Mistaken Identity - Lahore Battle Standards

In the aftermath of the Sikh Wars that resulted in the annexation of Punjab, military battle standards of the Sikh armies, captured as war souvenirs were brought back to Britain to be displayed as trophies of conquest. Unlike the Nishan Sahib banner which is a religious banner, these captured flags were battle standards used by various military units of the Sikh Empire of Lahore.

The design and patterns of these flags are unique and specific to their use as military banners. They were never used as religious banners by the Sikhs and no evidence or image from the time period has been found to date showing these flags being flown at a Gurdwara. The existing images of banners flying at Gurdwaras during the 1830’s to the 1840’s, the same time period as these battle standards, are quite different, indicating that the two types of flags served different purposes – one a religious banner and the other a military banner.


Battle Standards Captured During the Sikh Wars

Lord Dalhousie the Governor General of India at the time of the Sikh Wars brought back one set of 10 plus three additional battle standards while another three battle standards were brought back by the 80th Regiment to form part of a regimental memorial at Lichfield Cathedral.

The battle standards brought back by Lord Dalhousie were purchased by him from a sale of items of the Lahore treasury. According to his family these battle flags had been used at the Battle of Gujarat, on 21st February 1849 when the Sikh army was ultimately defeated by General Gough. [1] Dalhousie’s collection of battle standards was eventually sold at a public auction in 1990, and are now dispersed among various private and museum collections.

The battle standards brought back by the 80th Regiment comprised two battle standards similar in design to those brought back by Lord Dalhousie and one Nihang flag. One of the three inscriptions at the regimental memorial at Lichefield Cathedral where the captured battle standards are displayed reads as follows:

‘The Sikh colours on this memorial were taken by H.M.’s 80th Regiment at the Battles of Ferozeshah and Sobraon. The capture of the Black Standard at Ferozeshah cost the lives of some of those commemorated.’

During the First and Second Sikh Wars, eyewitness records indicated seeing black, yellow, red and green flags with various colored borders and images on them. [2] The majority of the captured battle standards are similar in appearance. The battle standards are very large, 8.2 feet by 6.2 feet at the widest point. [3] They have a red silk background, with a yellow patterned border. The red field of the banner is divided by three narrow gold horizontal bands crossing the banners. On one side is a central motif of a yellow sun and a red background which is covered with a block printed pattern of gold flowers. On the other side of the banner is a central motif of the Hindu Goddess of War Durga in black riding on a lion or tiger with two attendants and the red field of the banner is covered with a repeating block printed dark scroll pattern.

The two battle standards at Lichfield Cathedral are in poor condition and their central motifs are no longer visible. Other known captured Sikh battle standards in public collections include one at the 31st Regimental Museum at Clandon Park Surrey (red with yellow stripes), one at the 35th Regimental Museum at Dover Castle (red with yellow stripes), three at the 50th Regimental Museum at Maidstone Museum (one based on the French Tricolor, two red with yellow stripes) and two at the National Army Museum. [4]

Maharaja Sher Singh Battle Standards

Russian Prince Alexis Soltykoff visiting Lahore in 1842 during the reign of Maharaja Sher Singh and produced sketches that were eventually turned into a series of limited edition lithograph prints. One of the lithographs shows two of Sher Singhs body guards leading a military procession with battle standards. Soltykoff made the following note of the scene:

The whole plain, which consisted of green corn-fields, was covered with masses of horsemen. Most conspicuous amongst these were the cuirassiers of the Body Guard, in plate armour and plummed helmets. Their flags were of green silk of a triangular shape and covered with figures of Indian deities; the kettle drums sounded in front of them. [5]

The military unit that Soltykoff observed and sketched had a battle standard which differed in design from the ones captured from the Sikh Wars. These battle standards that Soltykoff witnessed were green instead of red without a floral pattern and with a central motif of Hindu war goddesses on the two banners. Other than Soltykoff’s sketch, no other example of this style of battle standard have been found to date.

Iconography and Context

The majority of central motifs found on the battle standards of the Sikh Kingdom of Lahore all have a common theme related to victory in battle.

On the battle standards captured during the Sikh wars we find the image of the Hindu warrior goddess Durga riding a tiger or lion with weapons in her multiple arms accompanied by two attendants. In Hinduism Durga is regarded as an invincible warrior goddess who was created to fight an asura (an inhuman force/demon) named Mahishasura. [6]

The other side of the battle standards captured during the Sikh wars have the image of a radiating sun. This image has no resemblance or similarity to the Hindu solar deity, Surya who is typically depicted with two to four arms and usually riding a chariot harnessed by seven horses or one horse with seven heads. The image of the radiating sun on the battle standards is a realistic depiction of the sun and does not contain any human elements such as a face within it. A sun with a face in it is typically seen on dhal shields having a central sun motif. The sun on the Lahore battle standards may represent a symbolic depiction of military victory of the forces of light over the forces of darkness.

The two Maharaja Sher Singh military banners in the Soltykoff sketch also have central motifs related to the theme of victory in battle. The banners contain two of the Matrikas, a group of Hindu war goddesses that are usually depicted together. One banner has a central motif of the war goddess Kaumari. Within Hinduism Kaumari is considered the power of Kumara, the god of war. Kaumari is depicted on the banner riding a peacock, with multiple heads and holding weapons in her multiple arms. The other battle standard only partially visible in the Soltykoff sketch shows a depiction of the war goddess Varahi described in Hinduism as the power of Varaha - the boar-headed form of Vishnu or Yama - the god of death, with a boar head on a human body. [7] Varahi is depicted on the banner holding weapons in her multiple arms.

The government as well as military units of the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his successors were multi-faith based composed of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. Neither the Sikhs nor Muslims worship Hindu deities in their religion which may seem perplexing as to why Hindu religious deities would be depicted to Sikh battle standards. Durga, Kumari, and Varahi all represent ancient stories of fierce warriors fighting evil demons and emerging victorious in battles. Their usage by military units of the Lahore Empire on war banners has more to do with the broad theme of victory in battle that these stories of fierce mythical ancient warriors represented, rather than worship of specific Hindu religious deities

Use of a Religious Symbol by Another Culture

There are many examples of the use of religious symbols of one culture by people of another culture comparable to the Lahore battle standards. A good example in the current usage of the rod of Asclepius.  An ancient religious symbol of a snake coiled around a staff rod, it was developed by the worshipers of the Greek god Asclepius. [8] Associated with the concepts of healing and rejuvenation of this Greek god, the symbol has been adopted by a variety of modern organizations including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.

The Greek religious symbol of the rod of Asciepius is today used not because the American Medical Association are a cult of worshippers of the god Asciepius, snake worshippers or believe in the pantheon of Greek gods, but because they believe in the broad theme represented by this religious emblem – healing and renewal. The Lahore military standards are much the same; they were adopted by the army of the Sikh Empire not because they were a cult of worshippers of Hindu war goddesses, but because they believed in the the broad theme behind the images appearing on their banners - victory in battle.


1. Coulston Auction Catalog; May 21-22; 1990, Sotheby's

2. Ian Heath, Men-at-Arms, The Sikh Army 1799-1849, Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2005, pg. 38

3. Warm and Rich and Fearless, exhibit catalogue, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums, 1991, pg. 92

4. Neil Carleton, www.fauj-i-khas.com/index.php/2010/04/02/the-black-and-gold-standard/

5. W.G. Archer, Paintings of the Sikhs, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1966

6. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durga

7. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matrikas

8. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_of_Asclepius