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Hari Singh Nalwa and the Battle of Naushera

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India has had to face foreign invaders many more times than most other nations. The majority of these came through the  Khyber pass in the North West of India. These invaders were lured either by riches of India, zeal to convert people to their beliefs or world domination through force. Th Afghans were among the last to come across the Khyber. By the late 1700s Afghans has set up small city states all over Punjab and North West. Rohillas of Awadh (UP), Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Nawab of Malerkotla, Multan, Kashmir all were ultimately descended from the invaders. The Afghans wrecked havoc on local population in their territories. Rapes and forced conversions were commonplace in the Afghan ruled territories. Children born out of forceful marriages and rapes were given a special caste of "Ranghars". And Ranghars were specially targeted by Maulavis to fill them a zeal of Islam, in order to make them fighters of Islam.


The Sikhs opposed these Afghan landlords and were able eventually  to wrest control of the biggest city in Punjab, named Lahore, under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Sandhu. In an attempt to bring the North West under their rule the Sikhs sought to sweep away isolated pockets of Afghan power. In his enterprise Maharaja Ranjit Singh Sandhu was helped by his many generals. Hari Singh Nalwa was the most illustrious of them all.

Hari Singh Nalwa

Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa was born to Gurdial Singh Uppal and  Dharam Kaur at Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) in the year 1791. Gurdial Singh was an officer in Ranjit Singh 's army. He died during a campaign fighting Afghans in 1798, when Hari Singh was only seven years of age. Hari Singh eventually assumed the responsibility of supervising the affairs of his father's lands. Hari Singh presented himself before Maharaja Ranjit Singh in his open Durbar. The Maharaja was so impressed by the feats of chivalry shown by him that he was taken in the royal service as a personal khidmatgar or an attendant.

Maharaja commissioned him into the army in 1804 by granted him a command of a cavalry of 700 men and horses with the honor of Sardar. Hari Singh Nalwa named his regiment 'Sher-Dil-Rajman'. Hari Singh earned a reputation for bravery quite early on. During the course of hunting expedition he happened to be a victim of a sudden attack of a tiger. The attack was so subtle and unexpected that he did not gain time to pull out his sword. Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa faced the crucial situation with such boldness that he managed to catch hold of the jaw of the beast forcefully with his hands and pushed it away with the prowess of arms arranging thus to kill it with his sword. Baron Charles Hugel says he was called Nalwa for 'having cloven the head of a tiger who had already seized him as its prey'. 

The Sikhs passing established themselves as the pre-eminent power in Punjab following their defeat of Ahmad Shah Abdali's governor at Lahore in 1765. But their mode of fighting then was hardly suited to the requirements of a well organized state. Maharaja Ranjit Singh out of these Sikhs became leader of whole Khalsa (Sarbat Khalsa). He built up a strong, centralized and efficient military system by drawing the best elements in foreign with the best elements found in the indigenous fighting systems.

After some major campaigns of Multan and Kasur where Hari Singh Nalwa's regiment fought with distinction, Maharaja turned towards Kashmir. Hari Singh Nalwa's regiment "Sher-Dil-Rajman' was in forefront in campaign to get back Shah Shuja from the Governor of Kashmir, Shah Shuja's wife Wafa Begum had promised Kohinoor Diamond for Maharaja if her husband was to be freed from prison of Kashmir. In 1814 A.D., Hari Singh routed the Kashmiri forces. Shah Shuja gave Ranjit Singh kohinoor Diamond, from that day on till his death Maharaja Ranjit Singh wore that Diamond on his right shoulder. Meanwhile, through political means, Ranjit Singh installed his own governor  (Jahan Dad Khan) in Peshawar.

In 1821, Dost Mohammed Khan and Yar Mohammed Khan, two Afghans were able to expel the Maharaja's nominee Jahan Dad Khan from Peshawar and thus an expedition was undertaken by Ranjit Singh's Army. A large army under illustrious commanders was dispatched to rectify the situation in Peshawar (Cavalry commanded by Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa, Infantry by Dhanna Singh Malwai, and Jagat Singh Attariwala, Artillery by Mian Ghaus Khan). Dost Mohammed Khan managed to reconcile by paying a handsome nazarana to Maharaja and by accepting the submission to Khalsa kingdom rather than to kingdom of Kabul.

Battle of Naushera

Ranjit Singh's forces at this time were divided into regular and irregular infantry, regular and irregular cavalry and artillery. Regular forces were directly under Lahore Sultanate of Ranjit Singh, irregular forces were supplied by allies or by those kingdoms that were bound by treaties. Artillery was completely under state control and was led by Mian Ghaus Khan and General Allard. Ranjit Singh employed several foreigners in his military services. Famous ones were General Allard leading an artillery regiment and General Ventura leading a regiment made up of Poorbia (Bihar, Bengali, and UP) soldiers. Both Allard and Ventura had earlier fought in the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte of France. Ranjit Singh's motive to include foreigners in his army was to modernize his forces.

In 1822 Fakir Azizudeen, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's "foreign officer" was sent to Peshawar to collect annual tribute. He was well received by Yar Mohammed, who ordered the city to be illuminated in the Fakir's honor. Yar Mohammed paid the tribute in cash and horses. Then Fakir Azizuddin returned to Lahore well satisfied with his mission. This incident lowered the prestige of Yar Mohammed Khan among his people.

Mohammed Azim Khan who then ruled Kabul taunted Yar Mohammed for paying tribute to Sikh infidels. Azim Khan marched out of Kabul and the cry of jihad echoed at Khyber. Over forty-five thousand Khattaks and Yusufzai tribesmen under the leadership of Syed Akbar Shah of Balmer volunteered to fight. Yar Mohammed abandoned Peshawar and went into hiding. And once more Maharaja Ranjit Singh ordered his army to move north towards Peshawar. Prince Sher Singh, Misr Dewan Chand and General Ventura were led the battalions of infantry. Hari Singh Nalwa, Phula Singh, Fateh Singh Ahluwalia, Desa Singh Majithia and Attar Singh Sandhawalia led the cavalry, while artillery was commanded by Mian Ghaus Khan and General Allard. Recently trained and incorporated battalions of Purbia (Bihari soldiers) and Gurkha Soldiers were also sent. These were led by General Ventura and General Balbhadra (Gurkha General). A grand total of about 25,000 men moved to defend the Sikh kingdom.

In December 1822 orders were given to march out of Lahore and Prince Sher Singh, younger son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh led the march with his battalions of Cavalry and Infantry. Hari Singh Nalwa whose Sher-e-Dil Rajaman battalion was replenished by additional soldiers making it the largest Cavalry regiment of about 5000 men and horses in the Lahore Darbar's army closely followed Prince Sher Singh. These advance columns of Lahore Durbar reached Attock river a month ahead of other forces. They crossed the Attock river using a pontoon bridge and occupied the Sikh fort of Jehangiria. Mohammed Azim Khan and his Afghani Jihadis soon surrounded the fort of Jehangiria. Other men helping Mohammed Azim to lead their 45,000 forces of Mujahdeen were his brothers, Dost Mohammed (who had more than once paid tribute to Lahore), Sayyid Akbar Shah and Jabbar Khan, the ex-governor of Kashmir. They destroyed the pontoon bridge over river Attock so that Sikh forces could not cross and started pounding the fort with their guns. Hari Singh Nalwa and Prince Sher Singh with much grit and determination held the fort with their total of less then 10,000 men. Since this fort was right on the banks of a river, there was no shortage of water or other supplies. Hari Singh Nalwa led his cavalry in numerous sorties outside fort destroying two of the invaluable guns of Afghanis.

Meanwhile, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and rest of the Khalsa force which was following his advance columns leisurely arrived in January to find the only pontoon bridge across the river  destroyed. To make matter worse next day there was a heavy snowfall. The Maharaja was being informed through his network of intelligence of the rapidly rising force of the enemy but decided to wait for his heavy guns to arrive which were due by mid-day (March 14, 1823) But, that morning Sikh a Gurmata (Resolution) was passed that the Afghans would be attacked before their forces could gather greater strength and irrespective of whether the heavy guns arrived or not. Fortunately, the artillery also arrived in time for the attack.

Hari Singh Nalwa and Prince Sher Singh had already taken on the enemy earlier crossing the river before the bridge was destroyed and capturing the fort of Jehangiria. They were exerting powerful pressure on the enemy but badly needed reinforcements which had arrived on the other side of that river, but could not wait for the bridge to be constructed under the threat of enemy fire. Ranjit Singh one early morning leading himself riding on his white horse he dipped in the freezing water to cross the river. Whole force followed but in this exercise much of the equipment was lost, that included much needed guns. Akali Phoola Singh's suicide squad who was following Ranjit Singh, now took the lead, and, without a moment's thought, plunged their horses in the swollen and turbulent river. How could the others stay behind ? Every one followed suit, but before they crossed over, the enemy had taken flight from Jehangiria leaving even their dead or dying in the battle-field and saying in despair:—" Toba, Toba,Khuda Khud Khalsa shud." (God forbid, but it appears, God himself has turned a Khalsa ! )." It was believed that no one could cross the river at its full fury.

Thus catching the enemy by surprise  Ranjit Singh and his forces broke open the cordon massacring more than 1,000 Afghans. The Afghanas who were from the Khattak and Yusufzai tribes, fled and entrenched themselves nearby a city then called Pir Sabak (this later became the British cantonment of Naushera, which is currently one of the major bases of Pakistan Army). This put a gap between the main Afghan force under Azim Khan's brothers and the column of tribal Jihadis. A small but swift stream called Landai put a further obstacle between the two Afghan armies. And he Sikhs were determined to maintain the initiative. Consequently, whatever was left of Sikh artillery was sent to the bank of the Landai to forestall any attempts by the two Afghan columns to link up. Meanwhile  when news of the disaster reached   Azim Khan he made a dash from Peshawar to join his brothers on the bank of the Landai river. They could not cross the stream because of constant firing by Durbar guns. Azim Khan and his brothers then decided to launch an attack early morning when Punjabi guns were being rested. However, the Sikh Army decided to wipe out the tribal column before Azim Kahn could strike. As a result, the Gurkha and Purbia battalions were dispatched to deal with Pir Sabak Hill where tribal mujahids were resting. And though the Tribal column fought desperately they were overwhelmed by the Gurkhas and Purbias. General Balbhadra of Gurkha Infantry lost his life during this action in the midst of some of the fiercest to hand-to-hand fighting.

Meanwhile, seeing their comrades getting killed all Afghanis came together in a desperate effort to hold the attack by Darbar's army. Darbar's forces surrounded them from all sides. Both Hari Singh Nalwa and Akali Phula Singh from one end lead the cavalry charge while Gurkhas who were leaderless after martyrdom of General Balbhadra and Purbias under General Ventura and Punjabi soldiers under General Dewan Misr Chand holding their positions. Hari Singh Nalwa pressed on his cavalry deploying with precision and raising war cries of Bole So Nihal Sat Sri Akal from time to time, Hari Singh Nalwa and his disciplined soldiers emptied their muskets on Jihadis. A wave of about 50 soldiers on their horses would charge at Jihadis, firing their muskets and then sending more to meet their creator through their bayonets as they gallop across the battlefield. Hari Singh Nalwa and Akali Phula Singh with their cavalry regiment of Sher-Dil-Rajman and Nihangs as Khushwant Singh succinctly puts it gave them "coup de grace." They drove the Khattaks and Yusufzais from Pir Sabak Hill. Heavy artillery on the land surrounded the Jihadis and opened up a barrage to complete the slaughter.

While Hari Singh was leading his Sher-Dil-Rajman attacking Jihadis from one end, from other side Akali Phula Singh and his Cavalry of Nihangs, or the "Crocodile Sikhs who fight till death" were performing similar feat. Jihadis were surrounded by Gurkha Infantry at one end, General Ventura soldiers at other end, while waves of Cavalry charges were attacking from the one side. Jihadis changed their tactics and decided to go for the leaders in order to demoralize the Khalsa forces. General Bhalbhadra was shot, General Ventura was injured and Akali Phula Singh's horse was shot. This angered Akali Phula Singh and he made a grave mistake by getting on an elephant. Now Akali Phula Singh's towering torso was seen from all over the battlefield. Ghazi Jihadis saw the Khalsa General on top of an elephant and immediately trained their muskets on him. Akali Phula Singh's body was riddled with bullets, he collapsed in his howdah exhorting the Nihang Sikhs to not to give way. Akali Phula Singh through his dashing feats had inspired other Sikh commanders his martyrdom renewed the vigor to fight. Mohammed Azim Khan watched the massacre from the other side of the stream without being able to help his tribesmen brother. He did not had the will to fight till death. By the day's end, Four thousand tribesmen were left dead on the field. Probably two times that number were injured and left dying at the battlefield. It was a crushing defeat for Afghanis. Hari Singh Nalwa whose ideal was Akali Phula Singh, chased the remaining Afghans deep into their territory killing hundreds more.

Mohammed Azim was too ashamed to face the people of Peshawar and he returned to Afghanistan, where he died in couple of months. This battle proved the effectiveness of organized military. Death of a General Akali Phula Singh at this battle was the biggest loss of the campaign for Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Azim Khan's Jihadis had lost heart and abandoned their zeal for Jihad in complete disorder. 14 large and 18 small guns were captured by the Sikhs. It showed them the effectiveness of organized artillery and cavalry regiments as well as old tactics of Guerilla warfare. In this battle not all of Ranjit Singh's forces took part, some regiments just waited for their turn which never came. General Allard and Ventura's participation in this battle with their divisions and trained army of Lahore kingdom with Akali division of the army had absolutely no match for untrained militia who although surpassed in sheer numbers, Afghans after a great massacre submitted and Naushera was captured. Albeit, the Lahore troops lost an indispensable commander. Hari Singh Nalwa played a conspicuous role first by inflicting a crushing defeat upon the enemy and secondly by pursuing the enemy after the defeat in order to be sure about the victory of the Lahore troops. The battle of Naushera made it evident to the frontier tribesmen that the Afghan militia was weaker than those of Lahore troops. This battle sealed the further prospects of Muhammad Azim of Kabul and established the Sikh supremacy over Peshawar.

"Akali Phula Singh's memorial still stands intact there. For Ranjit Singh as much as for others, the joy of a superb victory was marred by this sad and heart-rending event. This monument (now situated in the Frontier Province of Pakistan) on the bank of the river Kabul was endowed wish a Jagir by Ranjit Singh and a Gurdwara was also built on the site. Sardar Gurbaksh Singh. well-known Punjabi writer and editor of  Preet Lari", settled there in early thirties of this century. and tilled the farm attached to this monument. The place is still called Samadh Akali Phoola Singh."

"Three days later the Maharaja entered Peshawar the head of his victorious troops. The citizens welcomed him and paid him homage with nazarana (gifts). The Maharajah's sojourn was, however, not a peaceful one. what the tribesmen could not achieve in open combat, they tried to gain by the cold-blooded murder of Punjabi soldiers under cover of darkness."

Ranjit Singh knew about the tactics of these tribesmen. A few days later both Yar Mohammed and Dost Mohammed presented themselves at court and sought the Maharajah's pardon. He forgave them readily and accepted their tribute of presents and horses. Yar Mohammed was reinvested governor of Peshawar on promising an increased annual revenue of Rs.1,000,000 to the Lahore Durbar. This was first time that Afghanis were totally beaten and humiliated in their own country by their former subjects. Ranjit Singh made this possible through his able generals and brilliant military tactics. So huge was this victory that it caused apprehensions in British circles. British realized that sooner or later showdown with Ranjit Singh was inevitable. In particular, they realized that the Durbar's conquests had reached the furthest geographical limits of the Punjab in the north and north-west. Beyond were impassable mountains and inhospitable, unprofitable regions.

In order to pacify his new conquests Ranjit Singh ordered Hari Singh Nalwa and Prince Sher Singh to remain in North West Frontier province at the end his campaign. He also ordered them to construct series of small forts all along the highway leading to Khyber pass. He correctly had assessed the importance of Khyber pass, and thus organized the defenses of his frontier around Kabul.


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