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The Siege and Fall of Gurdas Nangal

The reports of the re-appearance of the Sikhs and their conquests in the Punjab were now regularly pouring in at the court of Delhi to the great alarm of Emperor Farrukh Siyar and his Amirs. Out of fear, or for some other reason, Abd-us-Samad Khan Diler-i-Jang, Governor of Lahore, had taken no measures to deal with them. At this time he had marched southwards to the Lakkhi Jungle to repress an outbreak of the Bhatti Zamindars, probably to avoid a conflict with Banda Singh. The Emperor now administered a sharp reproof to him on the 15th Rabi-ul-Awwal, 1127 (20th March, 1715) and ordered Qamr-ud-Din Khan, son of Itmad-ud-Daulla Muhammad Amin Khan, Afrasiyab Khan the third Bakhshi, Muz.affar Khan, Raja Udet Singh Bundela, Raja Gopal Singh Bhadauriya and many other Hindu and Muslim nobles to proceed with their respective troops to the Punjab to reinforce Diler-i-Jang in his expedition against the Sikhs.1 Imperial parwanas were also addressed to the various Faujdars and Jagirdars in the Punjab to join their troops with him. On receipt of these orders, Mirza Ahmad Khan, Faujdar of Gujrat, at the head of a large number of Sayyeds well-equipped with the implements of war, lradatmand Khan Faujdar of Eminabad, Nur Muhammad Khan of Aurangabad and Pasrur, Shaikh Muhammad Dayam of Batala, Sayyed Hafeez Ali Khan of Haibatpur Patti, Suhrab Khan of Kalanaur, Raja Bhim Singh of Katauch, and Har Deva, son of Raja Dhrub Deva of Jasrota, assembled their forces at Lahore. Arif Beg Khan, Deputy Ganj, perhaps, waiting for the arrival of Abd-us-Samad Khan from the south.2

Banda Singh, on the other side, was not unaware of the preparations being made at Lahore. He had, therefore, decided to throw up a mud fortification at Kot Mirza Jan, a small village between Kalanaur and Batala. But before its defences could be complete, the combined forces of the above Faujdars under the chief command of Abd-us-Samad Khan and his deputy Arif Beg fell upon the Sikhs. 'Banda', says the author of the Siyar-ul­ Mutakherin, 'stood his ground to the amazement of all, and in the first engagement he fought so heroically that he was very near giving a complete defeat to the Imperial General; for although vigorously pursued, he retired from post to post, like a savage of wilderness from thicket to thicket, losing endlessly his men, and occasioning losses to his persuers.' And, according to Khafi Khan, 'the infidels fought so fiercely that the army of Islam was nearly overpowered; and they over and over again showed the greatest daring.' But they had no place of defence, and were, therefore, forced to evacuate their positions and fall back upon Gurdaspur.3

The actual place of their retreat was the old village of Gurdas Nangal, now a heap of ruins, known as Bande-wali Theh, lying one mile to the west of the present village of Gurdas Nangal, about four miles to the west of the town of Gurdaspur and about one mile from the villages of Nawapind, Purowal Rajputan, Purowal Jattan and Kalianpur to the north-east, north, north-west and south-west respectively. It had had no regular fort.4 The Sikhs had, therefore, to shelter themselves in the ihata or enclosure of Bhai Duni Chand. Fortunately for Banda Singh and his companions, the enclosure, with a strong massive wall around it, was spacious enough to accommodate all his men. Banda Singh made every effort to strengthen his defenses and collect stores of rations and ammunition. To keep the enemy at a respectable distance from his fortifications, he surrounded it by a moat filled from the neighbouring canal. He also cut the Imperial Canal, called the Shahi Nahar, and other small streams flowing from below the hills and allowed the water to spread and form a quagmire round the place so that the enemy-the man or horse-­ could not easily come close to the enclosure.5

On the 13th Rabi-ul Akhir, 1127 (17th April, 1715), reports were received by Emperor Farrukh Siyar at Delhi that Abd-us­ Samad Khan had followed the Sikhs to their new position at Gurdas Nangal [Gurdaspur] and that the Imperial Amirs were busy in digging trenches and raising mounds for the siege. He asked Itmad-ud-Daula to write Abd-us-Samad Khan to kill or imprison the Sikh Chief and his followers.6

When Abd-us-Samad Khan and his allies arrived at Gurdas Nangal, many of the Sikhs were out in the villages for the collection of supplies. Number of them fell into the hands of the Imperialists, columns of whom were scouring the country in search of them. They were brought into the camp and executed with every indignity and cruelty.7

The enclosure containing the Sikhs was immediately surrounded and blockaded, and the besiegers kept 'so watchful a guard that not a blade of grass, nor a grain of corn, could find it way in.' Occasionally Abd-us-Samad Khan and his son Zakriya Khan, at the head of several thousand troopers of their own nation and the forces of their allies, attempted to storm the Sikh position, but their attempts were defeated by comparatively a handful of Sikhs, who showed the greatest activity in their defense, Muhammad Qasim, the author of the !brat Namah, who was in the service of Arif Beg Khan, Deputy Governor of Lahore and who was at this time present in these operations, writes : 'The brave and daring deeds of the infernal Sikhs were wonderful. Twice or thrice every day some forty or fifty of the black-faced Sikhs came out of their enclosure to gather grass for their cattle, and when the combined forces of the Imperialists went to oppose them, they [Sikhs] made an end of the Mughals with arrows, muskets and small swords, and disappeared. Such was the terror of the Sikhs and the fear of the sorceries of the Sikh chief that the commanders of this army prayed that God might so ordain things that Banda [Singh] should seek his safety in his flight from the Garhi.'8 These brave sorties and further progress of investment were reported to the Emperor in a letter received at Delhi on the 26th Rabi-ul-Akhir, 1127 (30th April, 1715).'9

'Abd-us-Samad Khan soon perceived that no less than thirty thousand men would be required to prevent escape of the besieged. The reinforcements brought by Qamr-ud-Din were therefore very welcome. When the line of investment was carried to within cannon-shot of the [so called] fortress, the work of closing it in on all sides was divided among the various commanders. Abd-us-Samad Khan took one side, Qamr-ud-Din and Zakriya Khan received charge of two sides, and the fourth side was made over to the Faujdars and Zamindars. United efforts being necessary, the tents were pitched close together all round the fort and rope was joined to rope.'10

Abd-us-Samad Khan now raised batteries and pushed forward his approaches, while the Sikhs, on the other side, maintained a steady defense and exhibited great courage and daring, pouring missiles, night and day, into the enemy's camp. They made frequent sallies into the besiegers' trenches and killed great number of them. To protect themselves and their horses and other animals, the soldiers of the Imperial forces threw up an earth bank, ten to twenty yards long, before each tent and sheltered themselves behind it. Slowly and slowly, unnoticed by the Sikhs, they closed all the openings between each shelter, and before the Sikhs were aware of it, they were surrounded as if by a wall. The Sikhs on several occasions showed the greatest boldness and daring to sweep the obstacles away, and carried away from the besiegers' camp whatever they could lay their hands on. Baba Binod Singh occasionally came out of the enclosure and carried away Shirini and other eatables from the bazar of the besiegers' camp. The whole of the camp was wonder-struck at the boldness of the old Sikh. All efforts to capture him proved futile. If they kept vigilance in the morning, he descended upon them in the evening, and if they remained watchful in the evening, he attacked them in the afternoon; and every time he was off before they could rise to the occasion.11 'So bold and indomitable were the Gurus' followers, that they impressed their adversaries with the greatest respect for their fighting qualities. It was feared that the garrison might, by a sortie en masse and by sacrificing themselves, secure the escape of their leader [Banda Singh].' Not only this, but the superstitious soldiery were convinced that he possesses great magical powers by which he could tum himself into the shape of a dog or a cat, and it was under this belief that they rushed upon every dog or cat coming from the Sikh enclosure, and were not satisfied till it fell dead under their stones and arrows. Thus the siege and struggle continued for several-months, and there was great loss on both sides.12

By slow degrees, the approaches of the besiegers had by now been rushed forward a musket-shot nearer to the walls, and it was resolved to surround the Sikh enclosure with a field work. A thousand axe-men and a thousand carpenters were employed in cutting trees, and two thousand camels were used in carrying trees, and two thousand camels were used in carrying wood and earth to the spot. When the circle round the enclosure had been completed, mounds of earth were raised on the trunks of the trees from distance to distance, and a deep and wide ditch was dug at the foot of the stockade. In spite of all blockades and obstacles on the part of the besiegers, the Sikhs continued their sallies and inflicted heavy losses upon their opponents. Their defense was so strong and they pour1 d so deadly a fire from within that the Imperialists dared not appear in the open to attack and storm their position. Abd-us-Samad Khan had lost all hopes of success against so determined and valiant a foe. All his efforts to approach a gate and walls of the Sikh enclosure had failed. The only alternative left to approach it by underground means. He, therefore, ordered to drive subterranean passages towards the comers of the ihata. This was comparatively successful. Before Abd-us-Samad Khan's approaches had reached the main gate, Qamr-ud-Din Khan succeeded in capturing the ditch and a bastion, from which the musketry fire of the garrison had done great execution. Zakriya Khan obtained possession of a second gate, the one chiefly used by the garrison. Other commanders and Faujdars also advanced their works, and the Sikhs were hemmed in from all sides.13

So close was the investment now, that it became impossible for the Sikhs to bring in anything from outside. Their confinement for eight long months had exhausted their already small stock of provisions, 'not a grain being left in their store-house.' Famine now commenced its ravages amongst the besieged Sikhs and they were reduced to great extremities. They are said to have made overtures to the Muhammadan soldiers, from over their walls, to buy a little grain from them at the rate of two or three rupees a seer. But this could not help them, and they began to suffer the utmost extremes of hunger.14

At this stage a difference of opinion is said to have occurred between Binod Singh and Banda Singh. A very frivolous cause is assigned to it by the author of the Mahma Prakash. He says that Banda Singh expressed a desire to marry a second wife. But it cannot be believed that he could have thought of marriage in the pitiable plight to which he was then reduced, starving to the point of death. Apparently it arose in a council of war over the proposal of evacuating the enclosure and following their old tactics of cutting through the enemy's lines for a place of safety. Banda Singh, it seems, was not in favour of it, for reasons best known to him, while Binod Singh stuck to his own. Hot words were exchanged between the two, and then their hands went to the hilts of their swords. At this moment, Kahan Singh, son of Binod Singh, stepped in between his father and Banda Singh. It was decided that one of them should leave the place. Binod Singh accepted the decision, and, mounting his horse, he rode out of the enclosure, and, with sword in hand, he cut through the besiegers all alone and was off in an instant.15

The difference was now overcome, but there was no remedy for the distress of hunger which was increasing day by day. In the absence of grain, horses, asses and other animals were converted into food and eaten. 'Also as the Sikhs were not strict observers of caste,' says Irvine on the authority of Khafi Khan, 'they slaughtered oxen and other animals, and not having any fire­ wood, ate the flesh raw. Many died of dysentery and privation. When all the grass was gone, they gathered leaves from trees. When these were consumed, they stripped the bark and broke off the small shoots, dried them, ground them and used them instead of flour, thus keeping the body and soul together. They also collected the bones of animals and used them in the same way. Some assert that they saw a few of them cutting flesh from their own thighs, roasting it, and eating it.' 'In spite of all this, the infernal Sikh Chief and his men,' says Kamwar Khan, 'withstood all the military force that the great Mughal Empire could muster against them for eight long months.' But how long could this continue? After all they were human beings. Their never-ending starvation and the devouring of uneatable and inconsumable things, like and shoots of trees, and dry bones of dead animals wrecked their physical system and produced a bloody flux which carried them away by hundreds and thousands. The obnoxious smell of putrid bodies of the dead and dying men and animals made the place uninhabitable. The survivors were reduced to mere skeletons. They were all half-dead, unable to use their muskets. Their magazines were emptied of their contents and it became practically impossible for them to offer any resistance and continue the defense any longer.16

At last on Wednesday the 21st Zi-ul-Hijja, 1127 (17th December, 1715), the Sikh enclosure at Gurdas Nangal, the so­ called fortress of Gurdaspur, fell into the hands of besiegers. The surviving Sikhs in the ihata, as we know, had been physically incapacitated and disabled to continue the defense, but the Imperialists were still benumbed with terror and they dared not enter their enclosure. Abd-us-Samad Khan promised to intercede with the Emperor for a free pardon from them. But, when the gates were opened, the besieged including Banda Singh were made prisoners. The Imperialists fell upon the half-dead Sikhs like hungry wolves. Abd-us-Samad Khan had some two or three hundred of them bound hand and foot and made over to the Mughal and Tartar soldiers, who 'put them to the sword and filled that extensive plain with blood as if it had been a dish.' The dead bodies of the Sikhs were ripped open in search of gold coins, supposed to have been swallowed by them, and their heads were then stuffed with hay and mounted on spears.17

This news of the fall of the so-called fort, sent in by Abd-us- Samad Khan, was reported to the Emperor Farrukh Siyar at Delhi by Muhammad Amin Khan on the 26th Zi-ul-Hijja, 1128 (22nd December, 1715), at the very time when he was celebrating the anniversary of his victory over Jahandar Shah. 'It was by the grace of God, and not by wisdom or bravery,' says Kamwar Khan, 'that this came to happen. Otherwise, it is known to everyone that the late Emp1eror Bahadur Shah, with the four royal princes and numerous high officials, had made efforts to repress this rebellion, but it was all fruitless, and now that infidel of the Sikh and a few thousand of his companions have been starved into surrender.'

Notes and References

  1. Kamwar; Tazkirah, 176 a-b.
  2. Qasim, Ibrat Namah, 41; Umdat-ut-Tawarikh, 90.
  3. Qasim, Ibrat Namah, 41-2, Rasala Sahib Numa, 195; Umdat-ut­Tawarikh, 90; Seir Mutagherin, Raymond 88; Briggs 77; Muntakhib-ul­ Lubab ii. 762; Elliot, vii. 456. It may be mentioned here that Muhammad Qasim, the author of the Ibrat Namah which is one of our original sources and has been so often referred to, was present in these operations and at the siege of Gurdas Nangal, being then in the service of Arif Beg Khan, Deputy Governor of Lahore.
  4. 'Their chief,' says the author of the Seir Mutagherin, 'had long ago built a strong castle, in which they kept their wives and families with the booty they used to make in their course' (Raymond p. 89), while according to Cunningham it was built during the reign of Jahandar Shah (p. 93). Forster (p. i. 266) and Malcolm (p. 81) confound it with the fort of Lohgarh (Mukhlispur-Sadhaura). We have followed Muhammad, Qasim, whose reliability, as he was present in these operations, cannot be questioned.
  5. Qasim, Ibrat Namah, 42; Risala Sahib Numa, 195; Umdat-ut-Tawarikh, 90; Latif, History of the Punjab, 279.
  6. Kamwar, Tazkirah, 176b.
  7. Ibrat Namah, 42.
  8. Ibrat Namah, 42.
  9. Kamwar. Takirah, 176 b.
  10. Farrukh Siyar Namah, as quoted by Irvine, i. 313.
  11. Mahma Prakash (Poetry), 613 a-b.
  12. Farrukh Siyar Namah. Khafi Khan ii. 762-3; Yahiya Khan, Tazkirat-ul­ Maluk, Irvine, i. 314.
  13. Farrukh Siyar Namah, Irvine. i. 314.
  14. Khafi Khan. ii. 762-3, Elliot, vii. 457; Maasir-ul-Umra. ii. 516; Ansari, Bahr-ul-Mawwaj. 228 a; Forster Travels, i. 266 : Risala Sahib Numa. 196: Prachin Panth Parkash, 182-4; Irvine, i. 314.
  15. Sarup Chand. Mahma Prakash; Karam Singh, Banda Bahadur, 176-7: Macauliffe Sikh Religion. v. 252.
  16. Muntakhib-ul-Lubab, ii. 763; Irvine, i. 315.

According to the Siyar-ul-Mutakherin, 'the besiegers kept so watchful a guard that not a blade of grass, nor a grain of com, could find its way to the fort; and the magazines within being at last emptied of their contents as the blockade drew to a length, a famine commenced its ravages amongst the besieged who fell at eating anything that came in their way. Asses. horses. and even oxen became food, and what is incredible, cows were devoured. Nevertheless such was the animosity of those wild beasts, and such their consciousness of what they had deserved, that not one of them would talk of a surrender. But everything within, even to the most loathsome, having already been turned into food. and this having produced bloody flux that swept them by shoals.' (Siyar-ul Mutakherin, p. 402, Rcymond i. 89, Briggs, 78). Also see Miftah-ul-Tawarikh, 398; Cunningham, 93-4; Latif, History of the Punjab, 279; Sikhon ka Utthan aur Pattan, 69.

Mirza Muhammad Harisi writes in his Swaneh or the Ibrat Namah that Banda Singh offered to pay a large sum to Abd-us-Samad Khan if he allowed him to escape, and that the latter refused to accept the bribe. This statement of Mirza Harisi is not supported by any other writer on the subject.

  1. Kamwar, Tazkirat-us-Salatin, 178 a-179 b; Khafi Khan, Muntakhib-ul­ Lubab, ii. 763-5; Elliot, vii. 457; Harisi, Ibrat Namah, 45 a; Iradat Khan, Memoirs, 144; Bahar-ul-Mawwaj, 228 a; Irvine, i. 315; Latif, 279. According to the Siyar-ul-Mutakherin, 'the Imperial General ordered them to repair to an eminence, where they would see a pair of colours planted, and where they were to depose their arms and clothes, after which they might repair to his camp. The famished wretches, obliged to comply with an order which foreboded nothing good, obeyed punctually like beasts reduced to their last shift, and having been made who had orders to carry them close to the river that ran under their walls, and there to throw the bodies after having beheaded them all. (Raymond, i. 89; Briggs, 78).