By Sonia Dhami, a trustee at The Sikh Foundation International based in Palo Alto, California.
General Hari Singh Nalwa’s (Above photo)successful military campaigns have literally established the current borders of modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
At the beginning of the 19th century, both Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkwha were under Afghan rule. The Sikhs succeeded in wresting control of these territories from the formidable Afghans and established their rule. This passed on to the British till Partition in 1947, creating the nation-states of India and Pakistan.
Preparation for this outcome was set in motion on the day of Baisakhi in 1801. Ten-year-old Hari from Gujranwala partook kande-di-pahul (the ceremony of initiation) and joined the fold of the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh. He was now transformed into Hari Singh.
In Lahore, on the same day of 13th April 1801, the 21-year-old Ranjit Singh was anointed “Maharaja of Punjab”.
Together, Maharaja Ranjit Singh & his valiant general Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa, would create the first indigenous empire in the Punjab which would effectively stop the foreign invasions from the west, into the Indian subcontinent, which had continued unchecked for 800 years.
Invaders had long poured into the Indian heartland through the Khyber Pass. Hordes traveled through Punjab to Delhi and beyond. Repeated attacks first from the Persians under Nadir Shah and later from the Afghan Durranis, continued to weaken the declining Mughal empire.
A popular saying in 18th century Punjab was “Khaadha peeta laahey da baaki Ahmad Shahe da” (which means only what you eat and drink is yours the rest belongs to Ahmad Shah) aptly summed up the hegemony these foreign invaders enjoyed.
In the 18th century, Sikhs were widely persecuted under Mughal rule. They literally carried a price on their heads. Overcoming the challenges, the community regrouped and gained strength by organizing itself into 12 confederacies known as misals, each controlling independent territory.
As the booty laden invaders returned home, the Sikhs would attack and harass them. By the end of the 18th century, history turned a page. Through sheer grit, perseverance and faith the Sikhs turned from being the oppressed themselves to protectors fighting for the weak.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a sovereign kingdom of the Sikhs emerged under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Expanding over the next decades, its territories at its zenith extended to the Khyber Pass in the northwest, to Kashmir, Ladakh & Mandi in the northeast, uptil Sindh & Rajputana in the south and the Sulaiman range in the west.
Hari Singh joined the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the young age of fourteen years. Rising rapidly in the ranks he saw action in Kasur & Multan excelling in the battlefield against the Afghans on these fronts. In 1821, General Hari Singh Nalwa was made the Governor of Kashmir and later of Peshawar and Hazara.
He was born in 1791 in Gujranwala. It is not clear as to how he came to be known by the cognomen of “Nalwa” though he never officially used it. He is known to have recounted the story when he killed a tiger with his bare hands, to the Austrian traveler Baron von Hugel (1795-1870) author of “Travels in Kashmir and the Punjab” published in 1840.
His grandfather joined the Khalsa confederacy of the Sukerchakia misal. His father Gurdas Singh died fighting the Afghans when Hari Singh was only 7yrs old.
His mother, Dharam Kaur ensured he was educated in both Persian and Gurmukhi. Perhaps this influenced his belief in encouraging the education of girls. Endeavoring to be a “sant-sipahi” (saint soldier) he also became skilled in horse riding, swordsmanship and the art of warfare.
Over the course of his lifetime, he took part in almost a dozen major battles including Kasur(1807), Sialkot (1808), Attock(1813), Multan(1818), Mankera(1822), Nowshera(1823), Sirikot (1824) and Jamrud (1837).
Nineteenth-century poets like Qadir Baksh( Kadaryar), Hari Chand & Ram Dayal have eulogized him making his life a popular theme for martial ballads even today.
Hari Singh Nalwa’s many military achievements have overshadowed his multiple talents. With astute diplomacy, intellect, vision, and compassion he turned victory in battle into sustaining success.
As Governor of Peshawar and Hazara he paid attention to the economic development of the region under him. He established a mint of the Lahore Darbar to facilitate revenue collection in Kashmir and Peshawar.
In 1822, he built the fortified town of Haripur, the only planned town in the 19th century in the region. He settled Khatri traders and developed it into a major trade center. He introduced citrus farming in the region and supported it by laying out a canal system to feed the villages surrounding Haripur. Named the Rangila canal it was subsequently developed, further by the British. Caring for the needs of all religious groups he built a temple, gurudwara and mosque in the town.
Hari Singh was also a prolific builder. He built 26 forts to safeguard the region including the Harkishengarh fort near Haripur & the Bala Hissar fort at Peshawar. He also laid the foundation of the Fatehgarh fort at Jamrud. Some 56 buildings including forts, towers, samadhs, bungas, dharamsalas, havelis, temples, mosques, gurudwaras, tanks and gardens are credited to him.
In his hometown of Gujranwala, he oversaw the construction of an impressive samadh (funerary monument) of Sardar Maha Singh, father of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He also constructed another residence for his family, which is a fine example of Sikh architecture. His haveli in the Katas Raj temple complex, served as his base as he ventured into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to take on Afghan raiders and secure new borders.
A devout Sikh he upheld the Khalsa code of conduct and also contributed the gold for the gilding of the dome of the Akal Takhat in the Golden Temple complex. A number of shrines commemorating the Sikh Gurus including Gurudwara Panja Sahib at Hasan Abdal were built under him. He gave generously to all places of worship be it Sikh, Hindu and Muslim.
An astute and vigilant general, he was always wary of the British. Maharaja Ranjit Singh chose General Hari Singh Nalwa to lead a diplomatic mission of the Lahore Darbar to meet Governor General William Bentinck at Shimla. This paved the way for the Anglo-Sikh treaty of 1831 signed on the banks for the Sutlej River in Ropar Punjab.
Battle-hardened in almost a dozen major battles; he fought his final battle in Jamrud, against the Afghan pathan forces of Dost Mohammed Khan. Fatally wounded he insisted that the news of his death not be announced till reinforcements had arrived.
He died, aged 46 years, and was cremated on 30th April 1837 in the Jamrud Fort. A memorial was built in 1892 by Babu Gajju Mall, a prominent Hindu resident of Peshawar. After Hari Singh Nalwa’s death, no further conquests were made and the Khyber continued to be the Sikh frontier uptil the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849.
Note: Through my recent Facebook Live series, organized by the Sikh Foundation, two exceptional speakers were invited who have deeply researched the footprint of the Lahore Darbar in the northwest of Pakistan – Amardeep Singh-author and filmmaker and Jahandad Khan, historian and entrepreneur. Amardeep’s presentation “Legendary Forts-Legacy of Lahore Darbar” on the expansion of the Sikh empire’s territories through military campaigns clearly showed the Lahore Darbar’s impact in demarking the modern boundaries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Through Jahandad’s presentation “ General and Statesman: On Hari Singh Nalwa’s forgotten trail in Hazara”, we learned of a little known contemporary Persian text “Twarikh-e-Hazara” written by Lala Mehtab Singh in 1846 which can shed greater light on the period and help “decolonize” our history. Such indigenous sources are in dire need of translators. Only then can they be accessible to all.