The battle of Chamkaur is a story of infusing a strong military ideology among peasants which led to the ultimate downfall of two of the strongest empires (Muslim and Afghan) seen in the history of the world and creation of a new one — the Sikh Empire
In western history, battles that have changed the course of history are well chronicled. They also form part of the folklore of the country. Two such examples are the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
If a similar chronicle of great battles which changed the course of history in India were to be compiled, the Battle of Chamkaur would be given a position of great significance. The battle was fought over three days from December 21 to 23, 1704 between the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh and the coalition forces of the Mughals and Rajput hill chieftains.
This battle resulted in infusing a strong military ideology among peasants which led to the ultimate downfall of two of the strongest empires (Muslim and Afghan) seen in the history of the world and creation of a new one — the Sikh Empire.
This battle brought to the forefront the legacy of the tenth and last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, in evolving one of the best communities and most noble community of soldiers that the world has seen.
In the Battle of Chamkaur, Guru Gobind Singh along with his two sons and forty followers withstood the might of a Muslim and Rajput coalition from a small Haveli (House) which
providentially had high mud walls surrounding it. The enemy force comprising of Infantry, horse cavalry and artillery guns was about 1000 strong.
Guru Gobind Singh hailed from an illustrious lineage. He was a saint, a soldier, an intellectual, a poet and a visionary apart from being a spiritual Guru of the Sikhs. The policies followed by Guru Gobind Singh find roots in the events that took place during the times of his great grandfather and fifth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Arjan Dev who was tortured to death by the Mughals due to his faith in the Sikh religion. The
martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev for the cause of his faith was a catalyst for the otherwise peace loving community of farmers to take up arms for its protection and to secure its identity.
Guru Hargobind, the son of Guru Arjan Dev and his successor proclaimed to the house of the Gurus both temporal and religious powers. He became the first soldier saint of the sect and took trappings of royalty while maintaining an armed body of troops. The seed of a conflict with the authority of the Mughal rulers was laid at that time itself.
The three Gurus of the Sikhs after Guru Hargobind namely, Guru Har Rai, Guru Harkishen and Guru Tegh Bahadur, maintained their forces but were basically men of peace. Guru Govind Singh was also brought up in an environment where learning of martial arts formed part of his education along with spiritual and other aspects.
Guru Tegh Bahadur, the father of Guru Gobind Singh, embraced martyrdom on November 11, 1675 for the sake of the Kashmir Pundit community that was being forcibly converted to Islam by Emperor Aurangzeb.
Though of young age, Guru Gobind Singh, on becoming the spiritual leader of his sect, was determined to convert his community into a force that would fight against all forms of evil and oppression.
He maintained a formidable force that comprised of Sikhs and Muslims and fought a few battles against the Mughals and other forces of evil. The most famous among these were the Battle of Bhangani at Paonta near modern Dehra Dun in 1986 and the Battle of Nadaun near Kangra in modern day Himachal Pradesh in 1991
By then the Guru had realised that survival of his sect as well as the weak and the oppressed depended upon facing up to atrocities being committed by Muslim rulers. It was in furtherance of this thought that he created the Khalsa on March 30, 1699.
The Khalsa was given a distinct identity with five symbols of Kesh (long hair) Kangha (comb) Karha (steel bracelet) Kirpan (short dagger) and Kaccha (long undergarment). The Khalsa was enjoined to maintain a brotherhood of arms and take decisions collectively to fight the oppressor for the sake of the helpless. Western historians credit their
countries for the introduction of dress code, drill and discipline in Indian fighting forces. Guru Gobind Singh did this much before the advent of the colonising forces in India by giving to his sect a distinct identity with prominent symbols.
Much after Guru Gobind Singh had attained martyrdom, his Khalsa carried on with their symbols which made them distinguishable to the enemy among the population; this made them stand and fight while being ever conscious of the legacy and responsibility that their Guru had bestowed upon them.
Once the Khalsa was formed, it started attracting people in vast numbers. The hill princes got nervous of the rising power and military strength of Guru Gobind Singh and they called upon the Mughals to quell the same.
Accordingly the joint forces of the Mughals and the hill princes attacked the Sikh forces that were tactically
dispersed in five forts. Guru Gobind Singh with a small force and the women and small children of his family were in the fortress of Anandpur sahib.
The coalition forces could not gain the quick victory that they were looking for and were forced into laying siege on Anandpur Sahib to isolate the Guru from his forces. The Khalsa refused to relent. The invading forces were attacked with artillery fire and subject to lightning raids in which supplies were seized and terrible casualty inflicted upon the invaders. All attempts to storm the citadel were unsuccessful.
The situation went on for seven long months and the coalition forces started feeling the pressure of stretched
logistics and massive losses.
It was at that stage that a proposal of safe passage to the Guru, his family and his followers along with negotiation for peace on honourable terms was sent on the name of Emperor Aurangzeb himself; the other chieftains likewise gave their sacred word.
Guru Gobind Singh was not ready to take the offer since he knew that the enemy was also at his last breath and would be forced to pick up the siege due to approaching winters. However, in view of the suffering of women and
children and pressure from his mother the Guru agreed to take the safe passage.
Guru Govind Singh with his family came out of Anandpur Sahib Fort on a cold night in December. No sooner were they out in the open they were attacked by enemy forces on the banks of the rivulet Sarsa.
The Sikhs, about 400 strong, fought a rear guard action that has no parallel in the annals of military history and successfully made their Guru cross the rivulet along with his two elder sons Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh and forty Khalsa. Unfortunately, his mother, Mata Gujri and two younger sons, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh got separated. They were later captured by the Governor of Sirhind and the young Sahibzadas (Princes) were interned alive in a brick wall. The Sikhs forming the rear guard perished in the battle.
It was then that the contingent took a stand at the Haveli in Chamkaur. The enemy was so much in fear of the Guru and his soldiers that it once again offered truce and safe passage which the Guru declined and thereby started yet another epic siege.
The Sikhs rained arrows at the enemy forces from within and sallied forth in small batches in what would today be called suicide missions. They struck terror among the enemy and killed them in large numbers before falling to a hero’s death. The young sons of the Guru, Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh, also went out and fought to their last breath.
When the strength was totally depleted and only eleven Khalsa soldiers were left with the Guru, they invoked the oath of the Khalsa which makes it incumbent for the Guru to heed the advice of five of his disciples and impelled him to leave the fortress. The Khalsa then fought to the last with one dressed as the Guru to deceive the enemy.
The Guru was helped by many disciples, including Muslims, to escape; yet another battle was fought at Machhiwara before he managed to reach the safety of a place called Dina. At Dina, he wrote a historic missive to Emperor Aurangzeb called the Zafarnama.
In the Zafarnama, the Guru explained to the Emperor the perfidy of his generals and Governors. Aurangzeb realised that a great wrong had been committed and invited the Guru for a personal meeting. Before the Guru could meet Aurangzeb, the latter died in the Deccan. The guru was also stabbed by two assassins sent by the Nawab of Sirhind who feared that his deceitful behavior would stand exposed and he died of the wounds.
The Battle of Chamkaur laid bare the moral degradation, cowardice and vulnerability of the Mughal imperial forces.
The fact that they used deceit to defeat an adversary much weaker in strength indicated their unwillingness to fight with determination.
Their inability to attack and overcome even forty Sikhs in a mud fortress pointed towards the inefficiency of the military leadership.
The proclivity of the Mughal rulers to terrorise its subjects into submission became apparent, it also became quite obvious that when faced with determined opposition they did not have the will to fight back.
The Sikhs, on the other hand got converted into an ideologically driven and motivated fighting force of such
fearlessness that they volunteered to follow the path of martyrdom shown to them by their Guru and this gave them the upper hand despite all odds of numerical inferiority.
(The Writer is a reputed defence expert, columnist, commentator and author)