Afghan–Sikh Wars (1813-1837)

At the commencement of 19th century, the tremendous downfall of the Durrani empire was already going on and it had fallen into never ending series of civil wars. The wily Ranjeet Singh, who owed his rise to Zaman Shah Durrani, fully took advantage of the Durrani civil wars and he slowly and gradually encroached upon Afghan territories.

Battle of Chach (1813)

In 1813 the Attock fort was in charge of Jahandad Khan Barakzai. The latter turned traitor and sold the fort to Sikhs for one lakh of rupees. Thus, Ranjit Singh came into possession of Attock fort without any fight and the boundary of his kingdom extended up to the eastern bank of Indus River. Ranjit Singh garrisoned the fort with a large Khalsa army.

Fateh Khan Barakzai (elder brother of Dost Muhammad Khan who later became the Amir of Afghanistan) was shocked to hear this news. He rushed back and besieged the Attock fort after handing over the affairs of Kashmir to his brother Azim Khan. Karam Chand with a big force from Lahore and Mokham Chand from Burhan (near Hasan Abdal), reached Attock. The Afghans inflicted heavy casaulties on the Khalsa army by the night raids and skirmishes. Mokham Chand waited for the setting in of the hot weather. At last, on 13th of July 1813, both the armies fought a fierce battle at Hazru on the Indus, five miles from the fort. The Pashtun cavalry was led by Dost Muhammad Khan Barakzai. By a determined and resolute charge on the Sikh artillery under Ghous Khan, he captured some Khalsa guns. The Sikhs were almost routed, but for the intense heat which exhausted the Pashtuns. Fateh Khan, believing Dost Muhammad Khan had been killed, left the field. The Sikhs occupied Khairabad. This was the first battle in which the Sikhs had beaten Afghans west of Jehlum. 

Ranjeet Singh’s second invasion of Kashmir

In October 1813, Ranjit Singh, supported by his allies, invaded Kashmir for the second time. The local Kashmiri rajas, under the leadership of Raja Agar Khan, joined him. He met his first stiff resistance at Bahram Galla Pass by Wazir Ruhullah Khan. Ranjeet Singh bypassed him. Raja Agar Khan of Rajauri led the Khalsa to the rear of Ruhullah Khan through a different route. Because of heavy snow and rain Ranjit Singh could not cross the Pir Panjal Pass and on 26th December returned to Lahore. 

Defeat of Sikhs in the third attempt to conquer Kashmir (1814)

In 1814 Ranjeet Singh invaded Kashmir for the third time. Guided by Raja Agar Khan of Rajauri , the Khalsa entered Kashmir via two routes, the main force under Ranjit Singh via Poonch and Toshu Maidan Pass, and the secondary column under Ram Dayal Singh (son of Mokham Chand), by Bahram Galla route viz.Supin into the valley. The secondary column occupied Bahram Galla on 18th June 1814. Next day, guided by Namdar Khan Thakkar (a Kashmiri Muslim), they crossed Pir Panjal by the Sarai and Madpur pass. They occupied Hirpur dislodging the Pashtun detachment. Azim Khan Barakzai counter attacked Hirpur and failed. The Sikhs advanced, and on 24th June occupied the area around Supin. However, Shakur Khan, the local chief, strongly defended the town. Azim Khan brought in fresh cavalry that completely routed Sikhs, killing many of their leaders, namely Jiwan Mal and Fateh Singh Chahchi. The adverse weather conditions further took a heavy toll on them. The main body under Ranjeet Singh also suffered a similar fate. Ranjeet reached Poonch on 28th Jun. By mid of July, he occupied Mandi and Tosho Maidan, on the outskirts of the valley. Azim Khan had already taken positions in the area. It was here that Ranjeet Singh come to know about the disaster of secondary column. He immediately sent Bhai Ram Singh and Diwan Devi Das with 5000 men. Soon after the departure of the reinforcements for the secondary column on 9th July, Azim Khan attacked Ranjit Singh. The Sikhs were utterly defeated. Ranjit Singh started a withdrawal that soon turned into a rout. He lost the elite of his army including Mit Singh Padhania , Gur Baksh Singh Dhari and Desa Singh Mann. After having been stripped of all his provisions and suffering heavily in men, he retreated to Lahore. 

Map of Sikh empire under Ranjeet Singh

Sikh invasion of Peshawar (1818)

Ranjeet Singh exploited the commotion and chaotic conditions then prevalent in Afghanistan and he marched towards Attock in October 1818 with a view to annex Peshawar. The Khattaks had murdered Bawa Phaddi , his agent at Attock. The Sikhs advanced guard, under Phula Singh Akali and Metab Singh, defeated the Khattaks led by Firoz Khan and Najibullah Khan, the local Khattak chiefs. The Sikhs occupied Khairabad and Jahangira. On 20th November, Ranjit Singh entered Peshawar. Yar Muhammad Khan Barakzai fled to Khyber. Bala Hisar and a neighboring village, Chamkani, the home of Shaikh Umar, were burnt by Sikhs. After three days of his stay in Peshawar, he appointed Jahandad Khan Wazir Khel, who earlier had sold to him the Attock fort, as the governor of Peshawar. Soon after Ranjit Singh left Peshawar for Lahore, Dost Muhammad Khan Barakzai drove out Jahandad Khan. Subsequently, on arrival of the Sikh force, Dost Muhammad Khan, through the good offices of his agents, managed to retain Peshawar as a principality of Lahore Darbar.   [Reference: History of the Pathans”, Vol-I, by Haroon Rashid, p-197]

Ranjit Singh with son Hira Singh,~ 1838-40


Ranjit Singh’s fourth invasion of Kashmir and defeat of Pashtuns (1819)

In 1819 Azim Khan left for Kabul to help his elder brother Fateh Khan to gain the throne in Kabul. At that time Kabul was in the midst of a civil strife. He left his brother Jabbar Khan to govern Kashmir. Azim Khan had taken a large portion force of the troops to Kabul. In April 1819, Ranjit Singh invaded Kashmir for the fourth time. Two columns under Dewan Chand and Prince Kharak Singh headed for Kashmir. Ranjit Singh himself commanded the reserve division that trailed behind the advancing columns. Rahimullah Khan, son of Raja Agar Khan of Rajauri, joined the Sikhs. On 23rd June, Dewan Chand occupied Bahram Galla. The local Kashmiri thanedars of Poonch and Supin, Mir Muhammad and Muhammad Ali, betrayed Afghans and deserted to Sikh side. The Pro-Sikh Raja Rahimullah Khan induced other local Rajas including Namdar Khan to join the Sikhs against the Pashtuns. Pandat Bayuobil , an influential Hindu of the area, provided secret information to the Sikhs about Jabbar Khan’s weak points.

A large Sikh army crossed Pir Panjal Pass and entered the valley. Jabbar Khan, with 5,000 men and with his generals waited for the Sikh army at Hirapur. He surprised the Sikh forces at Pir Panjal and had almost routed them when he got seriously wounded and left the battlefield. The Afghans followed him. They had lost their leaders, namely, Mehr Dil Khan and Malik Akhor Samand Khan. Jabbar Khan fled in disorder to Kabul via Baramula. The Sikhs captured the whole valley.

He informed Ranjit Singh that Azim Khan was no longer leading the Durrani forces in Kashmir and supplied information on invasion routes into Kashmir. On 3 July 1819, the Sikh army attempted to march through Shopian to Srinagar but was stopped by a Durrani army headed by Jabbar Khan. Although both sides sustained heavy losses, Jabbar Khan and his army retreated from the battlefield and fled in disorder from Kashmir over the Indus River. 

Battle of Nowshera (1823)

Muhammad Azim Khan Barakzai did not approve of the policy of his brothers at Peshawar. In the beginning of 1823, he came to Peshawar. Yar Muhammad Khan fled to Yousafzai territory. Ranjit Singh sent his army under Prince Sher Singh. Later, Hari Singh Nalwa, Dewan Kirpa Ram, Sardar Atar Singh and Dhabi Singh reinforced him. The Sikhs defeated the Durranis at Jahangira and occupied the Jahangira fort. Muhammad Azim Khan gave a call for Jihad against the invaders. The Khattaks and Yousafzais , under Akhund Abdul Ghafoor of Swat, gathered on Tarakae hills, about twenty miles from Attock. The Sikh advance was halted. On 13th March, Ranjit Singh along with prince Kharak Singh and Dewan Chand also reached the area.

Meanwhile, Muhammad Azim Khan, Dost Muhammad Khan and Jabbar Khan took up positions at Nowshera. Ranjit Singh knew the Durrani chief’s mutual mistrusts and dis-loyalties. He was aware of their avaricious, ambitious and treacherous character. He preferred bribery to battle, and induced Sultan Muhammad and other Peshawar Sardars to get rid of Azim Khan. They gladly listened to him. Dost Muhammad came to know about the plot and readily joined it. The Yousafzais and Khattaks had taken up positions on the left bank under Samad Khan,  brother of Azim Khan ; Zaman Khan, nephew of Azim Khan ; and Firoz Khan Khattak. Syed Akbar Shah of the family of Pir Baba of Buner was the overall commander of the men on the left bank. Muhammad Azim Khan with regular army was on the right bank. Ranjit Singh fixed Azim Khan by a contingent under General Allard and Ventura , and himself , with the main force, fell upon the local Pashtuns on the left bank. A fierce fight ensued in which the Khattaks killed Sat Gur Sahae and Colonel Maha Singh. The famous Phula Singh, the desperado, was sent to charge the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns repulsed the Sikh charge killing the Sikh hero Phula Singh.

Ranjit Singh, with his reserves, led a fresh attack in person. The Pashtuns blunted his fresh drive but by the evening half of the Pashtuns had perished. A Sikh contingent had moved to their rear and they were thus surrounded. The Sikh artillery played havoc with them. Sword in hand , they fell upon the Sikh artillery and engaged it in a hand to hand fight. Thousands of them fell martyrs. The Sikhs dislodged the remnants. Among the other Sikh leaders , namely, Gharba Singh Manas, Karam Singh Chahal and Balab Dhar Singh , a Gurkha General , were killed. The last stand was made at sunset by a party of 200 Yusufzai , who fell gallantly fighting. According to Captain Wade, Sikhs suffered 2000 killed and the Pashtuns about 3000 killed. Not deterred by the casualties , the Pashtuns reappeared on the scene on the following day , led by Syed Akbar Shah . Near Pir Sabak, they engaged the Sikhs and almost routed them had it not been for the final charge led by Ranjit Singh himself. Thousands of them fell in battle . Ranjit Singh had spread the rumour that the Sikhs had captured the harem and treasure of Azim Khan Barakzai at Michini. This precipitated Azim Khan’s retreated. He left every one in the lurch and fled to Michini , took his harem and treasure, and retired to Kabul. The local Pashtuns, without support and guidance, reluctantly dispersed. The next day Ranjit Singh occupied the fort of Hashtnagar. On 17th March 1823, he entered Peshawar for the second time. The Sikhs resorted to massacre on grand scale. Reportedly, since the term ‘Sikha Shahi’ meaning ‘might is right’ has been coined. The locals ambushed the columns and cut off the Sikh stragglers , making their stay most unsafe and insecure. It was the individual effort of the local Pashtuns that forced the Sikhs to vacate Peshawar soon after they occupied it. Ranjit thought it more prudent to hold a meeting with Dost Muhammad Khan and Yar Muhammad Khan who presented valuable gifts including the famous horse ‘Gaur Bar’ or ‘Shower of Pearls’. The pleased Maharaja gave them back Peshawar as tributary to the Lahore Darbar. However, he divided the territory between the two brothers so that they remained hostile to each other, to the greater interest of Sikhs. After making the arrangements , he returned to Lahore on 26th April 1823. Azim Khan didnt long survive this defeat , and at his death Dost Muhammad obtained the chief authority at Kabul .[References: History of the Pathans” , Vol-I, by Haroon Rashid, p-197, Gazetteer of the Peshawar District, 1897-98, page-65]

A Yousafzai horseman, c.1840, British Library


Portrait of Sikh hero Phula Singh


End of Barakzai rule in Peshawar (1834)

Ranjit Singh made use of the opportunity to annex Peshawar permanently when Dost Muhammad Khan was busy fighting Shah Shuja in Kandahar. He sent Prince Nao Nehal Singh , accompanied by General Ventura from Lahore and Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa from Hazara to Peshawar. They crossed the Indus in April 1834. Apparently, the force had been sent to receive the annual tribute. The Barakzai Sardars had sent their families and valuables to Michni. They themselves remained behind with their horses ready to flee. The remnants of the old Ghulam Khana of Peshawar , who were mostly Shia, were not happy with Barakzai rule , secretly corresponded with Hari Singh and so did the chief  Hindu Dewan of the city. Hari Singh, finding every thing in his favour , marched on the city. Sardar Sultan Muhammad Khan and his brother Pir Muhammad Khan fled from Peshawar to Tehkal and Shiekhan at the foot of the hills. He later moved over to Kohat with three lac of Rupees. Their nephew Abdul Ghias Khan son of Jabbar Khan and his naib, Haji Khan stayed behind. They put up some resistance. There were several instances of individual bravery on the part of the Pashtuns. However, the Sikhs on 6th May, occupied the city and Bala Hisar without significant resistance. The local Pashtuns continued taking heavy tolls on the Sikhs. Ranjit had to send Kanwar Kashmira Singh and Sardar Tej Singh from Lahore to Peshawar and later, he himself came to control the sitaution. Dost Muhammad Khan (in 1835) , camped at the foot of the hills near Sheikhan. The local Pashtun tribes , who had gathered to wage a ‘Jihad’ against the infidels , accompanied him. General Harlan, who saw this strange congeries of Musalman humanity , wrote ;

“Savages from the remotest recesses of the mountainous districts, who were dignified with the profession of the Mahomedan faith , many giants in form and strength , promisciously armed with sword and shield , bows and arrows, matchlocks, rifles, spears and blunderbusses , concentrated themeselves around the standard of religion , and were prepared to slay , plunder and destroy , for the sake of God and the Prophet , the unenlightened infidels of the Punjab”

Ranjit Singh decided not to face Dost Muhammad Khan openly in the field. He had an American mercenary named Harlan used as an agent in subverting the loyalties of Durrani chiefs. He says of Dost Muhammad Khan’s visit to Peshawar , which occurred during the period of his service with Ranjit Singh ;

” I was dispatched by the Prince as ambassador to the Amir. I divided his brothers against him, exciting their jealousy of his growing power , and exasperating the family feuds with which, from my previous acquaintance, I was familiar , and stirred up the feudal lords of his darbar , with the prospects pecuniary advantages. I induced his brother , Sultan Mohammad Khan, with 10,000 retainers , lately disposed chief of Peshawar to withdraw suddenly from his camp about nightfall. The chief accompanied me towards the Sikh camp , whilst his followers fled to their mountain fastness.”

“So large a body retiring from the Amir’s control , in opposition to his will and without previous intimation, threw the general camp into inextricable confusion, which terminated in the clandestine rout of his forces , without beat of drum , or sound of bugle , or the trumpet’s blast , in the quiet stillness of midnight. At daybreak no vestige of the Afghan camp was seen , where six hours before 50,000 men and 10,000 horses , with all the busty host of attendents , were rife with the tumult of wild emotion.”

Ranjit Singh consolidated his position in the area. On his order Hari Singh constructed a strong fort on the site of the old Bala Hisar. Many more forts were constructed in the area , including those at Kohat, Jamrud and Bannu. [Reference: History of the Pathans” , Vol-I, by Haroon Rashid, pp-201-203]

Dost Muhammad Khan Barakzai, 1841


Battle of Jamrud (1837)

The presence of Sikhs at Jamrud caused concern to Dost Muhammad Khan who took it as a prelude to further expansion into Jalalabad valley. He deputed his confidential minister Mirza Sami Khan to organize resistance with the help of local Pashtun tribes. The forces thus collected was headed by Dost Muhammad Khan’s five sons, namely , Muhammad Amir Afzal Khan, Muhammad Akbar Khan, Ghulam Haider Khan , Muhammad Azam Khan and Muhammad Akram Khan. In the plains Mir Alam Khan of Bajaur , Saadat Khan Mohmand of Lalpura along with Haji Khan were to engage the Sikh garrison of Lehna Singh Sindhianwala at Doaba and Hashtnagar.

On 30th April 1837, the Pashtun lashkar attacked the Sikh garrison in Jamrud fort. The Afridis and Mullahgoris attacked their flanks and the Afghan army engaged the center. The Sikhs suffered heavily . Afghans were taken by surprise when Hari Singh suddenly appeared with an army of about ten thousand men, twenty pieces of artillery, and a great quantity of ammunition and provisions and made an attack on them, Afghans were thrown into confusion and began to flee. When the Pashtuns were chased by the Sikhs, Shamsuddin Khan reached the scene, with reinforcements. The fleeing Pashtuns turned back and engaged the Sikhs with fresh vigour and ferocity. Hari Singh Nalwa was killed in the battle. The Sikhs were thoroughly defeated and took refuge in the fort. Akbar Khan proposed to follow up the victory by dashing to Peshawar but the Mirza, who, according to Mr.Masson, had during the action ;

“….secreted himself in some cave or sheltered recess , where in despair, he sobbed, beat his breast, tore his beard, and knocked his head upon the ground , now made his appearance, declaring that his prayers had been accepted , and entreated the boasting young men to be satisfied with what he had done”   

In Hashtnagar, the Pashtuns led by Haji Khan , Mir Alam Khan of Bajaur, Saadat Khan of Lalpura and Syed Baba Jan of Kunar attacked the Sikhs. The attack failed and the fort was besieged. However , due to connivance of Sardar Sultan Muhammad Khan and Pir Muhammad Khan , who were then at Lahore, in attendance on Ranjit Singh , the Bajaur, Kunar and Yousafzai chiefs deserted. Consequently, Haji Khan and Saadat Khan also dispersed. Dost Muhammad Khan had realized that due to the internal intrigues and strife , he could not present a unified and well-knit force against the Sikhs and that without British aid, he was not in a position to recover his lost territory east of Khyber. Accordingly, he wrote to Auckland , the Governor General of India , for help against the Sikhs. The latter advised him reconciliation with Ranjit Singh and suggested commercial dealings with the British India. Lord Auckland’s reply disappointed the Amir who approached Russians for help to defend his eastern frontiers. At the same time, he severed his relations with the Government of India. [Reference: History of the Pathans” , Vol-I, by Haroon Rashid, pp-203-205]


Jamrud fort , 1861
Army of Ranjit Singh
Guards of the Fauj-i-Khas Guard Ranjit Singh’s Durbar Bishan Singh, Lahore, 1864, Toor Collection
1-History of Pathans, Vol-I,p-191
2- “History of Punjab” by Syed Muhammad Lateef, 



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