The Sri Harmandir Sahib of Amritsar, also called the Golden Temple, is not only the spiritual centre of the Sikhs, it has also witnessed a long series of struggles, the most devastating of which took place in 1762 CE. It was an incident that shook the Sikh community and changed the history of Punjab forever.
The holiest shrine of the Sikhs, the Sri Harmandir Sahib, had been built in 1589 CE by the fifth Sikh Guru Arjan Dev Ji. But, at the end of the period of the ten Sikh Gurus (1469-1708), and after the execution of Sikh Commander Baba Banda Singh Bahadur in 1716 CE, the temple was desecrated many times by the provincial Mughal governors of Lahore, merely to flex their political muscle.
When the Sikhs were competing with the Mughal Governors in Punjab, they had no idea that the worst was still to come – a new rival in the form of the Afghans.
Abdali Desecrates The Harmandir Sahib
After the assassination of Iranian ruler and conqueror Nader Shah in 1747 CE, not only his reign ended but his large empire even began to get disintegrated. Many of his generals established independent kingdoms in the territory he captured. One of these was Ahmad Shah Abdali, also known as Ahmed Shah Durrani, who founded the Durrani Empire in present-day Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shah soon realized that he needed vast resources to run his new kingdom. As a result, he planned to plunder India, whose prosperity he had witnessed while assisting Nader Shah in campaigns in the subcontinent.
The new and ambitious Afghan Emperor raided India many times between 1748 CE and 1767 CE. The country was then ruled by the Mughals, whose power had greatly dwindled. During these raids, Ahmad Shah captured most of the territory west of the Indus. He also sacked and plundered the cities of Lahore, Sirhind, Delhi, Mathura and Vrindavan in North India.
Amid the bloodbath and chaos, Afghan forces kidnapped and enslaved women, including royal Mughal women, as they swept across India, plundering town after town. At this time, most of the Sikhs who were officially prosecuted by the Mughal governors, had no choice but to take asylum in the foothills of the Shivaliks, where they were living to escape the wrath of the Mughals, who had ordered their persecution. But in 1757 CE, on learning of Ahmad Shah’s retreat along with the wealth he had stolen, the Sikhs decided to secure the booty to utilize it for future missions.
The Afghan army was not familiar with the area; they were also battle-weary from constant raids and were ill-prepared for another engagement. The Sikhs were able to loot vast quantities of wealth from the Afghan soldiers, first near Ambala city and then in the Majha region. They also freed the people who had been enslaved by the enemy.
Ahmad Shah Abdali was taken aback by the swift and sudden Sikh attack, and also by their might. He was told that their holiest shrine was in Amritsar, and decided to use it as bait. He thought that if he attacked the Sri Harmandir Sahib, Sikh forces would rush to Amritsar to protect it. Once they had converged there, Afghan forces could attack and weaken them.
The canny Afghan ruler sent forces to attack the Sri Harmandir Sahib. The Afghan army destroyed the sanctity of the holy sarovar (the tank of Gurdwara) by filling it with the entrails and blood of slaughtered cows. Not only this, they further aimed to destroy the shrine itself, but before they could, the revered Sikh Baba Deep Singh Ji along with Sikh troops of the Shaheedan Misl (one of the 11 sovereign Sikh states) appeared on the scene fighting the Afghan forces to protect the shrine.
It was a small Sikh contingent but they fought vigorously and valiantly, and put up a tough fight. Although Baba Deep Singh was killed in the battle, the Sikhs managed to drive away the Afghans. Abdali went back to Afghanistan, leaving behind a considerable force at Lahore.
Next, former Mughal Governor Adina Beg aligned with the Sikhs. He also took the help of Maratha forces stationed in the region under General Raghunath Rao. In March 1758 CE, after a prolonged siege, the united Maratha-Sikh army captured Sirhind from the Afghans and plundered the town.
Their next target was Lahore, which was attacked by the united army under Maratha chief Dattaji Rao Scindia and the chief of the Sukerchakia Misl, Charat Singh, grandfather of the Maharaja of Punjab Ranjit Singh. By April 1758 CE, the Lahore fort fell to the united Sikh-Maratha front.
Raghunath Rao didn’t want to stop in Punjab; he wanted to secure the frontier of India further north-west. So he led his forces till present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (now in Pakistan), to win it from the Afghans who themselves had got it from the local powers in the area. Here, he took a drastic step that many consider a historic blunder, a landmark in both Maratha and Sikh history.
Rao appointed Adina Beg, who had earlier served the Mughals, as Governor of Punjab, ignoring Sikh leader Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, owing to prior commitments and also because he knew that Sikhs if given power to govern, they would exert their complete authority over the region independent of the allegiance to the Marathas. Moreover, Adina Beg had much more experience in administrative matters.
Naturally, the Sikhs were furious. They considered Punjab their homeland and were still hurting from constant persecution by the Mughals. They couldn’t accept being ruled by a Mughal governor, yet again.
After the Marathas left Punjab, Adina Beg knew the Sikhs were plotting to overthrow him. So, to stamp his authority in the region, he arrested and killed several Sikhs. He even attacked Ram Rauni, the fortress of the Ramgarhia Sikhs in Amritsar. Here too many Sikhs lost their lives. Not long after, though, Adina Beg took ill and died in September 1758 CE, and a Maratha, Sabaji Bhonsle, succeeded him as the new Governor.
But most of the big Maratha names, like Raghunath Rao and Dattaji Rao Scindia had either left North India or died in battle. This allowed the Sikhs to continue their guerilla warfare against the Maratha provincial governors.
Third Battle of Panipat
During his fifth invasion of the Indian subcontinent in 1760 CE, Ahmad Shah Abdali returned with a stronger army than before. At this point, Punjab was in Maratha control. But, after Raghunath Rao’s retreat, there wasn’t any capable leader of his stature to provide central leadership in the North-West, to stop the Afghans. Although the Marathas tried to negotiate with the Sikhs, the latter did not come forward to help for their recent experiences.
Thus, Ahmad Shah Abdali easily won back all his lost territory. He effortlessly passed through Punjab, and went straight to Panipat, where he was stopped by the Maratha army of the Peshwa’s Dewan, Sadashivrao Bhau. The standoff lasted months. Sadashivrao sought the help of the Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs but they turned him down as he refused to accede to their demands.
Despite the reluctance of most Sikhs, the chief of the Phulkian Misl, Sardar Ala Singh (who later founded the princely state of Patiala), supplied foodgrains and logistical support to Maratha camps, in exchange for money. But he couldn’t keep it up for long and, without food and water, the Marathas ended the siege. This resulted in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 CE, in which the Marathas were defeated.
However, after the battle, Ahmad Shah Abdali was no longer interested in prolonged sieges and battles in India. He had already amassed a considerable treasure and decided to restrict himself to the western boundary of the Sutlej River in Punjab.
Sikh Challenge to Afghans
During the Third Battle of Panipat, along with soldiers, many women and children had also been killed and others enslaved by the Afghans, to be taken to Kabul. But the Dal Khalsa, the common assembly of Sikhs, organized a Sarbat Khalsa or a meeting of Sikhs in Amritsar, to thwart these plans.
The Afghan troops were by now exhausted and a much-weakened force due to the enormous losses sustained in various battles. So the Sikhs, under the leadership of Dal Khalsa chief Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, attacked them and were able to rescue their captives. This not only helped them to counter the retreating Afghans but earned the goodwill of the people.
Ahmad Shah Abdali was preoccupied with a rebellion back home and in the same year, 1761, the Sikhs not only defeated the remaining Afghan forces in the battles of Gujranwala and Sialkot but even captured the city of Lahore and pronounced Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia as Sultan-ul-Qaum (King of the Nation).
Afghans Take Revenge
In early 1762 CE, Afghan forces under Ahmad Shah Abdali returned to India with the sole intention of halting the growth of Sikh power. Abdali, to retain his kingdom in Punjab, was determined to defeat the Sikhs and he called for reinforcements. His army launched an assault on Sikh soldiers stationed in Kup Kalan village (in present-day Sangrur District in Punjab) on 5th February 1762 CE. When the soldiers get to know about this attack they decided to encircle all the non-combat Sikhs which included women, children and elderly people, believed to be around 40,000 to protect them.
The day ended with one of the worst defeats for the Sikhs, with the massacre of 10,000-20,000 both soldiers and non-combats. Even if these numbers are exaggerated, it is certain that it was a bloodbath, an incident known as Vadda Ghallughara (‘Larger Holocaust’ in Punjabi), in Sikh history. Given that the Sikh population was not very large at the time, the casualties were very alarming for the community.
But Ahmad Shah Abdali didn’t stop there. On 10th April 1762 he returned to the Sri Harmandir Sahib, which he had desecrated in 1757 CE, with a much more vengeful plan. This time, he not only damaged the temple, he filled the entire complex with gunpowder and then blew it up. Symbolically, he had spiritually ‘destroyed’ Sikhism itself.
Towards Sikh Rule
Although the Ghallughara massacre and demolition of the Sri Harmandir Sahib massive setbacks for Sikhs, but they were ready to rise once again. A month later, in May 1762, the remaining Sikh army defeated an Afghan contingent in the Battle of Harnaulgarh near Sirhind. Although the battle wasn’t a major one, but the victory helped Sikhs to keep their morale that they can still overcome.
After few months, on the occasion of Diwali, Sikhs under the leadership of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia gathered at the site, where their holiest shrine stood and was now empty. How heartbreaking it would be for the community but celebrating Diwali meant not only to morally encourage the community but also was a power statement that Sikh hasn’t given up even yet.
In just a few months, many Sikhs joined to be a part of the volunteer force of Sikhs which would rout the Afghans permanently from their homeland. The Sikhs defeated an Afghan army in the Battle of Sialkot, in 1763 CE. Even Baba Ala Singh of Patiala joined the war with his Sikh counterparts, promising military support to them to prove this support.
In 1764 CE, a well-equipped force of 40,000 Sikhs attacked Sirhind and won the battle by killing Zain-ud-din Khan, a former Mughal General who had been appointed Governor of Sirhind by Ahmad Shah Abdali. They butchered other leading Afghan officers, and the Nishan Sahib, the holy flag of the Sikhs, was hoisted in the region between Sutlej and the Yamuna, an area divided among the Sikh Misls. The Sikhs vowed never to allow another invader to step onto the soil of Punjab. Ahmad Shah Abdali never returned.
In April 1765 – some claim it was in October 1764 while others claim it was in November 1763 – the Sikhs gathered in Amritsar and the Jathedar of the Dal Khalsa, Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, laid the foundation stone of the new Sri Harmandir Sahib, which was to be built according to a replica of the original structure, on the same land.
A main gateway to the sanctum, called the Darshani Deorhi, a parikrama or causeway, and the sanctum was completed in 1776 CE, while the path around the sarovar was completed in 1784 CE.
The desecration and later the demolition of the Sri Harmandir Sahib were brutal and deeply painful chapters in the history of the Sikhs but the resilience of the community and their unwavering determination to rise again, even stronger than before, are inspiring lessons for future generations.
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