sikh, who had faith in the injunctions of Guru Gobind Singh, was considered a member of the Dal Khalsa. For every able-bodied Sikh it was thought compulsory to enroll himself in the Khalsa army to fight the enemies of his faith. He was expected to be a good horseman and skilled in the use of arms. Every individual was free to choose the leader he was to follow.

When several sub-divisions of the Sikh chiefs took the field jointly as parts of the Dal Khalsa or the national army, by common consent, one of the chiefs of the dals was elected as the supreme commander of the Dal Khalsa, the other chiefs constituting a sort of war cabinet that obeyed him.

The entire body of the Sikhs known as the Sarbat Khalsa met twice a year at Amritsar during Baisakhi and Diwali festivals (April and October, respectively) and passed gurmatas regarding matters of common interest.

A kind of federal union was set up and the leader of the Dal Khalsa was looked upon as the head of the Sikh Church as well. In times of peace each division acted in an independent manner. A follower of a Sardar was free to join another Sardar. “It is from this cause” says Malcolm, “that the lowest Sikh horseman usually assumes a very independent style and the highest chief treats his military followers with attention and conciliation.”37 The Sardar did not exercise absolute authority over his comrades. The soldiers paid the Sardar due regards and respects but they were not under any obligation to obey him beyond what was in the interests of the community or their group.

In the absence of any fixed salary, a reasonable share from booty, to a horseman, was always guaranteed. This booty was divided among the chiefs in proportion to the number of their followers and they sub-divided it among their men.

There existed no wide distinction between the high and low. All could claim to belong to the same Khalsa brotherhood and the same profession of arms. They had the same common grievance against the oppressors of their religion and the same bond of union, their faith. Thus, the Sardar and the soldier were united over common objectives and they moved from one victory to another.

The establishment of the Khalsa was a turning point in the history of the Sikhs and it united them into one compact body as had been done under Banda Singh Bahadur, about three decades before. They adopted the ideal of unity and disciplined brotherhood. They believed that every sacrifice made for the community was the service to the Guru who had merged his personality into the Panth. This devotion to the Panth made them a formidable community to contend with and ultimately the government of the country could not but accept the Sikhs as the masters of the province of the Punjab.

The classification of the Sikh army may be discussed as under:


The cavalry was an important part of the army of the Sikh Sardars. The soldiers, in fact, considered it below their dignity, to move about without a horse which they generally got for themselves. Writing about the army of the Sikh chiefs, Lepel Griffin says, “It consisted, for the most part, of cavalry called Kattiawand who found their own horses and received a double share of prize money. Each chief, in proportion of his means, furnished horses and arms of his retainers who were called bargirs; and as the first tribute exacted from a conquered district was horses, the infantry soldier was, after a successful campaign, generally transformed into a trooper.”38 The province of the Punjab provided a good breed of horses and the Sikh soldiers were very well- mounted. Hence it must be remembered that the Sikh army under the Misals consisted largely, if not entirely, of cavalry.39 Forster writes, “Though they (the Sikhs) make merry40 on the demise of any of their brethren they mourn for the death of a horse thus showing their love of an animal so necessary to them in their professional capacity.”41 Most of the soldiers had two or three horses each by means of which they made their movements with great rapidity, their armies marching from fifty to one hundred and twenty miles a day.42


The infantry, among the Sikhs in the eighteenth century, was an unimportant and inferior branch of service.43 They disliked to serve as infantrymen. It was used for realising tributes and taxes, garrison and sentry duty,44 and the battles of the Sikhs were invariably cavalry actions.45 The only infantry that enjoyed any respect were the Akalis. These were an enthusiastic and orthodox body of devotees, dressed in dark-blue and wearing round their turbans steel quoits, to be used as a weapon.46


The Sikh chiefs did not possess heavy artillery and the few references47 to the use of guns by the later Sikhs prove even more clearly that it was never popular among them. They had only forty field guns in 1800 and one of the great difficulties that the Sardars faced against the Afghan invaders was their inability to meet the heavy artillery of their opponents. In fact, before the rise of Ranjit Singh the Sikhs had not taken to the use of artillery and in their struggle against the invaders, they do not seem to have used any cannon at all. The main reason was that heavy cannon could not be carried by them as fast as they wanted to gallop on their horses.

Recruitment and Discipline

Recruitment in the Sikh forces was entirely voluntary and recruits could join the contingent of any chief. No records of the soldiers’ names, service, payment, etc., were kept. This was perhaps not possible for want of literate Sikhs. To learn reading and writing under the circumstances in which they had been living during the first half of the eighteenth century was almost impossible. There were no gradations in the army and no provision for regular training to the soldiers. The regular drilling system was introduced later by Ranjit Singh. The deficiency of military science was supplied by their religious zeal, single-minded devotion to the Khalsa and intense feeling of self- respect. There was no organisation of the Sikh army into regular regiments of uniform size. The contingents of the various chiefs, whether their number was big or small joined the units of the Dal Khalsa in the event of a national danger. Disobedience to the officers was punished by war councils of five, though such cases were few. According to Forster, “Though orders were issued in a Sicque (Sikh) army and a species of obedience observed, punishments are rarely inflicted.”48

Camp, Arms and Equipment

The Sikh camp was a very humble affair as compared to that of the Mughals or the Marathas. The Sikhs at this stage had none of the comforts and luxuries of their Indian contem- poraries. Life at their camps was noted for frugality, simplicity and austerity.49 They have no tents; their cakes of flour serve as dishes and plates. Each horseman has two blankets; one for himself and one for his horse, kept beneath the saddle. The rapidity of their marching is incredible.50 Shahamat Ali wrote that, “in enduring fatigue, absence from the prejudices of caste, and patience of discipline, the Sikh is not easily surpassed.”50a Their flag was of saffron colour but the emblem on it is not known. Their war cry was “Sat Sri Akal or Wah-e-Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wah-e-Guru Ji Ki Fateh

The Sikh weapons51 of war consisted of swords, spears, battle-axes, sabres, two-edged daggers, lances, muskets, cutlasses, pikes, bows and arrows. The use of the match-lock was much restricted owing to the scarcity of powder. In the handling of these arms, especially the lances and the sabres, they were uncommonly expert. Shields of hides and the coats of mail were used for defence. It was estimated that a Sikh soldier carried on his person an iron load weighing about twenty kilograms. There was no grading among officers and soldiers. The chiefs were only distinguishable by the finer horses and small tents used by them.

Mode of Fighting

The greatest military development of the period under study was the evolution of the guerrilla mode of fighting under the Sikhs. From their experience of nearly half a century of a life and death struggle against the superior power of the Mughals and the Afghans the Sikhs fully realised the necessity of an underground or irregular mode of fighting. The guerrilla fighting by the Sikhs grew up spontaneously under the pressure of circumstances as no other alternative was left to them. We may enumerate several factors which explain the popularity and growth of this form of fighting. The first was the failure of Banda Singh and his having been made captive and ultimately his brutal execution at Delhi. The Sikhs could not ignore the lesson which they learnt after paying very heavy price. Banda Singh had succeeded in giving a jolt, though serious at times, to the Mughal empire. But it was felt that in open and pitched warfare the Sikhs were no match for the imperialists, Another factor was the Sikhs’ deficiency in artillery that affected their capability for regular warfare. The Mughals against whom the Sikhs were pitted had an effective artillery or an impressive park of cannon. Thirdly, Zakariya Khan’s policy of alternating persecution and relaxation drove them out of their habitations into the jungles and hills. The official machinery, particularly the moving columns made the life of the Sikhs utterly miserable and made them resort to guerrilla methods of fighting and in view of their handicap of resources and numerical strength they had no other alternative. The guerrilla warfare by the Sikhs had proved effective on more than one occasion. Fourthly, the death of Banda Singh left the Sikhs leaderless and without any central body which could organise and guide them in the face of the serious situation confronting them. This resulted in leaving the Sikhs to their own resources, who inevitably resorted to irregular methods of fighting.

From 1716 to 1726, there was not much of Sikh activity against the government. The Sikhs were reeling under the terrible blows suffered by them by the massacre of their men at Delhi. They took some time to recover from the shock and to make up their loss. About the late twenties of the eighteenth century the Sikhs again began to reorganise themselves and meet the threat of their liquidation by the government. They employed the guerrilla strategy to impede every foreign invasion by cutting off their supplies, harassing their army both in camp and on march, plundering their baggage, hovering round the troops, pursuing them at the time of their retreat, raiding their flanks, rear and vanguards, making attacks on their foraging parties, falling upon their detachments, also blocking their passage of roads and rivers. They sometimes made surprise attacks on their enemy, and before the enemy could retaliate they moved beyond their reach. Mir Mannu’s seeking aid from the Sikhs under the advice of Diwan Kaura Mal, ‘a Khulasa Sikh,’ gave the Sikhs a much valued opportunity to study the working of the Mughal government and their fighting techniques from close quarters which enabled them successfully to weather the storm of official persecution.

Because of their limitations the Sikhs always tried to avoid pitched actions with the foreigners. But this did not prevent them from making a surprise attack upon a major portion of the enemy’s force. The prominent examples of the manoeuvring capability of the Sikhs are provided by the last three invasions of Ahmad Shah Durrani. In 1764, the Afghan invader was forced to return from Lahore, in 1765, he had to return from Sirhind and in 1766, he could not proceed beyond Ambala, though every time he had come determined to enter Delhi. The guerrilla technique of the Sikhs was at its height during the period from 1754 to 1766.

George Thomas who had to fight with the Sikhs more than once observed their mode of fighting as under:

“With the enemy they engaged in continuous skirmish. They advance and retreat until men and horses become tired. They then retreat to some distance where they leave their horses to graze, take a very frugal meal and begin skirmishing again.”52

George Forster, also gives an almost identical description, and about their horses he writes, “The horses have been so expertly trained. . . that on receiving a stroke of the hand they stop from a full career.”53 The Sikhs adopted guerrilla tactics of warfare. A party of Sikh horsemen, numbering about forty or fifty, advanced towards the ranks of the enemy, galloping at a quick pace, and suddenly drew up their horses and discharged their loaded guns from a distance with such marksmanship that not a single shot failed in its aim. After they suddenly retired to about a hundred paces, reloaded their guns and repeated the process. All this was done with an alacrity and activity unparalleled by other people of India.54

Qazi Nur Muhammad who was an eye-witness to the Sikh mode of fighting writes:

“If their (Sikh) armies take to flight, do not take it as an actual flight. It is a war tactic of theirs. Beware, beware of them for a second time. The object of this trick is that when the furious enemy runs after them, he is separated from his main army and from his reinforcements. Then, they turn back to face their pursuers and set fire even to water. Did you not see how during the flight they took to a deceptive flight from before the Khan, and how, then, they turned back on him and surrounded him on all sides.”55

It is apparent that the Sikh tactics were to wear out the enemies and to draw them into the snare by trick-flights and then to overwhelm them. Guerrilla fighting placed them at an advantage strategically because their swift cavalry could command the communications. The extensive forests and hill tracts provided safe line of retreat. Though the Sikhs were not thus able to gain any spectacular victory, they could certainly wear the enemy out.56 In their aids the Sikhs were at their best.

In 1754, Tahmas Khan Miskin saw with his own eyes three Sikh horsemen driving away before them a full regiment of Turki soldiers under Qasim Khan between Patti and Lahore.57

Major Polier, a swiss officer in the Mughal service at Delhi, wrote in May 1776, “Five hundred of Najaf Khan’s horsemen dare not encounter fifty Sikh horsemen.”58

The Sikhs had another tactic of guerrilla warfare in which their operation comprised hit and run called dhai phat. Rattan Singh Bhangu describes this mode of warfare as under:

“The wise and the experienced were of the opinion that in battle there are two and a half movements. Rushing on the enemy and retreating make two and to strike is the half. The Guru has taught us to run away and to come back again to fight. This is a great tactic. The Guru himself adopted these and in it there is no dishonour.”59

In the event of their attacks upon fortified places the Sikhs made their entries in the form of disguised parties. They would cut down the enemy guard and replace it with their own men at the gate. Sometimes some influential residents of the place were bribed into opening the gates for them. If and when that was not possible walls were scaled by means of ladders, gates opened and their men admitted into the place. Sometimes the besieging Sikh forces used the stratagem of pretending to retire. This tactic was used by Charhat Singh in 1761, in the course of his siege of the fort of Rohtas. The Afghan garrison rushed out to pursue the retreating army. Charhat Singh’s contingent made a detour and took possession of the fort and turned out rest of the garrison there. Sometimes, through rigorous siege the Sikhs starved the garrison into submission.

There were some well-known defensive manoeuvres peculiar to the Sikhs. Whenever they apprehended any attack they would gallop off beyond the enemy’s range. If they were taken unawares and encircled they would try to escape through the ranks of the enemy force. But in 1762, they were faced with a very difficult situation when surrounded by the Afghan forces near Malerkotla. The Sikhs were accompanied by their families. They made a solid cordon of defence around their families and moved on fighting from village to village. But because of the overwhelming strength of the Afghans the cordon was at last broken by the invaders and a wholesale massacre ensued resulting in the murder of about ten thousand Sikhs at the lowest or modest estimate. It is called the wada ghallughara or big holocaust. This is an example of the Sikhs fighting a battle in defence.

The use of guerrilla methods of warfare by the Sikhs was largely responsible for their marvelous success against the Mughal and Afghan adversaries. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, conditions essential to successful guerrilla methods of warfare are: an unassailable base, a friendly population, not actively friendly but sympathetic to the point of not betraying rebel movements to the enemy, presence amongst the rebels of the qualities of speed and endurance, ubiquity and independence of arteries of supply. The conditions essential to their success were available to the Sikhs. Firstly, they had an unassailable base in the Shivalik hills, Lakhi forests and the swamps of Kanuwan that were almost inaccessible. Secondly, the Sikhs had a friendly population in the country as they made conscious efforts to win the sympathy and support of most of the non-Muslims. The Sikhs were secretly provided shelter by the people and their movements were not divulged to the enemy. No doubt a section of the Muslim population was not at all sympathetic to the Sikhs but out of fear for victimisation at their hands later they did nothing against the Sikhs. Thirdly, the Sikhs possessed in abundance the qualities of speed, endurance and quickness of movement and ubiquity. The Sikhs at a pinch could march twenty to thirty miles on just a little parched grams. They had learnt endurance behind the plough. George Forster wrote in 1783, “Their success and conquests have largely originated from an activity unparalleled by other Indian nations, from their endurance of excessive fatigue, and a keen resentment of injuries. The personal endowments of the Sicques are derived from a temperance of diet, and a forbearance from many of those sensual pleasures which have enervated the Indian Mahomedans.”60

At this time the Sikhs were very powerful people in the whole of India. A Muslim writer of this period writes, “This sect abounds in giant-sized and lion-limbed youths whose stroke of the leg would certainly cause instantaneous death to a vilayati horse. Their matchlock strikes a man at a distance of nine hundred footsteps and each of them covers two hundred kos (600 kms) on horseback.”61 They wore the minimum of clothing and maximum of armour. They had the capability of recovering from the blows suffered by them with amazing rapidity. The holocausts of 1746, and 1762, were the severest blows borne by them and they were upon their feet again in no time. Fourthly, the Sikhs had no arteries of supply which could be snapped. They collected their supplies from the areas in which they operated. Thus, there was no line of supply running between the base and the field of their operations. Fifthly, the Sikhs being the sons of the soil had an intimate knowledge of the topography, which proved very useful for their successful pursuits of guerrilla warfare. As against the foreign enemy the Sikhs had great hold on the minds of the people. Sixthly, the Mughals or Afghans could not “fulfil the doctrine of acreage” or adjust numbers to space, in order to control the whole area effectively. The Sikhs took advantage of this weakness of the Mughals and Afghans. Instead of fighting pitched battles against their enemy the Sikhs often chose to strike at points where they had little or no strength and thus created chaotic conditions advantageous to their activities.

It was not always that the Sikhs used guerrilla methods of fighting. Sometimes they adopted a regular formation for a pitched battle. According to Qazi Nur Muhammad who accompanied Ahmad Shah Durrani to India during his seventh invasion and saw the Sikhs fighting for himself writes that the Khalsa met the army of Ahmad Shah in early 1765, in the battle of Satluj with a well- arranged army of their own. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Jassa Singh Ramgarhia commanded the centre; the right was led by Charhat Singh Sukarchakia, Jhanda Singh Bhangi and Jai Singh Kanaihya and the left was under the command of Hari Singh, Gulab Singh and Gujjar Singh Bhangis.62

Ahmad Shah Durrani had fully known the fighting method of the Sikhs and he took care to save his men from their terrible and crushing attacks. The Shah warned Naseer Khan, ruler of Kalat, who had accompanied the Afghans to India in 1765, on their seventh invasion:

“Look here! you young man, you are a lion amongst men in field, but do not be hasty in battle with the Sikhs. Stand like a mountain where you are in the field of battle and let the enemy come to you and expose their chests to your arrows. The Sikhs are headstrong and flare up like fire in the battle-field. Even their forefathers behaved in the same manner and, single-handed, pounced upon the armies of their enemies. I, therefore, advise you not to move from where you are.”63

According to the memoirs of George Thomas, who frequently came into contact with the Sikhs,

“when mounted on horseback, their black flowing locks and half-naked bodies, which are formed in the stoutest and most athletic mould, the glittering of their arms, and the size and speed of their horses, render their appearance imposing and formidable, and superior to meet most of the cavalry in Hindostan.”64

Studying the entire gamut of the Sikh activities in the Punjab and the adjoining areas Jadunath Sarkar observed:

“This astonishing superiority, man for man, over all other fighting forces of India, was due to the Sikh character, training and organisation.”65

The Malwa Sikhs under Ala Singh followed a different line of policy so far as military strategy and tactics were concerned. They did not offend the government and so were not forced to leave their homes and hearths. There was no need for them to resort to guerrilla method of fighting. They raised a regular army and followed a conventional system of warfare, popular with the Mughals and Afghans. They fought in a regular and organised manner but when the Malwa rulers found themselves unequal to the enemy they invited help from the Dal Khalsa and made additions to their contingents. Being gifted with diplomacy of a higher order Ala Singh adopted an attitude of cooperation with the Mughal government but when the Delhi government declined he held out his hand to the newly-risen powers of the Marathas and the Durranis.

Mode of Payment

With the Sikh Sardars gaining political authority in their respective areas, they introduced gradually the replacement of the voluntary basis of military service by the remunerative one. Earlier the retention of a portion of booty acquired by the Sardar’s men in the course of fighting was permitted. According to Lepel Griffin, “The prize-money taken in campaign was equally shared among the combatants; if a soldier was wounded he invariably received compensation, and if he was killed his son or nearest male relative was entertained in his place.”66 Later on, various forms of remuneration, such as grant of land, payment in kind at the time of harvest and lumpsum money payments came into use.67 By 1765, the Khalsa army had ceased to be a body of volunteers. They were regularly paid in one form or the other. In the Malwa this change had come much earlier with the setting up of a territorial power by Ala Singh. He maintained an army of 7,000, horse appointed on the basis of payment.

Military Strength of the Misals

The military strength of the Misals has been variously estimated. George Forster writes in 1783, that “they can produce when in unity 2,00,000, horse, their force in cavalry must be greater than that of any power now existing in Hindustan.”68 James Browne in 1785, estimated the strength of the cis-Satluj Sikh chiefs at 18,225 horse and 6,075 foot, totalling 24,300 and their full strength including the trans-Satluj Sikhs at 73,150 horse and 25,050 foot, totalling 98,200.69 William Francklin in 1793-94, put the entire strength of the Sikh army at 2,48,000.70 Colonel A.L.H. Polier assessed the total strength of the Sikh army at ‘2,00,000 horse, a power which would be truly formidable’.71 Alexander Dow in 1768, put the total strength of the Sikh Misals at ‘60,000 good horses’.72 Ghulam Hussain in 1782, wrote that, “the Sikhs have sent more than once sixty thousand horse in the field.”73 George Thomas reckoned in 1799, the army of the cis-Satluj chiefs at 27,000 and their total strength at 60,000 horse and 5,000 foot. H.M. Lawrence considered the total fighting strength of the Sikh Misals more than 70,000.

Certain writers have referred to the total number of Sikh troops present at a particular battle. At the battle of Sirhind in 1764, as given by Gian Singh,74 the number was about 50,000. Forster75 estimates at 60,000, the number of Sikhs who fought against the Durrani invader at Amritsar in October 1762. The invasion of the Gangetic Doab in February 1764, was made by only half of the army numbering 40,000. Generally the whole Khalsa army did not act together. For operations the various units of the Dal Khalsa acted either independently or in smaller combinations of two or three units,76 according to the needs of the situations. From the proposal of a treaty with the ruler of Jodhpur we learn that the Sikhs could throw into the battle-field as many as 50,000 well-equipped horsemen.77

Henry T. Prinsep78 wrote about the military power (cavalry) of each Misal in the eighteenth century as under:


The Bhangi Misal

10,000 horse


The Ramgarhia Misal



The Kanaihya Misal



The Nakkai Misal



The Ahluwalia Misal



The Dallewalia Misal



The Nishanwalia Misal



The Faizullapuria Misal



The Karorsinghia Misal



The Shahid or Nihang Misal



The Phulkian Misal



The Sukarchakia Misal


  Total 69,500

Baron Hugel who stayed with Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1835, agrees with H.T. Prinsep. Osborne and Debi Prasad generally agree with Prinsep with slight variation here and there. According to Prinsep, Ranjit Singh’s total army, horse and foot, was 82,014 in 1834.79

Many more authors have given varying figures regarding the military strength of the Misals. All accounts taken into consideration we may safely guess the total strength of the Misals to the tune of one lakh horsemen.

In the eighteenth century the Sikh principalities were a combined civil and military polity. The administrators of bigger or smaller units of administration were both civil and military personnel combined and performed their duties in both the capacities with remarkable efficiency. Their military achievements gave them a splendid halo. Kapur Singh Singhpuria, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Ala Singh Phulkian, Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, Charhat Singh Sukarchakia, Gujjar Singh Bhangi, Jai Singh Kanaihya, Tara Singh Ghaiba, Baghel Singh Karorsinghia and other Sikh chiefs of the eighteenth century were the generalissimos of the Dal Khalsa and also the rulers of their Misals.

Even when in the civil administration of the Misal there was not much of democracy left, the organisation of the Dal Khalsa still functioned in a democratic way. The leader of the national army was elected and, in times of emergency, the Misal chiefs pooled their resources in the common interest of the entire Sikh community. In the words of Forster, “when incited by any grand national concern their chiefs became confederated and their armies are combined.”80 The division of booty among participating Sikh chiefs according to the strength of their contingents and then further dividing it among the troopers was a democratic method. More than anywhere else the real confederacy and the real democracy existed in the Dal Khalsa and it continued up to the coming of Ranjit Singh to power.

Notes and References

  1. Rattan Singh Bhangu, Prachin Panth Parkash, (1841), Amritsar, 1939, p. 67.
  2. Akhbar-i-Darbar-i-Mualla MS., Ganda Singh personal collection, Patiala, p. 122.
  3. Khafi Khan, Muntakhab-ul-Lubab, Vol. II, (1722), Calcutta, p. 652. The number seems inflated.
  4. Indubhusan Banerjee, Evolution of the Khalsa, Vol. I, Calcutta, (2nd edition, 1963), p. 21.
  5. Ibid., Vol. II, (edition 1947), p. 32.
  6. Zulfiqar Ardistani Maubid, Dabistan-i-Mazahib (1645), Cawnpur, 1904, p. 233.
  7. W. H. McLeod, The Evolution of the Sikh Community. Delhi, 1975, p. 10.
  8. Indubhusan Bauerjee, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 124.
  9. Irfan Habib, ‘Presidential Address to the Medieval Section’, Proceedings of the Punjab History Conference, 1971 (published Patiala, 1972) p. 54.
  10. Fauja Singh, ‘Some Critical Periods of Sikh History’, The Panjab Past and Present, Vol. XI-II (October 1977), p. 386.
  11. Ibid., p. 387.

       11a. (According to Kamwar Khan the things recovered from Gurdas Nangal and deposited in the Qila Mubarak at Delhi were: Swords 1000, quivers 170, bows 200, rifles 3, Jamdhar 180, daggers 140, gold ornaments 250, mohars 3 and about 600 rupees were entrusted to the tehweeldar of the treasury, Kamwar Knan ‘Tazkirah-i-Salatin-i-Chugtai, MS., PUP., p. 461.

  1. Rattan Singh Bhangu, op. cit., p. 81; Karam Singh, Banda Bahadur, Amritsar, 1907, p. 41; G.C. Isarang, Transformation of Sikhism, pp. 100-01; Ganda Singh, Banda Singh Bahadur, Amritsar, 1935, p. 83.
  2. Karam Singh, op. cit., p. 48. 14.   Ibid., p. 123.
  3. Ibid., p. 122.
  4. Akhbar-i-Darbar-i-Mualla, news-letter, April 28, 1711. Persian manuscript in Dr Ganda Singh’s Private Collection, Patiala.
  5. English version by Dr Bhagat Singh, published in the Punjab Past and Present. Vol. XVIII-II, October 1984, (pp. 1-206), p. 63.
  6. Ruqaat-i-Amin-ud-Daula, letter III., Yar Muhammad Qalandar, Dastur-ul-Insha, letter III, MS., Khalsa College, Amritsar.
  7. Akhbar-i-Darbar-i-Mualla, March II, 1711.
  8. Teja Singh and Ganda Singh, A Short History of the Sikhs, Bombay, 1950, pp. 107-08.
  9. Ahmad Shah Batalia, Appendix to Daftar, I of Umdat-ut-Tawarikh, p. 15.
  10. Hari Ram Gupta, History of the Sikhs, Vol. I, Calcutta, 1939, p. 21.
  11. Ibid., footnote I. p. 21.
  12. Ibid., p. 23.
  13. cf., M’Gregor, The History of the Sikhs, Vol. I, London, 1846, p. 185; Lepel Griffin, Rajas of the Punjab, Lahore 1870, p. 16; Gordon, The Sikhs, London, 1904, pp. 59-60.
  14. James Browne, ‘History of the Origin and Progress of the Sicks, ‘Early European Accounts of the Sikhs’ (ed. Ganda Singh), Indian Studies, Past and Present, Calcutta, 1962, pp. 16-17.
  15. Ibid.
  16. John Malcolm, Sketch of the Sikhs, London, 1812, pp. 122-23.
  17. J. D. Cunningham. A History of the Sikhs, London, 1849 p. 101.
  18. Bute Shah, Tawarikh-i-Punjah, MS., Dr Ganda Singh Collection, Patiala, p. 246; Ali-ud-Din Mufti, Ibratnama (1854), Vol. I, Lahore, 1961, pp. 242, 244, 246.
  19. Rattan Singh Bhangu, op. cit., (ed. 1962), pp. 305, 363-64, 376-77, 389-90, 412, 414.
  20. Sohan Lal Suri, Umdat-ut-Tawarikh, Daftar I, Lahore, 1885, pp. 127-28.
  21. N.K. Sinha, Rise of the Sikh Power, Calcutta. 1936, p. 195.
  22. Gian Singh, Panth Parkash, 1880, p. 664; Gian Singh, Shamsher Khalsa, p. 78.
  23. Gian Singh, Panth Parkash, pp. 661-62.
  24. The names of the Sikh chiefs have been given by Hari Ram Gupta, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 49-50.
  25. Karam Singh, op. cit., p. 9.
  26. Malcolm, op. cit., p. 125.
  27. Lepel Griffin, Ranjit Singh, Oxford, 1905, pp. 85-86.
  28. Irvine, Army of the Mughals, London, 1922, p. 128.
  29. There was no question of merry-making on the death of any of their brethren. They recited the songs of mourning from their scriptures (bani) to the accompaniment of musical instruments and the sweet pudding was distributed as a part of the death ceremony. The foreign traveller mistook the performance of the last rites as rejoicings or merry-makings.
  30. Forster, A Journey from Bengal to England, Vol. I, London, 1798, p. 290.
  31. Browne, Introduction, India Tracts, London, 1788, p. ix.
  32. Forster, op. cit., Vol. I. p. 228.
  33. Polier, ‘Account of the Sikhs’ Early European Accounts of the Sikhs (ed. Ganda Singh), Calcutta, 1962, p. 64.
  34. Francklin, The Military Memoirs of George Thomas, Calcutta, 1803, p. 274; Griffin, op cit., pp. 85-86.
  35. Lepel Griffin, op. cit., p. 86; cf., Gordon, op. cit., pp. 75-76.
  36. Francklin, op. cit., p. 274.
  37. Forster, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 329.
  38. Malcolm, op. cit: pp. 141-42; Francklin, op: cit., p. 107.
  39. Francklin, op. cit., pp. 71-72.

       50a. Shahamat Ali, The Sikhs and Afghans. London, 1847, p. 25.

  1. Francklin, op. cit., pp. 71-72.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Forster, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 288-89.
  4. Ibid., pp. 287-88; Francklin, The History of the Reign of Shah Allum, London, 1798, p.76.
  5. cf. Qazi Nur Mohammad, Jangnama (1765), ed. Ganda Singh, Amritsar, 1939, p. 57., Francklin, op. cit., pp. 71-73.
  6. Sinha. N.K., op. cit., p. 116.
  7. Tahmas Khan, Tahmas Nama (1779), translated into English by P. Setu Dadhava Rao, Bombay, 1967, p. 23.
  8. Polier, op. cit., p. 66.
  9. Rattan Singh Bhangu, op. cit., (ed. 1962), p. 130.
  10. Forster, op. cit., p. 333.
  11. Ghulam All Khan, Imacl-ut-Saadat, Cawnpore, 1864, p. 71.
  12. Qazi Nur Muhammad, Jang Nama (1765), edited Ganda Singh, Amritsar, 1939, pp. 50-51.
  13. Ibid, p. 52.
  14. Francklin, op. cit., p. 73; Francklin, Shah Aulum, London, 1798, p. 77.
  15. Jadunath Sarkar, Fall of the Mughal Empire. Vol. III (1772-1788), Calcutta. 1938, p. 148.
  16. Lepel Griffin, op. cit., p. 87.
  17. Francklin, op. cit., pp. 75-76.
  18. George Forster, ‘Observations on the Sikhs’, Early European Accounts of the Sikhs (edited Ganda Singh), p. 82.
  19. James Browne, ‘History of the Origin and Progress of the Sikhs’, Early European Accounts of the Sikhs (edited Ganda Singh), p. 43.
  20. William Francklin, ‘The Sikhs and their Country’, Early European Accounts of the Sikhs, p. 99.
  21. Polier, ‘An Account of the Sikhs’, Early European Accounts of the Sikhs, p. 61.
  22. Alexander Dow, The History of Hindostan, Vol. II, London, 1792, p. 83.
  23. Ghulam Hussain, Siyar-ul-Mutakhirin, (1781), Calcutta, 1836, Cawnpore, 1897, pp. 50-51.
  24. Gian Singh, op. cit., p. 209.
  25. George Forster, A Journey from Bengal to England, Vol. I, p. 221.
  26. Ahmad Shah Batalia Appendix to Sohan Lal Suri’s Umdat-ut-Tawarikh. pp. 21-22.
  27. cf., the treaty proposed by the Sikh leaders to Maharaja Bijay Singh of Jodhpur on 31st July 1788 (English translation), published in (he Journal of Indian History, Vol. XXVI, Part-1, April, 1948, Serial No. 76. In this proposal the Sikh leaders wrote that they could supply fifty thousand cavalry troopers.
  28. Henry Prinsep, Origin of the Sikh Power and Political life of Ranjit Singh, (ed. 1834) pp. 29-32.
  29. Henry Prinsep, op. cit., p. 147.
  30. Forster, “Observations of the Sikhs’, reprinted in the Early European Accounts of the Sikhs (ed. Ganda Singh), p. 83.