Lachit Borphukan: The Valiant Warrior of Assam

“Could it be that there is no fit man in Your Majesty’s realm? What are the enemies? They are after all ordinary mortals. Shall we not find similar men in our own country? Your Majesty should only confer the dust of your feet, and the man equal to the occasion will be readily found.”

-Lachit Dolakasharia Barua (Lachit Borphukan) so addressed the King at the court of Ahom Swargadeo Chakradhwaj Singha.

Lachit: A Saga of Victory

Born on 24 November 1622 in Charaideo, Assam, Lachit was the youngest son of Sukuti (popularly called Momai-Tamuli), Assam’s General in the Ahom-Mughal wars during the reign of Mughal Emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Ruled by the Swargadeo (King), the Ahom Kingdom (1228 CE-1826 CE) was administered by five highly designated officials called the Patra Mantris or Council of Ministers. The Borphukan was one of them.

Sukuti (Momai-Tamuli) faced a lot of hardships and initially served under his nephew for a total of four rupees. The nephew used to address him as Momai (maternal uncle). Swargadeo Pratap Singha (1603 CE-1641 CE), on coming to know about Sukuti’s sincerity and dedication towards his duties, appointed him as Bar-tamuli or Superintendent of the royal gardens. Momai-Tamuli steadily rose in position until he was appointed Barbarua, which essentially combined the functions of the Chief Executive Officer and those of the Lord Chief Justice of the land. During the early battles with the Mughals, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Ahom forces. His vigilance and bravery used to be a great asset to Swargadeo Pratap Singha. A Mughal messenger once commented to his master, “O Saheb, what do you say of Assam? The King is a veritable Mahadeva and Momai-tamuli is Mahadeva’s Chief henchman or Nandi. As long as these two wield the affairs of Assam, it is impossible to turn your face to that country.” This remarkable sense of dedication to work, loyalty, and respect for his master made Momai-tamuli rise to power and prominence.

Lachit inherited this supreme sense of responsibility and dedication from his father. From a very young age, Lachit saw and listened to everything that occurred in his father’s official residence. Being a Barbarua, Momai-tamuli had the usual retinue of subordinate officials helping him with the running of the state affairs, taking decisions regarding revenue and judicial complaints, receiving foreign messengers, and dealing with the problems of state diplomacy.

It was normal for the families of Ahom nobles to appoint efficient teachers for the education of their sons. Pandits and intellectuals who imparted knowledge on statesmanship based on the Ahom classics as well as the Hindu Dandanities and Arthasasthras and taught the history of the country and the administrative system, were regularly consulted. Military training was integral to the education of noble families. Every officer, even a judge as well as a priest had to take up arms in times of emergency.

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Ahom Royal Palace (Kareng Ghar), Gargaon. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lachit began his career as the scarf-bearer of the Premier, a position equivalent to that of a private secretary. It was considered the first step in the career of an ambitious diplomat and politician. Being a scarf-bearer, he had to carry a bundle of betel nuts and important documents for his master. He also had access to the royal audience and cabinet meetings. Lachit held various offices throughout his career. Initially, he served as the Ghora Barua or Superintendent of the Royal Horses. Later he was appointed as the Dolakasharia Barua or Superintendent of the Guards. Swargadeo Chakradhwaj Singha (1663 CE-1670 CE), soon after becoming the King, appointed Lachit as the Commander-in-Chief and the Borphukan. The position of Borphukan had both executive and judicial powers, and had jurisdiction over the Ahom Kingdom, west of the Kaliabor river. The Borphukan was also responsible for maintaining diplomatic relations with Bengal and Bhutan.

Lachit Borphukan and the Battle of Saraighat

Swargadeo Chakradhwaj Singha appointed Lachit as the Commander-in-Chief of the Ahom forces at a crucial period amidst the ongoing Ahom-Mughal conflict. Chakradhwaj Singha refused to pay the full instalment to the Mughals agreed upon in the Treaty of Ghilajharighat, signed in 1663 CE by his predecessor Swargadeo Jayadhwaj Singha. He rather instructed Lachit Borphukan to prepare his army to fight the Mughals. Lachit completed his preparations by the summer of 1667 CE, and his army recaptured Guwahati, which was previously occupied by the Mughal forces. In December 1667, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, sent a huge force to Guwahati under the command of Raja Ram Singh of Amber, to re-establish Mughal authority. The news of the departure of Raja Ram Singh and his army from Delhi was promptly communicated to Lachit Borphukan through his spies. Lachit, aware of the numerical and technological strength of the Mughal army, immediately initiated a survey of Guwahati to make it into a war zone. Guwahati, located on the banks of the river Brahmaputra and surrounded by hills from all sides, was strategically crucial for the Ahoms. Lachit realised that the fortifications of Guwahati must be secured to safely accommodate their men and resources. Prime Minister Atan Buagohain was appointed by the King to erect and maintain the necessary fortifications on both banks of the River Brahmaputra. Lachit Borphukan had to ensure that all his forces were equipped with sufficient resources to sustain the attack. He even inspected the passes and defiles in the neighbourhood of Guwahati. The sense of vigilance and courage shown by Lachit Borphukan in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief was incredible.

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View of Guwahati city from the Brahmaputra

The core of Ram Singh’s army consisted of 21 Rajput Chiefs, 4000 troopers, 1500 gentlemen troopers, and 500 artillerymen, and with reinforcements from Bengal, the strength of his army increased to 30,000 infantry, 18000 Turkish cavalry and 15000 archers. Lachit Borphukan received reports of the Mughal army advancing towards Guwahati, and he personally verified the reports by surveying their position. It is said that tears rolled down his cheeks when he said to himself, “It is a tragedy that my country is facing this dire catastrophe during my Phukanship. How will my King be saved? How will my people be saved? And how will my posterity be saved?” However, he did not let this break his spirit. He was determined to defend his motherland to the end. Lachit was aware that the Mughals were inexperienced in naval battles and wanted to take advantage of it. He surveyed and identified a triangular region called Andharubali in Guwahati, (it connects Nilachal hill and Itakhuli hill on the southern bank, and Aswakranta hill on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra) to be the most convenient site to fight a naval battle. In February 1669 CE, Raja Ram Singh’s army reached the frontier garrison of Rangamati. Lachit Borphukan, in order to lure the invaders into the war zone of Guwahati, (the land surrounded by hills on all sides with forts and garrisons at regular intervals), despatched three officers towards the Manaha river to entice the enemy into the neighbourhood of Guwahati.

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Statues depicting the preparations of the Ahom army. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As the fortifications of Guwahati were further strengthened, Lachit Borphukan did not spare anyone who did not execute his orders.

It is said that Lachit assigned his own maternal uncle with the responsibility of constructing a rampart near Amingaon on the north bank of the Brahmaputra. However, his uncle was unable to complete the work within the specified time. An incensed Lachit executed his uncle for such a careless attitude. His words, “My uncle is not greater than my country” showed his priorities.

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Site map of the Battle of Saraighat. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1670 CE, Swargadeo Udayaditya Singha succeeded to the throne following the death of Chakradhwaj Singha. In 1671 CE, the Mughal army led by Raja Ram Singh made its way to Guwahati with a naval flotilla sailing upstream of the Brahmaputra. The Mughal army unable to use the roadways due to fortifications, took the riverway to enter Guwahati. As soon as they were about to land at Andharubali, the Ahom land and naval forces were ordered to attack the Mughals. Lachit Borphukan was on his sickbed when the Mughals entered Guwahati. He was monitoring the movements of the enemy from the top of his gatehouse on Itakhuli hill. He observed that the Ahom army had started retreating after losing confidence in the face of the massive Mughal force. He immediately boarded his boat which was accompanied by six other war vessels, and headed towards the site of the naval battle. Borphukan exclaimed, “His majesty has given me the supreme command of the army here and placed at my disposal vast stores of provisions so that I may fight with the enemy. Should I now desert the fight and revert to the embraces of my wives and children? How dare these serfs of boatmen venture to row up the boats without my orders!” Seeing their angry chief, the Ahom army decided to fight back and faced the enemy with renewed courage and confidence. With courage and astute warfare tactics they finally defeated the Mughals near Saraighat, an area on the south bank of the river near the Pandu port. The Mughal army was forced to retreat from Guwahati. They were pursued to the river Manas, which was on the western boundary of the Ahom Kingdom.

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Saraighat, Guwahati

Raja Ram Singh, at the end of the battle, hailed the courage and skill of the Ahom army saying, “Every Assamese soldier is an expert in rowing boats, in shooting arrows, in digging trenches, and in wielding guns and cannon. I have not seen such specimens of versatility in any other part of India.” He is further said to have exclaimed with astonishment after experiencing the valour and vigilance of Lachit, “Glory to the King! Glory to the counsellors! Glory to the commanders! Glory to the country! One single individual leads all the forces! Even I, Ram Singh, being personally on the spot, have not been able to find any loophole and opportunity.”

The joy of victory of the Ahom army in the battle of Saraighat diminished with the news of Lachit Borphukan’s death soon after the battle. Though he had a high fever while leading his army in the battle, it was his unsurpassed dedication and patriotism that empowered him to fight the enemies to protect his motherland for future generations. Borphukan died in 1672 at Holongapar in Jorhat. In 1672, Swargadeo Udayaditya Singha, as a mark of respect and remembrance to the legendary Commander-in-Chief, constructed the Lachit Maidam at Hoolungapara.

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Statue depicting the Battle of Saraighat. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Lachit Maidam, Jorhat. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

A stone pillar found at Guwahati has the following inscription in Sanskrit, “The Borphukan of Namjani [Lower Assam], son of the Barbarua, lived with glory in the Saka year 1589 [1667 A.D.] after having attained victory over the Yavanas [Muslims] who were equipped with various war-weapons, elephants, horses and captains. The person of the Borphukan is adorned with every ornament, and his heart is enlightened with a knowledge of the various branches of learning. He is beautified by attractive qualities which are also free from the evils of the Kali-yuga. The Borphukan shines effulgent in his prowess; and is the commander of elephants, horses and soldiers. He is the ocean or receptacle of the highest form of fortitude, self-respect, valour, and depth of judgement and gravity.

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Sculpture depicting the naval battle of Saraighat. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons