The Evolution of Misls


This write up is not a traditional book. It is indeed a compilation of the available records in a systematic manner with a view to bridge the gap between the ‘past’ and ‘present’. While it is difficult to include all aspects, an attempt has been made to include all important events in a brief manner. Being conscious of the distinction between history and myth, efforts have also been made to describe the evidence of things not seen. This write up, especially subsequent chapters, covers the period of Sikh Misls although a brief background of previous eras has also been included to drive a holistic perspective. During this period developments in other parts of India were coinciding with the aspirations of the people in the Northwestern region in Punjab. Marathas were uprooting the Moguls, and were expanding their empire towards western India. Since Moguls were unable to impose their will against the unyielding Sikh to contain the rising power of Sikhs, the Sikh Misls of a newly born faith, eventually succeeded in expelling the Moguls / Muslim rulers from their region. This was the period when the Sikhs were consolidating their gains; and were in the process of forming their empire. On the other hand, the British after winning the third Anglo-Maratha war during 1817 – 1818, were virtually in control of entire present day India ie South of River Sutlej in Punjab where the Sikhs were ruling the Northwestern region North of River Sutlej until their empire collapsed in 1849. Actually Maharaja Ranjit Singh, came on the scene of Sikh history at a time when prominent Misl leaders like Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Jai Singh Kenheya and other Sikh heads had either passed away or their influences were diminishing due to their old age. The armies raised by various Misl heads later got absorbed under Ranjit Singh who turned the entire Sikh resource base into a powerful Sikh Empire.

Background of the region – about 3000 Years Ago

It is believed, the continuous flow of light skinned Aryans around 1000 BC resulted in the colonization of the northern portion of the Indian sub-continent. While people have expressed  their findings differently, some historians believe that the Aryans originated from somewhere in Central Asia and then moved westward towards Europe, Persia (Iran) and southward into the Indian sub-continent; and decided to settle in whichever region they moved to. In India, they settled in the Indus Valley region, an area which was earlier being ruled by the native Dravidians.

Since the Indian sub continent (mainly Northwestern region) was then considered to be fertile and a land of opportunities, the region attracted the attention of many foreigners and countries, and was  repeatedly invaded and attacked by foreigners. Due to this, parts of Indian sub-continent, mostly North-Western region, had been ruled by different empires and races which include the Persians, Arabs, Turks, Moguls, Afghans, and the Britishers in the past. Even Alexander the Great from Macedonia came during 326 BC and conquered the united Punjab, now part of India and Pakistan. Since the local natives were unable to stop the overwhelming flow of foreigners including many who decided to settle here, the local population was transformed into a multi-cultural civilization. Intermarriages resulted in the fusion of a multi-racial society, which gradually got evolved into a complex caste structure, and caused discord and divisions amongst the Indian population.

Birth of a New Faith during 15th Century

During the fifteenth century, the people of the region were still slaves in their own land. Parts of this subcontinent were either loosely governed by small Hindu rulers or remained under the control of foreigners for centuries. However, the Muslims ruled the major portion of the region, much against the wishes of the local natives. This situation resulted into resentment and caused unpleasant rivalry between Hindus and foreign rulers who were mostly Muslims. In the backdrop of these developments, the region witnessed the evolution of a new faith, the Sikhism. Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469– 1539 AD), the first of the ten Sikh Gurus, was the founder of this faith. Even though born into a Hindu family, he opposed the Hindu social and religious ideology. The society was divided on account of languages, religion, castes, color, creed, wealth, regions and so on. In view of mutual antagonistic feelings in the region, Guru Nanak preached the existence of one God, equality and oneness amongst all castes and religions, and attracted followers from others faiths; and provided a common platform to live together. However the Sikhs later opposed the  enslavement by the Moguls and started facing persecution at their hands to include Guru Arjan Dev Ji (1563 – 1606) who was tortured by the Mogul rulers. Guru Gobind Singh Ji (1666 – 1708), the tenth and last Guru of the Sikhs, and his family members suffered heavily on account of his opposition towards Muslim oppression. While his father, Guru Teg Bahadur Ji (the 9th Guru of the Sikhs) and his sons were martyred opposing the Mogul rulers, he himself was stabbed by  Jamshed Khan and succumbed to his injuries in 1708. Ironically Guru Teg Bahadur Ji’s unique sacrifice was based on the fact that he opposed the Mogul ruler against the forcible conversion of Hindus (Kashmiri Pandits) into Islam.

The Upholders of New faith

After the death of Guru Gobind Singh Ji in 1708, Banda Singh Bahadur (1670 – 1716 AD) came on the scene and gave a new direction to the Sikhs at the behest of the last Guru. Lachhman Das, who later became popular as Banda Singh Bahadur, was a natural leader who became a great warrior after he was blessed by Guru Gobind Singh. Having gauged his leadership and political qualities, the Guru invested in him with military and political authority to continue with his opposition against the tyranny of the Mogul rulers and defend the Sikh faith. After the Guru died in 1708, he took charge of the Sikhs and continued with Guru’s crusade against the Mogul suppression in the region until he was martyred in 1716. However, after his death, the community was left with no central leader, who could unite them under one banner. It was a difficult phase in the history of Sikhs as they were facing continuous persecution at the hands of the Mogul rulers and facing an uncertain future. So when Banda Singh Bahadur died in 1716, the community witnessed lot of  chaos and political upheavals due to leadership vacuum. Members of a new community, the Sikhs, gradually fell apart. This was also a period when the Mogul rulers in Punjab were being attacked by the Persian & Afghan armies. At this juncture the threat was more from these armies than from small bands of Sikhs. So while some Sikhs were graually absorbed by the local rulers in the lucrative military market, others (operating in small bands) were left to fend for themselves. Toward the end of 1738, when the Sikhs were still organizing into various small groups, the Persian (now Iran) ruler Nadir Shah swept across Punjab. Zakarya Khan then the Mogul Governor of Punjab made an abject submission to the Persian ruler whereas the Sikhs moved towards the adjoining foothills of Himalayas, the area is now known as the Himachal Pradesh. The Persian defeated the native rulers in Karnal and pushed on to Delhi. The capital was plundered and its population was massacred. In the summer of 1739, Nadir Shah decided to return home laden with enormous booty and thousands of slaves including girls for harems. He chose to travel back along the foothills of Himalayas to avoid the heat of the plains of Punjab and as well as to find new pastures. His baggage train included the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, gold and slaves. Since the Sikhs were already well acquainted with the terrain there, they found Nadir Shah’s army as an easy prey. They attacked Nadir Shah and began looting his baggage-train as soon as it entered the foothills of Punjab and continued to do so all the way to River Indus. It was quite a shock for Nadir Shah to hear that small Sikh bands had freed all the slaves, including beautiful girls. He then questioned Zakarya Khan about them. Who are these mischief-makers who dare to challenge me? Zakarya Khan replied, they are a group of fakirs (vagrants) who visit their Guru’s tank twice a year, and after bathing in it disappear. Nadir Shah further questioned as to where do they live? Destroy them and their homes, or they will destroy you. Since they do not have any permanent place, their homes are the saddles of their horses, was the reply. Good luck, said Nadir Shah. The day is not far when these rebels will take possession of your region, said the Persian ruler. And he was proved right. After Zakarya Khan died, the Sikhs started dominating the region. Actually Nadir Shah’s five months stay in India utterly disrupted the administration of Punjab. Zakarya Khan could do little to control the situation. The Sikh’s defiance during the Persian occupation, particularly in liberating Indian prisoners created a new spirit and dignity amongst the local population. They were now seen as powerful guards of Punjab who could protect the common people from the invaders. When the Sikhs decided to return to the plains of Punjab from the hills, Zakarya Khan who was still taking orders from the Persian ruler, ordered village officials to round up Sikhs and hand them over for execution. However, persecution had little effect as the rural population was now in sympathy with the Sikhs. They thwarted the administration’s efforts by giving Sikhs shelter in their homes and joining them to ambush the State constabulary. Zakarya Khan died in 1745.

Sikh Misls

The word Misl is the Punjabi version of Confederation or war bands. The foundations for the Sikh empire were laid by the formation of Sikh Misls. The terrible hardship imposed by Zakarya Khan, for over two decades on the Sikhs, and the fortitude and success with which they fought them out inspired the heads of Sikh groups to a new hope, intrepidity, fearlessness and unity. They gradually consolidated their groups into various Misls. These Misls were all considered equal.  Sikhs operated under twelve important Misls; some comprising a few hundred while others could field eight to ten thousands fighting men. Each Sikh was free to join any Misl and every Misl acted in any way it wished in the area of its control. It was estimated that the Sikhs could collectively muster about seventy thousand soldiers in the field at one time.  The system of Misls was appropriate to the conditions of the time and worked well under their respective leaders. While most of their operations were conducted independently, coordination with other Misls were made only on selective basis and due to political reasons. It  focused the energies of Sikh soldiers in the service of a  single cause, the expulsion of Muslim rulers from Punjab and defending their religious faith. So whenever the Misl leaders heard that oppressed people were in need  of help against their Mogul oppressors, they acted at once and rushed to their rescue. They were the gladiators of their time in their respective areas. The twelve Misls were Shaheed under Deep Singh, Ramgarhia under Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, Ahluwalia under Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Sukerchakia under Charhat Singh, Bhangi under Hari Singh, Nakkai under Hira Singh, Nishanwalia under Dhasaunda Singh, Karora under Karura Singh, Kanheya under Jai Singh, Singhpuria (also called Faizullapuria) under Nawab Kapur Singh, Dallewalia under Gulab Singh and Phoolkiya under Ala Singh of Patiala area. In 1748, Dal Khalsa was formed, by combining all Sikh forces. For some years, while Jassa Singh Ahluwalia was in joint command, Nawab Kapur Singh was considered as the Supreme commander of Dal Khalsa. However, the Misls were able to consolidate their military and political efforts and started exerting their presence and influence independently. But when the Sikhs were becoming stronger under respective Misls especially when Muslim rulers were evicted, the Misl leaders started fighting amongst themselves to gain ascendancy over each other. Some of the important leaders of the Sikh Misls were Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia (1718 – 1783), Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia (1723  – 1803), Hari Singh of Bhangi Misl (died 1764), Jai Singh Kanheya (died 1789) of Kenheya Misl and later Maharaja Ranjit Singh, son of Mahan Singh Sukerchakia. However age wise Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) was well placed to build the Sikh empire on the foundations laid by the Chiefs of other Misls. Therefore after the authority of important Misl heads was diminishing on account their old age or demise, he was able to amalgamate or annex the Sikh confederations under one flag. The Ramgarhia Misl was second last Misl to have been incorporated after the death of Sardar Jodh Singh, son of Jassa Singh Ramgarhia in 1816. The Kanheya Misl, where he was married, was annexed in 1820 when Sada Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s mother-in-law, was still heading the Misl. She was under his confinement when Ranjit Singh annexed Kanheya Misl. Sada Kaur however died in 1832. Even though the Sikh Misls were functioning under various Sikh leaders, they were able to exercise their presence and authority in their respective areas of influence and operations in the region. This period was the beginning of a consolidated Sikh empire in the region.

“Clearly by 1699 there were multiple warrior traditions already present throughout South Asia, and more specifically in the Mughal province of Punjab. The decision on the part of Punjabi peasants to become Khalsa warriors, as opposed to Rajput or Mughal soldiers, was not merely a calculated decision about the most efficient means of transitioning to a higher status or commanding more material resources. This choice cannot be understood only in terms of those pragmatic or material considerations. The ethical and spiritual dimensions of Sikh practice was an important factor that influenced Punjabi peasants to throw in their lot with Khalsa Sikhs, whose material fortunes, at least in the first half of the eighteenth century, were dim… ” – By Dr. Purnima Dhavan, Ph. D, Seattle, USA in her book “When Sparrows Became Hawks”