The word Misl is the Punjabi version of Confederation. And the foundations for the Sikh empire were laid by the formation of Sikh Misls. The terrible hardship imposed by Zakarya Khan, for over two decades on the Sikhs, and the fortitude and success with which they fought them out inspired the heads of Sikh groups to a new hope, intrepidity, fearlessness and unity. They gradually consolidated their groups into various Misls. These Misls were all considered equal. Sikhs operated mostly under twelve Misls; some comprising a few hundred while others could field eight to ten thousands fighting men. Each Sikh was free to join any Misl and every Misl acted in any way it wished in the area of its control. It was estimated that the Sikhs could collectively muster about seventy thousand soldiers in the field at one time. The system of Misls was appropriate to the conditions of the time and worked well under their respective leaders. While most of their operations were conducted independently, coordination with other Misls were made only on selective basis. It focused the energies of Sikh soldiers in the service of a single cause, the expulsion of Muslim rulers from Punjab and defending their religious faith. So whenever the Misl leaders heard that oppressed people were in need of help against their Mogul oppressors, they acted at once and rushed to their rescue. They were the gladiators of their time in their respective areas. The twelve Misls were:
- Shaheed under Deep Singh,
- Ramgarhia under Jassa Singh Ramgarhia,
- Ahluwalia under Jassa Singh Ahluwalia,
- Sukerchakia under Charhat Singh,
- Bhangi under Hari Singh,
- Nakkai under Hira Singh,
- Nishanwalia under Dhasaunda Singh,
- Karora under Karura Singh,
- Kanheya under Jai Singh,
- Singhpuria (also called Faizullapuria) under Nawab Kapur Singh,
- Dallewalia under Gulab Singh and
- Phoolkiya under Ala Singh of Patiala area.
In 1748, Dal Khalsa was formed, by combining all Sikh forces. For some years, while Jassa Singh Ahluwalia was in joint command, Nawab Kapur Singh was considered as the Supreme commander of Dal Khalsa. However, the Misls were able to consolidate their military and political efforts and started exerting their presence and influence independently. But when the Sikhs were becoming stronger under respective Misls especially when Muslim rulers were evicted, the Misl leaders started fighting amongst themselves to gain ascendancy over each other. Some of the important leaders of the Sikh Misls were Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia (1718 - 1783), Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia (1723 - 1803), Hari Singh of Bhangi Misl (died 1764), Jai Singh Kanheya (died 1789) of Kenheya Misl and later Maharaja Ranjit Singh, son of Mahan Singh Sukerchakia. However age wise Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) was well placed to build the Sikh empire on the foundations laid by the Chiefs of other Misls. Therefore after the authority of important Misl heads was diminishing on account their old age or demise, he was able to amalgamate or annex the Sikh confederations under one flag. The Ramgarhia Misl was second last Misl to have been incorporated after the death of Sardar Jodh Singh, son of Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, in 1816. The Kanheya Misl, where he was married, was annexed in 1820 when Sada Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s mother-in-law, was still heading the Misl. She was under his confinement when Ranjit Singh annexed Kanheya Misl. Sada Kaur however died in 1832. Even though the Sikh Misls were functioning under various Sikh leaders, they were able to exercise their presence and authority in their respective areas of influence and operations in the region. This period was the beginning of a consolidated Sikh empire in the region.