Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Misl refers to the sovereign Sikh states in the Sikh Confederacy, which Polier describes as a natural ‘aristocratic republic’.
According to Cunningham Misl comes from an Arabic term which means ‘equal’ or ‘alike’.
Cunningham quotes David Ochterlony and mentions, in A History of the Sikhs, that Misl means tribe or race. Cunningham also says Misl is close to the Arabic word “Musluhut” which means ‘armed men and warlike people’. Kavi Sainapat uses the word Misl in relation to Bhangani da Yudh, where Singhs were given different morche. Rattan Singh Ji Bhangu also uses the word Misl in the same sense — groups of Singhs.
The word Misl, in India, means paper files, or anything that is in ranks, in a series. When Sikh Sardar met at Akaal Bunga/Akaal Takhat they would create reports of the areas they commanded.
The term Misl was then synonymous with Sikhs, and the territory/army under a Sikh Sardar.
In Tawarikh-i-Punjab, it is said a Misl is a territory under the protection of a Sardar who conquered it with his comrades.
The origins can be traced to the start of the political rise of the Sikh.
The Khalsa, under the command of Sardar Kapoor Singh, was organised into different groups. The groups were led by experienced veterans. The love for Guru Gobind Singh Ji, and the faith in the Khalsa brought many volunteers under the banners of these various leaders. The different groups had a common Kitchen and Treasury. Other than the fact that these leaders were in contact with Guru Gobind Singh Ji or Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, the volunteers adored the individual qualities in these leaders.
The leaders would not disregard the concerns and desires of his men.
…. “Every person of the Sikh misl was a free person. Every leader was the master as well as servant. He was a ruler as well as a follower. When alone, he is a saint, a faquir or a Bhagat and when part of the Panth, he is the angel of death for his enemies.” — Maulwi Wali Ilah Siddiqui
There were 11 main Misl, although there were a number of smaller ones who came beneath the banners of one of the main 11 at times of war.
“The confederacies did not all exist in their full strength at the same time, but one Misal gave birth to another, for the federative principle necessarily pervaded the union and an aspiring sub-chief could separate himself from his immediate party, to form, perhaps, a greater one of his own.”“The Misals were again distinguished by titles derived from the name, the village, the district or the progenitor of the first or most eminent chief or from some peculiarity of custom, or of leadership.”
The origins of the names can be summarised as
Bhangi Misl — Leader was nicknamed ‘Bhangi’. or the addicts of Bhang (Cannabis)
Nishanwalia — Flag/banner bearers. Nishaan means the standard.
Shaheeda Misl — Leaders were descendants of Shaheed Singhs
Ramgharia — Named after Ramgarh Bunga at Amritsar, which was known as Ramrauni
Ahluwalia — From village Ahlu, where Jassa Singh Ahluwalia came from
Nakkais — Named after the territory of Nakka they began from
Kanaihiya — Village Kahna
Faizullpuria/Singhpuria — Village Faizullapur
Sukkarchakia — Village Shukarchak
Dalewali — Village Dalewal
Karorsinghia — Leader Karora Singh
Some leaders were known by certain things that distinguished them, for example
Nidhan Singh Panjhatha — Five Handed, coined due to his valour in battle
Lehna Singh Chimini — Short in height
Mohar Singh Lamba — Tall in height
Sher Singh Kamla — Berserk/deranged
Sikhs had become territorial powers. Each territory was commanded by a ‘Sardar’, and the territories were not won by the Sardar alone — associate leaders lent a helping hand. Leaders and their relatively smaller groups worked under the banner of the leading Sardar.
The size of the smaller leaders group did not matter when it came to receiving shares. The loot/possessions were split in terms of the contributions made in acquiring them.
Land divsions were known as -
Misaldari, pattadari, jagirdari and tabedari
“The Sardar granted them a share from the land acquired. Having separated his share the Sardar divided the rest among the smaller associate Sardars. The associate Sardars gave from their shares to the junior leaders the portions of the land according to their contributions. These shares were further divided amongst the troopers.”
A grant of land given to any leaders who had joined the Misl and had no dependance on the Sardar. If the Misaldar was unhappy he could transfer his land and himself to another Sardar.
Each share that was given to the smaller leaders all through to the individual man was called ‘Patti’. The patti could be mortgaged in emergencies, and the only time it could be passed on was at time of death of the owner — even then it could only be passed to male relatives.
Pattis became a hereditary share. The only condition was that the owner of the patti share was to assist the Sardar at times of war.
Shares given in exchange of service to relatives or any deserving companion of the leader. Most commonly a fixed number of horses needed to be provided by the Jagir. The Jagir could be taken back if the leader felt the terms/service was not being fulfilled.
Shares given to those that showed complete loyalty to the leaders. This was given as a reward, and nothing was expected in return, The leader could take this back if the Tabedar revolted or became disobedient.
Relationship between Sardar and Subjects
“The relations between the ruler and the ruled were cordial and intimate” — Campbell
Many leaders only had a small patch of territory. The leaders strength was not determined by land, power or wealth, but instead was based on the love and respect the people had for him.
“Although he [The leader] is absolute, rules with such moderation and justice that he is beloved and revered by his people whose happiness he studies to promote.”
John Malcolm states that the leaders ate simple food and refrained from luxurious food. They dressed plainly, disregarded jewellery and generally lived simple lives. They considered their people as family.
“Was it not a marvel to see the Sikh chiefs squatting on the ground in the midst of their subjects, plainly dressed, unattended by any escort, without any paraphernalia of government, talking, laughing and joking as if with comrades, using no diplomacy with them but having straight forward dealings, simple manners, upright mind and sincere language?” — Gupta
According to an English traveller, the leaders were keen in giving justice. All criminal cases were given to the leader for punishment, after initial inquires were conducted by the Kotwa (chief police).
In order to improve inter Misl ties, often marriage alliances were bound. These alliances weren’t to have allies at times of war but instead were formed for ‘general good-will and cooperation’. Matrimonial bonds made them powerful. An alliance could be bound by an exchange of Turbans at Akaal Takhat (or any Gurdwara). This was a public promise of the alliance and mutual assistance.
Every Sikh was required to take Pahul and be initiated into the Khalsa. Jathedars, or Misl leaders could not be non-amritdhari Sikh. Adopting, and abiding by, the Khalsa Rehit was crucial. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia received Amrit by Nawab Kapoor Singh Ji, and Jassa Singh Ahluwalia gave Amrit to Raja Amar Singh. Amar Singh, founder of Kanaihaya Misl was strict with Amrit, and if you wished to join his Dera (camp) you had to be an Initiated Singh. Charhat Singhs only requirement when it came to recruitment was that the Singh has to be Amritdhari. Those that weren’t, they would be blessed with Amrit by him.
Misal Sardars were often called Singh Sahib.
All important decisions needed to be approved by those that the decisions related to (such as the community). Sikhs followed the panchayat system. The Leaders lived to follow the ideals of the Gurus to the best of their abilities. Panthic decisions were democratic, and Leaders ruled in the name of the Gurus and the Khalsa — which is evident from the coins they minted. All victories belonged to Waheguru, and the Khalsa collectively — not individual Misls or Leaders.
Guru Nanak Dev Ji has taught us that only the worthy sit on thrones, and only those that recognise the Truth are the true kings.
ਪਉੜੀ ॥ Pauree: ਤਖਤਿ ਰਾਜਾ ਸੋ ਬਹੈ ਜਿ ਤਖਤੈ ਲਾਇਕ ਹੋਈ ॥ That king sits upon the throne, who is worthy of that throne. ਜਿਨੀ ਸਚੁ ਪਛਾਣਿਆ ਸਚੁ ਰਾਜੇ ਸੇਈ ॥ Those who realize the True Lord, they alone are the true kings. ਏਹਿ ਭੂਪਤਿ ਰਾਜੇ ਨ ਆਖੀਅਹਿ ਦੂਜੈ ਭਾਇ ਦੁਖੁ ਹੋਈ ॥ These mere earthly rulers are not called kings; in the love of duality, they suffer. ਕੀਤਾ ਕਿਆ ਸਾਲਾਹੀਐ ਜਿਸੁ ਜਾਦੇ ਬਿਲਮ ਨ ਹੋਈ ॥ Why should someone praise someone else who is also created? They depart in no time at all. ਨਿਹਚਲੁ ਸਚਾ ਏਕੁ ਹੈ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਬੂਝੈ ਸੁ ਨਿਹਚਲੁ ਹੋਈ ॥੬॥ The One True Lord is eternal and imperishable. One who, as Gurmukh, understands becomes eternal as well. ||6||
Sikh rulers were known for their respect of Justice. Sikh Rehit was at the forefront when it came to fulfilling duties.
Qazi Nur Muhammad states —
“They never harassed the old, infirm and women” — Jangnama.
“they seldom kill in cold blood or make slaves” — ‘An account of the Sikhs’.
Morality at times of war were at a high standard — a standard set by the Gurus. Caste had no place in the Misls — the differences and the discrimination was practically nonexistent in relation to the creation or development of a Misl. Misls were not named after any caste, and the caste whence the leaders were born into was irrelevant. The leader needed to be a member of the Khalsa. Amrit elevated all to the same level.
Sewa is a key teaching of the Gurus.
ਵਿਚਿ ਦੁਨੀਆ ਸੇਵ ਕਮਾਈਐ ॥ In the midst of this world, do seva, ਤਾ ਦਰਗਹ ਬੈਸਣੁ ਪਾਈਐ ॥ and you shall be given a place of honour in the Court of the Lord.
Guru Sahibs even did Sewa themselves. Guru Angad Dev Ji did sewa of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Guru Amar Das Ji did sewa of Guru Angad Dev Ji despite their age. Even after becoming the Guru, Guru Amar Das Ji did sewa in Langar. Guru Ram Das Ji took part as a labourer during the construction of Goindwal Sahib. Sardar Kapoor Singh Ji was doing the Sewa of fanning the sangat when they were given Nawabi. Sikh Misldars were known for the Sewa they did at Gurughars and around their areas. Langar was continuous in all Misls — for travellers, the poor and needy. It is said Budh Singh sold all his property to feed people during the 1783 famine. — Montgomery District Gazetteer.
“the names of Sardar Gujjar Singh and Sahib Singh are often in the mouths of the people, who look back to their rule without the smallest bitterness. They seem, indeed, to have followed an enlightened liberal policy, sparing no effort to induce the people, harried by twenty years of constant spoliation to settle down once more to peaceful occupations.” — Gujrat Gazetteer
Despite leaders being renowned soldiers and military geniuses, they knew how to bring peace. Leaders were humble and considered themselves the servants of their people.
They would often refer to each other as ‘Singh Sahib’, ‘Bhai Sahib’ and ‘Khalsa Jio’. These titles were preferred over titles such as ‘Sultan-ul-quam’.
William Francklin states that
“the Seiks allow foreigners of every description to join their standard and to sit in their company.”
— No discrimination was shown to anyone.
The Sikhs had faced atrocities on the hands of the Mughals but did not take revenge of Muslim subjects. There was no intolerance. This was in direct obedience to the Gurus teachings.
“They were not exclusive and unduly prejudiced in favour of their own people but employed capable Mohammadans and others almost as freely as Sikhs.” — Memoirs of My Indian Career.
Turbans and other honours were given to Muslim priests at Eid. Sikhs never went on conversion crusades. They opposed oppression that was committed in the name of religion. As the Sikh Leaders treated all their people as equals they were adored by their Muslim subjects. Ahmad Shah appointed Dadan Khan as the governor of Lahore. The members of Dadan Khans court asked him to step down and let Sardar Lehna Singh take control because he was so loved by the Muslim population.
Muslims had special places in power throughout the Misls.
Lakhna Dogra was the commander-in-chief for Ala Singhs army.
Qadar Bakhsh was the ambassador for Fateh Singh Ahluwalia in the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji. After Qadar, Qazi Nur Muhammad took his place in the diwans.
General Gordon writes
“Sikh ladies played an important part in the history of these warlike times” — Ranjit Singh
The Misl Era witnessed a great number of women in positions of authority. When needed. Sikh women took up roles in state administration as rulers, regents and advisors.
In the Sikhs and their Country it’s noted that
‘Instances indeed, have not unfrequently occurred, in which they have actually taken up arms to defend their habitations, from the desultory attacks of the enemy, and throughout the contest, behaved themselves with an intrepidity of spirit, highly praiseworthy.’ — William Franklin
Some notable Sikh Women during this era are;
Rani Sada Kaur — Gurbakhsh Singh Kanaihiyas Widow, and Maharaja Ranjit Singhs mother-in-law. She knew how to run a state well and even commanded soldiers in battle.
Mai Desan — Charhat Singh Sukarchakias Widow.
Rattan Kaur — Tara Singh Ghaibas widow.
“The widow of the aged leader equaled the sister of the Raja of Patiala in spirit, and she is described to have girded up her garments, and to have fought, sword in hand, on the battered walls of the fort of Rahon.” — J.D Cunningham.
Mai Sukhan — Gulab Singh Bhangis widow. She held off Maharaja Ranjit Singh during his attack on Amritsar city.
Dharam Kaur — Dal Singhs wife. Dal Singh was from Akalgarh and imprisoned by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Dharam Kaur fought against his forces, and managed to restrict the Durbars rule on her territory.
Ram Kaur and Rattan Kaur — widows of Sardar Baghel Singh.
Rani Chand Kaur — Maharaja Kharak Singhs widow
Rani Jindan — Ranjit Singhs widow.
Sikh women “have on occasion shown themselves the equals of men in wisdom and administrative ability.” — Griffin
A resolution passed in an assembly of the Sikhs in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib Maharaaj. In punjabi Mata means resolution. Gurmata is the Gurus resolution.
European writers have recorded Gurmata to mean a collective meeting or council. This definition is incorrect.
“As for the Government of the Siques, it is properly an aristocracy, in which no pre-eminence is allowed except that which power and force naturally gives, otherwise all the chiefs, great or small, and even the poorest and most abject Siques, look on them-selves as perfectly equal in all the public concerns and in the greatest Council or Goormotta of the nation, held annually either at Ambarsar, Lahore or some other place. Everything is decided by the plurality of votes taken indifferently from all who choose to be present at it. In this Council or Diet all the public affairs are debated, such as alliances, wars and the excursions intended to be made in the ensuing year.”
— An Account of the Sikhs, Polier
Cunningham calls it ‘the assembly of Sikh chiefs’. The Gurmata finds its origins in the concept of Sangat.
It helped socially, in regards to how everyone regardless of caste, creed, wealth and social standing was together and sat as equals, and also spiritually as it strengthened the beliefs of the Sikhs as what they decided was in accordance to the Gurus teachings.
Guru Ji gave Guru Granth Sahib Ji the Gurgaddi but also to the Khalsa. Guru Ji brought the Sangat to their level when Guru Ji requested for Amrit from the 5 they had just given Amrit to. Guru Ji promised to live life in accordance with the hukam they just gave the Sikhs to follow.
ਮੇਰਾ ਰੂਪ ਗ੍ਰੰਥ ਜੀ ਜਾਣ ਇਸ ਮੈਂ ਭੇਤ ਨਹੀਂ ਕੁਝ ਮਾਨ(20) Deem Granth Jee as my embodiment, And concede to no other perception.(20) ਤੀਸਰ ਰੂਪ ਸਿੱਖ ਹੈਂ ਮੋਰ ਗੁਰਬਾਣੀ ਰੱਤ ਜਿਹ ਨਿਸ ਡੋਰ (21) My Sikh is my third embodiment, Who remains imbued in the essence of Gurbani day and night.(21)
There are many accounts of Gurmata recorded by punjabi writers in history. Rattan Singh Ji Bhangu writes about Gurmateh, and exchanges the term with just mata multiple times. The Gurmata passed after the death of Zakaraiya Khan created the Dal Khalsa.