THE KHALSA DURING 18TH CENTURY
Dr Kirpal Singh
[Then editor of Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Jan-Mar 2003]
The 18th century history of the Sikhs is seen as historically significant and religiously so glorious and inspiring that it is repeated in every Gurdwara in the daily Ardas in the morning and evening.
“Hail those Sikhs who meditated on the name of God; shared their food with others; continued to run the free communal kitchen and fought against injustice and tyranny; did not waver even when cut joint by joint, suffering every torture for the sake of their faith and religion.”
The Sikhs during 18th century had shown an exemplary character of service and sacrifice by suffering state tyranny without resorting to tyranny themselves. It is, therefore, very important to study various phases of 18th century history of Sikhs. It is, however, an uphill task to discuss the Sikh relations with Marathas, Ruhelas, Afghans, Jaats of Bharatpur, and the British during 18th century in a single paper. We shall therefore try to highlight some of the important phases of Sikh history during this period.
The Mughal Policy of repression and suppression
The 18th century opened with the policy of suppression of the Sikhs by the Mughal Government. In the first decade, Anandpur Sahib was besieged by the huge Mughal army which came to the aid of the Pahari Hindu Rajas’ (Rajas of the hill kingdoms) ongoing effort to subjugate the Sikhs. They wanted to dislodge Guru Gobind Singh from Anandpur Sahib. These aggressive campaigns resulted in the martyrdom of the four sons of Guru Gobind Singh along with the Guru’s mother. Guru Gobind Singh had to go to Damdama Sahib (Bathinda). Ultimately he went to the south where he died in 1708 due to complications arising from an unsuccessful assassination attempt.
Senapat in his Gursobha (as also the official record of the Mughal emperor, Akhbarat-i-Darbar-i-Mualla) gives in detail the circumstances in which Guru Gobind Singh died. All indications are that he was attacked by a hired assassin.
Sometimes a single event changes the course of history. The martyrdom of the young sons of Guru Gobind Singh proved to be the most significant event in the annals of Khalsa. Khalsa made up its mind to attack the Nawab of Sirhind where the young sons of the Guru had been killed. City of Sirhind was the capital of the Nawab’s domain. Conquest of Sirhind, as has been significantly remarked by Griffin, led to the establishment of Khalsa Raj. Sirhind was first conquered by Banda Singh Bahadur in 1710 CE. He had been appointed by Guru Gobind Singh to take over the command of the Khalsa and continue the fight against state tyranny. After conquering Kaithal, Samana and then Shahabad, Banda Singh Bahadur took circuitous route and moved towards the hills north of Ambala and established himself at Mukhlispur. The topographical study of Mukhlispur would reveal the military strategy of Banda Singh Bahadur. He built Lohgarh over hillock surrounded by a ditch and thick forest for miles which made it difficult for the enemy forces to take them by surprise. During Banda’s period, Bahadur Shah issued edict that no Sikh should be allowed to move about in the town and villages. Despite all this Banda Singh Bahadur was able to establish a Sikh state and issued coins in the name of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh. He gave the shattering blow to the Mansabdari system of land holding which was prevalent in those days. Banda Singh freed the peasants from giving land revenue to their overlords and made the tiller the owner of the land. In this way he initiated a system that was to be gradually followed everywhere. Banda Singh Bahadur followed the policy of emancipating the downtrodden. Irvine writes, “In all the parganas occupied by the Sikhs, the reversal of the previous customs was striking and complete. A low scavenger or leather dresser, the lowest of the low in [Hindu] estimation had only to leave home and join the Guru (Khalsa) when in a short time he would return to his birth place as its ruler with his order of appointment in his hand.” Farrukh Syar, the Mughal Emperor sent a huge contingent in 1715 CE to capture Banda Singh Bahadur. He was besieged in the Haveli of Gurdas Nangal. Banda Singh Bahadur valiantly withstood the siege for many months but ultimately had to submit. In order to terrorise the Sikhs, a long procession of about 700 Sikhs was taken out from Lahore to Delhi. Captured Sikhs were publicly executed in Delhi. Khafi Khan, a contemporary writer, has given a graphic account of the heroic deeds of those Sikhs whom he called “accursed”. He has no soft words for the Sikh Gurus or Khalsa. He has narrated the account of a young Sikh which will ever remain a source of inspiration for the Sikhs. He writes that “he was giving an eye witness account” of an old lady coming to the Emperor requesting that his son was not a Sikh and he had been wrongly arrested as Sikh and was going to be executed. The Mughal Emperor took pity on the lady and ordered that her son should be released. The woman came to the executioner, wanted her son to be released forthwith but Khafi Khan writes that her son refused to be released and he declared that he was a staunch follower of Guru Gobind Singh and his mother was telling a lie that he was not a Sikh. He was executed along with his companions.
Mirza Mohammad Harisi the author of Ibrat Namah who was present at Delhi describes it as tamasha: “Such a crowd in the bazar and lanes had rarely been seen. The Mussalmans could hardly contain themselves with joy. But the unfortunate Sikhs who had been reduced to this condition faced their lot with visible equanimity. Not the slightest sign of dejection or humiliation was visible on their faces, in fact most of them as they passed along on their camels seemed to be happy and cheerful, merrily singing their sacred hymns.”
After Banda Singh Bahadur there was a problem in keeping the Sikhs who had been scattered to various places, under a unified command. This was a direct result of state’s active pursuit of a policy aimed at annihilating the Sikhs. Some Sikhs went into jungles, some to the deserts of Bikaner and some lay low in different places because of state persecution. Mata Sundari, revered spouse of Guru Gobind Singh, sent Bhai Mani Singh to Amritsar to organise the Sikhs. He revived the old custom of bi-annual gathering of the community on Vaisakhi (first day of the month of Vaisakh in the Sikh calendar) and Diwali (moonless night of the Sikh calendar month of Katak, associated with the sixth Nanak, Guru Hargobind). He wanted that Sikhs should periodically assemble at Amritsar to chalk out their plan of action and take all the measures for their safety. However, the state, realising the danger of such gatherings arrested Bhai Mani Singh and martyred him.
It will not be out of place to give here in brief the circumstances leading to the martyrdom of Bhai Mani Singh, the most revered learned Sikh of his times. Bhai Mani Singh successfully showed the way to Khalsa that Akal Takht and Darbar Sahib Amritsar were the rallying points in their hour of crisis. The Mughal government also knew that Sikhs would be assembling at Amritsar, hence it took strong measures to prevent them from coming to Amritsar.
The rule of Abdul Samad Khan (1716-1726 CE) and rule of his son Zakaria Khan (1726-1745 CE) is considered to be the period of persecution of the Sikhs. Hundreds of Sikhs were killed during this period. The most prominent is Bhai Mani Singh who did a lot of work to preserve the divine verses and tradition of the Gurus. He had taken baptism from Guru Gobind Singh. As priest of Golden Temple, Amritsar he applied to the Mughal governor of Punjab for permission to hold Diwali fair. Permission was granted on the condition that he would pay to the government a stipulated amount. On the day of festival army was sent there. Fair could not be held. The Sikhs could not visit Darbar Sahib. Bhai Mani Singh was arrested. He was given the usual choice — either accept Islam or be killed. Bhai Mani Singh was tortured to death by the order of the government.
In the first half of 18th century, the rule of Mir Mannu (1748-1753 CE) is known to be the most tyrannical for the Sikhs. Tamas Khan who was the page of Mir Mannu has described how the Sikhs were arrested and how they were killed for none of their fault except that they were Sikhs. Sikhs still remember the tyranny of Mir Mannu and they used to say Mannu Saadi Datri, Asin Mannu De Soye, Jiun Jiun Mannu Wadhda Asin Doone Chaune Hoye. How the Sikhs were chased and killed has been described by Tamas Khan, servant of Mir Mannu in his diary entitled Tamas Namah:
“After some time, Muin-ul-mulk himself marched out of Lahore to a distance of seven kos and encamped near village Tikapur situated on the bank of the Ravi. He halted there for a long time and sent out Mughalia troops under Khwajah Mir in every direction to suppress the Sikhs, whenever he heard of their risings. Khwajah Mira at the head of his troops rode out twenty or some times thirty kos. Wherever he got a clue of the whereabouts of the Sikhs, he would try to take them by surprise and slay them. The person who brought Sikhs alive or their heads or their horse, received prizes. Every Mughal who lost his own horse in the battle was provided with another of a better quality at the expense of the government. The Sikhs who were captured alive were beaten with wooden mallets and killed. At times Adina Beg Khan sent forty to fifty captured Sikhs from the Doab District (Jalandhar). They were as a rule killed with the strokes of wooden hammers.”
At another place Tamas Khan writes:
“Muin-ul-Mulk was at Batala, news was received that the Sikhs were creating trouble. Muin-ul-Mulk sent Syed Jamaluddin Khan and Bakhshi Gazibeg Khan against them. They were dispersed. Nine hundred of them, however, had gathered in the fort of Ram Rauni (Amritsar) close to Chak Guru (around 1752 CE). They were besieged in the fort.
Ultimately in desperation, the Sikhs issued out of the fort and fell upon the besiegers, sword in hand. A hand to hand fight took place. Syed Jamaluddin Khan and his cavalry got down from their horses and fought on foot. After a desperate fight the Sikhs were killed.”
During persecution of the Sikhs, the Mughal government under Mir Mannu (and his wife Mughlai Begum) did not spare even Sikh women and children. An eye witness account has been so vividly described:
“Next day Qasim Khan left the road to Patti and moving towards a village twelve kos away, camped there. On the plea that people had sided with the Sikhs, he imprisoned them. He camped there for a month. He did not release women and children who were taken captive. The Sikhs used to fight his soldiers every day and depart.”
Sikh Afghan Struggle
In 1739 CE Ahmed Shah Abdali who had visited India in the train of Nadir Shah became the ruler of Afghanistan. Keeping in view the weakness of the Mughal government, he cherished the dream to conquer the entire Punjab and annex it to the Kabul Kingdom. For this purpose he made repeated invasions from 1747 – 1767 CE. Sensing the spirit of times, Nawab Kapur Singh in 1748 CE organised Dal Khalsa by uniting various jathas (contingents) of the Sikhs. The organisation of Dal Khalsa created a force to be reckoned with. In the middle of 18th century, Punjab witnessed the quadruple struggle between Mughals, Marathas, Afghans and the Sikhs for the rule of Punjab. Mughals were defeated by Ahmed Shah Abdali who ransacked Delhi and collected huge wealth in 1756 CE. Marathas occupied Punjab in 1757 CE. Abdali was not to tolerate this, he brought a huge army and defeated the Marathas in the combat which is known as 3rd Battle of Panipat in 1761 CE. Marathas had superiority of number and superiority of ammunition but they could not defeat Abdali who employed superior strategy and provided better leadership in the war over the Marathas. Having vanquished the Mughals and the Marathas, now he turned his attention to Sikhs. Sikhs had to face the wrath of Ahmad Shah Abdali who wanted to vanquish the Sikhs as well.
The Sikhs had gone towards Sirhind and encamped at village Kup when Abdali reached Lahore. With rapid marches of light cavalry he covered the whole distance from Lahore to Kup within two days and reached Kup on February 5, 1762. Though Sikhs had been warned of Abdali’s approach by messangers of Missal Nakai, they were surprise by the speed of attack. The strategy was to overwhelm the Sikhs and to wipe them out. But the Sikhs stubbornly frustrated his designs. They would stand their ground, engage the enemy and then retreat to new ground. The enemy was in hot pursuit. The pursuer and pursued fought on for twelve kos and they were anxious to find water to quench their thirst. After half a day’s severe fighting they saw a big pond of water at village Qutab Bahmini. The clash and clang of swords stopped for a while and they had their fill of water. Abdali pursued the Sikhs upto Barnala where he called halt because his army was enervated and exhausted. The commonly cited estimate of the loss of men on the side of Sikhs is 15000 to 30000 men and this battle is known as vadda ghallugharaa [the major holocaust] in the history of the Sikhs. On his way back Abdali destroyed Darbar Sahib, Amritsar and filled the tank with animal blood and garbage so that Sikhs might not be able to claim this place as sacred. But he was soon disappointed. Hardly had he reached Kabul, Khalsa again gathered at Amritsar on Vaisakhi day and rebuilt the Temple.
Martyrdom of Baba Gurbaksh Singh
Qazi Noor Muhammad who accompanied Ahmed Shah Abdali during his 7th invasion and used the term ‘dogs’ for Sikhs has given a vivid account of martyrdom of Baba Gurbaksh Singh whose memorial is situated behind the Akal Takht in Amritsar. The author of Jang Namah writes about the seventh invasion of Ahmad Shah Abdali :
“When the Shah arrived at the Chak there was not a single Kafir to be seen there. But a few of them had remained in an enclosure so that they might spill their own blood. And they sacrificed their lives for the Guru. When they saw the renowned king and the army of Islam, they came out of the enclosure. They were only thirty in number. But they had not a grain of fear about them. They had neither the fear of slaughter nor the dread of death. Thus they grappled with the Ghazis and in this grappling they spilt their own blood. All the accursed Sikhs were killed and went to hell. The Muslims ran to the right and to the left in search of them but they did not find even one of the impertinent dogs. The Shah had, therefore, to return to Lahore helplessly.”
Ahmed Shah Abdali made several invasions to occupy Punjab and annex it to Kabul Kingdom. On every invasion he was frustrated by the Sikh jathas. The Sikhs warrior bands which were called jathas (and a collection of jathas, misal)- began to occupy territory at various places. They conquered Lahore for the first time in 1765 and struck coins in the name of the Guru. Soon most of the Punjab was occupied by the Sikh Misldars. Abdali, the best horseman of Asia of his time, conquerer of Delhi, victor of the battle of Panipat, felt hapless before the unrelenting Khalsa. He left Punjab without fulfilling his desire to annex it to his kingdom and died in 1769.
Establishment of Sikh Misls
Nadir Shah’s invasion of 1738-39 CE and Ahmad Shah Abdali’s repeated invasions from 1747-1767 CE created confusion and chaos in the whole northwestern India. The Punjab suffered the most. There was no sense of security. The people in Punjab were always in a fix as to whom to pay land revenue and whom not to. The Mughal government had been destroyed by the Afghans and Marathas. The Marathas were subsequently defeated by Afghans. Almost every alternate year Ahmad Shah Abdali would invade and devastate the land and loot the population irrespective of their religion. The only opposition standing were the Sikh moving bands who resisted the invader and helped the peasantry. Gradually different villages began to seek protection from various Sikh chiefs and they started paying tribute to the Sikh chiefs. This led to the development of Rakhy (protection) system. Owing to the continuous political insecurity and chaos the prominent Sikh chiefs began to possess big patches of land and there developed Misaldari system. In 1748 twelve misals were constituted. The most prominent amongst these were Faizalpuria, Bhangian, Kanhyia, Ahluwalia, Ramgarhia, Sukarchakia, Phulkian and Karorasinghia. All these misls were independent in their internal administration. But they were religiously bound to obey Gurmatta passed by Sarbat Khalsa on the occasion of Bandi Chhorh or Vaisakhi.
The Central Government of the Sikhs
Sikhs introduced the Gurmatta system. On every Vaisakhi (first day of the month of Vaisakh in Sikh calendar) and Bandi Chhorh (moonless night of the month of Katak) they used to meet at Amritsar and pass resolutions regarding their religious and political matters. This Gurmatta system had been rightly called as Central Government of the Sikhs, because Misldars used to rule at distant places and they were only under the rule of Akal Takht where Gurmatta was passed. George Forester has beautifully described the Gurmatta system in his travels when he visited Punjab in 1783 in the following words:
“The grand convention called in their language Goormatta was that in which the army met to transact the more important affairs of the nation, as the declaration of wars or peace forming alliance and detaching of parties on the service of the year. The amount of the contribution levied on the public account was reported to the assembly, and divided among the chiefs proportionately to the number of their troops. They were at the same time obliged to their soldiers who on any cause of dissatisfaction, made no hesitation in quitting their service and following the more popular leader.”
Sikh domination of Delhi, 1783
The Sikhs under Jassa Singh Ahluwalia entered Delhi unopposed. They entered Red Fort and occupied Diwan-i-Aam. The Emperor and their courtiers hid themselves in the private apartments. Jassa Singh Ramgarhia also joined coming from Hissar. They siezed whatever they could. Small cannons were taken possession of by many of the Sikh. Jassa Singh Ramgarhia captured four cannon guns and a large variegated slab of stone which is still preserved in Bunga Ramgarhia Darbar Sahib, Amritsar. Gradually all Sikhs retired from Delhi leaving it in the hands of the incumbent emperor Shah Alam II but at the mercy of the Sikhs.
On account of Sikh’s conquest of Delhi, Shah Alam II, the Mughal Emperor called Begum Samru to assist him. She entered into negotiations with S. Baghel Singh, the leader of Karorasinghia Misl. Following terms were settled and signed by the Emperor:
- The major portion of Sikh army would immediately retire to their homes in the Punjab.
- Baghel Singh would remain in capital with 4000 troops.
- Sikhs were allowed to build seven Gurdwaras at places historically important to them in the city of Delhi.
- Baghel Singh’s headquarter would be established at Sabzi Mandi.
- To meet the expenses of his troops and construction of Gurdwara he was permitted to charge six annas in the rupee of all the income from octroi duties in the capital.
- The Sikhs would not flout emperor’s law in any way during their stay in the capital.
- The construction of the Gurdwaras must be finished as early as possible, but not beyond current year in any case.
The most remarkable thing during the political turmoil of 18th century is that the Sikhs showed an ideal character. Even Qazi Nur Mohammad who had accompanied Ahmed Shah Abdali in his Jihad against the Sikhs had paid a glowing tribute to the Sikhs. Even in war against Afghans, Sikhs did not attack any women. This is testified by Qazi Nur Muhhamad. Sikh character shines like a beacon of light compared to their contemporary chiefs who had a number of women in their harems and used to carry away women of the enemy at first chance. It is significant to note that Qazi Nur Muhhamad who accompanied Ahmad Shah Abdali during his seventh invasion had intense hatred for the Sikhs. He called Sikhs ‘sag’ which in persian means ‘dog’. But he paid glowing tributes to the character and bravery of the Sikh and vividly depicted their fighting tactics in his Jangnamah. We reproduce here a few extracts which give an account of the 18th century Sikhs:
“Do not call the dogs (the Sikhs) ‘dogs’ because they are lions and are courageous like lions in the field of battle. How can a hero, who roars like a lion in the field of battle, be called a dog. If you wish to learn the art of war, come face to face with them in the field. They will demonstrate it to you in such a way that one and all will praise them for it. If you wish to learn the science of war, O swordman, learn from them how to face an enemy like a hero and to come out safe from a battle. Singh is a title ‘ a form of address for them’. It is not justice to call them dogs. If you do not know the Hindustani language (I tell you that) the word Singh means a Lion. Truly they are like lions in battle and at the time of peace they surpass Hatim”.
“When they take the Kirpan in their hands, they overrun the country from Hind (-ostan, meaning Northern India) to Sind. Nobody then stands in opposition to them, however strong he may be. When they manipulate the spear they shatter the ranks of the enemy, and when they raise the heads of their spears in the sky, they would pierce even through the caucus. When they adjust the strings of their Chachi bows and place in them the enemy-killing arrows and pull the strings to their ears, the body of the enemy begins to shiver with fear. When their battle axe falls upon the armour of their opponents, that armour becomes their coffin”.
“The body of every one of them is like the piece of a rock and in physical grandeur, every one of them is more than fifty persons. It is said that Bahram Gore killed wild asses and set the lions shrieking. But if Bahram were to come face to face with them, even he would bow before them.
“During a battle when they take their guns in their hands, they come jumping into the field of action, roaring like lions. They tear the chests of many and shed the blood of several (of their enemy) in the dust. It is said that the musket is a weapon of ancient days. It, however, appears to be the creation of these dogs rather than of the great Socrates. Although there are so many of the tufangchis (musketeers), but nobody can excel them in its use. To the right and to the left, and in front and towards the back, they go on firing regularly. If you do not believe in what I say, you may enquire of the brave swordmen who would tell you more than myself and would praise them for their fighting. The fact that they grappled with thirty thousand heroes bears witness to my statement.”
“If their armies take to flight, do not take it as an actual flight. It is a war tactic of theirs. Beware, beware of them for second time. The object of this trick is that when the furious enemy runs after them, he is separated from his main army and from his reinforcements. Then they turn back to face their pursuers and set fire even to water. Did you not see how, during the fight, they took to a deceptive flight from before the Khan, and how, then they turned back on him and surrounded him on all sides. The Khan then came down from his horse and flung arrows and bullets at them and with bravery extricated himself from their midst.”
“You may yourself judge, O brave man, how a single battalion of theirs rushed upon Multan, entered the city and devastated it and carried away an immense booty. I am not sufficiently strong in mind to be able to express what the dogs did there. Since the creation of the world nobody remembers to have seen Multan devastated in this way at the hands of anybody. But because God so willed it, everyone of us has to submit to His will.
“Leaving aside their mode of fighting, hear you another point in which they excel all other fighting people. In no case would they slay a coward, nor would they put an obstacle in the way of a fugitive. They do not plunder the wealth and ornaments of women, be she a well-to-do lady or a maidservant. There is no adultery amongst these dogs nor are these mischievous people given to thieving. Whether a woman is young or old they call her a Mai and ask her to get out of the way. The word Mai in Indian language means ‘a lady elder’. There is no thief at all amongst these dogs, nor is there any house-breaker born amongst these dogs, nor is there any house-breaker born amongst these miscreants. They do not make friends with adulterous and house breakers, though their behaviour on the whole is not commendable.”
“If you are not conversant with their religion, I tell you that the Sikhs are the disciples of the Guru. The ways and manners of these people received their impetus from Nanak who showed these Sikhs a separate path (taught them a distinct religion). He was succeeded by Gobind Singh. From him they received the title of Singh. They were not from amongst the Hindus. These miscreants have a separate religion of their own”.
- For details see the chapter ‘Guru Gobind Singh’s Relations with Bahadur Shah in my book Perspective on Sikh Gurus, Delhi, 2000.
- A Short History of Sikhs, Teja Singh & Ganda Singh, Orient Longman 1950, p. 82-86
- Ibid. p. 107
- Later Mughals, Irvine, Delhi 1995m p. 98
- Khafi Khan, Muntkhab-ul-Lubab, Vol. VII, p. 766
- Quoted in the Short History of the Sikhs, Teja Singh Ganda Singh, Orient Longman,. 1950, p. 124
- Tahmas Namah, Tahmas Khan, translated: P. Setu Madhava Rao, Bombay, 1967, p. 19.
- A Short History of Sikhs, Teja Singh Ganda Singh, Orient Longman, 1950, p.124.
- Tahman Namah Tahmas Khan, translated: P.Setu Madhava Rao, Bombay, 1967, p.19.
- Ibid. P.18.
- Ibid. P.23.
- For details see History of Sikhs, Hari Ram Gupta, vol. II P.73-97 (and edition 1978)
- See Maratha-Sikh Relations by Kirpal Singh in the Third Battle of Panipat, edited by Dr Hari Ram Gupta.
- Life of Maharaja Ala Singh of Patiala and His Time, Kirpal Singh, Amritsar, 1954, P.103-108.
- Jang-Namah, Qazi Nur Muhammad edited Ganda Singh,Amritsar, 1939, P.35.
- A Short History of Sikhs, Teja Singh, Ganda Singh, op. Cit., p. 159.
- This term won first used by Dr G L Chopra in his book Punjab As Sovereign State.
- A Journey from the Bengal to England, Vol. 1, Patiala, 1970, p. 330.
- For details see History of Sikhs, Hari Ram Gupta Vol. III, Delhi 1981, p. 164-170.
- Her real name was Zehrul Nissa daughter of Asad Khan. Married to a German adventurer known as Samru. She got converted to Roman Catholicism and after the death of her husband managed the Jagir at Sardana; she was favourite of Shah Alam II, Mughal Emperor.
- Jang Namah, Qazi Nur Mohammad, ed. Ganda Singh, cit. Op., p. 55.
- Ibid., p. 56
- Ibid., p. 57
- Ibid., p. 57
- Ibid., p. 57-58
- Ibid., p. 58-59