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Dhubri: Assam’s Special Sikh Connection

Dhubri: Assam’s Special Sikh Connection

The Sikh community in Assam is quite different from the Sikhs in Punjab and elsewhere in India. In the town of Dhubri, around 230 km from the state capital of Guwahati, Sikh families welcome you with betel nut or paan in traditional Assamese style, the Sikh women wear sindoor on their foreheads and the traditional Assamese attire, Mekhla-Chador, with a tiny kripan tucked in. The community also observes Magh Bihu, a famous Assamese festival, with the same enthusiasm as they celebrate Lohri, famous among Punjabi Sikhs. 

This beautiful cultural confluence of the Assamese Sikhs at Dhubri is the culmination of a series of events that started in the early 16th century CE, kicking off with a visit of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, to this quiet town on the banks of the Brahmaputra River.

A view of Dhubri

But, first, let’s go back to the early history of Dhubri. The town is mentioned in ancient texts like the Kalika Purana and Yogini Purana as part of Kamarupa under three dynasties – the Varmans, Mlechhas and Palas – which ruled between 350 CE and 1100 CE. 

According to some records, Dhubri takes its name from a story told by a merchant, Chand Sadagar, of the 3rd century CE. He mentions a woman named Netai Dhubuni, who used to wash her clothes on the banks of the Brahmaputra here, apparently lending her name to the Netai Dhubunir Ghat in the town.

In the late 15th century CE, the Bengal Sultanate (14th-16th CE) temporarily captured Dhubri as part of its domains and whose influence can be seen in the Panbari Mosque in the town. It was during this time that Dhubri transformed from a small fishing village to a trading post on the Brahmaputra River, where silk, muslin and other goods were exchanged and sold. 

Guru Nanak Visits Dhubri

In 1505 CE, the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, arrived in Dhubri as part of his travels or Udasis, which were his journeys across India and other countries. These odysseys were part of his sacred mission to spread the message of peace, compassion and unity.

19th-century mural painting from Gurdwara Baba Atal depicting Nanak | Wikimedia Commons

According to Sikh legend, on his first Udasi, Guru Nanak went east towards Malda (in present-day West Bengal) and proceeded towards Assam, which was then governed by the Ahom ruler Suhungmung (1497-1539 CE). He halted at Dhubri, where he is said to have met the famous Bhakti saint, Sankara Deva, who had arrived from Barpeta in present-day Assam.

Both the spiritual leaders talked about faith, the importance of unity, love, and the need for a common ground between the communities in the pursuit spreading peace. 

The Udasi ended at Puri in present-day Odisha in 1506 CE. Some legends suggest that Guru Nanak then returned to his home at Talvandi (in present-day Pakistan) while others say he resumed his journey and embarked on his Second Udasi. 

Second Wave of Sikhism

More than a century and a half after Guru Nanak’s arrival in Dhubri, the town witnessed a second wave of Sikhism when the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, arrived here in 1666 CE. He and his followers were on a mission to follow the route taken by Guru Nanak and pause at places he had visited. Guru Tegh Bahadur wanted to renew ties with families who had met the first Sikh Guru.

Portrait of Guru Tegh Bahadur at the Gurudwara Sis Ganj, Delhi | Wikimedia Commons

After leaving his wife Gujari in Patna, Guru Tegh Bahadur went eastwards. He halted at Dhubri and proceeded towards Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh. Dhubri had now become a halting point for Mughal forces, who were attempting to counter the growing influence of the Ahoms.

On the other hand, the military general of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), Ram Singh, had been sent to Assam to quell a rebellion by Ahom King Chakradhwaj Singha (r. 1663-1670 CE) as part of the Ahom-Mughal conflicts. Ram Singh had learnt that Guru Tegh Bahadur was in Dhaka and he met the spiritual leader there in 1669 CE to seek his blessings.

Gurudwara Guru Tegh Bahadur, Dhubri | Wikimedia Commons

Here, the general convinced Guru Tegh Bahadur to accompany him to the battle. The two of them proceeded to Dhubri, where Guru Tegh Bahadur blessed Ram Singh, and advised him to advocate peaceful negotiations rather than use arms, unless attacked. Ram Singh then rejoined the Mughal army at Rangamati, near Guwahati. 

After Guru Tegh Bahadur left, negotiations between the Ahoms and the Mughals commenced but the two sides were unable to an understanding or resolution to their rivalry. Matters were, however, resolved when Guru Tegh Bahadur returned to Dhubri and negotiated peace between them, where Guwahati was given back to the Ahoms. It is said that Guru Tegh Bahadur was later honoured by Ahom King Chakradhwaj at Guwahati’s famous Kamakhya temple.

According to legend, on Guru Tegh Bahadur’s suggestion, in Dhubri, a ‘mound of peace’ was built by soldiers of both sides to commemorate Guru Nanak’s visit. This became the foundation of the famous gurdwara, called the Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahibji. 

After Tegh Bahadur left Dhubri, the following 12 years witnessed a gruesome struggle between the Ahoms and the Mughals for control of Assam. This led to the famous Battle of Saraighat (1671 CE), where the Ahoms emerged victorious. The struggle between the two empires ended in 1682 CE, when the Ahoms under Gadadhar Singha (r. 1681-1696) recovered Assam following the Battle of Itakhuli (1682). 

A depiction of Battle of Saraighat | Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, Emperor Aurangzeb, whose forces had been guided by Tegh Bahadur during their recent Assamese expedition, ordered his execution on 24th November 1675 CE, as the emperor viewed him as a threat due to his growing influence in north and central India. Since then, many Sikh pilgrims have flocked to Dhubri from all over the country, to observe Shaheedi Diwas, commemorating Guru Tegh Bahadur’s death, at the place, where he not only meditated but also laid the foundation of a celebrated shrine. 

Third Wave of Sikhism

By the early 19th century CE, Dhubri rose as a Sikh pilgrim centre, and during this time, it witnessed the third wave of Sikhs. These were the Nihang soldiers of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who fought for the Ahom ruler Chandra Kanta Singha (r. 1811-1821). 

Descendants of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's soldiers from Dhubri on their tour to Punjab

In 1819 CE, 500 Sikh soldiers arrived here to counter Burmese forces under their ruler Bagyidaw (r. 1784-1846), who had attacked Assam as Ahom rule was crumbling after their confrontations with the Mughals and the Moamoria Rebellion (1769–1805), followed by internal divisions within the royal family. 

After a series of pitched battles in 1820-1821 CE at Hadirachaki (Barpeta district) where the Ahoms eventually lost, many Nihang soldiers settled at Nagaon and Dhubri, adopting the Assamese culture. 

The British East India Company’s intervention kept the Burmese at bay, only to make Assam a protectorate in 1826. This was followed by the fourth wave of Sikhs arriving in Dhubri and other places like Guwahati and Shillong in the late 19th and 20th century. They were the Mazhabi Sikhs, who went on to play a major role in agriculture and local business.  

The Sikh community at Dhubri celebrating Shaheedi Diwas

Dhubri is a proud witness to its Sikh history, which not only blends seamlessly with the town’s rich culture and heritage but is also a part of Assam’s glorious past. 

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