Guru Gobind Singh had prepared his people well for the 90 years of strife with the Mughals and their satraps, the Afghans, the Persians and other marauders from the north, who regularly invaded India, between his death in 1708 and the founding of the Sikh kingdom by Ranjit Singh in 1801. The fellowship of the Khalsa, the principle of meeri-peeri (the temporal and spiritual underpinnings of the faith), and the paramountcy of the Guru Granth Sahib ensured an unshakeable commitment to the tenets of Sikhism. The Sikhs had been given a distinct physical identity and were prepared to uphold the sanctity of their beliefs by sacrificing their lives whenever required.
Just before his death Guru Gobind Singh, with his unerring instinct, had sensed in Banda Singh Bahadur the qualifications and capabilities of a future leader. Banda, believed to have been born in Kashmir, was at ease everywhere, which was how he had come to settle in Nander. He had been a farmer and a hunter, and had earned a reputation as a formidable fighter. At the same time, he possessed the willpower and the discipline to practise yoga and live an ascetic life. In converting this seemingly pacific sadhu to the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind released his red-hot feelings for worthy causes.
Burning with hatred for those who had perpetrated such vile crimes against a noble and courageous leader like Guru Gobind Singh and his family, Banda was determined on vengeance. He set out for Punjab, almost 1500 miles away, with only 25 armed followers. But he was also armed with Gobind Singh’s hukamnamahs (directives) to all Sikh sangats to rally round his banner. The Guru had given him five arrows from his own quiver, a nishan sahib (flag) and a nagara (war drum) as symbols of authority. Banda’s tiny force soon swelled with the addition of warriors eager to strike back at their Mughal tormentors.
Reaching Punjab after a journey of several months and after many armed clashes on the way, Banda and his men arrived at the gates of Samana (near Patiala), home of Sayyed Jalal-ud-din, Guru Tegh Bahadur’s executioner, and Shashal Beg, who had executed Guru Gobind Singh’s two sons. An unexpected dawn attack on the heavily fortified town of Samana killed over 10,000 of its defenders according to one estimate of the time. The force that had been contemptuously written off by the town’s military commander was joined by an oppressed peasantry, who poured into the Mughal citadel to wreak their own vengeance. Other towns fell before Banda’s men – Ghuram, Thaska, Mustafabad, Kapuri. Sadhaura and finally Sirhind, the town whose governor Wazir Khan had ordered the deaths of Guru Gobind Singh’s two younger sons. He had then sent two assassins to Nander to kill the Guru. Given the extent to which Sikh anger would boil over at the very mention of Sirhind, the outcome of the first savage battle that took place at Chappar Chiri, some 10 miles from the city, was never in doubt, Wazir Khan’s well-equipped army of 20,000 men fought a far smaller Sikh force, but he was killed and a Muslim chronicler thus described the outcome: ‘Not a man of the army of Islam escaped with more than his life and the clothes he stood in.’
In May 1710, Sirhind itself was taken after a two-day siege but at a high cost to the Sikhs, who lost 500 men before the fort’s heavy guns were silenced. The destruction of the town was not permitted following a fervent appeal by its Hindu population. Because of its notorious past, however, it was not spared about half a century later when Jassa Singh Ahluwalia’s forces invested it.
In six years Banda’s sweep of victories – after Sirhind he captured Rai Kot, Saharanpur, Jalalabad, Ludhiana, Jullundur. Hoshiarpur, Batala, Kalanaur and Pathankot – brought the Sikhs to the gates of Lahore, a city symbolic of Mughal and Afghan authority in India. In one of his most audacious campaigns, Banda captured the fortress of Mukhlispur built on a promontory on the lower reaches of the Himalayas. He renamed it Lohgarh and flew the flag of the Khalsa over it. He announced that Lohgarh would henceforth represent Sikh authority over the regions now under their control, and seals and coins were struck to celebrate Sikh rule.
An incensed Emperor Bahadur Shah, with a force of 60,000 horsemen, now laid siege to Lohgarh. The Sikh forces consisted of around 3000 horsemen and foot soldiers combined. In the vicious hand-to-hand fighting, while a majority of Banda’s soldiers held the enemy at bay, he and a few of his men escaped. When Banda Singh was finally captured in the siege of the town of Gurdas Nangal (which was taken on 17 December 1715), the Mughals outdid themselves in barbarity. While 300 Sikhs were summarily executed and their heads stuffed with hay, mounted on spears and carried in a victory procession to Lahore, Banda was chained, shackled and locked in a cage, which was then carried on an elephant’s back along with the heads stuffed with hay. After Lahore had celebrated this spectacle, the procession then left for Delhi. After spells of torture alternating with attempts to buy him off, the prisoner was finally taken to the Qutub Minar (a thirteenth-century stone tower, 239 feet in height) where ‘they had him dismount, placed his child in his arms and bade him kill it. Then, as he shrank with horror from the act, they ripped open the child before the father’s eyes, thrust his quivering flesh into his mouth and hacked him to pieces limb by limb’.
After their humiliation under Banda, however, the Mughals could never regain their former pomp, glory and authority. The power of the Khalsa can be judged from this inventory of the weapons and wealth recovered from Gurdas Nangal when it fell after a siege in which a few hundred Sikhs resisted 30,000 imperial troops for eight months: ‘1000 swords, 278 shields, 173 bows and quivers, 180 matchlocks, 114 daggers, 217 long knives, 23 gold mohars, 600 rupees and a few gold ornaments’.
The Sikhs now faced the most savage persecution in their history. With the death of Bahadur Shah in 1712 and the accession of Farrukh Siyar to the throne in 1713, the Mughal empire came to be headed by a man who outstripped all his predecessors in exhibiting gratuitous cruelty. His governors and commanders curried favour with him by sending him severed Sikh heads ‘for his pleasure’. When once Zakariya Khan (who was later to become governor of Lahore under him), presented Emperor Farrukh Siyar in Delhi with a particularly large number of Sikh heads, the overjoyed emperor raised Zakariya’s rank and loaded him with presents. Zakariya vowed to leave no Sikh alive in the Mughal empire, and ordered his men to arrest Sikhs wherever they saw them and bring them to Lahote for daily public executions. He also announced a reward of 50 rupees for every Sikh head brought to him.
But the headhunters’ policies and tactics made the Sikhs even more determined to make the administration pay for its misdeeds. Zakariya Khan, disconcerted by the unending plunder of his treasuries and arsenals and the loss of a number of his men, now tried appeasing the Sikhs. In 1733 he offered them a large jagir (assigned land), which they willingly accepted. This appeasement posed as grievous an error for Zakariya Khan in the long run as his attempts to terrorize them. Here, the Sikhs saw an opportunity for rigorous institutionalization of their activities relating to the larger purpose of safeguarding the faith and its followers from genocidal Mughal attacks. Kapur Singh was the man chosen to head this programme. A tough, self-assured and experienced warrior, he was also deeply devout, and dedicated to building solid institutions that would protect the Sikhs.
Within a year of receiving the jagir, he had organized the Sikhs info different groupings or dals. Veterans over 40 were inducted into the Budha Dal and those below that age into the Taruna Dal. The two dals which would later be merged into the Dal Khalsa, took on responsibilities ranging from armed resistance against the Mughal state and guarding Sikh places of worship to attending to conversions and performing baptisms. The Thrum Dal relished the opportunity of dealing with the Mughal military; the years of Mughal oppression had hardened Sikh farmers into a motivated potential soldiery, with able-bodied men keeping lance and sword by them as they worked on their land. As its membership increased to 12,000, the dal was further divided into five sections, each having its individual commander with his own banner and drum besides administrative control of the territories annexed by him.
These five sections, along with several more which would be formed as time went on led to the formation of the Sikh misls. (The word misl in Arabic means ‘equal’.) The term was first used by Guru Gobind Singh in 1688 during the battle of Bhangani (now in Himachal Pradesh) against the hill rajas, when he organised the Sikhs into groups, each under their own leader with equal power and authority. These groups eventually took the form of twelve misls, which derived their names from their villages or leaders. The twelve misls were: Ahluwalia, Bhangi, Ramgarhia, Faizullapuria, Kanhayia. Sukerchakia, Dallewalia, Shahid or Nihang, Nakkai, Nishanwalia, Karorsinghia and Phulkian. The misl chiefs, who have been compared to the barons of medieval times, had complete control over their territories and their own cavalry and infantry units, essentially to discourage any defiance of their authority They had absolute autonomy, but in times of war, they pooled their resources to take on the enemy. In times of peace, they often fought each other.
The misl warrior was a soldier of fortune, a horseman who owned his own mount and equipment, armed with matchlock, spear and sword. Infantry and artillery were virtually unknown to the Sikhs for serious purposes before the rule of Ranjit Singh. Sikh soldiers despised ‘footmen’, who were assigned the meaner duties – garrison tasks provisioning and taking care of the women. ‘The Sikh horseman,’ according to historian Bikrama Jit Hasrat, ‘was theoretically a soldier of the Khalsa, fired by the mystic ideals of Gobind which he little understood, and he had no politics. He was also a soldier of the Panth [Sikh community], out to destroy the enemies of the Faith in all religious fervour and patriotism. Above all, he was a freelance, a republican with a revolutionary impulse… The armies of the Dal Khalsa, unencumbered by heavy ordnance,
possessed an amazing manoeuvrability. [They] were sturdy and agile men who could swiftly load their matchlocks on horseback and charge the enemy at top speed, repeating the operation several times. They looked down upon the comforts of the tents, carrying their and their animals’ rations of grains in a knapsack, and with two blankets under the saddle as their bedding, they marched off with lightning rapidity In and out of battle’. At the height of their power in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the misls could muster around 70,000 such horsemen.
The Sikhs at that time accounted for only 7 per cent of the population of Punjab, as against 50 per cent Muslims and 42 per cent Hindus. Before attaining their ‘golden period’, they had to face huge and continuing adversity. To start with, Zakariya Khan, having given them a jagir as a peace offering, sent a force two years later to reoccupy it. Given his sadistic characteristics, he had the scholar Bhai Mani Singh, who had been a close companion of Guru Gobind Singh, taken into custody and cut to pieces without purpose or provocation. He then laid siege to Amritsar, plundered the Harmandir Sahib, filled the pool with slaughtered animals and desecrated its relics.
When Zakariya Khan died in 1745 and his son Shah Nawaz Khan succeeded him as governor of Lahore, the progeny proved worse than the parent. Nawaz Khan’s favourite pastime appears to have been to watch the bellies of captive Sikhs being ripped open and iron pegs stuck into their heads. In 10 March 1746 the first of the two so-called ghalugharas (disasters) took place: a large body of Mughal troops under Yahiya Khan massacred 7000 Sikhs, while an additional 3000 were captured and taken to Lahore for public execution. This came to be known as the chhota (small) ghalughara. The wada ghalughara or great disaster – to be described later – took place in February 1762, this time at the hands of the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani dynasty.
The 16 years between the two ghalugharas saw copious bloodshed in Punjab, with the forces of the Khalsa continually set upon by one or another of their three principal enemies. While Nadir Shah of Persia, in repeated incursions into the subcontinent, played havoc with the seat of the Mughal Empire at Delhi, he dealt more sagaciously with the Sikhs, despite the fact that they plundered the loot he was returning home with; he was perceptive enough to avoid armed conflict with people whose homes were their saddles.
Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan was less perceptive. He invaded India eight times between 1748 and 1768, and while he brought the beleaguered Mughals to their knees, his attempts to destroy the Sikhs did not succeed despite his best efforts. To irk the Mughals, in 1748, he audaciously declared Punjab to be a territory of a new Afghanistan after decisively defeating their Lahore governor. Punjab now became the setting for a triangular struggle among the Afghans, Sikhs and Mughals. Abdali and the Mughals wanted to see the end of the Sikhs, but the Khalsa was willing to take on both adversaries.
Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, head of the Ahluwalia misl, liberated the Golden Temple from Mughal control and restored the shrine to its former glory. In 1752 the new governor of Lahore, Mir Mannu, a particularly duplicitous and sadistic man who had defected from the Mughals to the Afghans and was keen to curry favour with Abdali, now officially proclaimed Punjab to be an Afghan province. This act was in defiance of the declared Sikh sovereignty over several
regions and towns of Punjab dating from Banda Singh’s time, and indeed of their plans to annex more territory.
The Sikhs stand was anathema to Abdali. The last straw came when in 1757, they waylaid his baggage train full of the wealth he had plundered from Delhi, Mathura and Vrindavan. The Sikhs also rescued hundreds of captive Hindu girls and returned them to their homes. This was especially humiliating for the Afghans as it occurred during the year in which the Mughal emperor agreed to the annexation of Lahore by Abdali. Incensed, Abdali now told his son Timor Shah, the governor of Lahore to eliminate the ‘accursed infidels’ and their Golden Temple once and for all.
Attacks and counterattacks between the Sikhs and their persecutors formed a continuing dance of death on the landscape of Punjab, culminating in the wada ghalughara on 5 February 1762. In a surprise attack on a large assembly of Sikhs at Kup near Sirhind, Abdali ‘s army, having covered 110 miles in two days, massacred 10,000 to 30,000 Sikhs (estimates vary), a very large number of whom were women and children being escorted to a safer region. In the ferocious fighting, the odds were heavily stacked against the Sikhs.
Abdali now headed for the Golden Temple and struck on 10 April 1762, at a time when thousands had gathered there for the Baisakhi celebrations, which included the most sacred ritual of all – a dip in the holy pool. The bloodbath was horrific. The Harmandir was blown apart with gunpowder. The pool was filled with the debris of destroyed buildings, mutilated human bodies, carcasses of cows and much else. Topping it all, a pyramid of Sikh heads was erected. Within a few months, however, early in 1763, Charat Singh, head of the Sukerchakia misl – whose grandson Ranjit Singh was to be born one and a half decades later – managed to wrest back control of the Golden Temple.
The very next year, however, Abdali was back in India – and once more bore down on the Sikh shrine. Each of the 30 Sikhs present died, defending the sacred edifice, which was once again demolished and defiled. The Sikhs were determined this was the last time the Afghans or the Mughals would over set foot in it. To drive home this point to their adversaries, the Sikhs, in a swift military action, not only annexed Lahore on 16 April 1765, but also declared their sovereignty over the whole of Punjab. To make absolutely clear that political power in the region now rested with them, they struck coins and declared Lahore the mint city, Dar-ul Sultanate (Seat of Sikh Power).
Having brought Punjab under its control, in addition to large parts of what is now Pakistan, plus the present day states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, the Khalsa now-emerged as a significant and substantial territorial power. The process was helped by the economic activities of the 12 misls, which were beginning to prosper as major cultivators of crops such as wheat, rice, pulses, barley, sugarcane, cotton, indigo and jaggery in addition to a wide variety of fruit. Nor were manufacturing, crafts, construction of townships or internal and external trade neglected. Exports were sent to Persia, Arabia, Yarkand, Afghanistan, Chinese Turkestan, Turfan and Bokhara. Lahore and Amritsar, between them, also produced increasingly fine silks, shawls, woollen materials, carpets and metalware. The Sikhs, with their entrepreneurial drive and inclination to spend well and indulge themselves fully, were changing the character of Punjab.
In March 1783 an event took place that would have been inconceivable a few years earlier. A combined misl force under Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, outstanding among the Sikh chiefs for his qualities of leadership, entered Delhi, the imperial seat of the once mighty Mughals. Some of the misl leaders arrived at the Red Fort, which represented Mughal power, and walked into the emperor’s audience hall. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia had himself installed on the imperial throne. It was a symbolic move but its meaning was clear to all. The Khalsa withdrew only after the emperor agreed to an annual tribute. But when he broke his promise in 1785 the Sikhs returned to Delhi and subjugated it once again. They had no wish to take permanent possession of the city, but they made the emperor agree – which he readily did – to the construction of eight gurdwaras, each built on a site with a special significance for the Sikhs, one of them being Gurdwara Sis Ganj, on the spot where Emperor Aurangzeb had had Guru Tegh Bahadur, father of Guru Gobind Singh, tortured and beheaded in November 1675.
What the arrival of Sikh contingents in Delhi made clear to everyone was how far the Sikhs had come from the day Guru Nanak had founded the faith, despite the persecution they had faced over the centuries. Having forced their way to the heart of the Mughal empire unfazed by the odds, they made their entrance with supreme aplomb. Even more impressive was the extent to which the secular and civilized principles of their religious teachings were maintained. No orgy of bloodshed was indulged in despite the number of revered Sikhs who had been brought to Delhi over the years to be barbarically put to death by successive Mughal rulers.
The misls contributed significantly to the Sikh vision, with its moral underpinnings. Each of them consolidated Sikh power in Punjab by imaginatively developing their territories and providing just administration. ‘In all contemporary records, mostly in Persian’, one modern historian points out, ‘written generally by Muslims as well as by Maratha agents posted at a number of places in Northern India, there is not a single instance either in Delhi or elsewhere in which Sikhs raised a finger against women …..’ And as we have seen, with Sikh rule now established over large parts of the Punjab, its people experienced a sense of security and witnessed a rapid increase in prosperity to a much greater degree than over the past half a century.
Two Afghan rulers, however, still had to be dealt with: Abdali’s son Timur Shah, who succeeded him in 1772, and Timur’s son Zaman Shah, who ascended the throne after his father’s death in 1793. While Timur Shah avoided the Sikhs as far as possible. Zaman Shah, during one of his invasions, briefly occupied Lahore before being thrown out (events of this period will be described later). Notwithstanding the help he received from some Hindu rajas and various Muslim rulers, and from the British whose expanding hold over India was being helped by India’s unending infighting, Zaman too failed to consolidate his position. His failure was, in fact accelerated by the British – past masters in the art of deceitful diplomacy – who got an Iranian adventurer in their pay to persuade the Persian King Fateh Ali Shah to march into Afghanistan while Zaman was in India and to prevail on Prince Mahmud of Herat to revolt against the Afghans. Zaman’s ardour for his fourth and last invasion of India rapidly cooled as he hurried back to deal with the disastrous turn of events at home.
The eighteenth century was a costly one for the Sikhs. It has been estimated that Guru Gobind Singh, in his battles with the Mughals, lost about 5000 men, and Banda Singh at least 25,000. After Banda Singh’s execution, Abdus Samad Khan, governor of (1713-26), killed not less than 20,000 Sikhs and his son and successor Zakariya Khan (1726-45) an equal number. Yahiya Khan (1746-47) accounted for some 10,000 Sikhs in a single campaign after the chotta ghalughara, the first disaster. His brother Shah Nawaz Khan assassinated nearly 1000 Sikhs in 1747 and his brother-in Muin-ul-Mulk, between 1748 and 1753, more than 30.000.
Muin-ul-Malik. better known as Mir Mannu, earned no laurels on the battlefield but indulged his sadistic instincts in his sinecure as governor of Punjab. This period is held to be the darkest in Punjab’s history. The price for every Sikh head brought to this governor was Rs 10 and his inhumane treatment of those brought to him alive was legendary.
These rulers and interlopers were mostly Central Asians or Turks, Adeena Beg Khan, a Punjabi Arain, put to death at least 5000 Sikhs in 1758. Ahmad Shah Abtial and his Afghan governors killed around 60,000 Sikhs between 1753 and 1767. Abdali’s deputy, Najib-ud-Daulah, also an Afghan, slew nearly 20,000.’Petty officials and the public’ may have killed 4,000.
To this total of over 200,000 Sikhs killed over the first 70 years of the eighteenth century must be added the casualties of the clashes with Timur Shah and Zaman Shah.
Jyoti M Rai is renowned Numismatist specializing in coins of the Sikh period since the 1980’s.