Given her diplomatic skills, military strategies and war tactics, Sada Kaur is deemed the chief architect of the Punjab Empire
As the saying goes, “behind every successful man there stands a woman.” Behind Ranjit Singh’s (1780–1839) successful rise from a chieftain to the maharaja of Punjab stood his mother-in-law, Sada Kaur (1762–1832) — the matriarch of the Kanhaya misl — one of the twelve sovereign clans of the Sikh Confederacy. Owing to her military support and tactical advice (diplomatic skills, military strategies and war tactics), she is deemed the chief architect of the Punjab empire. Her far-sightedness and bravery, pivotal weapons for the creation and expansion of the Punjab kingdom, are acknowledged by chroniclers of Sikh history. They hold that it was Kaur’s sound counsel and material resources that helped Ranjit Singh, a young chieftain, defeat his rival chiefs, assume the title of maharaja and unite the Punjab.
Sada Kaur was the wife of Gurbaksh Singh Kanhaiya, the leader of the Kanhaiya misl, who was the archrival of Maha Singh, the leader of the Sukerchakia misl and the father of Ranjit Singh. The former, the only male heir of the Kanhaiya misl, was killed by the latter in one of the battles they fought against each other. Subsequently, Sada Kaur became the leader of the Kanhaiya misl. To end this long animosity and unite the two powerful misls, she decided to marry her daughter, Mehtab Kaur, to Ranjit Singh, the son of Maha Singh — the killer of her husband. After Maha Singh’s death, Ranjit Singh became the head of the Sukerchakia misl when he was only ten years old.
At that time, the Punjab was divided into twelve Sikh misls and two Pathan fiefdoms. The western front of the Punjab was threatened by Shah Zaman, who, after gaining the Afghan throne, had vowed to regain the lost empire of his grandfather, Ahmad Shah Abdali. During his two previous invasions he had captured some cities in the western part of the Punjab from the Sikh chieftains. However, he had lost those after he had returned to Kabul, the capital of his empire. He was now aiming at marching through the Punjab onto Delhi.
To counter this threat and guard the Punjab’s western border, the Sikh chiefs had a meeting where a majority was of the opinion that instead of facing Shah Zaman’s forces, they should flee to the mountains till his retreat. Sada Kaur disagreed. She proposed that Shah Zaman’s army be engaged in guerilla warfare. Ranjit Singh seconded his mother-in-law. Their courage inspired others to follow suit. They marshalled a united army and appointed Ranjit Singh its leader. The Sikh army, under his leadership, compelled Shah Zaman’s Afghan forces to retreat to Kabul, where his brother had attempted to dethrone him.
After securing his throne, Shah Zaman invaded the Punjab a year later. Several Sikh chieftains again advocated a flight to the mountains. However, Sada Kaur and her son-in-law again disagreed with them and insisted on fighting rather than running away. They were successful in persuading other chiefs and gathering a united army under Ranjit Singh’s command. The Sikh army denied victory to Shah Zaman, who, once again, was forced to retreat to Kabul, where his brother again had attempted to dethrone him. As a result of these victories and successful defence of the Punjab’s western border, Ranjit Singh earned a reputation among the Sikh chiefs.
Her far-sightedness and bravery, pivotal weapons for the creation and expansion of the Punjab Kingdom, are acknowledged by chroniclers of Sikh history. Kaur’s sound counsel and material resources helped Ranjit Singh, a young chieftain, defeat his rival chiefs, assume the title of maharaja, and unite the Punjab.
After dealing with Shah Zaman and guarding the western border of Punjab, Ranjit Singh dreamt of a pan-Punjab empire. His mother-in-law helped him materialise his dream. She combined the forces of her misl and the misl of her son-in-law under his command. Then, she accompanied him for his triumphant march to Lahore, which became the capital of his empire.
Sada Kaur also sided with Ranjit Singh when: 1) he snatched Amritsar from the Bhangi misl; 2) he declared himself the maharaja of the Punjab; and 3) he signed the Treaty of Amritsar with the British in 1809. It was Kaur who advised Singh to sign the treaty, making peace with the colonial power. Though the treaty denied Singh a chance to expand his empire across the Sutlej River, it warranted the longevity of his kingdom. Had he not paid heed to the suggestion of his mother-in-law (making peace with the colonial power by avoiding engaging in an open conflict with it), the fate of the Khalsa Empire might have been similar to that of the Marathas.
Undoubtedly, Ranjit Singh was talented and could have established the Punjab empire without the support of his mother-in-law. However, Sada Kaur’s military support and tactical advice accelerated the process. That is why she is remembered for her outstanding diplomatic skills, military strategies, war tactics and bravery during the campaigns for Amritsar, Chiniot, Kasur, Kangra, Hazara and Attock.
Interestingly, Ranjit Singh’s marriage with Mehtab Kaur, the daughter of Sada Kaur, did not go well. In 1798, two years after his first marriage, he married Raj Kaur, a sister of the leader of the Nakkai misl. It was Raj Kaur and not Mehtab Kaur who bore Ranjit his first son and, thus, successor to the throne, Kharrak Singh. Despite his toxic marital relationship with her daughter, Sada Kaur remained very close to him and sided with him through thick and thin.
A few years later, Mehtab Kaur bore Ranjit Singh twin sons: Sher Singh (who briefly became the maharaja after the death of Kharrak Singh and his son Nau Nihal Singh) and Tara Singh. However, Ranjit Singh refused to acknowledge the twins because someone had poisoned him against Mehtab Kaur by reporting that she had given birth to a baby girl and that she had acquired the baby boys from some kammis (village artisans): one from a carpenter and the other from a weaver. So, he started bestowing all his wealth on his eldest son, leaving nothing for the grandchildren of Sada Kaur. Moreover, he had already declared Kharrak Singh his heir. Sada Kaur recorded her complaint. This soured their sweet relationship. After she persisted with the cause of advocating for her grandchildren, Ranjit Singh took away her fief and gave it to Sher Singh, her grandson.
Sensing the beginning of her fall, Sada Kaur turned to the British to garner their support against Maharaja Ranjit Singh. However, she was captured and put in a jail, where she remained until her death in 1832. Ranjit Singh died seven years later, in 1839. The empire they had built together disintegrated soon afterwards.
The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
He tweets at @MazharGondal87