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Assam: Graveyard of every Mughal Army

Assam: Graveyard of every Mughal Army
Assam was the only state of India, which defeated successive attempts by Delhi Sultans and Mughal emperors. Starting from the invasion of Bhaktiyar Khilji in early thirteenth century to the invasions of the Mughal armies of Aurangzeb in the late seventeenth century. Assam defeated seventeen such invasions. No doubt the geographical remoteness of Assam was the major factor but no less important was the military leadership and the fighting qualities displayed by the people of Assam.The Mughal empire expanded to its zenith, under Aurangzeb, who pushed it’s boundaries to the farthest extent. And yet paradoxically, the seeds of the empire’s destruction were also sown during his reign. One of the reasons was his religious bigotry, and his intolerance towards Hindus, that alienated large sections of them. His imposition of Jizaya, destruction of temples, open hatred towards Hindus and above all the way he brutally tortured and killed his brother Dara Shikoh, who favored a tolerant approach to all religions, alienated many. And the revolts broke out one by one, the Sikhs after Guru Teg Bahadur was beheaded when he refused to hand over the Kashmir Pandits. The Marathas under Shivaji harassed the mighty Mughal army with guerrilla raids, taking back vast tracts of territory. And to the east was the Ahom kingdom of Assam.

While a lot is known about the Marathas, and the valor of Shivaji, not much is known about the Ahoms and their spirited resistance to the Mughals. In the Mughal Army attacked the Ahom Kingdom in the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 that saw a decisive Ahom victory. This resulted in a Mughal retreat. The animosity between the Ahoms and the Mughal empire went long back, one of the primary factors being their alliance with their rival Koch Behar kingdom. Another factor was the aggressive Mughal imperialism; that sought to expand its territory into the North East starting with Assam. The Mughals considered the territory east of Barnadi up to Singri as part of their empire, added to it the rich natural resources of Assam too. The very first foray the Mughals made into Assam, at Kajali in 1615, ended in disaster, when the Ahoms regrouped after an initial loss, and reoccupied it, sending the Mughals back. While there was a brief lull in hostilities, the conflict again rose its head under Shahjahan’s Nelson

March 1669: The Mughals, still smarting under their defeat at the hands of Ahom forces led by Lachit Barphukan two years back are not taking any chances this time. A large army of “30,000 infantry, 15,000 archers, 18,000 Turkish cavalry, 5,000 gunners and over 1000 cannons besides a large flotilla of boats” is moving up the Brahmaputra towards Guwahati. The forces are led by Raja Ram Singh, son of Raja Jai Singh, who was also a Mughal general and had fought against Shivaji, thousands of kilometers beyond – in the tough terrain of Sahyadri. Of these seventeen invasions there was only one in which the invader achieved some success. This was Mir Jumla’s invasion.

But in 1669, Mir Jumla was a distant memory…The Mughals soon reached Guwahati and laid siege to the city. In the first phase the Mughals made repeated attacks against Ahom defences on both banks of the, river but failed to achieve a breakthrough. In the second phase they tried to send raiding parties by boats to get inside the Ahom defences. Lachit’s river line defences foiled this attempt. A heavy monsoon set in during the third phase.

The Mughals got bogged down in mud and got isolated from each other due to flowing streams. The Ahoms were at an advantage. They were more used to the terrain and accustomed to the climate. They carried out extensive guerilla warfare, causing heavy losses to the Mughals. Ram Singh was very contemptuous of these operations and called it a “thieves affair”. He challenged Lachit Barphukan to a duel. He also offered a bribe of 3 lakhs to Lachit to abandon Guwahati defences. When this did not work, he tried a ruse.

A letter addressed to Lachit, attached to an arrow, was host into the Ahom camp. It mentioned that Lachit had been paid one lakh to evacuate Guwahati and urged him to do so soon. The letter found its way to the Ahom King at Gargaon who became suspicious of the loyalty of Lachit Barphukan. Fortunately, the Prime Minister managed to convince the King that it was a trick being played by the Mughal Commander and he should not doubt Lachit’s loyalty. However, the King insisted that Lachit came out of his defences and engage the Mughals in battle on open ground. Despite his objections to such a suicidal move, Lachit was forced to follow the order of the King. He came out of his defences on to the Allaboi plains to attack the Mughal army in the open. This was the fourth phase of the battle.

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After some initial success in which the Ahoms captured the local Mughal Commander, Mir Nawab, the Ahoms drew the full weight of Mughal cavalry personally led by Ram Singh. The Mughal cavalry decimated the Ahom army on the plains and the later suffered 10,000 killed. Lachit had taken the precaution of digging a line of defences at the rear of his advancing, columns to which they could fall back if forced to do so. Thus he managed to extricate the remainder of his forces and moved back into his prepared defences.

The Mughals could not penetrate these defences and ultimately decided to launch a massive naval assault on the river. They had large boats, a few of them mounting up to sixteen canons. The Ahom soldiers were demoralized after the Allaboi disaster. Their Commander-in-Chief was seriously ill. At the sight of the massive Mughal fleet, they began to loose their will to fight. Some elements commenced retreat.

Lachit was observing this development from his sickbed. He had himself carried on a lotto a boat and with seven boats advanced headlong against the Mughal fleet. This had an electrifying effect on his soldiers. They rallied behind him and a desperate battle ensured on the Brahmaputra. ‘The Ahoms in their small boats cut circles round the bigger but less maneuverable Mughal boats. The river got littered with clashing boats and drowning soldiers.

In this furious engagement, Lachit Barphukan managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Mughals were decisively defeated and they retreated from Guwahati. Ahom territory up to Manas was once again liberated. Thus ended the fifth phase of the battle of Saraighat in a glorious Ahom victory, despite all odds and giving Lachit very deservedly legendary fame in Assam. In his hour of triumph, like Nelson at Trafalgar, Lachit Barphukan died of the illness that he had been suffering from.

Lachit’s bravery and his men’s display of valour brought praise even from the enemy, with Raja Ram Singh himself praising his bravery.

It is impossible for many people to strain their body to fulfil a higher cause. Even small problems like a headache or stomach ache can bring people’s morale down. These small pains can draw so much of attention that a man forgets about everything else but his pain. When most people’s minds are so weak, only someone driven by exceptional sense of patriotism and love for his people, would forget his intense pain and be ready to sacrifice his life to fulfill the duty of protecting his people. Such was the patriotism of this great Lachit Borphukan. It is recorded that he said – “When my countrymen are suffering from invasion, and when my army is fighting and sacrificing its life, how can I think about resting my body due to a mere illness? How can I think about going home to my wife and children when my entire country is in trouble?” Saying thus, he got out of bed and prepared to fight, despite his illness.

Hats off to our Ahom brothers- they are often ignored by the mainstream media like rest of northeast but this guy deserves the accolades he gets. The parallels with Lord Nelson is unmistakable- and unlike Nelson, he won against the odds both on water and on land, One of the greatest ‘lost heroes’ of India.

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