From high atop his perch in the well-fortified Itakhuli fort, Lachit Barphukan the supreme commander of the Ahom army, watched the vast Mughal forces advancing, ‘His face is broad and resembles the moon in its full phase. No one is capable of staring at its brilliance,’ wrote a chronicler of that time. Who was this man who led his people to resist and rout the Moghul army? Why is he remembered with such reverence?
Lachit Barphukan belonged to the Lakhurahun clan whose founder had come to Assam with the first Ahom conqueror Sukhapa. He was the youngest son of Momai-Tamuli Barua, a general in the Assamese army. Lachit’s early education was completed in his father’s courtroom, at his metropolitan residence, which was a virtual training camp and university. The young man saw and listened to all that passed in his father’s official residence. As the son of the Barbarua, he had frequent opportunities of attending the court. It is also recorded that Lachit was made the scarf bearer of the Premier, a position equivalent to that of a private secretary – the first step in the career of an ambitious diplomat and politician. He thus had the opportunity of supplementing the knowledge gained at his father’s courtroom with the more important affairs transacted by the Premier and his colleagues. In addition to this grooming, he also went through the expected military education and training.
In the course of his early career, he held three different offices, serving first as the Ghora Barua, or Superintendent of the Royal Horses. In this capacity he broke all of the king’s turbulent ponies, till he made royal riding expeditions as tame an affair as sitting on a household chair. He also served for some time as the Dulia Barua or Commander of Levy, later to be made the Dolakasharia Barua, or Superintendent of the Guards, equivalent to that of a present day Inspector General Police.
A combination of nature and nurture finally produced the man who would prove to be the most appropriate military leader of his people and it was merely a matter of time before the King acknowledged his unusual grit, stamina, depth of judgement and courage and appointed him the Supreme Commander.
The dense impenetrable sub-tropical jungle, numerous rivers and swamps, torrential rains and floods so characteristic to the region, were not strong enough to deter the Badshahs from Delhi who constantly attempted invasion and acquisition. In the first bloody battle, between the Mughals and the Assamese, fought between Mir Jumla and the Ahoms in 1662, the latter suffered a crushing defeat. From the ashes of a lost battle and a morally and physically devastated country, rose Lachit Barphukan, the man who would eventually lead his people to victory.
King Chakradhwaja Singha, the king of Assam at the time, was determined to prevent history from repeating itself. Under his supervision extensive battle arrangements were made over a period of two years. This included ensuring rigorous training for his soldiers, keeping the arsenals and smithies working day and night, preparing for river battles by constructing war vessels on which cannons could be mounted and building a large fleet of ordinary boats. He also ensured that the cultivation of paddy and other food grains was supervised by the State. In the summer of 1667, preparations were finally completed and the Army waited for the signal to set out to face the invaders. Customary religious rites connected with the initiation of a campaign were performed according to Ahom and Hindu priestly codes.
When the sun rose on Thursday, Bhadra 3rd 1589 Saka, or about the 20th of August 1667, the Ahom army, under the leadership of General Lachit Barphukan started from the capital and sailed down the Brahmaputra in two divisions. The first shot was fired at the Bahbari Fort near Barnadi on the North flank of Guwahati. The capture of Guwahati and Pandu was not easy, and they were taken only after a siege of two months. Persistent Ahom efforts paid off and at midnight on Thursday, Kartik 17, 1589 Saka or 2nd November 1667 the contiguous garrisons fell into the hands of the Ahoms.
An inscription in Assamese, on the Kanai-Barasi-Boa-Sil rock, on the eastern extremity of a rampart known as Phulungar-garh, bears testimony to the Ahom victory of 1667 AD. Another inscription found in Guwahati speaks of the “Barphukan – the son of Barbarua”, (obviously referring to Lachit) describing him as the one responsible for the Ahom victory, and as a person well educated, valiant and just.
However the story didn’t end there because in February 1669 AD, Emperor Aurangzeb sent an enormous army to Assam. Under the command of Ram Singh the forces consisted of 21 Rajput Thakurs, 6500 infantry men and 500 artillery men; 18,000 cavalry and 30,000 foot soldiers as well as 15,000 Koch archers accompanied by the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur and five Muslim Pirs, to ward off sorcery and black magic.
Aware that war was imminent, Lachit fortified Guwahati, enclosing it by tall man-made ramparts which were naturally supplemented by existing barriers like hills and swamps. The river channel access into the city was restricted by constructing a massive bamboo barricade along the sides of the vast Andheru sandbar which stretched like a huge triangle from Itakhuli to the Nilachal hill where the famous Kamakhya temple is located. This barricade limited the river channel for enemy vessels, keeping them within easy range of Ahom artillery, while most of Ahom placements remained out of reach of Mughal cannons. It also blocked the entry into Bharalu river where an Ahom shipyard was located upstream near the Kalpahar hill.
On 3rd April 1669 or Chaitra 21st 1590 Saka, Ram Singh marched up to Agiathuti on the river bank and guns on both sides began to boom. By June 1669 the Mughals attacked North Guwahati from the Northwest via Darrang and the battle was in full swing. Despite the coming of the monsoons and its impact on military movements Lachit’s troops were skilled in navigating the torrential currents of the flooded Brahmaputra and aggressively engaged the enemy in naval battles throughout the rest of that year.
Characteristically, he harassed the enemy by arousing superstitious fears. On one occasion he sent out into the open a number of his soldiers dressed in black, carrying burnt fishes and human body parts saying “such acts are imperative for us, as our army consists of one hundred thousand man-eating nocturnal demons”. On another, he hid the bulk of his forces in trenches, and to deter the enemy’s Hindu soldiers, he dressed archers and musketeers as “Brahmans” and placed them on the frontline.
Grossly outnumbered and confronted by unusual tactics, the Mughal army lost the first round of the battle.
It was in the final naval engagement that Lachit Barphukan rose to the climax of his leadership. Even though he had been weakened by high temperature he ordered that he be carried on a bedstead to his warship to command operations. When he saw deserters from his army retreating in one encounter he went into a fit of rage and rising from his bed began to throw oarsmen into the river. Witnesses spread the rumour that Barphukan was mercilessly killing deserters with his own hands. The desired effect was achieved and a new spirit of urgency and sacrifice took hold of the Assamese fighters.
Firing salvos from his ship’s cannons, Lachit advanced with seven other war vessels towards the enemy Armada. Seeing their General standing on the stern of the ship, leading the attack, the rest of the Ahom navy followed suit. Simultaneously, the army on the river banks trained their cannons, guns and arrows at enemy ships.
For the Mughals it was an unexpected turn of events and they were forced onto the defensive. Soon the entire Guwahati section of the Brahmaputra was littered with debris from burning and sinking ships, and drowning men. The Ahoms used all their mastery of sailing, navigation and naval warfare to maul Mughal forces.
The fleeing invaders were pursued down to Pandu from where they hastily retreated – ending ‘The Battle of Saraighat’, one of Indian history’s most crucial river battles.
Lachit Barphukan’s success had nothing to do with the extent of his resources or the numerical superiority of his army but in his own focussed and consistent determination and intrepid courage. These qualities appealed to his people and inspired them to acknowledge their own native spirit. Though he was aware of the restrictive boundaries of the society in which he lived, he was able to exceed them and achieve unusual results, raising the Assamese army to exceptional levels of efficiency. Nowhere in recorded history had the Assamese nation shown such a capacity for organization, discipline and combined action as in Lachit’s war against the Mughals. For four long years the entire kingdom acted like one man. Commanders and statesmen, grown grey in the services of the state, willingly obeyed the orders of a relatively young military leader who sacrificed personal ease and comfort and consideration for his own kith and kin.
He was able to inspire respect because he was an excellent role model who reflected a high sense of honour and an unshakeable faith in the moral order of the universe. Every task, however small, was considered significant and honesty played a significant role. He did not even permit his army to plunder the boats of the retreating enemy, because sanction of greed in any form was fraught with the danger of its reappearance in other spheres of war.
It is believed that Lachit Barphukan succumbed to his illness shortly after the battle of Saraighat, thus becoming the most famous martyr of the people. Like Lord Nelson, he died in the lap of victory. The battle of Saraighat was Assam’s Trafalgar.
Author and Photographs: Dr.S.K.Bhuyan Web Editor: Kshitija Pande Source: Heritage India Volume 1 Issue 1 (2008)