The Kingdoms of the Punjab Himalaya

Prashant Mathawan

geometric symbol

The Fort Palace Kotkhai

The Sikhs returned but they had in their custody both Shah Shuja and the governor of Kashmir who took refuge with them. It is said that Shah Shuja’s wife promised the Koh-i-Noor in exchange for the safe return of her husband from Kashmir. Maharaja Ranjit Singh thus became the owner of the greatest diamond the world knew.

Once upon a time the whole stretch of the Western Himalaya, from the Yamuna onwards all the way to the Indus and beyond, was referred to as the Punjab Himalaya. This was because all these areas were a part of the kingdoms of Punjab. Through this article we will try and piece together the history of the kingdoms from the time the British arrived in the 18th century until before we finally achieved independence in 1947. These kingdoms varied in size - from the state of Jammu and Kashmir with an area of over 220000 square kms to much smaller kingdoms/ Thakurais in Himachal Pradesh which were just a few square kms in size.

The middle of the 18th century was a turbulent time in India’s history as Mughal power was on the wane and British power was growing. Towards the end of the 18th century emerged a figure who would go on to unite the Sikhs and lay the foundation of the Sikh empire; who would extend his rule over what then came to be called the Punjab Himalaya. The man was none other than Maharaja Ranjit Singh also referred to as the Sher-e-Punjab. He was the man who held the keys to the Western Himalaya and it is said that nothing happened in these mountains that he did not know of. Many Western explorers aiming to explore the Himalaya narrate stories of their run-ins with the Maharaja.

Ranjit Singh was only 19 when he captured Lahore in 1799, thus marking his first major conquest. By 1801 he had the Jammu region as well under his control and he already had a foot in the foothills of the Himalaya. He was crowned Maharaja of Punjab in the same year. Besides the Sikhs the other players on the scene, at that time, were the Marathas, who had somewhat recovered from the defeat at Panipat and the First Anglo Maratha War, the British and the Gurkhas

India 1760 - 1905

India 1760 - 1905

In the beginning of the 19th century the Marathas and the British went to war again in what came to be known as the Second Anglo Maratha War. During this particular war, the Maratha Chief Yashwant Rao Holkar after facing loss in battle with the British led his Army across the Satluj into the territory of Ranjit Singh looking for an alliance to fight the British. Ranjit Singh knew well that if he went along with Yashwant Rao the decisive battles with the British would be fought in the Punjab and he wasn’t prepared for that. After due deliberation Maharaja Ranjit Singh acted as a mediator between Yashwant Rao and the British and peace was declared.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

The British had been watching the rise of Ranjit Singh and this incident prompted them to sign a treaty with Ranjit Singh in 1809, under terms of which the Satluj would mark the boundary between Sikh and British dominions. Ranjit Singh was given a free hand to act as he pleased in the north and west of the Satluj. On the other hand as per the treaty he would leave the territories across the Satluj alone. Ranjit Singh was now sandwiched between the British on one side and the powerful Afghans on the other side. The only territories where he could expand without perturbing either of his powerful neighbours was north where lay the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush. And that’s where he and his men went, changing the political boundaries of the western Himalaya and north western India in a way that still holds to this day.

Rivers of the Punjab

Rivers of the Punjab

Meanwhile the central Himalaya saw the rise of the Gurkhas, who created the kingdom of Nepal after capturing the Kathmandu valley. The Gurkhas were a formidable force of fighting hillmen and they set about a campaign of conquest both towards the Western Himalaya as well as the Eastern Himalaya. By 1805 the Gurkhas were well in control of the Garhwal and the Kumaon regions. They had also over run the powerful Kingdoms of Bushahr and Sirmour in the present day Himachal and the Gurkhas thereafter laid a siege on one of the most important forts of the Lower Himalaya, the Kangra fort in 1806. Led by General Amar Singh Thapa the Gurkhas overcame the defenders of the fort and the Kangra fort was now in the hands of the Gurkhas. As per a report of a British Officer after Kangra the next target for the Gurkhas was Kashmir, which at that time was under the Afghans.

Except that Maharaja Ranjit Singh also had eyes on the Kangra fort, the hill states and Kashmir and beyond. After the fall of the fort, the ruler of Kangra, Raja Sansar Chand Katoch asked Ranjit Singh for his help in evicting the Gurkhas. The Sikh and the Katoch armies had fought against each other earlier as the ambitious Maharaja had sent some of his forces probing into the hills. For now the best recourse available to the Katoch Raja was to seek the help of Ranjit Singh who was promised the Kangra fort and lands if he helped evict the Gurkhas.

Kangra Fort

Kangra Fort from Sansar Chandra Museum

Ranjit Singh was not only a military genius and organiser of the Sikh armies; he also had sagacity and foresight. He knew exactly what it would entail taking on the Gurkhas; they had a reputation for all the right reasons. And he knew that the biggest victors in an all-out clash between the Sikhs and the Gurkhas would be the British as both these forces would be greatly weakened if they got into a war. So he proposed to General Amar Singh Thapa that if the Gurkhas vacated the fort peacefully he would help the Gurkhas in any possible conflict with the British in future.

General Thapa was incensed when he read the letter and imprisoned the messenger as he was aware that the Maharaja and the British had signed the Treaty of Amritsar in 1809 in which essentially the Sutluj marked their borders. The General realized that the Maharaja could not sign a treaty with the British on one hand and offer help to the Gurkhas against them on the other. A clash was now inevitable between the Gurkhas and the Sikhs.

After cutting off the Gurkha supply lines the Sikhs attacked and a ferocious engagement ensued. The Gurkhas, fighting under great disadvantage, lost and as a result of which they were evicted from the Kangra fort and all the territories there of. Ranjit Singh now sat firmly in command of the Kangra fort and surrounding hill states braced up for Gurkha retaliation. After their eviction the Gurkhas tried to take Nalagarh as it was beyond Ranjit Singh’s reach due to the terms of the Treaty of Amritsar and at the same time they captured the fort at Subathu (it still serves as a Gurkha Regimental Centre) and General Thapa set himself up at Arki. The Gurkhas then went onto consolidate their hold on all the hill states on this side of the Sutluj like Theog, Keonthal, Balsan and Jubbal Kotkhai. On the other hand Ranjit Singh now established his control over all the hill states on the other side of the Sutluj including Kahlur, Mandi and eventually Kullu as well.

On another front, Kashmir which was now Afghan territory became the new battleground for the power play amongst the ruling Durranis of Afghanistan. Shah Shuja the deposed king was imprisoned in Kashmir at the Hari Parbat fort by the Afghan governor of the province who coaxed him over by offering him shelter. The other Durranis in power in Afghanistan did not take to this mildly and decided to send a force to Kashmir to get custody of Shah Shuja and chastize the governor. But the year was 1813 and the way to Kashmir was through the territory of the Sikhs. So the Durranis in Kabul proposed a joint force with the Sikhs to take Kashmir by making an offer of half of the revenue for Kashmir. The joint force went into Kashmir but the Sikhs were denied the riches they were promised. The Sikhs returned but they had in their custody both Shah Shuja and the governor of Kashmir who took refuge with them. It is said that Shah Shuja’s wife promised the Koh-i-Noor in exchange for the safe return of her husband from Kashmir. Maharaja Ranjit Singh thus became the owner of the greatest diamond the world knew.

Kangra Fort

The Akhnoor fort by the Chenab

The Sikhs turned back and they cajoled the governor of Attock, who was the governor of Kashmir’s brother to hand over the most strategic Attock fort to the Sikhs. The Sikhs were now the masters of the fort that controlled access to the west towards the Khyber pass and towards Central Asia along the Indus. This now brought them into open confrontation with the Durranis. A large force sent from Kabul to re-take the fort was defeated by the Sikhs.

After this the victorious Sikhs mounted an attack on Kashmir but they lacked the experience of fighting in the mountains. And they were further battered by bad weather that the Pir Panjal is well known for. On the other hand the Afghans were used to fighting in the mountains. A battle took place and the Sikhs were defeated - a great setback for Ranjit Singh and his reputation.

The Ranjit Singh Empire

The Ranjit Singh Empire

Political Division of Punjab

Political Division of Punjab after Treaties of 1846 by Cunningham

Meanwhile in 1814 the powerful Nepalese Prime Minister, Bhimsen Thapa knew war with the British was imminent so he sent emissaries to various princely states, amongst them the Marathas of Gwalior with whom he set one precondition. He would join in an alliance only if Maharaja Ranjit Singh was part of it. The clock had turned full circle in five years. It was now Amar Singh Thapa’s turn to send a missive to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, which offered the Sher-e-Punjab, “a division of the Gangetic plains from Delhi to Calcutta between the Sikhs, the Gurkhas and the Marathas” and also appealed to Ranjit Singh to throw out the British in the name of Hinduism.

Ranjit Singh probably after giving it much thought decided to lay low and not get involved. He had made his offer a while ago and it was refused. At the same time he mobilized his army to “take advantage of any situation that may arise” out of the clash between the British and the Gurkhas.

The First Anglo Gurkha war finally broke out in October 1814. The British attacked on the western and eastern fronts; from the Sutlej to the Kosi. In the eastern front the charge through the Terai towards the Kathmandu valley was led by Maj Gen Marley and Maj Gen Wood and the western front was led by Maj Gen Gillespie and Col Ochterlony. Facing them were the Nepalese Army columns led by none other than General Amar Singh Thapa.

On the Himachal hill states front, when the British and the Gurkhas crossed swords the local hill rajas supported the British, as they were promised their Kingdoms/ riyasats/ thakurais back. At the end the Treaty of Sagauli was signed and the Gurkhas lost all their dominions in Garhwal, Kumaon, Himachal Pradesh as well as Sikkim and Darjeeling. The borders of Nepal as it stands today were defined by this treaty. The Shimla hill rajas as they were called also got back their small kingdoms after due diligence and scrutiny by the British. The British kept some parts of the Himachal hills for themselves and at one such place they would establish Shimla, the future summer capital of India. The Great British Dominion of India would now be ruled (partially) from the Himalaya.

Once things settled down and after a number of Gurkhas joined the British as well as the Sikh forces Maharaja Ranjit Singh decided to have another go at his most coveted Kashmir. In 1819 he was in a better position than ever before to conquer it. A campaign was mounted led by his most able generals including Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa and the Sikhs marched into Kashmir. A decisive battle was fought at Shopian and the Afghans were defeated. The Sikhs now controlled Kashmir and Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa was appointed the first Sikh governor of Kashmir.

Punjab Districts 1911

Punjab Districts 1911

In 1821 one of the Dogras in Ranjit Singh’s service, Gulab Singh, was made the Raja of Jammu though he was still a vassal of the Punjab emperor with Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself doing his raajtilak (initiation ceremony) at Akhnoor which had a commanding fort on the Chenab river. Gulab Singh, and his two brothers were known as the Dogra brothers - they were powerful courtiers and soldiers. Around this time the court of Ranjit Singh saw a rivalry build up between the Dogra brothers and the Punjabi Sikh faction of the court but as long as Ranjit Singh was around these rivalries didn’t surface.

An ambitious Dogra commander, General Zorawar Singh suggested a campaign in the Trans Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh and thence towards Central Asia and Tibet. Though the campaigns were in the name of the Punjab emperor, Raja Gulab Singh was pretty free to do as he wished in the isolated mountain region. However, the Sikh governor of Kashmir at that time, Mian Singh was loathe to the idea of a Dogra army entering Kashmir on their way to Ladakh. So Zorawar Singh took the tough way instead, entered the Suru valley and ended up subjugating Ladakh in 1834; thus consolidating his hold in the coming years. He further subjugated Baltistan as well through a series of campaigns some of them in the depth of winter. Zorawar Singh then turned his attention towards Tibet and reached Taklakot close to the border with Nepal. It was here that on a cold December night, his men and he were set upon by a large Imperial Chinese army and their Tibetan allies. The general fell in the battle and his army was vanquished.

The victorious Chinese and Tibetans then went all the way to Leh. Ladakh was once again under their control. The loss of their greatest general didn’t go down well with the Dogras and a punitive Dogra Sikh force marched through Kashmir up the Zojila and captured Leh and drove the Chinese and the Tibetans back. It was then that both parties decided to make peace and the Treaty of Chusul was signed which marked the border between Ladakh and Tibet. Ladakh became a dominion of the Sikh empire under Raja Gulab Singh.

In 1839 Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed away and all the rivalries between the different groups in the Court became apparent. A bitter power struggle ensued between different claimants to his throne backed by different sections of the court. It would be suffice to say that in all the vicissitudes that followed, powerful people lost their lives including two of the three Dogra brothers. Gulab Singh decided to stay aloof from the happenings at the durbar in Lahore and stayed put in Jammu.

The British saw their chance and finally drew the Sikhs into battle, six years after Ranjit Singh’s death. The Sikhs, in spite of their heroics, lost the First Anglo Sikh War. Gulab Singh continued to stay away - some called it betrayal and others, strategy. At the end of the war in lieu of the war indemnity that was imposed on them, the Sikhs ceded the Jalandhar Doab and all territories to the north of the Ravi to the British. Gulab Singh offered to pay a part of the war indemnity amounting to Rupees seventy-five lakhs for Kashmir in return. A treaty was signed and Gulab Singh was ceded the said territory. This territory included a major part of Chamba. He further negotiated with Chamba’s ruler to give him Badarwah. Thus formed was the State of Jammu Kashmir with Maharaja Gulab Singh as its first ruler.

This was pretty much the situation in the kingdoms of the Punjab Himalaya till the country attained independence which was the start of a new chapter.

The stretch of the Western Himalaya, from the Yamuna onwards all the way to the Indus and beyond, was earlier referred to as the Punjab Himalaya as these areas were parts of the kingdoms of Punjab. This article pieces together the history of the kingdoms from the time the British arrived in the 18th century until India achieved independence in 1947.

About the Author

Prashant (Kiki) Mathawan is an amateur Himalayan explorer and historian. Born and brought up in the Kashmir valley he has a deep interest in the Himalayas from a historical, cultural and social perspective. He currently runs an Experiential Tours company focusing on the Himalayas.

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