General Hari Singh Nalwa was one of the greatest Sikh Generals. Like Napoleon he personally led his Sikh troops into battle. Like Napole0n he evoked intense loyalty and admiration. Remnants of this intense loyalty persist to this day. Nalwa is best known as the General who spear-headed the Sikh invasion of Afganistan.
This picture by unknown artist Allenwalla (vernacular: Allen fellow) realistically depicts the battle hardened Nalwa Sahib, circa 1812.
In accordance with the Sikh faith, Nalwa feared no one and had enmity towards none. A true Sikh hero, he treated the poor and dispossessed with love and compassion without regard to their creed or color. Captured prisoners were treated with dignity and humanity, a Sikh warrior tradition.
Biographies and histographies of Nalwa are available in the English and Punjabi languages; these books do not have an ISBN numbers and can only be procured through alternate channels.
The picture below depicts General Nalwa in Kabul, Afganistan.
Commentary courtesy of : sikhwarriorsart.blogspot.com
A General Is Born
General Hari Singh Nalwa was born into a Sikh family of the Sukerchakia Misl. The family originally came from Majitha, near Amritsar. His grandfather, Hardas Singh, had been killed fighting against Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1762. His father, Gurdial Singh, had taken part in many of the campaigns of the Sukkarchakias Charat Singh Sukkarchakia and Mahari Singh.
General Hari Singh Nalwa was the Commander-in-chief at the most turbulent North West Frontier of Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s Kingdom. He took the frontier of the Sarkar-e-Khalsa (The name of the Sikh Empire) to the very mouth of the Khyber Pass. For the past eight centuries, marauders, who had indulged in looting, plunder, rape, and forcible conversions to Islam had used this route into the subcontinent. In his lifetime, General Hari Singh became a terror to the ferocious tribes inhabiting these regions. He successfully thwarted the last foreign invasion into the subcontinent through the Khyber Pass at Jamrud, permanently blocking this route of the invaders. Even at the time of his death, General Hari Singh Nalwa’s formidable reputation ensured victory for the Sikhs against an Afghan force five times as numerous.
General Nalwa’s performance as an administrator and a military commander in the North West Frontier remains unmatched. Two centuries on, Britain, Pakistan, Russia and America have been unsuccessful in effecting law and order in this region. Hari Singh Nalwa’s spectacular achievements exemplified the tradition established by Guru Gobind Singh such that he came to be hailed as the “Champion of the Khalsa”.
Early Life Of General Nalwa
Hari Singh was hardly 7 years of age when his father died. His mother, Dharam Kaur, had to move to her parental home to live under the care of her brothers. There Hari Singh learned Punjabi and Persian and trained in the manly arts of riding, musketry and swordsmanship. Dharam Kaur returned to Gujranwala when her son was about 13 years old.
A Tiger Killer Joins The Army
In 1804, Hari Singh participated in a recruitment test for service in the Sikh army and so impressed Maharaja Ranjit Singh with his skill at various drills that he was given an appointment as a personal attendant. Not long after, in 1805, he received the commission with a command of 800 horses and foot and was given the title of ‘Sardar’ (Chief).
A historical text tells us that his rapid promotion from a personal attendant of the Maharaja to a command of 800 horsemen was owed to an incident in which he had cloven with sword the head of a tiger which had seized him. From that day he came to be known as “Baaghmaar” (meaning – the tiger killer), and earned the title of “Nalwa” (one with claws, like that of a tiger). Another historical text describes his incident with the tiger differently, telling us that he was already a Sardar when the word “Nalwa” was added to his name after he, “had killed a tiger single-handed on horseback, with the sacrifice, however, of his horse.” (Prinsep, 1834: 99)
Hari Singh Nalwa went on to participate in many glorious victories of the Sikhs before becoming the Commander-in-Chief of the army along the North Western Frontier of the Sikh Kingdom. He was appointed Governor of various provinces and was one of the wealthiest jagirdars (feudal lords) of the Kingdom.
A Dynamic General
The Sword of General Hari Singh Nalwa is kept at the Sikh Regimental Centre at Ramgarh
General Hari Singh was commander of a regiment at the time of the Maharaja’s final attack on Kasur in 1807 and gave evidence of his prowess on the field of battle. He was rewarded with a handsome jagir (lands with a duty of fealty to his lord attached, a jagir makes one a jagirdar).
During the later years, he participated in the Sialkot, Sahival and Khushab expeditions and in four of Ranjit Singh’s seven campaigns against Multan during 1810, 1816, 1817 and then in 1818. He fought in the Battle of Attock in 1813 and as second-in-command to Diwan Mohkam Chand, and in Kashmir in 1814 and 1819.
Kashmir was occupied and, in 1820, Hari Singh was appointed its governor in succession to Diwan Moti Ram. He restored order in the turbulent areas, and reorganized civil administration. The territory was divided into parganahs, each under a collector. The habitual criminals were bound down and robbers infesting the forests were suppressed. Construction of forts at Uri and Muzaffarabad and Gurdwaras at Matan and Baramula was undertaken and work was started on laying out a spacious garden on the bank of the River Jhelum.
To alleviate the misery of the people in the wake of the unprecedented floods of 1821, he took measures to provide prompt relief. From Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Hari Singh received a special favor when he was allowed to strike a coin in his own name. This coin, known as the Hari Singhi rupee, remained in circulation in the valley till the closing years of the nineteenth century.
In 1822, he was assigned to the Pathan territory of Hazara on the northwest of the Sikh kingdom, where he remained for fifteen years and settled the disturbed area. He built a strong fort near Salik Serai, on the left bank of the Dor river, and on the road from Hasan Abdal to Abbotabad and named it Harikishangarh, in honour of the Eighth Guru. He also raised a town in the vicinity of the fort, Haripur, which later grew into a busy commercial and trade centre.
From 1827 to 1831, he was engaged in repelling Sayyid Ahmad Barelavi’s fierce campaign against the Sikhs.
In 1834, Hari Singh finally took Peshawar and annexed it to the Sikh dominions. Two years later, he built a fort at Jamrud at the mouth of the Khyber Pass and sealed it once for all for invaders from the northwest.
On 30 April 1837, as he was locked in a grave battle against the Afghans under Akbar Khan, Hari Singh received four gun wounds, and two sabre cuts across his breast. He continued to issue orders as before, until he received a gunshot wound in the side. He mustered his failing strength for the last time and managed to ride up to his field tent, from where he was taken to the fort. Here the same evening the great general passed away. His last instructions were that his death should not be made public until the arrival of the Maharaja’s relief column.
General Hari Singh Nalwa As Administrator
Greater Hazara (1822-37)
Pothohar plateau, (Rawalpindi),
Salt Range (Katas)
Trans-Indus’ Viceroy on the Western Frontier’ (1822-31)
Governor of Peshawar (1834-37)
Governor of Kashmir Governor of Kashmir (1820-21)
Hari Singh Nalwa was appointed the first Khalsa Governor of Kashmir in 1820. He governed the province for a little over a year when the pull of the Sikh Forward Policy compelled his recall from the province.
Hari Singh Nalwa was remembered in Kashmir for something he least expected. The currency he minted while he was the governor had been the subject matter of much speculation (Surinder Singh 2001: 81-8). Following his departure from this subah, all the coins minted under the Sikhs in this province were called the ‘Hari Singhee’. Thereafter, no matter who was the governor all coins minted in Kashmir continued to be called the ‘Hari Singhee’ even following Hari Singh’s death
Muslim and British historians criticised Hari Singh’s tenure as the Governor of Kashmir. Archival records, however, show that their assessment was based on an incomplete understanding of the situation.
Hazara Jagirdar-Governor Greater Hazara (1822-37)
The possibility of consolidating the North West Frontier of the Indian sub-continent into a province was presented by the relentless efforts of Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa. What he achieved in this region in a span of 15 years with limited resources and in the midst of a turbulent population, was nothing short of a miracle.
Hazara, the crown of the Sindh Sagar Doab, was the most significant of all the territories under his governance. His proceedings in this area present the finest example of his skill as a military commander and as an administrator. The compiler of the Hazara Gazetteer acknowledged that Hari Singh Nalwa left his mark upon this district, which at that time only a strong hand like his could effectively control:
“Of unbounded energy and courage, he was ruthless towards those who opposed his path. The town of Haripur fittingly perpetuates his name and the fort of Harkishangarh forms an enduring monument of his power.” (Hazara 1907: 130)
General Nalwa As Viceroy And Governor
Viceroy on the Western Frontier’ (1822-31) & Governor of Peshawar (1834-37)
In the early years, Ranjit Singh requisitioned all his fighting men when he proposed a conquest. In the later years, apart from the garrison manning the forts, the Kampu-i-mu’alla or the State troops continued to be stationed in Lahore under the Maharaja’s command. The Kampu-i-mu’alla was dispatched as reinforcement when requested for by Hari Singh Nalwa. More often than not, however, the fate of the battle had been decided before these could arrive. Hari Singh Nalwa and his Jagirdari Fauj, together with the two battalions of the Fauj-i-Khas (The Army Special) raised by him, were largely responsible for guarding the western frontier of the kingdom. In case of an invasion from the west, the British saw the Sikhs as their Forward Post. The Sikhs, in turn, saw territory under Hari Singh Nalwa’s jurisdiction and command as the farthest extent of the Sikh Kingdom.
General Nalwa, The Military Commander
- Early participation in the conquest of cis-Satluj territories, e.g. Bhadowal; trans-Satluj regions in the Rachna and Bari Doabs
- Kasur (1807)
- Khushab (Sindh Sagar Doab) & Sahiwal (Chaj Doab) (1810)
- Gandhgarh (Hazara) (1815)
- Mahmudkot (Sindh Sagar Doab) (1816)
- Multan (Bari Doab) (1818)
- Peshawar becomes tributary (trans-Indus) (1818)
- Kashmir (1819)
- Pakhli & Damtaur (Hazara) (1821-2)
- Naushehra (trans-Indus) (1823)
- Sirikot (Hazara) (1824)
- Wahhabi (trans-Indus) (1826-31)
- Occupies Peshawar (1834)
- Jamrud (Khyber Pass) (1836)
Campaigns As Jagirdar
- Gujranwala (Rachna Doab)
- Haripur, Pakhli & Damtaur, Khanpur, Dhanna (Hazara)
- Warcha (Salt Range)
- Kachhi, Mitha Tiwana, Nurpur (Sindh Sagar Doab)
- Tank & Bannu (Trans-Indus)
- Hassan Abdal, Kalargarh, Pindi Gheb (Pothohar plateau)
Mission to Simla (1831)
In 1831, Hari Singh was deputed to head a diplomatic mission to Lord William Bentinck, Governor-General of British India. The Ropar Meeting between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the head of British India followed soon thereafter. The British desired to persuade Ranjit Singh to open the Indus for trade. Hari Singh Nalwa expressed strong reservations against any such move. The most compelling reason for the Sardar’s scepticism was the scenario visible across the Satluj — namely, the proceedings in British Hindustan. As a “wide awake” military man and an efficient administrator, Hari Singh Nalwa clearly understood both the military and trade designs of the British.
The Death Of The Great General
Dost Mohammad Khan did not rest contented and after mobilizing all his resources dispatched his son Akbar in A.D. 1837 to recover Peshawar which he did. Resultantly, Sardar Hari Singh Nalua was sent at the head of Lahore troops to face Afghans. He got his forces to Peshawar. Jamrud turned out to be the field of battle this time where a formidable battle was fought. Sardar Hari Singh Nalua had earlier built a fort on the entrance of Khyber pass called fort of Jamrud, this fort was being commanded by Sardar Mahan Singh Mirpura. For want of man and war material Nalwa strove extraordinary hard, inspite of this he did not loose his heart. Urgent messages were sent to Lahore and Peshawar for materials.
For want of timely help the Sardar was of course, killed but the Afghans could not dislodge the 500 Sikh troops from the fort of Jamrud. General Hari Singh Nalua give his last command to his men to not to disclose his death and continue giving enemy a good fight.
Sir Lepel Griffin, gives a detailed and comprehensive account of Sardar Nalua’s campaign of Jamrud
He points out that Sardar was directed to build a fort at Jamrud situated at the entrance of Khyber pass from the walls of which Maharaja might glance Jalalabad in Afghanistan. The Sardar got built a small port which was quite impregnable to the artillery fire and could hold on for several weeks of pounding.
Dost Mohammad Khan, had with him 7,000 horse, 2000 matchlock men and 18 guns. His three sons with their forces and a force of 12,000 to 15,000 of Khaibiris joined the main force and started pounding the fort. Mahan Singh Mirpura requested help from Peshwar where Hari singh Nalua was ailing with fever. General Nalwa immediately sent some horsemen to Lahore for more reinforcements and he along with his soldiers went to Jamrud. The reinforcement under General Hari Singh Nalwa give a new life to the garrison and the attack of Afghanis was repulsed with vigour.
Grifin further states that when Hari Singh Nalwa along with about five of his companion went outside of the fort to inspect a breach in a wall, he was struck by two balls, one in the side and the other in stomach. Inspite of them understanding that he was mortally injured, The Nalwa Sardar managed to ride as far as his camp lest the troops be discouraged. Then laying on floor he gives his last order to his few trusted men, that was to not to disclose the secret of his death. General Hari Singh further imparted instructions to his soldiers to cover his dead body after lifting it from the ground and placing it on a cot. Thus the great Sardar Hari Singh Nalua, with the terror of whose name Afghan mothers used to quiten their fretful children attained his martyrdom.
A Solemn Remembrance
Some of the more famous towns, gardens, fort and shrine associated with Hari Singh Nalwa include —
The ‘new’ town of Gujranwala (Punjab, Pakistan) Haripur (Hazara, North West Frontier Province, Pakistan) was a planned town built by Hari Singh Nalwa in 1822-23, in the North West Frontier tribal belt.
Peshawar (North West Frontier Province, Pakistan) Hari Singh built the fort that dominates the city of Peshawar in the twenty-first century. He called his fort ‘Sumergarh’, however, this fort is today more popularly known as the ‘Bala Hissar’.
Katas (Salt Range, Pakistan) Hari Singh Nalwa built two enormous havelis on the pool side at this famous place of pilgrimage.
Hari Singh ka Bagh at Amritsar (Punjab, India), Srinagar (Kashmir, India)
Views on General Hari Singh Nalwa
- “…champion of the Khalsa”, Lepel Griffin in The Panjab Chiefs, 1865 (Bengal Civil Service, Assistant Commissioner, Lahore)
- “…builder of the Sikh Empire”, A.S. Sandhu in General Hari Singh Nalwa 1791-1837, 1935 (Sikh historian)
- On being asked about the Sikh Kingdom, Mohan Lal informed Abbas Mirza— the Persian Qajar crown prince and military commander during wars with Russia and the Ottoman Empire:
“…if Sardar Hari Singh were to cross the Indus, his highness would soon be glad to make good his retreat to his original government in Tabriz.” (Mohan Lal Kashmiri in Travels in the Panjab, Afghanistan, and Turkistan, etc., 1846(In service of the East India Company))
- “The noblest and the most gallant of the Sikh generals of his time, the very embodiment of honour, chivalry, and courage…” (K.M. Panikkar in The Founding of the Kashmir State, 1930