How did the Marathas help the Sikhs?

By Sunil Kumar

The story of North India is slightly different from the West(or Maharashtra- The HQ of the Marathas) but there was/is a strand of continuity in the entire Indian subcontinent.

After the great Vijayanagara empire was destroyed by an alliance of Sultanates; the Deccan plateau and Maharashtra was reeling under atrocities of different Muslim rulers; including the zealot Aurangzeb.

As we all know; Shivaji laid the foundation of the great fighting force of the Maratha kingdom; which reached its zenith under Bajirao I. At the same time; any rebellion in North India(especially the area of the Punjab) witnessed repeated foreign invasions; Jat/Satnami rebellions and the Sikh religion gradually morphing into a military force due to the cruelty and barbarism of the Mughals.

The Sikhs were divided into numerous warring misls(confederacies); twelve of which were of their own religion; and one Muslim. Ranjit Singh; a truly great Sikh leader united all the warring misls and absorbed other kingdoms to create his empire in 1799. By this time; the political map of India had changed drastically.

The once mighty Mughal empire had lost its primacy and was weak for nearly a century. Delhi had been sacked by Nadir Shah in 1739; and there were repeated incursions by Afghans into northwest India encouraged by a power vacuum at the centre. The British East India Company was now a major force to reckon with acquiring increasing land.

What role did the Marathas play in all of this? They had become very powerful in the 1740s and 50s with their empire extending from Attock and Multan in North India(erstwhile Punjab) to Tanjore in the South. But a defeat in 1761 and internal politics were gradually weakening them and a few Anglo-Maratha wars would eventually lead to their empire folding up in 1818.

The Marathas were partially instrumental in laying the groundwork for the gradual weakening of the anaconda-like rule of the Mughals; and the Sikhs to gradually rise and consolidate their kingdom. Of course; the credit also goes to Ranjit Singh. Like all other kingdoms and rulers; the Marathas were also in it for themselves and part and parcel of the ever-changing shifting alliances, turncoats and militias that characterised the period.

In 1758; at the invitation of a Mughal faujdar; Maratha armies entered the Punjab to throw out Afghans and joined hands with some of the Sikh misls. There are some reports of minor disputes between the two sides.

On a theological(religious) level; Samarth Ramdas; religious preceptor of Shivaji and Guru Hargobind of the Sikhs are supposed to have met in Srinagar; Kashmir in 1634. The meeting is supposedly important; and it being maintained in records shows a common thread of amity between Hindu kingdoms and the Sikhs. Ranjit Singh was also a remarkably tolerant leader and is supposed to have contributed in the rebuilding of many Hindu temples apart from gurdwaras etc.

After Ranjit Singh’s death; the Sikhs were caught in family feuds; a mini “Game of Thrones”; and taking advantage of internal dissension as usual; the British took over the final elusive prize in the conquest of India; the conquest of the Punjab in 1849; the final dissolution of the Sikh Empire; and the Kohinoor taken from the last Sikh ruler by Dalhousie and gifted to Victoria in England.

So; the accounts of Marathas helping Sikhs and vice-versa are largely peripheral to the overall historical narrative and the grand sweep of Indian history; but both of them were individually important in the story.

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