Royals and Rebels

The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire

September 2020 9781787383081 312pp, 24pp colour illus
April 2023 9781787389649 312pp, 24pp colour illus
Available as an eBook Available from Oxford Scholarship Online
EU Customers


In late-eighteenth-century India, the glory of the Mughal emperors was fading, and ambitious newcomers seized power, changing the political map forever. Enter the legendary Maharajah Ranjit Singh, whose Sikh Empire stretched throughout northwestern India into Afghanistan and Tibet.

Priya Atwal shines fresh light on this long-lost kingdom, looking beyond its founding father to restore the queens and princes to the story of this empire’s spectacular rise and fall. She brings to life a self-made ruling family, inventively fusing Sikh, Mughal and European ideas of power, but eventually succumbing to gendered family politics, as the Sikh Empire fell to its great rival in the new India: the British.

Royals and Rebels is a fascinating tale of family, royalty and the fluidity of power, set in a dramatic global era when new stars rose and upstart empires clashed.



‘A clear-eyed account … Atwal charts all of this history with flair and economy.’ — The Wall Street Journal

‘[A] valuable book.’ — The Washington Post

‘A brilliant book [that] is full of surprising stories … Atwal has managed to craft a very fresh and page-turning history of the origins and demise of the Sikh Kingdom.’ — BBC History Magazine

‘The book is a tour-de-force, as Atwal brings her careful reading of a wide range of historical material to reveal the contingencies of the past in all its complexity.’ — LSE Review of Books

‘Priya Atwal’s regal history combines academic finesse with lucid prose to examine the role women played in the Sukerchakia dynasty. … Atwal brilliantly combines cultural analysis with an intricate dissection of Orientalist gender stereotypes.’ — The Wire

‘An intricate masterpiece laden with gems as old as the empire itself, Royals and Rebels is a welcome and necessary addition to the South Asian history repertoire.’ — Brown Girl Magazine

‘Shattering the stereotype of the ‘crude’ warrior, Dr. Atwal exposes how culture was central to the Sikh imperial project… [and] challenges our traditional, monolithic concept of Empire itself.’ — Artmag

‘Smart, timely and fresh, from an exciting new voice in history writing.’ — Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator, Historic Royal Palaces, and presenter of Royal History’s Biggest Fibs

‘Priya Atwal’s lyrical and authoritative retelling will ensure that this fascinating bit of history commands the attention it deserves.’ — Dan Snow, historian and broadcaster

‘A wonderfully vivid appraisal of a fascinating period of Indian history. Atwal’s work is serious and captivating. A welcome new voice, with much to teach us.’ — Anita Anand, broadcaster and author of The Patient Assassin, Sophia, and Koh-i-Noor

‘I wish all histories were written like this one. Priya Atwal blasts through centuries of Orientalist and misogynist history to shed brilliant new light on women in the high politics of empire. A thrilling, richly detailed and important book.’ — Hannah Jewell, pop culture host, The Washington Post, and author of 100 Nasty Women of History

‘Gripping! A dramatic tale of the Sikh Empire taking on the British, especially its forgotten but influential queens and princes. A new history that marvellously expands the horizons of our knowledge.’ — Shashi Tharoor, Indian MP and author of Inglorious Empire

‘Priya Atwal has produced an important book, one that is a delight to peruse, complete with carefully chosen images, while at the same highly innovative and informative in terms of its historical perspective.’ — H-Diplo

‘A wonderfully engaging, intimate history of India’s Sikh Empire, accompanied by previously unseen images of the Sikh court. We meet the extraordinary women and men who shaped its culture, and established their own remarkable relationships with Britain’s royal family.’ — Rosalind O’Hanlon, Professor of Indian History and Culture, University of Oxford

‘A path-breaking, thought-provoking and highly original study that will reign supreme over literature on the Sikh Kingdom. This ambitious and compelling book will inspire both scholars and general audiences even fifty years from now.’ — Pashaura Singh, Distinguished Professor and J.S. Saini Chair in Sikh Studies, University of California, Riverside


Priya Atwal is the Community History Fellow at the University of Oxford, where she earlier obtained her doctorate. Her research on monarchy and empire has been featured in collaborative projects with Historic Royal Palaces, among others; and on BBC radio and television programmes, including BBC4’s The Stolen Maharajah.

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