Ranjit (also spelled Runjit) Singh founded a Sikh state in the Punjab (an area in northwestern India, now divided between India and Pakistan) and ruled from 1801 to 1839.
In the 18th century most Sikhs lived in the Punjab, an ethnically diverse area whose population also included Muslims, Hindus, Jains, and Pashtuns (Afghans). The Sikhs of the Punjab during Singh’s era were grouped into 12 misls, or tribes. Singh became chief of the Sukerchakias tribe upon the death of his father in 1792. He furthered his own power by twice marrying women from other Sikh tribes.
Singh began uniting the Punjab under his rule in 1799, when he seized Lahore, capital of the region. In 1802 Singh captured Amritsar, a city sacred to the Sikhs as well as a major commercial center, and subdued a number of smaller Sikh and Pashtun principalities in the Punjab. He signed the Treaty of Amritsar with the British in 1809, gaining recognition as ruler of the Punjab and fixing the Sutlej River as the eastern boundary of his territories.
Singh continued to expand his empire to the north and west, and by 1819 had captured Peshawar and expelled the Pashtuns from the Vale of Kashmir. By 1820 he had consolidated his rule over the entire Punjab, from the Sutlej to the Indus Rivers, with more than a quarter of a million square miles of land, including some of the most strategically significant and richest territory in India. This area is sometimes called “The Land of the Five Rivers” because of the five major rivers within it: the Indus, Jhecum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej. Ranjit Singh’s rule in the Punjab was a time of peace and prosperity. He encouraged trade by ensuring safe passage for caravans and imposing lenient duties. Religiously tolerant, his army had members of different faith communities, including Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, as did his commanders and administrative appointees. New styles of architecture and painting were also developed during his reign, and many literary and historical works were produced.
Singh died of natural causes in Lahore in 1839. His state did not long survive him. In March 1846 the Sikhs were forced to sign a treaty that gave Great Britain much of their land and to accept British rule.