The Battle of Saraighat – Role of the Ahom River Navy !

Chapter --27

The Ahom dynasty of Assam managed to stave off invaders for upwards of four hundred years from 1228 to 1671.  There were no more invasions after the Mughal invasion under Ram Singh was soundly defeated in the famous Battle of Saraighat by Lachit Barphukan.

This battle is extremely unique in India’s history – fought not on land or the sea but in the middle of a river . The mighty Brahmaputra was the theatre of this Mughal – Assam showdown. Saraighat was the final grand climax to a series of events stretching over several years. This blog of mine –> Lachit Barphukan  , gives a detailed description of events leading to Battle of Saraighat.

I do not intend to repeat them here. Instead, in this article I shall throw light upon the Ahom naval system and further more , try and understand the challenges that must have been faced while fighting on that mass of water , drawing on my knowledge of how boats and ships behave in a river.

The Ahom Naval System : 

The biggest plus point of the Ahom dynasty and its long history of successfully defending the Brahmaputra valley was that they were not personality driven , but policy driven. Keeping invaders west of the Manas river was something all rulers aimed for. Further more , the paik system ensured that each family in the Brahmaputra valley compulsorily contributed men to the army when so demanded. There were then khels or guilds for various activities – both military and civil. This was the agreed upon system , and the monarch or swargdeo had thousands at his beck and call at any given time. The military followed a set heirarchy of ranks – from the Deka controlling 10 paiks to the Phukan lording over 6000.

Thus defense of the land was not according to whims and fancy of sundry jagirdars and watandars. When a dynamic personality like Lachit Barphukan was added to this , the Ahom military system became near invincible in face of great adversity.

Secondly, the Ahoms made excellent use of the terrain and developed perhaps India’s only “river specific” navy ! It is one thing to have certain terrain around you , something else to harness it fully. Today in 2016 you will be hard pressed to count twenty boats plying the waters near Guwahati , but back in 1663 , the official Mughal waqnavis counted 32,000 boats as having passed the town in one month ! Inside out knowledge of the terrain was what made the guerilla warfare highly effective and deadly. Infact , they called it “Daga Yuddha”  ! An extremely apt name for the kind of warfare .

The Ahom Navy : 

The Ahom navy was overall led by the Pani Phukan . Even towards the close of the Ahom dynasty this rank held sway over 7000 sailors !   Smaller units operated under the Bar Neogs . The Pani Phukan was directly under the Barphukan – the supreme leader of the armed forces . The Barphukan could assume control of the naval forces too – as happened in the Battle of Saraighat with telling effect.

Like in the infantry arm , various departments were created even for the river navy arm.

The Naobachia Phukan was in charge of supplying able bodied boatmen . While the Naosaliya Phukan was tasked with upkeep of boat building and the docks. He had around ten docks under him for boat building purposes. These being at Gargaon , Guwahati , Dergaon etc .

Renowned historian Sir JN Sarkar has quoted Guwahati , Sadiya , Dikhowmukh , Kaliabor , Sadiya etc. as places where boat building yards were set up. Infact , one of the docks used for repairing / building boats during time of the Ahom dynasty can still be seen in Guwahati – popular now as ” Dighali Phukuri ” and developed as a lake – cum – park.

Another important facet of fighting on the water was development of a structure known as the well , the ” Pani garh ” . It was essentially the art of building a bastion or gadhi in the middle of the water without recourse to using an already existing island etc .

Summarizing historian PC Sarma’s words in the book “Martial Traditions of the North East ” , we can say —

The Pani garh consisted of first planting stout bamboo poles into the river banks on opposite sides and then joining them loosely with ropes made of Raidongia Bet a kind of coir stronger than jute. After this , platforms of timber would be floated onto the river , improvised upon by soldiers and builders , to function like floating “dam damas”  or small siege towers. Boats could also be used in lieu of wooden platforms.

There is evidence that such a blockage effected during the Battle of Saraighat proved to be very effective. HK Barpujari gives a similar description of such “floating” bastions.

Ahom Warboats – What were they made of ? How large were they ? 

They were known as “bacchhari ”  boats and had a single plank of wood to give strength to the keel or base of the boat. Something similar to how ship’s are strengthened today too !

The Ahom warboats were small , not only by today’s standards but by 17th century standards also. At a time when ships of an average length of 50 metre (150 feet) were plying the high seas, the Ahom warboats measured only about 20 metre (60 feet) . Their width was also scarce – just about 2-3 metres (7 feet) But there were sound reasons for this , and as we shall see in the next section, size proved critical in the Battle of Saraighat.

The Ahom boats were made of chambal type of wood. The advantage being that a boat constructed of this wood would not sink even if heavily burdened. Thus an Ahom warboat was able to carry loads upto thirty tons. Which would usually mean a mixture of soldiers and artillery pieces , as seen in “Battle of Saraighat” picture above. Historian UN Gohain says that Ajhar (Lagerstroemia reginoe) and Sam (Artocar-fins chaplasha) were the specific trees whose wood was used to build the Ahom boats. Planks were joined by nails and gaps filled with a mixture of resin , lac and bee wax. Also lime made of snail shells and jaggery was used for any repairs.  A well constructed boat could last upto ten years or more.

The boat described here was the large 60 feet war boat. Ones equipped with guns were called ” Hiloi Chara Nao ” . Apart from this , a variety of other boats were in use –

Chara Nao – For travelling and transport

Magari Nao – Decorative boats

Tulunga Nao – For fishing activities

Gerap Nao , Garami Nao – used in battles

Gach Nao – A huge warboat used by Mughals . Extremely slow and cumbersome in a river.

Such and twenty other type of boats for various purposes were prevalent in Assam !

Artillery on boats :

Simply having boats with people on them was not good enough. They needed to have them stocked with artillery too. Make gun – boats that is . Infact the Mughal invasion of Assam could well be called a case of failed “gun boat diplomacy” . Gun boats and armadas were extensively used by British empire to brow beat smaller nations into submission. Hence the adage.

These guns were cast , and much smaller in size than the land based cannons. Infact they more closely resembled the zamburak than the larger tof .  A few samples can still be seen in the museum at Guwahati , they are 2 -3 feet long at best.

The Battle of Saraighat  – An analysis.

Having seen what the Ahom navy consisted of , we shall now turn to the Battle of Saraighat – the acid test of all these Ahom military systems. Lachit Barphukan’s choice of chosing Guwahati to make a decisive stand against the Mughals had sound strategy behind it.

The Brahmaputra is at it’s narrowest at Guwahati. Thus , defending the river there was akin to defending a pass. Further more , the sudden narrowing would also cause an increase in the speed of the water. Thus , the Mughals, approaching from downstream would have to strain more.

The preference for small boats was also well thought out. Ram Singh went in with 40 huge war boats. In a naval battle on the sea , Ram Singh would have won. But in the river , the ships proved too cumbersome to turn and maneuver. Infact , the Mughal boats – each equipped with sixteen huge guns and manned with the cream of Mughal and European sailors in India, were winning the initial part of the battle. Lachit Barphukan’s illness had meant that the Ahom boats did not leverage their size and mobility in absence of a good leader and were fast getting blown apart. Which is why Lachit Barphukan’s entry into the battle is a crucial turning point.

The smaller boats , hence smaller guns meant that the Ahoms would have had to move close to the huge Mughal warboats. This , especially due to the speed of the water , would have drawn the smaller boats into the larger – a phenomenon known as interaction. That the boats were deftly steered shows the capabilities of people controlling them. Also , when the guns , whether they fired from Ahom or Mughal boats , would have also caused considerable movement of the boat – rocking it violently one side to another. Another aspect to bear in mind when going through this battle.

The river was choc a bloc with boats during the battle – which would have made life for the Mughals even more difficult.

And the end result was a resounding Ahom victory under leadership of Lachit Barphukan

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

Purchase Aneesh Gokhale’s book on Lachit Barphukan at Amazon Kindle 

Brahmaputra – Sample pages

BRAHMAPUTRA – The Story of Lachit Barphukan, Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji 

Purchase on Amazon India

Chapter 1

Jayadhwaj Singha

Jayadhwaj Singha, king of the Ahoms, was wearing the ochre coloured robes of a simple soldier. His sword, a weapon with a long hilt and a straight blade called a heng dang which denoted his royal stature was missing, and his arms had been covered with cuts and bruises. Tears trickled down his face, mingling with the constant drizzle. He was glad that no one could see his tear stained face, but there was no escaping the lump in his throat which felt heavy and gnawed at his very soul. He turned his gaze to his left, to a little mound jutting out of the third. It was a burial vault of one of his ancestors. The burial vault was an echo of his ancient Tai Ahom tribal religion of Fralung – much of which had been given up by the Ahoms. But the age old Fralung practise of burying the dead along with the deceased person’s possessions and treasures had stood the test of time and a fast changing civilisation.  Jayadhwaj Singha’s heart ached as he saw the Mughal soldiers attack the burial vault with pick axes, hammers, shovels and swords. Fury raged in his eyes. But there was little he could do about it.

Far above him, the dark dank clouds converged into an ugly black mass, adding to the gloominess already enveloping the Ahom king. He looked away as the Mughal soldiers began looting the sacred burial vaults of his forefathers. His gaze turned to the east, where two huge black stallions towered above the landscape, reaching into the grey skies. Grotesque in shape and gigantic in size with eyes that seemed empty and lifeless. Astride one was a colossal figure with a white beard and high cheekbones. He was wearing the rich robes of a Mughal noble and a richly adorned pagdi, watching the Mughal soldiers go about defiling the burial vault. On the stallion beside him, was a wicked looking man sitting in the saddle. He too wore the exquisite robes of a Mughal noble. Fair of skin and with cold and cruel eyes, his samsher hung from his cummerbund, still stained with blood. His Afghan turban rested easily on his head, with an end dangling carelessly over his shoulder. Jayadhwaj Singha recognised the two as Mir Jumla and Diler Khan – Mughal sardars who had tormented the Ahoms. Suddenly he heard a little girl crying. He turned around, only to see his own daughter of six years, standing there, clutching her rag doll. What was she doing there? In the midst of the Mughal soldiers and those two Mughal sardars he wondered? He felt someone was looking at him, and turned around to find Mir Jumla glaring at him, with cold, unfeeling eyes.
“The Ahom king must no longer even look at his own daughter. She belongs to the Mughal harem now” the figure on the ugly black stallion bellowed. The cruel conditions of the treaty he had signed at Gilijharighat came back flooding to Jayadhwaj Singha ….

“Aaah…” said  Jayadhwaj Singha and awoke with a start. He could feel his heart pounding. Sweat trickled down his forehead. Outside, the cold, dark night stretched into the distance. The unnerving silence pervading everything being broken only by the rhythmic chirping of crickets. Jayadhwaj Singha’s breathing was heavy. All the horrors of the past few months had been brought alive in one cruel nightmare. Tears welled up in his eyes as he remembered his daughter, a mere child of six years, now in the Mughal harem. He mutterd to himself, asking for her forgiveness. The frightening images of the Mughal soldiers danced before his eyes. And what good was he? He had heard whispers that the people were calling him “bhagodiya raja” for having abandoned his capital of Gargaon and sought shelter in the hills of Namrup to the east. But how was he to explain that the arduous journey to the small village of Bakata was also for his people alone – to regroup his armies and inspire them to  fight the Mughals once again. The Ahom king coughed loudly and felt a liquid thud into his hands. The commotion woke up his wife, who rushed towards her husband. Jayadhwaj Singha coughed again and blood splattered onto his simple white clothes. His wife frantically called for the vaidyas and deodhais. Attendants rushed about in panic. Jayadhwaj Singha knew his end was near. He felt drained and spent, both physically and emotionally. With a voice barely audible and symptomatic of the great pain he was in, he whispered to his wife “Send for my cousin, Supungmung” He said the words in great pain.

“Quickly, rush to his camp across the stream and bring him here. Tell him to reach here as soon as possible” his wife shouted, her voice having more than a hint of panic.

“He will rule after me … Supungmung… tell him so….” Jayadhwaj Singha’s breathing was heavy as he spoke. His queen was crying, her tears streaming down her face and staining them. She held Jayadhwaj Singha’s hand, hoping for a miracle. The vaidyas and deodhais frantically brought herbs and potions for the king, but with every passing minute, Jayadhwaj Singha’s condition only worsened. He coughed once again, staining the white clothes of the deodhai a deep red. Then suddenly the hand went limp, and Jayadhwaj Singha’s heart stopped beating forever….

© Aneesh Gokhale

Purchase full book on Amazon India

Review of Brahmaputra in DNA Newspaper.

cropped-coverfb.jpg

(You can visit the original link given  below)

Review in DNA newspaper

Book – Brahmaputra : The Story of Lachit Barphukan, Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji.

Publisher : Shree Vyankatesh Prakashan

Edition : First. (Sept 2015)

Purchase Brahmaputra on Flipkart

The almost-unknown story of Lachit Borphukan, the Ahom warrior who stood up to the mighty Mughals, flows as smoothly as the Brahmaputra itself, with the author interspersing historical fact with a vivid Amar Chitra Katha-like narrative, says Amlan Jyoti Hazarika —

The name may not ring a bell for most outside Assam, but the story of Lachit Borphukan, a great warrior and a contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji, is the stuff of legend and folklore. As Aneesh Gokhale’s narrative suggests, the two men had similar traits and destinies, especially their love for their land and people and the unflinching determination to defend both in the face of danger. While Shivaji’s sphere of action was middle India, especially the Maratha-ruled kingdoms around Pune, Lachit fought valiantly to get the adversaries out of his motherland, Assam. Their foe – the marauding Mughals.

Brahmaputra flows as smoothly as the river itself. What keeps one glued to the tale is Gokhale’s unusual manner of storytelling interspersed with historical facts and Amar Chitra Katha-like depiction.

The story is set during the rule of Emperor Aurangzeb, who had brought nearly all of India under his dominion but faced two challenges – in the west and in the north-east. Most of us know about Shivaji and the Marathas, but few know of Lachit and the Ahoms, who ruled over modern Assam and surrounding areas for over 600 years before it was annexed by the British in 1826.

Gokhale must be applauded for his effort to bring to ‘mainland’ India the little-known story of a man who stood up successfully to a mighty power.

The stories of Shivaji, a king, and Lachit, commander of the Assamese army, run parallel to each other, bound, as the author puts it, by their “undying patriotism, will to set right historical wrongs and the bravery needed to stand up to a huge empire”.

In 1661, Aurangzeb deputed commanders Mir Jumla and Diler Khan to Bengal and Assam and Shaiste Khan to the Deccan. While the huge Mughal army under Mir Jumla conquered parts of Assam till Guwahati, Shaiste Khan wrested Pune’s Lal Mahal.

The Mughals decimated everything in their way. Swargadeo Chakradhwaj Singha, the Ahom monarch, was worried. Sitting in his court in capital Gargaon, about 400km from Guwahati, he contemplated the future of his beloved land. Then his gaze fell on Lachit – the leader of his bodyguards. A tough, well-built man with his heng dang (like a Samurai sword) dangling from his cummerbund.

Lachit was made the Borphukan (commander) of the army. Guwahati was eventually won back from the Mughals. But Lachit knew that was just the beginning. Aurangzeb would certainly send a larger force to regain his lost ground. And so he did, with the famed Ram Singh as commander.

The author goes on to regale readers with details of the epic battle. The Assamese army started fortifying Guwahati on the banks of the Brahmaputra. A messenger conveyed the news that Ram Singh had almost reached Guwahati. It was getting dark, and part of an important fort had still not been completed. The man overseeing the work was Lachit’s own maternal uncle. A furious Lachit thundered, “My uncle is not greater than my motherland”, and ordered him to be beheaded.

Over the next few days, Lachit fell ill. When he learnt of Lachit’s illness, Ram Singh moved his fleet forward in the ocean-like river. Lachit wrapped a shawl over his body, unsheathed his heng dang, and boarded his boat. The Mughals faced a resounding defeat in the naval battle of Saraighat in 1671. That was the end of the Mughals in Assam.

The waters of the Brahmaputra flowed as smoothly as ever.

 © Amlan Jyoti Hazarika

Purchase on flipkart

Lachit Barphukan – Defeater of Mughals

Today I shall talk about Lachit Barphukan – a household name in Assam, but largely unknown outside of that region. He is perhaps the reason why Assam is a part of India today and retains , nay celebrates its dharmic and Indic connections. He led a the Assamese armies against the Mughals and ensured that Assam remained free.

The Sena dynasty of neighbouring Bengal (by this I mean West Bengal and Bangladesh both) was overthrown by 1206 by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and the same year attacks on north east started. They wud continue every now and then for next four hundred years – all ending in failures.

In Assam itself , the Tai Ahom dynasty, originating in Myanmar, assumed power in 1228 AD. They too kept out successive invaders from Assam.

But a new and real challenge came with the ascent of Aurangzeb to the Mughal throne. He deputed two of his best generals – Mir Jumla and Diler Khan are sent to Bengal and from there to Assam. The later region at this particular point in time was in a state of flux. The  senapati was from a tribe other than the Tai Ahom and this has caused widespread resentment. The Mughal armies encounter a divided land and people. The unity that had kept out invasion after invasion was now missing. Mir Jumla and Diler Khan had an easy route through Assam and many forts fell without a fight. The Ahom king – Jayadhwaj Singha retreated even further east , leaving his capital Garhgaon – the place is 300 km east of Guwahati. The Mughals managed to install a faujdar at Guwahati. This 1662 – 63 invasion ends with a humiliating treaty being imposed on the Ahom king , which includes giving up all territory west of the Barnadi , including the city of Guwahati. Large amounts of cash , war elephants and — giving up his six year old daughter to the Mughal harem. Mir Jumla and Diler Khan also desecrated many ‘maidams’ or burial vaults of the Ahoms

The king Jayadhwaj Singha dies heartbroken and is succeeded by Chakradhwaj Singha, who now has a monumental task ahead of him. For this , he needs a new senapati or “Barphukan” . The term Barphukan is a rank, not a surname. A leader of all the Phukans in the army was called a “Barphukan”. The Phukan was the highest rank in Ahom army after the Barphukan – commanding 6000 soldiers or paiks.

After deliberations with his ministers, particularly the Prime Minister or the “Rajmantri Dangaria” – Atan Buragohain – Chakradhwaj Singha settles for Lachit and makes him Barphukan.

The challenge before them is immense –

1. Demoralised troops, who do not have any memory of a defeat.

2. Army commanders and ministers divided against themselves, owing to the internal dissent which pervaded everything prior to the Mughal invasion.

3. The knowledge that the troops who had faced defeat at hands of Mughals would now be asked to undo the damage. There was no option of starting with a clean slate.

4. The fact that the Mughal empire was immense and a veteran like Shaiste Khan was Subhedar of the next door province of Bengal.

Nothing is known about Lachit Barphukan’s childhood or early life, other than the fact that he was Momai Tamuli Barbarua’s son. Momai Tamuli Barbarua was a high ranking official in the Ahom kingdom. The Assamese chronicles – or Buranjis – almost exclusively deal with administration , politics and warfare. There is almost no information divulged about the personal life of the Ahom commanders and ministers. It is surmised that Lachit Barphukan was born somewhere around the year 1620.

He was attending political meetings with his father in his young age, doing the job of carrying the relevant documents and betel nut trays. Later on, he became the scarf bearer. Further on Lachit got promoted to Gorakaksharia Barua – head of the royal stables. Then he was promoted to Dolakaksharia Barua – leader of the royal bodyguard. He was at this rank when the invasion of Mir Jumla happened. During that invasion, he had led his troops with bravery at Dikhowmukh.

He was thus promoted to rank of Barphukan. The situation at this point of time was dicey, and even though some suggested a surprise assault on Mughal held Guwahati, Atan Buragohain cautioned them against it. He was of the firm view, that any attack on Guwahati would invite a retribution from Aurangzeb and the huge armies at his disposal. Lachit Barphukan proudly declared that even if he was the last Ahom alive, he would still fight the Mughals.

So the Ahom king invested the next four years in rebuilding the army into a robust and powerful force. Soldiers were recruited, boats built at dockyards, weapons procured. Cannons made and fortifications strengthened. The king, the Prime Minister and the Barphukan would regularly visit to check the progress being made. All this while pretensions of friendship were maintained with the Mughals – by slowly complying with the terms of the treaty signed between Mir Jumla and Jayadhwaj Singha. This was a diplomatic master stroke, enabling the Ahom to rebuild without inviting suspicion or ruffling feathers at either Guwahati or the capital of Mughal Bengal – Dhaka.

In 1667, the faujdar of Guwahati – Rashid Khan is recalled to Agra and replaced with Firoz Khan. This person sends a direct demand to Chakradhwaj Singha – calling him a vassal and orders him to send young Assamese girls for his pleasure.

The preparations for the war are almost complete, and this insult to their king rallies the people. At the head of a large army, Lachit Barphukan sets off west to recapture Guwahati – after a gap of nearly four years.

The important point to note here, is that the Assamese, lead by the Ahoms, had a very robust military system in place. Yes, the terrain helped them perfect their skills of guerilla warfare, but that was not all. The Ahom military system was based on –

1. The paik system. Every family across the kingdom was required to provide at least three persons for the kingdom. At least one would serve in the army, two if required.

2. There was a definite hierarchy of command – starting with a Deka commanding 10 paiks Bora over 20 paiks , Saikias on 100 paiks ,  Hazarika of a 1000 paiks , Rajkhowa on 3000 paiks and Phukan of 6000 paiks etc. The Barphukan was the supreme commander of all of these.

3. They did not have a cavalry arm – owing to the frequent floods of the Brahmaputra and the topography and weather of the land – which made it difficult for large numbers of horses. Instead they had an excellent infantry and something very unique in the Indian context – a riverine Navy. This was the backbone of the Assamese army of those times – and helped them dominate the river Brahmaputra.

4. Improvements on this riverine navy – such as the panigarh . This would be a quickly built stockade in the middle of the river, on which guns could be mounted and enemy boats and ships countered.

5. Fortifications – A string of forts on either side of the Brahmaputra.

6. A strong network of spies – this enabled them to rebuild the army and procure weapons without arousing suspicion.

Lachit Barphukan, at the head of this large army, attacked many forts near Guwahati. But even after months of siege Guwahati itself could not be captured. The city at that point in time was being protected by the fort of Itakhuli – which was being defended by Syed Firoz Khan himself. It was naturally strong, having the Brahmaputra on one side and well defended by walls and cannons on all others. The Mughal cannons had infact kept Lachit Barphukan’s soldiers at a safe distance from the fort. A few months passed in this condition of stalemate.

Finally, Lachit Barphukan agreed to a bold plan in which one of his commaders – Ismail Siddiqui or Bagh Hazarika played an important part. This involved sneaking into the fort in the dead of the night in very small numbers – ten or twelve at most and immobilising the cannons by pouring water into them. This daring mission was then carried out by Bagh Hazarika , Japang Gohain and a handful of ace soldiers one August  night. The next morning Lachit Barphukan could fearlessly attack Itakhuli ! The fort fell into his hands and Guwahati was free once more.

Lachit Barphukan then chased the Mughals all the way to the mouth of the Manas river, freeing forts such as Jogigopha from the Mughals as a result. The Ahom banner once again began fluttering over Assam.

This event in 1667 was Lachit Barphukan’s first claim to fame. It was the result of a careful and calibrated rebuilding of the army which had delivered the goal. But Barphukan knew simply winning Guwahati was not enough, for the Mughals were sure to attack again.

The news of this victory reached the ears of Aurangzeb a few months later. He was determined to recapture Guwahati and finally decided to send Ram Singh. Partly because he held Ram Singh responsible for Shivaji’s escape from Agra, and wanted to test his loyalty. Partly because the architect of the previous victory – Diler Khan was busy in the Deccan.

Ram Singh started at the head of a very large army, totalling over 70,000 soldiers. Following infographic gives a break up of his forces.

Mughal army 1667

Ram Singh managed to reach Dhaka in 1668 / 69 and had an audience with Shaiste Khan, who assured him of further help against the Assamese and warned him about the land and its peculiarities.

As for Lachit Barphukan, he did not rest on his laurels for even a single day and immediately got down to the work on rebuilding the fortifications and strengthening the forts in view of the impending Mughal invasion. His plan was simple – to build a ring of very strong defenses around Guwahati and fight the Mughals tooth and nail at this point in the Brahmaputra. This was because the Brahmaputra was at its narrowest near Guwahati, thus he intended to trap the Mughals at this point in the river, much like one would choke an army in a narrow mountain pass (strategem). Sufficient number of paiks were placed to guard the fortifications.

One incident  which happened during the building of these embankments around Guwahati which has since become part of Assamese folklore.

Lachit Barphukan’s plan was simple – he intended to fortify and guard the city of Guwahati so as to prevent the Mughals from sailing further east to Gargaon, the capital. All possible resources were thrown into the war effort. By the time Ram Singh reached Dhaka from Agra and began sailing towards Guwahati, the embankments and fortifications were complete – save for one very crucial patch. The person in charge was Lachit’s own maternal uncle. Lachit Barphukan realized that time was short and exhorted his uncle to keep working through the night so that the embankment would be complete. It was afterall , just a question of a few more hours of work. But Lachit’s uncle completely ignored his orders !The next morning, Lachit Barphukan beheaded his own maternal uncle for dereliction of duty and being callous towards defending the Brahmaputra Valley. For Lachit Barphukan, his attitude amounted to treason – punishable by death. The exact location of the embankment is unknown, but the story itself is very popular as Assamese folklore.

This raised Lachit Barphukan’s stature immeasurably in the eyes of the people and soldiers and they coalesced as one to face the Mughal threat.

Ram Singh began attacking the western outposts of the Ahom kingdom by 1669 and as planned, the soldiers retreated towards Guwahati , luring Ram Singh into the trap.

Ram Singh, seeing that he had easily gained a number of forts, grew haughty and believed his work was already done. In reality, he had almost fallen into the trap.

Ram Singh then sent a bag of poppy seeds to Lachit Barphukan, with the message that the Mughal army was as numerous as the seeds in the bag. Not one to bear an insult, either on the battle field or in diplomacy, Lachit Barphukan as a reply sent a tube full of sand from the river bank ! The message being that the Assamese army was as numerous as grains of sand. And while the poppy seeds could be ground into a paste, the sand was insoluble !

Now this message was sent to Ram Singh via two envoys – Nim and Ramcharan. At the Mughal camp, they noticed two exquisitely carved wooden birds, and took an instant liking to them. Although their job was only to deliver a message, Ram Singh persuaded Nim to accept two of the birds as a gift !

Lachit Barphukan was livid on getting this piece of news ! Dereliction of duty was not a trait he was looking for.

Thus, these two incidents showed the entire army that Lachit Barphukan meant to lead by example and indiscipline in the ranks when faced with a mortal danger would not be tolerated. The result was that the Assamese stood together like one monolithic rock inspite of the best of efforts by Ram Singh.

All attempts at conquering various forts were beaten back. Ram Singh sent part of his army to sneak in via a pass in Darrang, this too was found out and the soldiers mercilessly slaughtered. In general, the year 1669 ended with victories for Lachit Barphukan.

Finally a time came when the two armies were left facing each other on the opposite ends of the fields of Alaboi. Ram Singh then tried to sow dissent in the ranks of his enemy. made. Commanders who were not very happy with Lachit in charge  were offered huge bribes.

Lachit was wary of facing the Mughals on an open field, knowing full well that his own army did not consist of any cavalry, and his nemesis had perhaps the best cavalry. It would be suicide for his foot soldiers to face a cavalry charge. But the dissent being sown by Ram Singh and the long delays on the battlefield managed to make Raja Chakradhwaj Singha force his hand — and he issued an ultimatum to Lachit Barphukan to engage Ram Singh.

Much against his wishes, Lachit Barphukan was forced to battle Ram Singh on the open fields (5th Aug 1669). It ended as expected – a terrible disaster, with Lachit Barphukan losing over 10,000 of his best soldiers.

But the battle was a shot in the arm for Raja Ram Singh. Aurangzeb heard of it from Shaiste Khan and immediately increased Ram Singh’s mansab to 5000, making him a mansabdar of considerably high rank. He further asked him to push forward and capture Guwahati. Seasoned sailors like Munnawar Khan and Mohammed Saleh Karoh were deputed to aid him. White skinned freebooters and mercenaries plying around Bengal also joined the fray on the side of the Mughals.

In the meanwhile, negotiations had been opened between the Mughals and the Assamese, interspersed with skirmishes as before. Udayaditya Singha succeeded Chakradhwaj Singha in 1670 in the midst of all this.

Thus the year 1670 more or less passed with little happening of note.

By the beginning of 1671  Mughals also had built up their army , with the arrival of the firangees , fresh soldiers , Munnawar Khan and Mohamed Saleh Karoh to the Brahmaputra. Lachit Barphukan on his part was not slack. The forts were strengthened, pickets posted and a further twenty thousand soldiers requested to be sent from Gargaon.

Ram Singh discovered through his spies that there was a breach in the long line of embankments guarding Guwahati at Andurabali. Here was a golden chance to break through and capture the all important fort.

And at this critical juncture, with the Mughal armies amassed on the Brahmaputra with as many as forty war ships each carrying 16 guns and many smaller boats, Lachit Barphukan fell ill. To the extent that he could hardly stand and move around.

In the month of March 1671, the battle of began. It would go down in Assam and India’s history as the Battle of Saraighat. The grand climax to a series of events set in motion eight years ago with the invasion of Mir Jumla. It was unique, for it was the only major battle in India to have been fought entirely on a river ! But then the river Brahmaputra is gigantic in proportions – being a kilometre wide even at its narrowest point at Guwahati !

With their commander bed ridden, the Assamese faced off against the Mughals who were making one last determined effort to force their way through the breach at Andurabali and conquer Guwahati once more. In the absence of a leader, their movements were haphazard and the Mughal attack was devastating. Before long, withering in the face of the concerted attack, the Assamese began retreating their steps eastward !

Lachit Barphukan heard of this retreat and was livid. Much against the wishes of his vaidya and astrologers, he decided to join the war.

” I shall be the last one to leave the battlefield” he declared proudly ” And if I die, bury my mortal remains on a small plot of land I have bought on a nearby hill for the princely sum of four cowries” . But Lachit Barphukan would not lie on his sickbed while his soldiers were getting slaughtered.

He stepped into his warboat and unfurled the flag. That itself was like Adrenalin for his soldiers. Nothing could go wrong now !

The Ahoms turned around and faced the Mughals once more. Between the watery triangle formed by the temple of Kamakhya , the Bishnu Mandir at Aswaklanta and the Itakhuli Hill Fort a grand battle ensued. The Assamese made use of improvised defenses – such as the Pani garh — stockades built in middle of the water from where they could easily fire on the Mughals. Bridges of boats were built, acting like fortified barriers. The small   Ahom Bacchari boats were handled swiftly and deftly by their commanders , leaving the large war boats of the Mughals clueless. Lachit Barphukan and the Ahoms had perfected the art of fighting on the mighty river and it was at Saraighat that they scored their biggest victory.

By the end of that day in March 1671 , the Mughals were in retreat and would never again make a sincere attempt at annexing Assam.

Lachit Barphukan – Legacy and Importance.

Lachit Barphukan’s victory halted the Mughal march into Assam. It kept political control with the Ahoms. It was on this foundation that later day rulers like Rudra Singha could truly blossom and build many temples , tanks and give a cultural boost to Assamese society.

We do not know what would have happened in case of a Mughal victory. Total annihilation ? Vassalage ?  The ruling dynasty destroyed with the incumbent cruelly killed ? Destruction of temples ? We do not know, but all of the above had already been done by Aurangzeb  or would do in the years to come. But Lachit Barphukan prevented all of that through his valiant leadership.

The present shape of India is a sum total of all the various contributions through the ages by innumerable personalities. Each of them, battled in their own way to uphold Indic culture and lead us to where we are today.