This section considers Important events within Anglo-Sikh history such as early European accounts of Sikhs, the role ofSikhs in the armed forces and pre British Raj accounts.


"A Character Of The Sieks"

From The Asiatic Annual Register 1800

I have also appended, An Extract from a letter of Major Polier written from Delhi on May 22, 1776, to Colonel Ironside at Belgram, and a note on the Character of the Sieks (from the observations of Colonel Polier and Mr. George Forster) culled from 'The Asiatic Annual Register' for the year 1800 (London, 1801, pp. 32-35) and 1802 (London, 1803, pp. 9-12), respectively.

The letter to Colonel Ironside was written by Polier some eleven years before he read his paper, and the views and impressions expressed therein do not seem to have undergone much change. The writer of the Character of the Sieks seems to have studied the observations of both Colonel Polier and George Forster. Forster was a civil servant on the Madras establishment of the East India Company. He was a man of adventure and he left Calcutta on May 23, 1782, on his long and arduous overland journey to England and passed through the north-eastern hilly tracts of the Punjab in February, March and April, 1783. He was a keen observer of men and things and he has recorded his impressions and the information collected during the journey in a series of letters published in 1798 under the title of A Journey from Bengal to England. Although, in his own words, Forster was under 'great obligations to Colonel Polier ...for having furnished me with large historical tracts of the Siques', he had 'no tendency to discolour or misrepresent truth', as it appeared to him. 'Guided by no views of interest nor impressed by any frow of power, I was enabled', he says, 'to examine the objects that came before me through a dispassionate medium'. And he has succeeded in it to a very great extent. He has devoted his Letter XI, pp. 253-95, to the- history and religion of the Sikhs, in addition to occasional references to them in other letters, vide i, 128-30, 198-99,227-28 and ii, 83,88.

Dr Ganda Singh

A Character Of The Sieks
(From the observations of Colonel Polier and Mr. George Forster)

The Sieks are in general strong and well made; accustomed from their infancy to the most laborious life and hardest fare, they make marches and undergo fatigue that really appear astonishing. In their excursions they carry no tents or luggage, except perhaps a small tent for the principal officer; the rest shelter themselves under blankets which serve them also in cold weather to wrap themselves in, and which, on a march, cover their saddles. They have commonly two, some of them three, horses each, of the middle size, strong, active and mild tempered. The provinces of Lahore and Moultan, noted for a breed of the best horses in Hindustan, afford them an ample supply; and indeed they take great care to increase it by all means in their power. Though they make merry on the demise of any of their brethren.1 they mourn for the death of a horse, thus showing their love of an animal so necessary to
them in their professional capacity. The food of the Sieks is of the coarsest kind, and such as the poorest people in Hindustan use from necessity. Bread baked in ashes, and soaked in a mash made of different sorts of pulse, is the best dish, and such as they never indulge in but when at full leisure; otherwise vetches and tares, hastily parched, is all they care for. They abhor smoking tobacco, for what reasons I cannot discover, but intoxicate themselves freely with spirits of their own country manufacture: a cup of the last they never fail taking after a fatigue at night. Their dress is extremely scanty; a pair of long blue drawers,2

and a kind of chequered plaid, a part of which is fastened round the waist, and the other thrown over the shoulder, with a mean turban, form their clothing and equipage. The chiefs are distinguished by wearing some heavy gold bracelets3 on their wrists and sometimes a chain

The Sikhs do not make merry on the occasion of the death of a Sikh but they accept it as the Will of God and recite hymns from their scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, in resignation to it. 'Having been sent by him they come (into the world) and recalled by Him they go back', says Guru Nanak. 'it is the right and privilege of the brave to die, if they die in an approved cause,' says he.
Called kachha or kachhehra kachahira
Called Kada worn on festive occasions in many parts of the Panjab up to the beginning of the twentieth century.
Eating of pork or any other kind of meat is not particularly encouraged amongst the Sikhs, much less considered an essential part of the Sikh diet. The use of bhang prevalent amongst the majority of Nihang Sikhs is positively looked down upon as undesirable.
Ahmad Shah Abdali or Durrani.
Light cavalry.

of the same metal round their turbans, and by being mounted on better horses; otherwise no distinction appears amongst them. The chiefs are numerous, some of whom have the command of ten or twelve thousand cavalry; but this power is confined to a small number, the inferior officers maintaining from one to two thousand, and many not more than twenty or thirty horses, a certain quota of which is furnished by the chiefs, the greater part being the individual property of the horseman.

From the spirit of independence so invariably infused amongst them their mutual jealousy and rapacious roving temper, the Sieks at this day are seldom seen co-operating in national concert; but actuated by the influence of an individual ambition or private distrust, they pursue such plans only as coincide with these motives. An example of their forces being engaged in opposite interests has been noticed in the case of Maha Singh, who succoured the Rajah of Jumbo against the Siek party who had invaded his country. Before the chiefs of the mountaineers' country at the head of the Panjab were reduced to a tributary state, severe depredations were committed on them by the Sieks who plundered and destroyed their habitations, carried off the cattle, and, if strong and well formed, the male children, who were made converts to the faith of Nanock. But since the payment of a fixed tribute has been stipulated, which does not amount to more than five per cent of the revenue, the mountaineers are little molested, except when the Sieks have been called upon to adjust their domestic quarrels.

The extensive and fertile territories of the Sieks, and their attachment and application, in the midst of warfare, to the occupations of agriculture, must evidently produce a large revenue. The district dependent on Lahore, in the reign of Aurangzeb, produced, according to Mr. Bernier, a revenue of two hundred forty-six lacks and ninety-five thousand rupees; and we are naturally led to suppose, from the industrious skill of the Sieks in the various branches of cultivation, that no great decrease of that amount can have taken place since the Panjab has fallen into their possession.

An extensive and valuable commerce is also maintained in their country, which has been extended to distant quarters of India, particularly to the provinces of Bengal and Behar, where many Siek merchants of opulence at this time reside. The Omichand, who took so active, though unfortunate, a share in the revolution which the English effected in Bengal, was a Siek, as is his adopted son, who is now an inhabitant of Calcutta. Merchants of every nation or sect, who may introduce a traffic into their territories, or are established under their government, experience a full protection and enjoy commercial privileges in common with their own subjects. All the same, it must be noticed that such immunities are granted only to those who remain amongst them or import wares for the immediate supply of the Siek markets. But the foreign traders, even travellers who attempt to pass through the Panjab, are often plundered and usually ill-treated;4 in the event of no molestations being offered to people of this description, the escape is ever spoken of with a

Grant of full protection and commercial privileges to merchants of every nation or sect as mentioned in the text above is not reconcilable with the alleged plunder and ill-treatment of foreign traders passing through the Panjab. The plunder of foreign traders by some lawless marauders in a few rare cases in those unsettled days is not improbable, but that could not be generalized.

degree of joyful surprise, and a thanksgiving is offered to Providence for the singular escape. This conduct, inimical to the progress of civilization and an impediment to the influx of wealth, proceeds from an extreme jealousy of strangers, added to a rapacity of temper, which make them averse to the encouragement of any scheme in whose success they do not immediately participate.

The Sieks are not rigorous in their stipulation with the Mohammedan proselytes, who if they abstain from beef's flesh (which is held in equal abhorrence by the Sieks as by the Hindus), and perform the more ostensible duties, as burning their dead, and preserving the hair of the head, an indulgent latitude is granted in all other articles of the creed of Nanock.5 The Mohammedans who reside in the Panjab are subject to occasional oppression, and often to the insults of the lower classes of the people; amongst whom it is an uncommon practice to defile the places of worship by throwing in the carcases of hogs and other things held impure by the Mussulman law. The Mohammedans are also prohibited from announcing their stated time of prayer, which conformably to their usage, is proclaimed in a loud tone of voice. A Siek, who in the chase shall have slain a wild hog, is frequently known to compel the first Mohammedan to meet to carry to his home the body of the animal; and, on being initiated into the rites of their religion, the Sieks will sometimes require Mohammedan convert to bind on his arm the tusk
of a bore,6 that by this act of national impurity he may more avowedly testify a renunciation and contempt of his former faith. The facts sufficiently mark the haughty and insulting demeanour, which, with few deviations, forms a prominent feature in the character of the military Sieks : but we may also ascribe a certain portion of their severe and contumelious treatment of Mohammedans to a remembrance of recent injuries.

The discordant interests which agitate the Siek nation, and the constitutional genius of the people, must incapacitate them, during the existence of these causes, from becoming a formidable defensive power; nor are they invested with that species of executive strength which is necessary to advance and establish a distant conquest. In the defence and recovery of their country the Sieks displayed a courage of the most obstinate kind, and manifested a perseverance, under the pressure of calamities, which bear an ample testimony of native resource, when the common danger had roused them to action, and gave but one impulse to their spirit. Should any future cause call forth the combined efforts of the Sieks to maintain the existence of empire and religion, we may see some ambitious chief, led on by his genius and success, and, absorbing the power of his associates display from the ruins of their commonwealth the standard of monarchy. The page of history is filled with the like effects. springing from like causes. Under such a form of Government, I have little hesitation in saying that the Sieks would be soon advanced to the first rank amongst the native princes of Hindustan and would become a terror of the surrounding states.7

Rules of Sikh conduct, called the rahit rahita in their terminology, are the same for all Sikhs and are applicable to all converts whether from amongst the Hindus or Mohammedans.
The suppression or ill-treatment of Muslims seems to have been very much exaggerated and may be taken as based on wrongful information given to him by his prejudiced informants. Colonel Polier himself also seems to have been considerably influenced by the anti-Sikh propaganda of the then interested parties.
This prophecy of George Forster came to be fulfilled in the person of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) who created a monarchy, benevolent and republican in its character, out of the various Sikh Misals and Muslim States of the Panjab towards the end of the eighteenth century. (Cf. George Forster. A Journey from Bengal to England, i. 295).

Source:Early European Accounts of the Sikhs, Dr Ganda Singh

Home | History | People | Places of Interest | Gallery
© SCM 2003. All Rights Reserved.