“He whose body is adorned with all embellishment and ornaments, whose heart and soul is illuminated with an array of knowledge, who is glowing with the splendid might decorated with the virtues which are not defiled by the sins of Kali Yuga, who is like the sea of elephants, horses and military, who is well-known as the son of Sri Borbarua, this Borphukan from Namjani defeated the Muslims ……………………………………in a full-fledged war equipped with all kinds of weapons and artillery, elephants and horses, and generals.”
Thus reads the inscription of eulogy in the victory monument erected at Guwahati, praising Lachit Borphukan by the king Udayaditya Singha after the historic victory in the battle of Saraighat over the Mughals; it is an eulogy of an individual which is nowhere found on any one in the entire history of Ahom kingdom. Indeed, the battle of Saraighat was Lachit’s crown of victory
The Mughal empire had expanded to its zenith under Aurangzeb, who pushed its 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 the population. His bigoted policies like imposition of Jizya, destruction of temples, open hatred towards Hindus, etc alienated many. As a result, revolts against his tyrannical rule broke out one by one, notable ones among them being Sikhs, Marathas, Jats and Ahoms.
While a lot is known about the Marathas and Sikhs, not much has been written about the Ahoms and their spirited resistance to the Mughals. One of the most fascinating aspects of Ahom history has been their long conflict with the Mughals. There is a long history of Ahom resistance to Mughal rule from 1615 to 1682. There were 18 major conflicts between the Ahoms and Mughals, and in most of them, the Ahoms either routed the Mughals and sent them back, or even if the Mughals won, they could not hold for long on to their gains.
One of the primary factors behind the Ahom-Mughal rivalry was the kingdom that lay to the West, the Cooch Behar princely state. Another factor was the aggressive Mughal imperialism that sought to expand its territory into the North East, starting with the rich natural resource laden Kamarupa (Assam).
The very first foray the Mughals made into Assam, at Kajali in 1615, ended in a 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 raised its head under Shahjahan’s reign. In December 1636, Kamrup was occupied by the Mughals. The Treaty of Asurar Ali signed in 1639, between the Ahom general Momai Tamuli Borbarua and Allah Yar Khan, saw the entire Western part of Assam, till Guwahati pass under Mughal control. When Shahjahan fell ill, and his sons were caught in a bloody war of succession, Ahom king Jayadhwaj Singha took advantage of it, and chased out the Mughals from Assam and reoccupied the entire western region till Guwahati.
Aurangzeb upon ascending the throne, ordered his Bengal subedar Mir Jumla to recapture Cooch Behar and Assam, establishing Mughal rule in that region. With Koch Behar falling to the Mughals, Mir Jumla entered Assam in 1662. He had a series of successes initially and was also helped by the internal dissensions in the Ahom kingdom. Under constant attack, the Ahom ruler Jayadhwaj Singha, sued for peace, and the result was the utterly humiliating Treaty of Ghilajarighat in January 1663. Western Assam was ceded to the Mughals, war indemnity of 3 lakh rupees to be paid and the worst of all, he had to send his own daughter as well as his niece to the Mughal harem. It was a complete humiliation for the proud Ahoms, and Jayadhwaj Singha later died heartbroken.
Jayadhwaj’s successor, Chakradhwaj Singha, swore to avenge the humiliation. In 1665, summoning an assembly of nobles, he made it clear that the Ahoms would no longer accept Mughal rule and ordered measures to drive them out from Western Assam. By November 1667, Itakhuli was recaptured along with Guwahati, and the Mughals were chased down to the Manas river, which formed the boundary.
A major role in these Ahom reconquests was played by Lachit Borphukan. Born to a brave Ahom military commander, Momoi Tamuli Borbarua, he would rise to become one of the greatest heroes of Assam, and one of the symbols of resistance to the Mughal rule. When one writes of the history of resistance to the Mughals, Lachit Borphukan’s name would be right up there with Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Educated in humanities, military skills and scriptures, he held various important positions like Ghora Barua (In charge of Royal Stable), commander of Simulgarh Fort and Dolakaxaria Barua (Superintendent of Royal Household Guards) during the rule of Chakradhwaj Singha.
Lachit Borphukan would however become known due to his valor in the Battle of Saraighat, one of the worst defeats the Mughal Army would ever face. Saraighat would be remembered for the victory of a much smaller Ahom army over the mighty Mughal Army, through a combination of tactical brilliance, guerrilla warfare and intelligence gathering. In a sense Saraighat would be the last attempt by the Mughals to extend their empire into Assam.
After assuming the charge as the commander of Ahom forces, Lachit oversaw a total restructuring of the army. The alliances were renewed with the Jaintia and Kachari kingdoms and in August 1667, Lachit accompanied by Atan Burhagohain, undertook a downstream expedition on Brahmaputra, reconquering the entire region between Guwahati and Kapili river. On Nov 4, 1667 Itakhuli was taken in a daring mid night assault by the Ahoms, and many of its defenders were massacred.
Alarmed at the losses, Aurangzeb, sent a huge army under the command of Raja Ram Singh, son of the Amber Raja, Mirza Raja Jai Singh to retake Guwahati. Ram Singh commanded a massive army with 4000 troopers, 30,000 infantry men, 21 Rajput chiefs with their contingents, 18,000 cavalry, 2000 archers and 40 ships. In addition, the forces of Koch Bihar too joined their ranks, making the Ahoms virtually outnumbered.
It was in such a dire situation that Lachit showed his tactical brilliance. Knowing very well that the Ahoms had no chance in an open plains battle, he chose Guwahati with its hilly terrain. The only way up to Guwahati from the east was the Brahmaputra river. At Saraighat, the Brahmaputra was at its narrowest point just a width of 1 km, ideal for naval defense. While the Mughal army was the strongest on land, especially in open plains, their weakest point was their navy. Lachit set up a series of mud embankments in Guwahati, and ensured that the Mughals would be forced to take the river route to the city.
When the Mughal march reached the Manas river in March–April 1669 and defeated Ahom forces, Lachit decided on a strategic retreat to Guwahati. The plan was to keep the Mughal forces in sight but beyond the reach of their weapons. When the Mughals reached closer, he started a sham negotiation via the captured Firuz Khan with Ram Singh, who had set up camp at Agiathuti, calling the Mughal Emperor the “Bhai Raja” (brother sovereign) to the Ahom king. And when he was ready for the Mughal attacks, he sent words to Ram Singh that “Guwahati and Kamrup do not belong to the Mughals” since they were taken from the Koch and that the Assamese were prepared to fight to the last. A period of battles between the Ahom and Mughal forces in the region of Guwahati followed, with varied results with forts changing hands many times. All attempts made by the Mughals to secure peaceful surrender by the Ahoms failed and paved way for the final assault on Guwahati. Armed with the reinforcements that had arrived in the form of war vessels. The Mughal navy started pushing back the Ahoms into retreat. Now, Lachit, who was suffering from illness stood up and entered the battle himself. This had an electrifying effect on the morale of the Ahom soldiers as they started attacking Mughals from all sides in a fierce river battle, thereby scattering them. 4000 of the Mughal Army were dead, their navy destroyed, and they were pursued to the Westernmost part of the Ahom kingdom, the Manas river. Overall, the Battle of Saraighat was a total rout for the Mughals, and ensured that they would not make further inroads into Assam. Lachit Borphukan single-handedly led an Ahom force to victory over a much larger Mughal Army, it was one of the greatest military victories ever. He died at Kaliabor about a year later in April 1672. Though, his was not the final battle between the Ahoms and the Mughals, nor did Guwahati remain with the Ahoms. Lachit Borphukan’s own brother and successor Borphukan, Laluk Sola, deserted Guwahati for the Mughals in 1679. It remained with the Mughals until 1682, when the Ahoms under Gadadhar Singha recovered it in the Battle of Itakhuli and ended Mughal control in Kamrup permanently.
Lachit Borphukan used a brilliant combination of guerilla tactics, subterfuge, diplomacy, daring and psychological warfare to attack the Mughal army. As a result, his army was able to defeat the much larger army of the Mughals. He ddelivered the Mughals a tremendous psychological blow, destroying the illusion of their invincibility. Had the Mughals won the key battle of Saraighat in 1671, they would have massacred the Ahoms, including non-combatants, raped and enslaved all women as sex slaves, while forcing all surviving men and children to convert to Islam. This is how the Mughals and invading Muslim armies around the world treated the vanquished who put up a strong defence and resisted their attempts at conquest, Many examples of such savagery performed by Muslim soldiers on the ‘kafirs’ they conquered may be found throughout history.
The Ahoms and Lachit Borphukan have contributed significantly to India’s North Eastern region. Because of his bravery, the North Eastern region remained free of Mughal dominion until it was finally annexed by the British. Lachit Borphukan’s endeavours ensured that the holy territory of Kamakhya did not fall to the ruthless Mughals. He exhibited dauntless courage and die-hard love for the country. Today, Lachit Borphukan is revered as the greatest military hero not only of Assam but of India. Like his contemporary Chhatrapati Shivaji, Lachit Borphukan also fought relentlessly to resist the expansion of the Mughal Empire in Assam. Had Lachit Borphukan not been there and had he not resisted the aggression of the Mughals, the history as well as cultural and demographic pattern of Assam would have been different from what we have today. Debakanta Barua’s panegyric “Lachit Phukan” still touches the heart and soul of every Assamese and awaken their patriotic spirit : “Lachit Phukan! Lachit Phukan! Mor Swadexar Bir Dexar Karane Tahani Edin Jasisila Nijar Xir ………………………………………………………..………………………………………………….. Dexar karane Ajio Binai Hezar Dekar Hiya, Dexar Xenani ! Akou Mathon Ebar Hukum Dia” (Lachit Phukan ,the hero of my country, you had offered you head for the country. Even today many youths cry for the country. You just give order to them)
Today, Lachit Borphukan is regarded as a national icon, an epitome of patriotism, heroism, and has become an immortal figure in the annals of history. His bravery and tales of patriotism have become a national saga. His military acumen and war strategy have become an inspiring lesson for the nation’s millions of youths. On 24 November each year Lachit Divas is celebrated state-wide in Assam to commemorate the heroism of Lachit Borphukan and the victory of the Ahom army in the Battle of Saraighat. Lachit will always remain an emblem of national pride for all the times to come. His patriotic zeal and spirit has got immense relevance in the present time. His heroic tales can be a befitting reply to all those divisive forces which are bent upon the national integrity of the country.
The renowned historian Sitaram Goel has remarked that Lachit Borphukhan’s name should be taught in all Indian households like that of Shivaji and Banda Bahadur. Our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi paid a rich tribute to the great Ahom general on his birth anniversary on November 24, 2021, terming him as the ‘Pride of India.’ Amidst repeated demands, our present government has now also included a chapter on him in the CBSE curriculum. It is high time that we go ahead and make necessary corrections in our history books so that the students can be taught authentic, accurate narrations of our proud past. The aim should be that an elementary school student in the remotest village of Tamil Nadu should know enough about Lachit Borphukan, Chhatrasal, Banda Bahadur, Tanaji Malusare, while his counterpart in the farthest village in Arunachal Pradesh should be aware of Marudu brothers, Surajmal Jat, Durga Das Rathod Kittur Chennamma etc, so that one can emotionally empathise, ideologically identify with the other and the seed of national integration can thus sprout, swell, spread throughout the length and breadth of the nation.
Biresh Chaudhuri is a Research Associate with Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation. Views expressed are personal.