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The Battle of Bhangani

A Violent Reaction of Hindu Orthodoxy

On September 18, 1688[1], the Guru fought the Battle of Bhangani against Fateh Shah and his allies. As to the circumstances which led to the battle, different versions are professed. The Sikh records state that Bhim Chand asked the Guru for the loan of Parsadi elephant both to assert his suzerainty and to use it on the occassion of the betrothal ceremony of his son. The Guru refused to oblige which embittered Bhim Chand who vowed to take revenge on him. Bhim Chand consulted some of his brother chieftains, Raja Kirpal of Katoch among others as to the course he should pursue to deal with the Guru for this rebuff. It was ultimately decided that this subject be finally taken up soon after the ensuing marriage of Bhim Chand's son with the daughter of Fateh Shah. Fateh Shah himself had been consulted about it. In the meantime, the Guru had retired to Paonta and became a great friend of Fateh Shah by amicably settling the disputes between him and the Raja of Nahan.

As the day of the marriage approached, the groom's marriage party started for Srinagar, the capital of Garhwal state.

The shortest route to Srinagar passed through Paonta; but the Guru refused to give them the passage apprehending trouble from Bhim Chand who was accompanied by a large retinue of fully armed soldiers. After a lot of negotiations, the Guru agreed to allow bridegroom and a small number of his guests to cross the ferry near Paonta. The rest of the party was constrained to follow a circuitous route to reach Srinagar (Garhwal).

This made Bhim Chand desperate who waited for an opportunity to give vent to his anger. The opportunity came when the Guru sent Dewan Nand Chand[2] with rich presents at the Tambol ceremony.[3] Bhim Chand openly threatened that he would sever all connections with Fateh Shah and return without going through the marriage ceremony of his son if the presents were accepted. Nand Chand had to bring back all the presents to Paonta. On the way, Nand Chand was attacked by Bhim Chand's men, but he escaped unharmed. After the marriage was over, Bhim Chand held a conference with Fateh Shah and some other Hill Chiefs, such as Kirpal of Katoch, Gopal of Guler, Hari Chand of Hadur, and the Raja of Jaswal, who were there. They all decided to attack the Guru at Paonta.

From the above account, three points emerge. Firstly, the sole or the main cause was the estrangement between Bhim Chand and the Guru. Secondly, it was caused by the Guru's refusal to oblige the Raja by loaning of Parsadi elephant and then to disallow passage to the marriage party through Paonta. Thirdly, Fateh Shah was forced to wage a war under the pain of threat by Bhim Chand.

Let us examine all these points carefully before we reach any conclusion. Let us first examine two points. If we accept the authenticity of these points, the Guru's stay in Nahan territory must have been nominal, for he left Makhowal (Chak Nanki) when the marriage of Bhim Chand's son with the daughter of Fateh Shah was impending and he came back immediately after the marriage ceremony was over. The view is upheld by the Sikh records unanimously. The Sikh Chronicler's view that Bhim Chand asked for a temporary loan of the animal on the occasion of his son's marriage also points to the conclusion that even when Bhim Chand was making preparations to proceed to Srinagar to celebrate his son's wedding, the Guru was still at Makhowal (Chak Nanki). From the Guru's own account as vouchsafed in Bachittar Natak, we learn that he left Paonta immediately after the Battle of Bhangani. This being so, we have good reasons to believe that he made somewhat protracted stay at Paonta. Thus, it follows that the Guru must not have gone to Paonta immediately before the marriage of Bhim Chand's son. And if this is so, the entire story that the bitterness between the Guru and Bhim Chand grew as a result of the Guru's refusal to loan out elephant on the marriage of his son falls to the ground like nine pins. But it does not mean that Bhim Chand was well-disposed to the Guru. Infact when Bhim Chand grew to his adulthood and took upon himself the responsibility of running the state, he took note of the activities of the Guru at Makhowal (Chak Nanki) and became keen in asserting his authority on the establishment of the Guru. In his youthful pride he threw all caution to the wind and made an unsuccessful attack on the Guru. It is possible that Bhim Chand might have played his nefarious role in instigating Fateh Shah. But to attribute the outbreak of hostility between the Guru and Fateh Shah solely to the enmity of Bhim Chand and to consider it the major cause of the war is too much for the historical analysis to justify.

Another thing which fortifies our assumption is that in Bachittar Natak, practically the only reliable evidence regarding the Battle of Bhangani, there is no mention of Bhim Chand. This fact in itself is significant particularly when the Sikh tradition asserts that Bhim Chand's enmity was the main cause of the clash. If Bhim Chand had been the sole or main cause of the battle, it was improbable that the Guru would so readily return to Kahlur immediately after the battle was over.

Closely connected with this is the question—If Bhim Chand's enmity towards the Guru was not the cause or the major cause, what else then was responsible for the battle? Cunningham[4] says that the Guru seems to have endeavoured to mix himself up with the affairs of the half independent chiefs and to obtain a commanding influence over them, so as to establish by degrees a virtual independent principality, amid mountainous fastnesses to serve as the base of his operations against the Mughal rulers. Cunningham's statement seems partially true. It is doubtful whether the desire of the Guru had advanced to the extent of establishing an independent principality[5] but there are definite indications in the Sikh records that the Guru was interested in the affairs of the Hill Chieftains; and we feel that, this was exactly in which the genesis of the Battle of Bhangani could be found.

The invitation of Medini Parkash to the Guru to settle down in Sirmour was an act born not only of his admiration of the Guru’s personality or adoration of his mission; but was also a measure which was a proof of his political sagacity and the foresight. Medini Parkash did so, because he was convinced that the Guru and his armed followers would prove beneficial for his state. In close proximity to the Sirmour state on the western side of River Jamuna was the state of Garhwal. These two neighbouring states had borne enmity towards each other for about four generations if not more.[6]

The Rajas of Garhwal had some tangible reasons to hate the Sirmour Royal-house for its being an instrument in the hands of the Mughals who had been keen on depriving the rulers of Garhwal of their independent status. Moreover, the Sirmour Rajas who were then basking in the sunshine of the Mughal favour had seldom missed the opportunity of territorial gain at the expense of Garhwal.

The enmity started as early as 1635 when Shah Jahan entrusted Najabat Khan, the faujdar of the country at the fort of Kangra hills the task of bringing Garhwal under Mughal supremacy. At that time, the ruler of Sirmour was Mandhaha the great-grandfather of Medini Prakash. He actively supported

Mughals and got a slice of Garhwal territory as a reward. His son Subhag Parkash and grandson Budh Parkash also nursed enmity towards the Garhwal ruler and were always apprehensive that they would retaliate to get back the territory occupied by Sirmour. In 1684, Budh Shah of Sirmour and Medini Shah of Garhwal died to be succeeded by Medini Parkash in Sirmour and Fateh Shah in Garhwal.[7]

To Aurangzeb, Raja Subhag Parkash rendered important services. He intercepted the correspondence between Dara, who was in the Punjab making frantic efforts to gain the Mughal throne and Sulaiman who was at that time a guest of Prithvi Shah, the Garhwal ruler.

With the twin purpose of bringing the ruler of Garhwal within the ambit of the Mughal influence and persuading him to hand over Sulaiman to the Mughals, Aurangzeb commissioned Ra'ad Khan to undertake the expedition. Subhag Parkash once again rendered much-needed help. As a result, Subhag Parkash got the area named Kala Khar identified in the Sirmour State with the modern area of Kalagadh[8] which lies near Dehra Doon.[9]

Subhag Parkash expired in 1664 and Budh Parkash succeeded him. During his reign (1664-1684) the Mughal government stopped meting out preferential treatment to Budh Parkash.[10] This was because Medini Shah (he was different from Medini Parkash of Sirmour (later known as Nahan) the heir apparent to the Garhwal throne had handed over Sulaiman Shah to Aurangzeb in December, 1660 and soon after when he became the Raja, had recognised the Mughal Emperor as his suzerain.[11]

In appreciation of the submissive demeanour of Medini Shah, Aurangzeb handed back the Doon to the Garhwal State.

Now the situation as it stood during Aurangzeb's reign was that with Sirmour possesing Kalagadh (Kala Khar) and Garhwal owning the Doon, the boundaries of the two rival states got mixed up in such a way that Aurangzeb was able to exploit the situation to his own advantage. Though situation was explosive, yet no open conflict occurred. In 1684 Budh Parkash and Medini Shah died and they were succeeded by Jog Raj under the title of Medini Parkash in Sirmour and Fateh Shah in Garhwal.[12] Both the new chiefs were ambitious men of ability and therefore afraid of each other. While watching each other's moves on the frontier, they had to be on guard against surprise attacks. It was in this background that Medini Parkash invited the Guru to Sirmour state and allowed him to build a fort at Paonta, a place guarding the only convenient route from one state to the other.

The Guru, whose relations with Bhim Chand of Kahlur were strained, welcomed the invitation and shifted his headquarters to Paonta.

There was a likelihood of the Guru being involved in the boundary dispute if it arose between two rival states. But he tackled the problem with a finesse worthy of a great statesman and a great religious leader. He improved relations between Sirmour and Garhwal.[13] His success in accomplishing the task was no less than a miracle. It is said that the Guru also used the services of Ram Rai in getting the things straightened out.[14]

With the passage of time, the relations between Sirmour and Garhwal once again went sour. Fateh Shah decided to break the agreement and bring all the disputed territory between the two states under him by force. As a first step towards breaking Sirmour resistence, the Garhwal ruler marched towards Paonta, which was so close to the border and so strategically placed that Fateh Shah felt it imperative to break the headquarter of the Guru at Paonta. In this project, Fateh Shah was helped by the chiefs of Dadhwar and Jaswal, Gaji Chand of Chandel, Gopal of Guler and Hari Chand of Kotiwal. According to later Sikh chroniclers the number of chiefs who joined Fateh Shah stood at fifteen.[15]

The Guru was surprised at the blatantly unethical over­ture of Fateh Shah. In Bachittar Natak he write, "Fateh Shah got enraged and clashed with us without any provocation."

The Guru, however, forestalled Fateh Shah and checked the invading army on the bank of rivulet Giri.

The opposing forces met in the field of Bhangani about 6 miles to the North-East of Paonta on the plains between the Jamuna and the Giri (called Kalindri by Guru Gobind Rai in Bachittar Natak), not far from the city of Rajpura on the Mussoorie road. Just on the eve of the battle, four out of five hundred Pathan mercenaries under their leader Hayat Khan, Najabat Khan, Bhikhan Khan and Jawahar Khan, who had been on the Guru's pay were seduced by the Hill Chiefs by flaunting rich rewards. They deserted the Guru to join their forces. Only Kale Khan with his one hundred men remained true to the Guru. One thousand Udasis with the exception of their leader Mahant Kirpal also left the Guru. The Guru's army, composed of 2000 soldiers was thus reduced to 1000 soldiers, while the allies forces numbered 10,000, ten times more than the Guru's forces.

Even then, the Guru was unnerved, He correctly anticipated the route which the Garhwal troops would follow and occupied a hillock to check Fateh Shah's march on Paonta. He established himself on an elevation which provided him with immense tactical advantage. With the hillock in between, the bulk of the reserve, was not visible to the rival commanders, thereby enabling the Guru's troops to undertake maneuvers unseen by the enemy.

Taking positon on a vantage point on the elevated ground he could clearly watch the deployment and movement of the enemy forces on the other side.

From the contemporary or near-contemporary records which throw light on the battle, it is difficult to comprehend clearly the way the two armies were deployed. However, the impression that emerges is that both the armies were divided into units with separate leaders making their moves under their repsective supreme commanders, Fateh Shah and Guru Gobind Rai. No elaborate war strategy was followed. Troops moved simply or in groups as directed till the leader was killed or the force felt exhausted. Then the combatants would run to the supreme commanders who would commission fresh men to take up the task.

The battle commenced with great determination on both sides. Immediately after, the five sons of Bibi Viro, Sango Shah, Jit Mai, Gopal Chand, Ganga Ram, and Mohri Chand organised an attack. They were ably backed by Daya Ram, Dewan Nand Chand and the two Kirpals: One, the Guru's maternal uncle and the other, an Udasi Mahant. Kirpal (Mahant) hit Hayat Khan on the head with his club erupting his brain from his skull like Krishna breaking the pitcher had brought the butter out of it. This was quickly followed by Sahib Chand's entry into the fray to kill the murderous Khan from Khorasan.[16] At this juncture Pir Budhu Shah alongwith his two brothers, seven sons, and 500 men arrived to add to the small reserve that Guru Gobind Rai possessed. Upto this time Fateh Shah's side was on the defensive. Then Raja Gopal and Hari Chand launched vigorous offensive. The Guru ordered Jit Mai and his men to advance. For some time the Guru's prospects looked very bleak. At this juncture, Jit Mai with his spear struck Hari Chand who fell down senseless and had to be carried off the field. In the confusion that followed, Kesri Shah Jaswalia and Modhukar Shah Dadwalia, two of the prominent chiefs of Fateh Shah's side, escaped being killed only because the Guru's men desisted from killing the fleeing army. A general rout was clearly in sight. At this moment, Hari Chand regained consciousness and immediately became alive to the duties of a leader. He recalled the hill troops and the Pathans and the last phase of the battle started. The Guru sent Sango Shah or Shah Sangram as the Guru would call him lovingly to foil the offensive of Hari Chand. He fought hard, led his men well, killed Najabat Khan and many of his men, but only at the cost of his life.[17] The Guru who had taken no actual part in the fray till then was now stung to action. He moved forward and struck Bhikhan Shah on the face. The blow was so hard that Bhikhan Shah could not survive. Now began the great duel with bows and arrows between the Guru and Hari Chand. The Guru had narrow escape three times, but ultimately took aim and killed Hari Chand.[18] The death of Hari Chand disarrayed the hill forces and they had a disorderly retreat. The Guru's victory was complete. He very humbly attributed his success to the Grace of Kal (God).[19]

Fateh Shah arrived back at Srinagar in ignominy, totally crestfallen. The battle was fought for about nine hours. The Guru's Sikhs had indicated themselves in the battlefield with honour. They had displayed great skill in swordsmanship, spearing, archery, horse-riding and hand to hand combat.

Just after the battle, the Guru went to the place where lay the bodies of Sango Shah, Jit Mai and other Sikhs. He ordered the slain of both the sides to be disposed of with due honour. The bodies of Sikhs were cremated, of the Hindus were given to a watery grave in the adjacent river and of the Muslims buried with all solemnity. The wounded were properly tended. The dead bodies of Sango Shah and Jit Mai, and Pir Shah's sons were brought to Paonta, where they were cremated and buried respectively the next day.

On returning to the Fort of Paonta, the Guru held a Darbar, bestowed robes of honour and other gifts upon the valiant soldiers and generals.[20] Pir Budhu Shah requested for a comb with the Guru's hair stuck in it as the most appropriate reward. He was also given a turban and a Hukamnama admiring his services.[21] Those who kept themeselves away from the battle were driven out of the place. Guru himself says, "He fostered the faithful and rooted out all the wicked."[22]

The Battle of Bhangani brought into focus many aspects of importance. It bolstered up the morale of the Sikhs, it instilled a new confidence among them. It demonstrated that the kinetic power of the ideology coupled with appropriate organisation was more than a match for the massed might of princes and potentates. The Guru was convinced that the mercenaries were no subsitute for the persons imbued with the spirit of a mission. The battle also highlighted that all was not well with internal organisation of the Sikhs. The Masands as a group had gone corrupt and were more interested in their selfish ends than responding to the call of the Guru. Instead of performing their duty of linking the people with the Guru's message, they exploited them. This thing sparked off a question—Whether Masand system should be scrapped or maintained as such? The battle was significant from another point of view. Nearly fifteen Hill Chiefs combined their military strength to attack the Guru. The combination of so many chiefs and that too within a record time was indeed astonishing for him who had done nothing to provoke them. He was not a ruler and as such did not possess any principality. To engineer such a massive attack on him was obviously uncalled for and a clear-cut case of moral turpitude.

The Guru was, therefore, constrained to think that the hill chieftains including Fateh Shah of Garhwal had been motivated by certain ulterior design. This could possibly be the annihilation of the Sikh Panth which in their reckoning had the potential of destabilising their socio-political system that they had nursed and loved for so long and which had provided them with permanent position in society.

Dr. Hari Ram Gupta however opines that the Hill Chieftains were instigated by the Mughal authorities. But this view seems to be farfetched at least at this stage. There is no concrete evidence that the Mughals encouraged the Hill Chieftains to organise and to lead expedition against the Guru. The Guru, therefore, had to be wary of them while formulating his plans, especially when even the ruler of Sirmour who had professed to be his admirer preferred to remain aloof from the battle which in fact was more against him than Guru. Possibly he did not wish to be out of step with his brother Hill Chieftains when they gave the expression that they were doing all this to safeguard their politico-socio cultural heritage which the Guru's dispensation sought to demolish.

 Notes and References

[1] Different dates regarding the battle are given by different scholars. We have based our conclusion on the versions given by typed copy of Bhat Vahi's (now reserved in Punjabi University Patiala) and Bansavali Nama by Kesar Singh Chhibber (ed. Ratan Singh Jaggi), 1972, page 124, Shaheed Bilas by Sewa Singh. We have rejected the dates given by Bhai Santokh Singh and Gurbilas Patsahi 10 by Sukha Singh. Bhai Santokh Singh writes that the battle was fought in 1686. While according to Bhai Sukha Singh it was fought sometime between 1686 and 1689. Mahan Kosh fixes the date as April 16, 1686.

[2] Dewan Nand Chand was the son of Baba Suraj Mai, one of the five sons of Guru Hargobind.

[3] Giani Gian Singh, Panth Parkash, pp. 1419-20.

[4] J.D. Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, p. 61.

[5] The Guru's own account of battles in the hills discloses no desire either for the establishment of a virtual principality or for the commencement of any military operations. He faced hostilities only where these were forced upon him.

[6] Sirmour State Gazetteer, pp. 10-12.

[7] Sirmour State Gazetteer, pp. 13-14.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] J.N. Sarkar, A Short History of Aurangzeb, Vol. Ill, pp. 563-65.

[11] Ibid.

[12] J.S. Grewal and S.S. Bal, Guru Gobind Singh, p. 71.

Sirmour State Gazetteer, p. 15. Jog Raj was the son of Budh Parkash who was the son of Subhag Parkash.

[13] The Sikh tradition very significantly preserves the memory of both Fateh Shah and Medini Parkash visiting the Guru regularly. Sometimes they would visit the Guru at the same time and accompany the Guru for Shikar in the Jungles around Paonta. (Gurbilas Patshahi 10, p. 120)

[14] Prithvi Shah and Fateh Shah appear to have had considerable faith in the spiritual power of Ram Rai. This is clearly indicated by Prithvi Shah's settling down Ram Rai at Khanabad and allowing him to build it as the nucleus of Dehra Doon and Fateh Shah confirming the possession of several villages for the support of Mahant's retinue besides allowing him to build a small centre at Srinagar itself. (Dehradoon Gazetteer, p. 172)

[15] They were Fateh Shah of Garhwal, Bhim Chand of Kahlur, Kirpal Chand of Kangra, Sidh Sen of Mandi, Gopal Chand of Guler, Hari Chand of Hindur, Kesri Chand of Jaswal, Umed Chand of Jaswan, Dayal Chand of Kotgarh, Karam Chand of Bharmour, Daya Singh of Nurpur, Gurbhaj Singh of Indaurah, Bagh Singh of Talokpur, Hari Chand of Kotiwal, Lakhu Chand of Kot Khari. Hari Ram Gupta, History of the Sikhs, Vol. I, p. 236.

[16] According to Sainapat, Fateh Shah had so much confidence in his generals and soldiers that he expected a walkover in the battle.

[17] Bachittar Natak VIII, p. 20.

[18] Ibid., p. 25.

Hari Chand in his rage drew forth his arrow. He struck my head with one and discharged another at me. God preserved me as it only grazed my ear in its flight. His third arrow penetrated the buckle of my waist belt and reached my body but did not injure me. It is only God who protected me knowing me his servant. When I felt the touch of the arrow, my anger was kindled. I took up my bow and began to discharge arrows in abundance, upon this, my adversaries began to flee. I took the aim and killed the young chief. (Macauliffe's Translation in The Sikh Religion V, p. 44.)

[19] Bachittar Natak, "God in His grace bestowed victory on me."

[20] Gazetteer of Himachal Pardesh Sirmour 1969, p. 55.

[21] Mahan Kosh, p. 264.

[22] Bachittar Natak, Chapter VIII.