The Wallace Collection

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The Sword of Ranjit Singh (OA1404)
Treasure of the Month - February 2004

The Sword of Ranjit Singh (OA1404)

This magnificent gold-mounted sword (shamshir) once belonged to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ (1780-1839).

It as acquired by Lord Hertford, Fourth Marquess of Hertford, the father of Richard Wallace, some time prior to 1865; he exhibited it in that year at the musée retrospectif exhibition in Paris, where it was described as being “Sabre indian, ayant appartenu a Runjet-Sing”. The superb ‘watered’ steel blade is probably earlier in date, perhaps 17th-century Persian, re-mounted for the Maharajah in the current fashion. In terms of Sikh history, Ranjit Singh has been compared to Napoleon Bonaparte in the breadth of his vision, his charisma, and the extent of his political and military achievements. Although ravaged by smallpox as a child (the disease permanently blinding him in one eye), by the age of ten Ranjit Singh was accompanying his father on military campaigns, and at twelve he took command of his first battle, the (successful) siege of a city. It was an auspicious beginning; during the whole of his long reign, Ranjit Singh never lost a major battle. The Sikh nation at that time was divided into a loose confederation of twelve ‘misls’, of which Ranjit Singh’s family ruled just one, but it was the young prince’s ambition to unite and rule them all. By the age of seventeen he had largely succeeded in this; his fatherhaving died in 1790, it was Ranjit Singh who in 1799 rode at the head of his army into the city of Lahore, founding the first Sikh dynasty to control the entire Punjab.

War was Ranjit Singh’s constant companion. As the power and authority of the Mughul emperors waned, the north-western provinces of India were repeatedly raided and invaded by warring tribes from Afghanistan and the north, while the British grew steadily stronger in the south. In 1809 Ranjit Singh secured his southern and eastern borders by signing a treaty with the British, leaving him free to concentrate upon expanding his empire to the north-west. By 1819 he had subdued his quarrelsome Afghan neighbours, and taken Multan, Peshawar and the whole of Kashmir.

With military success, of course, came great wealth; the richness of the Sikh court became legendary throughout India. In his personal demeanour and taste, however, Ranjit Singh was more modest, preferring to wear simple robes of white cloth, and deigning not to affect the trappings of monarchy other than on important occasions. This is not to say, of course, that the Maharaja did not appreciate fine jewels and rich ornamentation. One of his prized possessions was the fabulous Koh-i-Noor diamond. Following Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, and the annexation of the Punjab by the British ten years later, the Koh-i-Noor was taken to England as a gift for Queen Victoria. Today, mounted in the Royal sceptre, it forms part of the British Crown Jewels, on show in the Tower of London.