Academic journal article Journal of Asian Civilizations

Alexander Burnes' Report of 1837 A Brief Account of the Trans-Indus Possessions of the Sikhs

Academic journal article Journal of Asian Civilizations

Alexander Burnes' Report of 1837 A Brief Account of the Trans-Indus Possessions of the Sikhs

Article excerpt


Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has rich periods in its history in terms of political, economic, social and religious realms. Intersetingly, many aspects of this long and eventful history have been studied by scholars over the last one hundred years. But still some important issues remain as unread. One such instance is the Sikh period of the KP history. The British have left important source material concerning this episode. Alexander Burnes' name bulks large in this respect. This article studies one such report by him about the Sikh-Pukhtun encounter in the 4th decade of the 19th century which gives important geographical, archaeological, military and political information.


Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) makes a frontier area or in strict academic and geographical sense a'roundabout' region which, historically, has been receiving influences on the one hand and radiating them further on the other. This story can easily be traced back to the Achaemenian period of Persia followed by the intermixing of the east and west during and in the wake of Alexander's of Macedonia adventure, south Asia and central Asia during the Mauryan empire and the Indo-Greeks, Scythians and Parthian, Kushans, Sassanians, Muslims, Sikhs and lastly the British (Toynbee 1961: 1-11).2

Though all these epochs in the historical development of KP are of immense importance and, no doubt, almost all of them have been well studied with the exception of few. Scholars from across the world have been extensively engaged in the promotion of these studies and researches. However, one such important period, viz. the Sikhs' occupation, has not yet received due attention.3 There are bulks of primary and contemporary sources which provide useful information about the Sikhs' and the Pukhtuns' encounter.

A number of such important historical sources about this episode of the KP history have been left by the British. It has, undoubtedly, a context. Long before inheriting Ranjit Singh's dominions in the north the British had felt threatened, as referred to above, by Russian activities in central Asia. A number of political missions were, thus, sent, from time to time, to Afghanistan and central Asia. The missions were supposed to submit their reports to the British Government in the light of which policies and responses would be made. The common route to be followed was via Peshawar and Khyber. These missions would often be received by the Sadozai and Barakzai chiefs and would be entertained in a generous way, especially under political expediencies.

One of the important names in this respect is that of Sir Alexander Burnes. His services were bought for such missions more than once. He has left a handsome number of fascinating accounts of which scholars have made good use in their works. The focus of this article is also such a report, though very brief, by Burnes when he was on his mission, as employed for the years 1835-1837, to Kabul.

The title of the report reads as'On the political power of the Sikhs beyond the Indus'. It was written in his camp, on the Kabul river, near Jalalabd on September 8, 1837. The report makes the first chapter, pages 1-6, of the Reports and papers: Political, geographical and commercial, submitted to Government by Sir Alexander Burnes, Bo. N. I.; Lieutenant Leech, Bo. E.; Doctor Lord, Bo. M. S.; and Lieutenat Wood, I. N.; Employed on missions in the years 1835-36-37, in Scinde, Affghanisthan, and adjacent countries (Calcutta: G. H. Huttmann, Bengal Militay Orphan Press, 1839).

The report gives information about 13 principalities of the time. They are Puklee (Paklee), Sittana (Sithana), Euzoofzyes (Yusufzais), Peshawar plain, Khuttuks (Khataks), Sargees, Kala Bagh, Eesakhyl (Eisakhel), Bunnoo (Banu), Murwut (Marwat), Tak (Tank), Dera Ismael Khan (Dera Ismail Khan) and Dera Ghazee Khan (Dera Ghazi Khan). These territories are described either in possession of Lahore or as its tributaries. The report enlightens us about the economy, military strength, military buildings and political milieu of the areas in relation the Sikh rule during the 3rd decade of the 19th century. …

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