Saraighat is a quiet neighbourhood in the city of Guwahati in Assam, the glassy waters of the Brahmaputra yielding no clues to its dramatic past. For it was right here, on this very stretch of the river, that the Ahoms decisively ended the Mughals’ attempts to conquer Assam.
That’s why this naval conflict, or the Battle of Saraighat (1671 CE), has a special place in Assam’s history. But this defining victory must be viewed in the light of another battle, one that preceded it by two years and which set the stage for eventual Ahom victory.
This conflict – the Battle of Alaboi (1669 CE) – was marked by arrows poisoned with lies, a war of nerves, classic betrayal and, according to some accounts, a female warrior sent in to test the enemy’s prowess.
Ever since the Assam government announced in August 2020, that a war memorial would be built at Dadara, Kamrup, situated close to the erstwhile battlefield of Alaboi, in memory of Assamese soldiers who perished in the fateful battle, there has been renewed interest in this forgotten yet pivotal conflict. To understand what actually happened in the Alaboi Hills in 1669 CE, let us revisit the Mughal-Ahom conflict.
The Ahoms ruled parts of present-day Assam, which encloses the erstwhile boundaries of Assam, for 600 years, from the early 13th century to the early 19th century. The Ahom kingdom stretched along the length of the Brahmaputra river, from the Manasa river on the west, to the hills of Sadiya on the east, a total of almost 600 miles, with the average width of the kingdom being 50-60 miles.
From 1615-1682, Ahom rule was marked by a series of conflicts with the Mughals, whose expansionist plans often brought the two mighty forces into conflict with each other. One of the earliest military conflicts between the two took place from January 1662 and ended around Jan-Feb 1663 with Mir Jumla’s departure from the Ahom kingdom, when the Mughal Governor of Bengal, Mir Jumla, clashed with the Ahoms to recover the then Mughal territory of Kamrup. The conflict ended in partial victory for the Mughals as their army was able to partially conquer Assam till Kamrup and Guwahati was made the capital of the conquered Ahom territories and temporarily occupied the Ahom capital Garhgaon, in the modern-day Sivasagar district of Assam.
From 1667 CE to 1682 CE, the Ahoms under King Swargadeo Chakradhwaja Singha were on a campaign to recover territories lost to the Mughals, and managed to recapture substantial territories, the main focus being recovering the territories lost to Mir Jumla. This led Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb to send Raja Ram Singh I of Jaipur, to Assam in 1669 CE, on a mission to recover these lost territories, which ultimately led to the famous Battle of Saraighat. The Assamese forces were commanded by General Lachit Borphukan. Instead of engaging the vastly superior Mughal army in open battle, Lachit used guerrilla warfare, with much success.
In early 1669 CE, the Ahoms had been heckling the encamped Mughals for several months and the monsoon had further ruined their prospects of a quick victory and a takeover of the fortified city of Guwahati, the headquarters of the Viceroy of Lower Assam (from Manasa to Kaliabor). The persistent guerrilla attacks were, however, eroding the Mughal army’s morale, and Ram Singh was determined to draw the Assamese into an open conflict.
The Ahom Monarch Swargadeo Chakradhwaja Singha was growing impatient but Lachit Borphukan knew that an open encounter with the Rajput cavalry would be fatal to the Ahom infantrymen. But the Ahom soldiers too grew impatient and the Ahom commander at Rangmahal Fort, Pelan Phukan, sent a message to the king, claiming that Lachit Borphukan was needlessly delaying an offensive attack even though the weather was in the Ahoms’ favour.
The situation deteriorated further when, as a part of the psychological warfare between the two camps, Ram Singh tied a letter to an arrow and shot it into the camp of an Ahom commander. It read as follows: “Yesterday, you accepted a reward of one lakh of rupees from us and you signed a written agreement to desist from fighting us. But it appears you have not yet abandoned your war set-up. May I know why?”
The letter, addressed to Lachit Borphukan, was immediately dispatched to the Ahom king. The Mughals wanted to create dissension in the Ahom ranks and it almost worked. The Ahom ruler became furious and almost sacked Lachit Borphukan from his post.
Meanwhile, Ram Singh continued his psychological warfare and sent another letter through a messenger, in which he challenged the Ahom king to a duel to be fought in the presence of both armies. If Ram Singh lost, he would withdraw without any further fight. Chakradhwaja Singha did not take the bait and dismissed the challenge, saying he would not fight a man “who had no umbrella over his head”, i.e., he was no ‘Chhatrapati’.
But the Ahom king’s impatience to engage the Mughals would prove near-fatal. On 4th August 1669 CE, King Chakradhwaja Singha gave Lachit Borphukan and his commanders an ultimatum, by sending them garments worn by slave girls and some axes. They were told to attack the Mughals the very next day, failing which they would have to wear the garments sent by the king and their hearts would be ripped open with those very axes.
Lachit was bewildered as he knew that charging the superior Rajput cavalry would be suicidal and that a naval engagement with the Mughals would be more feasible. However, he could not disobey the king’s direct order to launch a full-on offensive against the enemy.
The Mughals had concentrated their army near Alaboi Hill (near present-day Dadara, North Guwahati) and the battlefield was thus chosen for him. The next day, 5th August 1669 CE, an opportunity for a major conflict presented itself in the form of a letter, sent by Ram Singh, who challenged the Ahoms to an open encounter.
Lachit Borphukan accepted the challenge and prepared a force of 40,000 men under four commanders. However, he led Ram Singh to believe that the Ahom army was only 20,000-strong. So the Rajput king sent only 10,000 soldiers under the command of Mir Nawab.
According to Ahom chronicles, but not corroborated by Persian chronicles, he also sent in a female warrior named Madanavati, who was dressed as a male warrior. In Ram Singh’s own words, as mentioned in the Ahom chronicles: “If she is defeated, we shall not be subject to any disgrace; and if victory be on the side of the enemy, they will be credited with no honour and prestige.”
– The Ahoms used another tactic which had been effective in the Koch-Ahom conflicts a hundred years earlier. They dressed up their vanguard archers and musketeers as Brahmans, in the hope that the Rajput soldiers would desist from attacking them.
Ram Singh had a hearty laugh on seeing this. The Ahoms were on the defensive and the Mughal infantry bore down on them with full force.
According to Ahom chronicles, Madanavati proved to be an impossible challenge. She broke through four of the Ahom lines with terrifying speed, shocking the Ahoms and even their spears and artillery proved futile against the lightning speed of her horse. Madanavati’s carnage only ended after she was shot dead by a stray bullet.
The Ahoms had another tactic up their sleeve. A significant portion of their army remained hidden in trenches towards the rear of their defensive forces. The Mughal infantry was taken by surprise and was routed. They tried to take a diversion through the adjoining Brahmaputra River but the Ahoms were ready for them. In the eventual fallout, Mughal Commander Mir Nawab was captured and presented before Lachit Borphukan and imprisoned in one of the Ahom fortresses.
Ram Singh watched the carnage from a distance and was enraged at the deception of the Ahoms. He then sent in the entire Rajput cavalry along with Mughal veterans who had been standing by.
– The Ahoms were outnumbered and outclassed in this phase of the battle, and as many as 10,000 Ahom soldiers were killed either in combat or while trying to escape the battlefield. It was a decisive victory for the Mughals.
To add insult to injury, Ram Singh shot an arrow into the Ahom camp, with a letter warning Lachit never to engage in such ‘tomfoolery’ again.
Although the Mughals were victorious in the Battle of Alaboi, this conflict was no more than a tactical victory and a morale-booster for them as it had no bearing on their overall campaign against the Ahoms. But the battle only strengthened the Ahom forces’ resolve to drive out the Mughals from Guwahati. The result was a convincing defeat of Mughal forces in the Battle of Saraighat, two years later, in 1671 CE. It was an Ahom victory built on the sacrifice of 10,000 soldiers who had laid down their lives for their king and their motherland.