Book Review: Empire of the Sikhs: The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh


by Patwant Singh & Jyoti M. Rai,

London: Peter Owen/Chicago Independent Publishers Group, 2009. Pp. 312. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio, index. $31.95 paper. ISBN: 072061323X

The life, achievements, world, and legacy of Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), who founded the Sikh Empire in 1799.

Despite his importance in the history of India, rather equivalent to that of his contemporary Napoleon in Europe, Ranjit Singh is largely unknown outside his homeland.  Empire of the Sikhs, by Singh, a well-known scholar of Indian history, and  journalist Rai, is the first proper biography in English of this interesting ruler and soldier.  Given that most Westerners know little about India, the authors wisely begin in the fifteenth century with an overview of the early history of Sikhism.  Singh and Rai then pick up the story of Ranjit Singh, with a chapter on his early life.  They then look at his rise to the leadership of the Sikhs and his multiple campaigns, so that by 1799 he had consolidated a considerable empire in a region caught between rival powers and contending religions. The chapters that follow deal with Singh’s zest for life and pleasure, his patronage of the arts, and the evolving nature of his rule.  The book concludes with an account of the rapid decline of the empire after his death and its ultimate annexation by the British in 1849. 

Although Singh and Rai are rather too fond of Singh, a failing, it’s worth noting, shared by those who write about Napoleon, this book will certainly be of value to anyone interested in the history of India and likely be a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in military history or leadership.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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