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Sunday, Dec 04, 2022

Lachit Barphukan at 400: Remembering the naval chief who defeated Aurangzeb’s army and prevented the Mughal conquest of Assam

At the battle of Saraighat in 1671, Lachit Barphukan had galvanised the forces of Ahom kingdom to inflict a heavy defeat on Mughal forces led by Rajput king Ram Singh

The battle of Saraighat proved that Lachit Barphukan was a master strategist who can be compared with the great generals in any part of India. (Express Archive)

The Assam government is celebrating at a national level the 400th birth anniversary of Lachit Barphukan, the iconic hero of Assam, on November 23, 24 and 25 in New Delhi. Son of the great warrior-statesman Momai Tamuli Barbarua, Lachit was born on November 24, 1622, and grew up during a turbulent period of Assam’s history. Mir Jumla, the Governor of Bengal, ordered by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, had invaded Assam, overwhelmed the Assamese forces, and captured Garhgaon, the capital of the ruling Ahom Dynasty, on March 17, 1662.

The Ahom king Jaydhwaj Singha was forced to sign on January 23, 1663, the treaty of Ghilajharighat, whereby he was required not only to cede Ahom territory in central and lower Assam, pay war indemnities as well as an annual tribute, but also send his only daughter to the imperial harem at Delhi.

This treaty dealt a huge blow to Assamese nationalist pride. Chafing under the ignominy of having to pay annual tribute, meant to underline the assumption that the Ahom king was a vassal of Delhi, Chakradhwaj Singha, who succeeded Jaydhwaj Singha, was determined to oust the invaders from the Ahom kingdom and retrieve the lost territory.

Under the guidance of another great warrior statesman Atan Burhagohain, the king began training soldiers so that they would be ready for battle. The armament industry too was in full swing, as was boat-making. By 1667, the king was satisfied that war preparations were complete and he could make his move against the occupying Mughal forces. He chose the relatively young Lachit to command his army, investing him with the Barphukan (commander) rank.

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From August that year, the Ahom army embarked on a fast and furious campaign, attacking and destroying a number of Mughal outposts, till it reached the principal target of Guwahati. After a two-month siege of the fort there, Lachit made a frontal attack on the night of November 4, 1667. Hundreds of Mughal soldiers were killed, and the few who managed to escape from the fort and fled on boats were chased beyond the river Manas.

Lachit was under no illusion that the Mughal emperor in Delhi would not react and send a sizable force on a punitive mission. In order to repulse the imminent Mughal attack, Lachit began strengthening the fortifications at Guwahati.

The defence preparations were ingenious, indeed! For instance, Guwahati was dotted with hillocks close to both banks of the Brahmaputra, providing the defenders with the advantage of height in launching a barrage of artillery at enemy war-boats coming up the Brahmaputra, or troops advancing by land. Lachit closed the gaps between the hills with earthen ramparts so as to erect a protective ring about twenty five miles in circumference around Guwahati.

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Legend has it that, during the construction of the ramparts, Lachit beheaded his own uncle for negligence in carrying out his allotted duties, uttering the immortal phrase, “My uncle is not greater than my motherland!”

News of the Mughal defeat reached Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi in December 1667. Sure enough, he sent a huge army of 30,000 infantry, 18,000 Turkish cavalry and 15,000 Koch archers, as also numerous war-boats, under the overall command of the Rajput king Ram Singh of the famous Kuchchwa clan and son of Raja Jai Singh of Amber.

In the initial stages of the Mughal campaign, there was no single, direct confrontation. While Ram Singh was chary of launching a direct assault on the well-fortified Ahom encampment at Guwahati, Lachit’s strategy was to stall the enemy’s advance by land because he wanted to lure the Mughals into a naval battle. Thus numerous sporadic, limited engagements continued through 1669 and 1670, none of the adversaries getting the upper hand.

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Finally, due to the growing impatience of Aurangzeb at the protracted nature of the campaign, Ram Singh was coerced into undertaking a direct assault. The Rajput general was also encouraged by the news that Lachit was seriously ill and bed-ridden and could not lead the Ahom army.

Thus commenced the famous battle of Saraighat in March, 1671, one in which the Ahoms dealt a mortal blow to Mughal expansionist ambitions. Initially, however, the Ahom soldiers, not finding Lachit at the head, were demoralised and the danger of defeat grew real. News of this reached the gravely ill Barphukan. He barked out instructions, and his attendants carried him onto a war-boat which rowed swiftly towards the enemy. A miracle occurred. At the sight of Lachit coming to lead them, the soldiers were energised with new courage and hope. The Mughal forces were chased beyond the Manas river. It was a decisive victory for the Assamese.

The battle of Saraighat proved that Lachit Barphukan was a master strategist who can be compared with the great generals in any part of India. Aptly, the Lachit Barphukan gold medal, instituted in 1999, is given to the best cadet from the National Defence Academy.

Dutta is a writer based in Guwahati

First published on: 24-11-2022 at 06:25:54 pm
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