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Review of "Emperor of the Five Rivers: The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh" by

This short book gives a vivid account of a momentous period in Indian history, the 40 year Sikh empire created by Ranjit Singh.

30 August 2017

About 4,000 years ago, my Aryan ancestors found their way through the mountains we now call the Hindu Kush.

In the flat lands that lay before them was a river so enormous that the only name that they gave it meant, in their language “the river” and the land that they had entered the therefore called “the land of the river.” Their word for river was Indus, and the land of the river is of course India.

Partition in 1947 as the British left India has had many sad consequences. Compared with the many human tragedies, it is perhaps relatively minor that it now causes confusion to use the word “India” to refer to the whole of the land of the river, since it is also the name of the country India. To avoid confusion, the whole of historic India is now perhaps better referred to as the Indian subcontinent.

I was born there in Pakistan in 1950 but have lived in the UK since 1952. Both because of my living in the UK and the subjects I have been most interested in, I know far more about history of Europe than I do of the history of India. In my teenage years, I did read the two-volume “Penguin History of India” by Romila Thapar but remember relatively little of it.


The river Indus itself has five large tributaries, the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, the Sutlej, and the Beas. The large incredibly fertile plain that they flow through is therefore called the land of the five waters, the Punjab. The only language I spoke for my first three years until I went to a nursery in Manchester was Punjabi, and that is the only language I ever spoke with my parents until they died.

Until I read this book, I knew basically nothing about the history of the Punjab.

About the book

The book covers the life and achievements of Ranjit Singh. Born in 1780, by the age of 18 he was already leading his army to capture the main city of the Punjab, Lahore.

He established an empire (appropriately so-called because he had rulers beneath him who owed him allegiance rather than a centralised state) which he ruled until his death in 1839. This link leads to a map of the empire. A few years after his death, family infighting and external incursions meant that the Empire collapsed and the British took over.

The book is relatively short, comprising only 246 pages including the preamble, right through to the end of the index.


List of plates (there are 31 images with detailed notes, both of photographs and artwork)
Principal characters (very helpful given the number of similar looking names to keep track of)

  1. The Foundations
  2. Ranjit’s Early Years and Entry into Power
  3. Reaching out beyond Lahore
  4. Enter the British
  5. The Second Decade
  6. At the Midpoint: The Flourishing State
  7. Secularism and Tales of the Hero
  8. The Third Decade
  9. A Grand Summit of Equals and Ranjit’s Nobles
  10. Afghan and British Provocation
  11. Fateful Conclusion with the British
  12. Vicious Aftermath

Postscript: Maharaja Duleep Singh
Bibliography (four pages showing the deep research the author has undertaken)

My comments

The most important test for any book is that once you have started reading it, you want to keep turning the pages and finish it. This book fulfils that test admirably. Despite having a busy schedule, I read it over only a few days. It had real pace.

For me, one of the most moving aspects was the use of a number of Punjabi words in the book, each of which is of course explained when first used.

A few of these are:

  • Misldar — a man who controls a certain territory within which people were defended on payment of a protection tax.
  • Rakhi — the protection tax paid to the misldar.
  • Misl —  the territory controlled by a misldar.
  • Thanadar — the chief officer of a thana (another unit of territory)
  • Mor — peacock.
  • Daftar — office.

The reason such words were poignant for me is that, as I read them and voiced them in my head, they brought back memories when I was aged in single figures and my father would be entertaining his friends and they were talking about the old times in India. I have not really ever encountered the words since.

As well as the accounts of Ranjit Singh’s empire building, his battles, his negotiations with the steadily encroaching British East India Company, the reader will also receive a light introduction to the religious history of the Punjab and the founding and growth of the Sikh religion.

The approach of the book is somewhat hagiographic rather than attempting to find both the negative as well as the positive aspects of the central character, and very much written in the style of “the great man” theory of history.

However it is a cracking good read from which most readers will learn a great deal. I certainly did as my knowledge of this period of Indian history was almost zero beforehand.


The author, Mohamed Sheikh, is Lord Sheikh, the first Conservative Party Muslim peer of the modern era, and the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum. Accordingly, we have been friends since 2006 and upon the book’s publication I was given a personally signed copy.

When you read the book, I think you will agree that my personal relationship played no part in my giving it a favourable review!



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