There’s an exceptionally good exhibition on at the moment at SOAS in the centre of London all about the Empire of the Sikhs.
I think it would not be an unfair generalisation to say that many people see a Sikh with their turbans and think of them as just another Indian. But their culture and history is separate from the Muslims of Pakistan and the resurgent Hindu nationalism of India.
The Sikh Empire (1799–1849), which spanned much of modern day Pakistan and northwest India, was forged by the ‘Napoleon of the East’ Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839) who became known as Sher-e-Punjab, the Lion of Punjab, over his forty-year reign.
Had history twisted ever so slightly differently, there would be a third country, a legacy of the Sikh Empire spanning both India and Pakistan, but it was lost in partition and the actions of the British Empire.
The exhibition opens with a beautifully decorated gun-howitzer, one of a pair of Sikh guns that were presented to the British at the end of the second Anglo-Sikh war and is the only piece known to exist in a private collection.
It’s a rare survivor as the British had a tendency to melt down captured armaments for their metal. In this case, to produce two statues of the men who defeated the Sikhs, which is rather rubbing their noses in it to say the least.
The main display is downstairs, where glass cases of mostly military objects are supplemented with a wide range of display boards telling the history of the Sikh Empire.
It opens with a drawing and painting representing the moment the peaceful Sikhs transformed from “sparrows to hawks”, and set their defining image thereafter — as fighters and warriors.
The man who largely forged the Empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh established a powerful military meritocracy that included many European officers seeking their fortune. Many were from the army of Napoleon seeking work after his defeat, and were known as Firangis – or foreigners.
Despite that, the Sikh Empire initially had good relations with the British in India.
Ranjit Singh’s empire offered a crucial buffer state between the British and incursions via the Khyber Pass. The one-eyed king was a trusted ally of the British but also a potentially formidable opponent.
As a warrior country, much of the display focuses on the weapons and amour worn in battle, but all around the walls are paintings and portraits of the leading men in the army, and the distinct culture of the Sikh Empire.
Particularly colourful, even by the standards of the region, is the story of Governor Harlan, who tried to make himself a King — thought to be the real life inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s, The Man Who Would Be King.
The inevitable clash with the British came in the form of two bitterly fought Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845 amd 1848) in which British pre-eminence hung in the balance as they came within hours of a total surrender. But through treachery, victory was turned into defeat for the Sikhs whose territories, treasury and fighting men became incorporated into British dominion.
Despite the loss of independence, the Sikhs became a valuable ally to the British military, and it’s an often overlooked aspect that they served in large numbers in WW1 and WW2 on the Allied side.
By the advent of the European wars, nearly 20% of the British Indian army was Sikh, despite making up just 1% of the population.
Sadly, when India was gained independence, Punjab, the heart of the Sikh Empire was split and the Sikhs demand for a homeland was ignored in the turmoil that followed partition.
The centre of the exhibition is given over to that other aspect of the rulers, their love of jewels.
For many people, one of the defining icons, good and bad, of the British Empire in India is the Koh-i-Noor diamond which today sits in the Crown Jewels. No one really knows how the diamond was found, but it had many many owners, often changing hands by force, until it was set in a bazuband amulet on show here, with a rock crystal replica of the diamond.
When the Sikh Empire was taken over the British, one of the conditions of the surrender was that the diamond be handed over to Queen Victoria. It’s been a contentions object within the Crown Jewels ever since, and one that would never be satisfactorily resolved as many previous owners, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan can all lay reasonable claims to it.
SOAS often puts on good exhibitions, but this one is exceptionally good, and probably their best since the Zoroastrian exhibition back in 2013. One slight irritant is that the small signs in the dark display at the back of the ground floor are very difficult to read in the gloom.
This is not just a chance to see a lot of interesting objects, but thanks to the detailed information boards, for many a chance to learn about an Empire they probably didn’t know had ever existed.
The exhibition, Empire of the Sikhs is open Tues-Sun 10:30am to 5pm until 23rd September at SOAS just behind the British Museum. It’s open late on Thursdays to 8pm.
There’s also a heavyweight book on sale that’s been reprinted for the exhibition.