Calling in the Big Guns: Ranjit Singh’s Topkhana

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the wily Maharaja’s successful efforts to provide the Khalsa Fauj with artillery that rivaled European standards

Calling in the Big Guns: Ranjit Singh’s Topkhana
In 1801 the Lahore Fort witnessed the investiture of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who established an empire in north western India and ruled it till his death in 1839. These 38 years witnessed the evolution of the Sikh army from a semi feudal and disorganized force to an efficient fighting machine that would have been able to hold its own against the best European armies. It not only drove the Afghans out of the Peshawar Valley, it was by far also the most potent force faced by the British East India Company. While Ranjit Singh was too astute to challenge the army of the East India Company, following his death, the Khalsa Fauj – that he had raised, organized and equipped – acquitted itself commendably in the two Anglo-Sikh Wars.

Credit for the performance of the Khalsa Fauj to a great extent goes to its artillery. The gunners and their cannons were a direct legacy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who built it to an unprecedented level of efficiency with a genius which no other Indian ruler could match: except probably Tipu Sultan who is recognized as the father of rocket artillery.

Alexander Gardener (centre), an American traveller who assisted General Auguste Court in developing the Maharaja's artillery

Four years after his investiture, Ranjit Singh started modernizing his army by raising regular units which included deserters/renegades from the army of the East India Company. They were lured into his service by higher wages and better opportunities. Ranjit Singh prescribed the most exacting standards of efficiency in march, maneuver and marksmanship. He spent three to four hours of his day with the troops, and seldom did a day go by when he did not reward a gunner or a cavalier for good performance. Before Ranjit Singh, troops of the Khalsa were mainly irregular cavalry and guerrilla fighters. Under his watchful eye and encouragement, he organized the army into a balanced force with the infantry and artillery gaining in importance. In fact, by the time of his death, the infantry had become the preferred service in the army.

The Sikh army and its artillery had been in action even before the Maharaja recruited European advisors/mercenaries in larger numbers. It had demonstrated its effectiveness and capability in battles with the Afghans on the Frontier. During the Sikh-Afghan Wars, Ranjit Singh’s army made effective use of artillery at the battle of Attock (1813) and Multan (1818), as well as at Shopian (1819) during the campaign to wrest Kashmir from the Durranis. In all three battles Ranjit Singh’s army was victorious. However, the Sikh army really came into its own after the entry of the European mercenaries from France, Spain, Hungry, Russia, Italy and Greece - as well as those born in India.
To ensure that the leading Sikh sardars did not aquire artillery skill, over 60 per cent of the gunners in the Maharaja’s artillery were Muslim. Many were skilled gunners from Saharanpur with a Mughal legacy, as well as Purbia Muslims

The total number is uncertain and figures vary between 32 and 100 Western soldiers in his army. Ranjit Singh wasn’t the first Indian ruler to recruit European mercenaries. Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao had given command of part of his artillery to a Portuguese adventurer who had a number of European artillerymen under his command. And Mahadaji Shinde (1730- 1794) the ruler of Gwalior had also recruited a French count to organize his artillery. Interestingly, when rulers could not recruit Europeans, they sought the services of Muslims – as they had more experience of this arm than other Indian peoples.

A number of Frenchmen and Italians who sought employment after the defeat of Napoleon were hired by Abbas Mirza, the Qajar crown prince who was an early modernizer of Persia’s army. However, present in the Persian Army were also English officers. These Englishmen were hostile to those who had fought under Napoleon. Their intrigues drove the others out and some traveled eastwards to the Punjab and sought employment with the Sikh Army. Amongst those who gained prominence were the Italian Jean-Baptiste Ventura, who was employed in 1822 to train the infantry; and the Frenchman Jean-Francois Allard, who was hired the same year to train the cavalry.

A Sikh cannon with the image below showing details of the beautifully forged barrel

Another prominent foreigner who served Ranjit Singh was Claude Auguste Court, a French soldier and mercenary who was hired in 1827 to organize and train the artillery.

They were given the rank of Colonel, the highest rank in the Khalsa Army at the time, but all were subsequently promoted generals.

The Frenchman Court organized the artillery and started training the gunners. In the process, he raised the level of efficacy to be at par with European artillery. He was assisted by an American adventurer, Colonel Alexander Gardner, who was employed in 1832 to organize the 30 guns of the Topkhana-i-Khas and train their crews. The artillery fell into four categories. There was the Topkhana-i-Feeli with the heavy cannons towed by elephants; Topkhana-i-Shutri (camels) and Topkhana-i-Gavi (oxen) with the medium cannons; and the light guns were pulled by horses in the Topkhana-i-Aspi. The entire Topkhana (artillery) was organized into Deras (batteries), each of 10 guns and 250 gunners. A Dera was further organized into five sections, each commanded by a Jamadar with two guns and 8 to 10 gunners.

Earlier on, one of the major weaknesses of the Maratha armies was that that they did not have any foundries and could purchase only a limited number of guns from the French. When they did succeed in casting barrels, they were of poor quality. Further, even by the middle of the 18th century, their artillery was manned by Portuguese and Indian Christians.

Gun from the Sikh era at the Lahore Museum

A beautiful cannon that was cast in the last few years of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, probably in Lahore, to accompany him on his tours

This was not the case with the Sikhs. The most lethal part of their army were the guns manufactured at the Maharaja’s foundries at Lahore and manned by Sikhs. Such firepower made the Khalsa Army into a formidable force. At the commencement of the Maharaja’s reign, the Sikh Army had around 35 artillery pieces. Six years later in 1807, he was seized with the idea of manufacturing his own cannons and established his first workshop for casting the barrels.

Initially the Sikh Army relied on the Mughal casting traditions already existing in the Punjab and produced cannons based on the design of the Zamzamah, which was cast in Lahore in 1760. Made of bronze with a total length of 7.5 feet, it had a bore of 4.75 inches and the projectile weighed 8.33 pounds. One museum piece has been dated as late as 1825. The barrel is decorated in the Mughal style with palmette borders, a vase and floral motifs. The button is decorated with a lotus flower and dolphins in the shape of makara (mythical water demons) – motifs widely used in Indian art. By 1810, the Sikh foundries were also manufacturing mortars.

General Claude Auguste Court, father of the Sikh artillery­

The Maharaja was very clever and throughout his reign, he ensured that his engineers had access to the ordnance factories of the East India Company and their patterns. To ensure that the leading Sikh sardars did not aquire artillery skill, over 60 per cent of the gunners in the Maharaja’s artillery were Muslim. Many were skilled gunners from Saharanpur with a Mughal legacy, as well as Purbia Muslims. These Purbias slipped into the British ordnance factories to train as mistries (engineers) and returned with the skills needed for manufacturing ordnance. Apart from this, the mistries also benefited from studying and copying the designs of the periodic diplomatic gifts of cannons that the British made to the Maharaja.

By the mid-1820s ornate cannons were being replaced by similar, more streamlined types which were both lighter and easier to cast. The closest contemporary British equivalent, a brass 9-pounder introduced in 1719,  weighed almost 531lbs less and was a foot shorter. At some point in its service life, probably in the 1820s, the barrel was remounted by Sikh engineers on a Napoleonic-style split trail carriage and aiming was improved by attaching a strap around the button connected to a capstan elevating screw. Two bronze guns with a caliber of 3.25 inches and length of 5.5 feet, that were captured from the Sikhs at the Battle of Moodkee on the Sutlej, were probably manufactured at Lahore. Beautifully made of mahogany, they are richly mounted with pieced brass work and inlaid with brass, copper, steel and mother-of-pearl.
Working for the manufacture of gunpowder and shot was Dr. Martin Honigberger, an Austrian traveler who became Ranjit Singh’s court physician. The Maharaja reasoned that Hakeems (doctors) would best know how to mix the ‘barood masala’ (explosives)

During my research, one of the most informative articles I came across on the manufacture of cannons and ammunition during the reign of the Maharaja was written by Majid Sheikh for Dawn in 2016. His ancestor worked in the ordnance factory in Amritsar prior to the defeat of the Sikh Army. According to Majid, Ranjit Singh employed educated Muslims from Lahore and nearby cities to establish karkhanas (foundries) for casting cannons and factories for manufacturing gunpowder and shot. The karkhanas was planned and operated by Claude Auguste Court and his deputy Mirza Afzal Khan, and both were immediately answerable to Sardar Lahina Singh Majithia. The largest ordnance factory was located near the Lahore ‘Idgah’, the subsequent location of Lady Willingdon Hospital and a second where the Mughalpura Railway Workshop is presently located. Foundries for casting guns were also established at Shahdara outside Lahore, Nakodar, Sheikhupura and Peshawar.

Working under Court for the manufacture of gunpowder and shot was Dr. Martin Honigberger, an Austrian traveler who became Ranjit Singh’s court physician. The Maharaja reasoned that Hakeems (doctors) would best know how to mix the ‘barood masala’ (explosives) and Martin was made responsible for the gunpowder- and shot-manufacturing karkhanas at Mughalpura. He also established similar karkhanas at Amritsar, Multan, Shujaabad and Layiah. A number of hakeems from Bazaar Hakeeman were hired to work and train other mixers at these factories. The raw material for the entire manufacturing chain came from iron, copper, coal and other mineral deposits in the Salt Range.

On the advice of his French generals, Ranjit Singh set up horse-drawn artillery. This accelerated artillery development to such an extent that by the late 1830’s, his army had over 100 horse-drawn artillery pieces and could rival that of the Company in both quality and quantity. The Sikh Horse Artillery was equipped with the Light 6-pounder gun with a caliber of 3.25 inches. A piece in a British museum clearly shows the exceptional technical and artistic expertise in the Sikh foundries and workshops. The barrel, produced in Lahore in 1838, is based on the British Light 6-pounder; the carriage on the Bengal artillery pattern introduced in 1823, but lavishly decorated with brass, copper, steel and mother-of-pearl inlay. This cannon was probably captured at the Battle of Aliwal, where four guns attributed to the work of the prominent Sikh engineer, Lehna Singh Majithia, were singled out for specific mention. It may have been made for the Fauj-i-Khas, the elite brigade of the Sikh army. Commanded by his best French Officers, using French drill and imperial flags and eagles, it was also known as the French Brigade or the French Legion.

When Maharaja died in 1839 he left behind a potent military force equipped with professional artillery that comprised of 5,000 gunners manning 182 heavy cannons, 20 howitzers and 60 light cannons. Some historians estimate that Ranjit Singh’s army may well have had more than 500 artillery pieces.

As for how well this artillery performed against the army of the British East India Company in the two Anglo-Sikh Wars will be covered in a subsequent article.