History of the Punjab

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The first known use of the word Punjab is in the book Tarikh-e-Sher Shah (1580), which mentions the construction of a fort by "Sher Khan of Punjab". The name is mentioned again in Ain-e-Akbari (part 1), written by Abul Fazal, who also mentions that the territory of Punjab was divided into two provinces, Lahore and Multan. Similarly in the second volume of Ain-e-Akbari, the title of a chapter includes the word Punjab in it. The Mughal King Jahangir also mentions the word Punjab in Tuzk-i-Janhageeri [Quraishee 73].

Human habitation of the Punjab, however, begins millennia before the arrival of the Mughals. The upper basin of the Indus River and the Baluchistan Plateau hosted one of the earliest human civilizations, known as the Indus valley civilization. The earliest evidence of human settlements dates as far back as 7000 BCE. The Indus valley civilization grew from small village settlements to highly refined urban life. At its height around 3000 BCE, it boasted the splendid cities of Harrapa (Near present-day Sahiwal in West Punjab) and Mohenjo Daro in the lower Indus valley. Archeological evidence indicates that the civilization declined rapidly after 1700 BCE, for reasons that are still unexplained.

Aryan Migrations

Main article: Aryan invasion theory

Factors in the civilization's decline likely included a change in weather patterns and unsustainable urbanization (i.e., without any rural agricultural production base). Another factor is reported to be the series of small scale migrations along with raids by the Aryans from the northwest (1500-1000 BCE). The next one thousand years of the history of Punjab (or Arya-Varta, the land of Aryas, as Aryas called it) is dominated by the Aryans and their interactions with the Natives of the Indus basin. The Rig-Vedas, some of the oldest books in human history, are thought to have been written in the Punjab. The Aryan tongue Sanskrit became a symbol of the Aryan domination of the area.

Persian Domination

The Punjab lay at the eastern edge of the great Persian Empire, and came under their control for a time. The Persian king Darius I (521 BCE - 486 BCE) is reported to have attacked the Punjab and occupied some parts, establishing two provinces (satrapies) in India, Gandara on the upper Indus, and Hindush on the lower Indus. Punjab became the wealthiest province in the empire.

The ancient Greeks also had some knowledge of the area. Darius I appointed the Greek Scylax of Caryanda to explore the Indian Ocean from the mouth of the Indus to Suez for commercial expeditions. Scylax provided an account of his voyage in his book Peripulus. Hecataeus (500 BCE) and Herodotus (483 BCE - 431 BCE) also wrote about the Indian Satrapy of the Persians. Alexander's expeditions were documented in the works of Strabo, Ptolemy, Pliny the Elder, Arrian and others. They described a region that had several mighty rivers and was divided into four kingdoms. In Greek maps we find the mention of the "mightiest of river of all the world", called the Indos (Indus) and its tributaries of Hydaspes (Jhelum), Akesines (Chenab), Hydroatis (Ravi), Hyphasis (Sutlej) and Hesidros (Beas).

Alexander's Invasion and the Indo-Greek kingdoms

After breaking the might of the Persians in 331 BCE, Alexander the Great entered their final satrapy of Gandhara in 327 BCE with an army of 50,000. He invited all the chieftains of the satrapy to come to him and submit to his authority. Ambhi, ruler of Taxila, whose kingdom extended from the Indus to the Hydaspes (Jhelum), complied. Alexander confirmed him as satrap, and marched east to the Hydaspes, where Porus, ruler of the kingdom between the Hydaspes and Akesines (Chenab) refused to submit to Alexander's authority and the two armies fought the historic Battle of the Hydaspes River on the riverbank outside the town of Nikaia (near the modern city of Jhelum).

Porus's army fought strongly, but was no match for Alexander's. When the defiant Raja (though wounded and haviing lost his sons) was brought before Alexander, a legendary conversation took place in which Alexander inquired of Porus, "How should I treat you?", the brave Porus shot back, "The way a king treats another king." Alexander was struck by his genius and not only returned the Kingdom to Porus, but added the land lying between Akesines and Hydraotis (Ravi), whose ruler had fled. Alexander's army crossed the Hydraotis and marched east to the Hesidros (Beas), but there his troops refused to march further east, and Alexander turned back, following the Jhelum and the Indus to the Arabian Sea, and returning to Babylon.

Silver  of the  king  (160-135 BCE)
Silver drachm of the Indo-Greek king Menander I (160-135 BCE)

As he had done in other lands that he occupied, Alexander established two cities in the Punjab, where he settled people from his multi-national armies, which included a majority of Greeks and Macedonians. These Indo-Greek cities and their associated kingdoms thrived long after Alexander's departure.

After Alexander's death, the eastern portion of his empire (from Syria to Punjab) was inherited by Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty. However the Greek empire in the east was disrupted by the ascendancy of the Bactrians. The Bactrian King Demetrius I added the Punjab to his Kingdom in the 2nd century BCE. Many of the Indo-Greeks were Buddhists. The best known of the Indo-Greek kings was Menander I, known in India as Milinda, who established an independent kingdom centered at Taxila around 160 BCE. He later moved his capital to Sagala (modern Sialkot). Menander and his army captured territories east of his kingdom and grew to rival the power of the Bactrians. Menander died in a vain attempt to conquer Bactria in 130 BCE. His successors ruled the Punjab until 55 BCE when the region was disrupted by events on the wider stage of Euro-Asia.

Sakas, Kushanas, and Hephthalites

Missing image
Billon drachm of the Hephthalite King Napki Malka (c. 475-576).

In the middle of the 2nd century BCE, the Yuezhi tribe of modern China moved westward into Central Asia, which, in turn, caused the Sakas (Scythians) to move west and south. The Northern Sakas, also known as the Indo-Scythians, moved first into Bactria, and later crossed the Hindu Kush into India, successfully wresting power from the Indo-Greeks. They were followed by the Yuezhi, who were known in India as the Kushans or Kushanas. The Kushans founded a kingdom in the first century that lasted for several centuries. Both the Indo-Scythians and the Kushans embraced Buddhism, and absorbed elements of Indo-Greek art and culture into their own. Another Central Asiatic people to make Punjab their home were the Hephthalites (White Huns), who engaged in continuous campaigns from across the Hindu Kush, finally establishing their rule in India in the 5th century.

Muslim invasions and the Shahi Kingdom

Following the birth of Islam in Arabia in the 6th century, the Muslims rose to power, replacing Persia as the major power to the west of India. In 711-713 Muslim armies conquered Sind and advanced into the southern Punjab, occupying Multan. Multan became a center of the Ismaili sect of Islam. The northern Punjab was divided into small Hindu kingdoms.

The Hindu Shahi dynasty ruled much of the Punjab, as well as western Afghanistan, from the mid-ninth to the early eleventh centuries. The Shahi Kingdom was originally based in Kabul, and later spread across the Punjab. Kabul was lost to Turkic Muslims in the tenth century, and the Shahi capital shifted to Ohind, near Attock.

In 977, the Turkic ruler Sabuktigin acceded to the throne of the small kingdom of Ghazni in central Afghanistan. In the 980s, Subuktigin conquered the Shahis, extending his rule from the Khyber Pass, to the Indus. After his death in 997, his son Mahmud assumed power in Ghazni. He expanded his father's kingdom far to the west and east through military conquest. He attacked the Punjab and northern India seventeen times during his reign, conquering the Shahi kingdom and extending his rule across the Punjab as far as the upper Yamuna. Mahmud demolished Hindu temples wherever his campaigns took him, and he also attacked the Ismailis, whom he viewed as heretics.

Mahmud's successors, known as the Ghaznavids, ruled for 157 years. Their kingdom gradually shrank in size, and was racked by bitter succession struggles. The Ghaznavids lost the western part of their kingdom (Persia) to the expanding Seljuk Turks. The Rajput kingdoms of western India reconquered the eastern Punjab and by the 1160's line of demarcation between the Ghaznavids and the Hindu kingdoms was extended to the present-day India-Pakistan boundary. The Ghorids of central Afghanistan occupied Ghazni around 1150, and the Ghaznevid capital was shifted to Lahore. Muhammad Ghori conquered the Ghaznavid kingdom, occupying Lahore in 1186-7, and later extending his kingdom past Delhi into the Ganges-Yamuna Doab.

The Delhi Sultanate and Mughal empire

After Muhammad's death in 1206, his general Qutb-ud-din Aybak took control of Muhummad's Indian empire, including Afghanistan, the Punjab, and northern India. Qutb-ud-din moved his capital of the empire from Ghazni to Lahore, and, after becoming Sultan, to Delhi; the empire he founded was called the Sultanate of Delhi. His successors were known as the Mamluk or Slave dynasty, and ruled from his death in 1210 to 1290. The Mongols, who had conquered Muhammad Ghori's former possessions in Central Asia, continued to encroach on the Sultanate's northwest frontier in the thirteenth century. The Mongols conquered Afghanistan, and from there raided the Punjab and northwestern India. Lahore was sacked in 1241, and the Mongols and Sultans contested for control of the Punjab for much of the thirteenth century. The Khilji dynasty replaced the Mamluks in 1290. The rule of Khiljis was briefly disrupted by successful raids by the Mongols, who marched to Delhi twice during Alauddin Khilji's rule. The Tughluqids succeeded the Khiljis in 1320. Timur, who ruled a Central Asian empire from Samarkand, sacked Delhi in 1398-99, and reduced the Sultanate to a small kingdom surrounding Delhi. Two Afghan dynasties took control of the Sultanate after the Tughluqids; The Sayyids from 1414 to 1479, and the Lodhis from 1479 to until 1526. The Lodhis recovered control of some of the Sultanate's lost territories, including the Punjab. Babur, a descendant of the Mongol Khans who ruled a kingdom in Afghanistan, defeated the last Sultan of Delhi at the First battle of Panipat in 1526 and founded the Mughal Empire.

The Mughal empire persisted for several centuries until it was severely weakened in the eighteenth century by the attacks of the Marathas and the 1739 sack of Delhi by the Persian Nadir Shah. As Mughal power weakened, Afghan rulers took control of the empire's northwestern provinces, including the Punjab and Sind. The eighteenth century also saw the rise of the Sikhs in the Punjab.

The Rise of Sikh Power

The Punjab presented a picture of chaos and confusion when Ranjit Singh took the control of Sukerchikias misal. The edifice of Ahmad Shah's empire in India had crumbled. Afghanistan was dismembered. Peshawar and Kashmir though under the suzerainty of Afghanistan had attained de facto independence. The Barakzais were now masters of these lands. Attock was ruled by Wazrikhels and Jhang lay at the feet of Sials. The Pathans ruled Kasur. Multan had thrown off the yoke and Nawab Muzaffar Khan was now ruler.

Both Punjab and Sind had been under Afghan rule since 1757 when Ahmad Shah Abdali was granted suzerainty over these provinces. However, the Sikhs were now a rising power in Punjab. Taimur Khan, a local Governor, was able to expell the Sikhs from Amritsar and raze the fort of Ram Rauni. His control was short-lived, however, and the Sikh misal joined to defeat Taimur Shah and his Chief minister Jalal Khan. The Afghans were forced to retreat and Lahore was occupied by the Sikhs in 1758. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia proclaimed the Sikh's sovereignty and assumed leadership, striking coins to commemorate his victory.

While Ahmad Shah Abdali was engaged in a campaign against the Marathas at Panipat in 1761, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia plundered Sirhind and Dialpur, seized towns in the Ferozepur district, and took possession of Jagraon and Kot Isa Khan on the opposite bank of the Sutlej. He captured Hoshiarpur and Naraingarh in Ambala and levied tribute from the chief of Kapurthala. He then marched towards Jhang. The Sial chief offered stout resistance. However, when Ahmad Shah left in February 1761, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia again attacked Sirhind and extended his territory as far as Tarn Taran. When he crossed the Bias and captured Sultanpur in 1762, Ahmad Shah again appeared and a fierce battle took place. The ensuing holocaust was called Ghalughara. Following the rout of Sikh forces, Jassa Singh fled to the Kangra hills. After the departure of Ahmad Shah Abdali, Jassa Singh Ahluwali again attacked Sirhind, razing it and killiing the Afghan Governor Zen Khan. This was a great victory for the Sikhs who now ruled all of the territory around the Sirhind. Jassa Singh immediately paid a visit to Hari Mandir Saheb at Amritsar, making amends and restoring the temple which had been defiled by Ahmad Shah through the slaughter of cows in its precincts.

Ahmad Shah died in June 1773. After his death the power of the Afghans declined in the Punjab. Taimur Shah ascended the throne at Kabul. By then the Misals were well established in the Punjab. They controlled territory as far as Saharnpur in the east, Attock in the west, Kangra Jammu in the north and Multan in the south. Efforts were made by Afghan rulers to dislodge the Sikhs from their citadels. Taimur Shah attacked Multan and defeated the Bhangis. The Bhangi Sardars, Lehna Singh, and Sobha Singh were driven out of Lahore in 1767 by the Abdali, but soon reoccupied it. They remained in power in Lahore until 1793 - the year when Shah Zaman acceded to the throne of Kabul.

The first attempt at conquest by Shah Zaman was in 1793. He came to Hassan Abdal from which he sent an army of 7000 cavalry under Ahmad Shah Shahnachi but the Sikhs routed them. It was a great setback to Shah Zaman, but in 1795 he reorganized forces and again attacked Hassan Abdal, This time he snatched Rohtas from the Sukerchikias, whose leader was Ranjit Singh. Singh suffered at Shah Zaman's hands but did not lose courage. However, Shah Zaman had to return to Kabul as an invasion of his country from the west was apprehended. When he returned, Ranjit Singh dislodged the Afghans from Rohtas.

Shah Zaman did not sit idle. In 1796 he crossed the Indus for the third time and planned to capture Delhi. His ambition knew no bounds. By now he had raised an Afghan army of 3000 men. He was confident a large number of Indians would join him. Nawab of Kasur had already assured him help. Sahib Singh of Patiala betrayed his countrymen and declared his intentions of helping Shah Zaman. Shah Zaman was also assured of help by the Rohillas, Wazir of Oudh, and Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The news of Shah Zaman's invasion spread quickly and people began fleeing to the hills for safety. Heads of Misals, though bound to give protection to the people as they were collecting Rakhi tax from them, were the first to leave the people in lurch. By December Shah Zaman occupied territory up to Jhelum. When he reached Gujarat, Sahib Singh Bhangi panicked and left the place.

Next Shah Zaman marched on the territory of Ranjit Singh. Singh was alert and raised an army of 5000 horsemen. However, they were inadequately armed with only spears and muskets. The Afghans were equipped with heavy artillery. Ranjit Singh foresaw a strong, united fight against the invaders as he came to Amritsar. A congregation of Sarbat Khlasa was called and many Sikh sardars answered the call. There was general agreement that Shah Zaman's army should be allowed to enter the Punjab and that the Sikhs should retire to the hills.

Forces were reorganized under the command of Ranjit Singh and they marched towards Lahore. They gave the Afghans a crushing defeat in several villages and surrounded the city of Lahore. Sorties were made into the city at night in which they would kill a few Afghan soldiers and then leave under cover of darkness. Following this tactic they were able to dislodge Afghans from several places.

In 1797 Shah Zaman suddenly left for Afghansistan as his brother Mahmud had revolted. Shahanchi khan remained at Lahore with a sizeable army. The Sikhs followed Shah Zaman to Jhelum and snatched many goods from him. In returning, the Sikhs were attacked by the army of Shahnachi khan near Ram Nagar. The Sikhs routed his army. It was the first major achievement of Ranjit Singh. He became the hero of the land of Five Rivers and his reputation spread far and wide.

Again in 1798 Shah Zaman attacked Punjab to avenge the defeat of 1797. The Sikh people took refuge in the hills. A Sarbat Khalsa was again called and Sada Kaur persuaded the Sikhs to fight once again to the last man. This time even Muslims were not spared by Shah Zaman's forces and he won Gujarat easily. Sada Kaur roused the Sikhs sense of national honour. If they were to again leave Amritsar, she would command the forces against the Afghans. She said that an Afghani soldier was no match for a Sikh soldier. In battle they would acquit themselves, and, by the grace of Sat Guru, would be successful.

The Afghans plundered the towns and villages as they had vowed and declared that they would exterminate the Sikhs. However, it was the Muslims who suffered most as the Hindus and Sikhs had already left for the hills. The Muslims had thought that they would not be touched but their hopes were dashed and their provisions forcibly taken from them by the Afghans.

Shah Zaman requested that Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra refuse to give food or shelter to the Sikhs. This was agreed. Shah Zaman attacked Lahore and the Sikhs, surrounded as they were on all sides, had to fight a grim battle. The Afghans occupied Lahore in November 1798 and planned to attack Amritsar. Ranjit Singh collected his men and faced Shah's forces about eight kilometres from Amritsar. They were well-matched and the Afghans were, at last, forced to retire. Humiliated, they fled towards Lahore. Ranjit Singh pursued them and surrounded Lahore. Afghan supply lines were cut, crops were burnt and other provisions plundered so that they did not fall into Afghan's hands. It was a humiliating defeat for the Afghans. Nizam-ud.din of Kasur attacked the Sikhs near Shahdara on the banks of the Ravi, but his forces were no match for the Sikhs. Here too, it was the Muslims who suffered the most. The retreating Afghans and Nizam-ud-din forces plundered the town, antagonizing the local people.

The Afghans struggled hard to dislodge the Sikhs but in vain. The Sikh cordon was so strong that it was impossible for the Afghans to break it and proceed towards Delhi. Ranjit Singh terrorized the Afgans. The moment Zaman Shah left, Ranjit Singh pursued his forces and caught them unawares near Gujranwala. They were chased further up to Jhelum. Many Afghans were put to death and their weapons and supplies taken. The rest fled for their lives. Shah Zaman was overthrown by his brother and was blinded. He became a helpless creature, who, twelve years later, came to the Punjab to seek refuge in Ranjit Singh's darbar. Singh was now ruler of the land.

Ranjit Singh combined with Sahib Singh of Gujrat (Punjab) and Milkha Singhf Pindiwala and a large Sikh force. They fell upon the Afghan garrison while Shah Zaman was still in vicinity of Khyber Pass. The Afghan forces fled north after having been routed by the Sikhs, leaving behind their dead, including the Afghan deputy, at Gujarat." (Bikramjit Hasrat, Life and times of Ranjit Singh, p.36)

By this time the people of the country had become aware of the rising strength of Ranjit Singh. He was the most popular leader of the Punjab and was planning to enter Lahore. Victims of oppression, the people of Lahore were favorably disposed towards Singh who they saw as a potential liberator. Muslims joined Hindu and Sikh residents of Lahore in making an appeal to Singh to free them from the tyrannical rule.

A petition was written and was signed by Mian Ashak Muhammad, Mian Mukkam Din, Mohammad Tahir, Mohammad Bakar, Hakim Rai, and Bhai Gurbaksh Singh. It was addressed to Ranjit singh, requesting him to free them from the Bhangi sardars. They begged Singh to liberate Lahore as soon as possible. He mobilised an Army of 25,000 and marched towards Lahore on July 6, 1799.

It was a last day of Muharram when a big procession was to be held in the town in the memory of the two grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad who had been martyred on the battlefield. It was expected that the Bhangi sardars would also participate in the procession and mourn with their Shia brethren. By the time procession was over Ranjit Singh had reached the outskirts of city.

In the early morning of July 7 1799, Ranjit Singh's men took up their positions. Guns glistened and bugles were sounded. Rani Sada Kaur stood outside Delhi Gate and Ranjit Singh proceeded towards Anarkali. Ranjit Singh rode along the walls of the city setting mines. The wall was breached. This created panic and confusion. Mukkam Din, who was one of the signatories to the petition made a proclamation, accompanied by drumbeats, stating that he had taken over the town and was now in charge. He ordered the city gates to be opened. Ranjit Singh entered the city with his troops through the Lahori Gate. Sada Kaur and a detachment of cavalry entered through Delhi gate. Before the Bhangi sardars realized it, a part of the citadel had been occupied without resistance. Sahib Singh and Mohar Singh left the city and sought protection. Chet Singh was left to either to fight to defend the town or flee. He shut himself in Hazuri Bagh with 500 men. Ranjit Singh's cavalry surrounded Hazuri Bagh. Chet Singh surrendered and was given permission to leave the city along with his family.

Ranjit Singh was now well-entrenched. Immediately after taking possession of the city, he paid a visit to Badshahi Mosque. This gesture increased his prestige in the eyes of people. He won the hearts of his subjects, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh alike. It was July 7, 1799 when the victorious Ranjit Singh entered Lahore.

Ranjit Singh ultimately acquired a kingdom in the Punjab which stretched from the Sutlej River in the east to Peshawar in the west, and from the junction of the Sutlej and the Indus in the south to Ladakh in the north. Ranjit died in 1839, and a succession struggle ensued. Two of his successor majarajas were assassinated by 1843.

The British in Punjab

Missing image
Punjab Province, 1909

By 1845 the British had moved 32,000 troops to the Sutlej frontier, ostensibly to secure their northernmost possessions against the succession struggles in the Punjab. In late 1845, British and Sikh troops engaged near Ferozepur, beginning the First Anglo-Sikh War. The war ended the following year, and the territory between the Sutlej and the Beas was ceded to Britain, along with Kashmir, which was sold to Gulab Singh, who ruled Kashmir as a British vassal.

As a condition of the peace treaty, some British troops, along with a resident political agent and other officials, were left in the Punjab to oversee the regency of Maharaja Dhalip Singh, a minor. The Sikh army was reduced greatly in size. In 1848, out-of-work Sikh troops in Multan revolted, and a British official was killed. Within a few months, the unrest had spread throughout the Punjab, and British troops once again invaded. The British prevailed in the Second Anglo-Sikh War, and under the Treaty of Lahore in 1849, the Punjab was annexed by the British East India Company, and Dhalip Singh was pensioned off. The Punjab became a province of British India, although a number of small states, most notably Patiala, retained local rulers who recognized British sovereignty.

The British Punjab province, which includes present-day Punjab province of Pakistan, and the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh, was partitioned in 1947 between the newly-independent states of India and Pakistan.


  • [Quraishee 73] Punjabi Adab De Kahani, Abdul Hafeez Quaraihee, Azeez Book Depot, Lahore, 1973.
  • [Chopra 77] The Punjab as a sovereign state, Gulshan Lal Chopra, Al-Biruni, Lahore, 1977.
  • Dr. Mohammed Ufzal, Lahore University

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