Across Brahmaputra With Warrior Lachit Borphukan

 

The great Assamese general knew his terrain, the brave river, the Mughals, and his battles well. Aneesh Gokhale follows his hero, this time, on foot in Guwahati, and returns drenched in history.

 

The calm and serene waters of the brave Brahmaputra stretch before me. It is the widest river in India. Wide. Pictures are not enough to tell how wide. I stand on the banks, in the early hours of a winter morning, making my eyes travel the river. A light fog hangs on the water. My eyes wander until they are tired. The river is wide. The widest.

I am in Guwahati to meet a hero. Lachit Borphukan. The brave Assamese general who had opposed and defeated the Mughals. Borphukan, my hero, first met me on the pages of Amar Chitra Katha, during my school days. Knowing the hero in Amar Chitra Katha not enough, I later found him in history books. Many years later, I would write a book on him.

 

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The eyes travel on Brahmaputra

 

It is 1663. Mir Jumla and Diler Khan capture Guwahati and other parts of Assam. Chakradhwaj Singha of the ruling Ahom dynasty makes Borphukan the commander of his armies and sends him to fight the Mughals. Lachit Borphukan leads the victorious campaign and clutches it by November 1667. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, pinched by the defeat, sends Ram Singh to retake the lost Mughal territory. A great showdown ensues. It is the beginning of 1669. The Assamese and the Mughals clash in a tough game of nerves, spies, diplomacy, skirmishes — the grand climax — the Battle of Saraighat!

The historical accounts rage a war within my mind. I am in the city of Guwahati, visiting places where the Assamese fought the Mughals. How do I travel the historical clashes? How do I visualise the wrath the Mughal warboats and numerous Assamese bachhari boats unleashed on each other? I find a place to stay at Pan Bazaar, where the Ahom and British past jostles for space. The temple of Sukreshwar is not very far. In earlier times, the fort of Itakhuli — the seat of the Mughal faujdar, when they ruled over Assam, stood here. I gaze at the Brahmaputra from this spot. I see some small boats. Did Mughal faujdar Syed Firoz Khan try to escape in a similar boat when Itakhuli fell?

It is 1667. Lachit Borphukan manages to wrest the fort from Mughal hands. The architect of the victory is Ismail Siddique, better known as Bagh Hazarika. He pours water into the Mughal cannons, making the attack next day easy.

 

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How did the fort look 400 years ago? Today, the old fortification stands in the middle of the city. Near the temple entrance is an interesting memorial to the Battle of Saraighat. There is an engraving of the river battle and a stone pillar commemorating the 1667 victory. It is a replica of the original pillar, now, at the nearby museum.

Walking short distances makes you stumble upon beautiful surprises. At the Pan Bazaar area, I find myself in the middle of dozens of bookshops.  It reminds me of Pune’s much larger hub for books — Appa Balwant Chowk. “Do you have books on Lachit Borphukan?”, I ask a shopkeeper. 
“Well, we have plenty on Assam history. What brings you to Assam?,” he asks. 
“I am working on a book on Lachit Borphukan”, I say, dusting one of the books. “Lachit Borphukan defeated Mughals so many times! We are extremely proud of him,” the shopkeeper says. I purchase a few books and walk to the Assam State Museum.

Three Ahom cannons stand at the museum compound. The cannons are different. The flare in the mouth! Swords, daggers, chain mail armour, spears and shields. Inside the museum, there are numerous artefacts relating to the war between Lachit Borphukan and Ram Singh. Look at a sword in the picture — the one with a long and straight hilt. The Heng Dang — a sword carried by the royalty, aristocracy and army commanders in the Ahom dynasty. The museum is a proud home to a number of cannons — the ones mounted on boats that sailed and fought on the river!

Lachit Borphukan carries a similar sword to his war against the Mughals.

 

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The Heng Dang (first from left).

 

This ruthless terrain. The Ahom army does not have any cavalry. What they have instead, is entirely unique in India, a riverine navy! Small cannons would fit onto boats, ready to battle on the Brahmaputra! The river — a battlefield.

I spot the original stone pillar I have mentioned earlier. The museum caretaker welcomes my questions on Lachit Borphukan. I bring up the topic of Momai Kota Garh.

Lachit Borphukan orders his uncle to complete overnight a crucial portion of fortifications to guard Guwahati before the Mughal army’s attack. But come morning, Borphukan, my hero, is furious. The task hasn’t been undertaken. He beheads his uncle for dereliction of duty. Hence the name “Momai Kota Garh”.

 

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Frozen in art: The brave Ahoms

 

Where is Momai Kota garh? “It is on the other side of the Brahmaputra”, the caretaker says. 
The wheels take us to the Saraighat Bridge, named after the famous battle had taken place in 1671. I can see the temple of Kamakhya perched atop a hill.

Lachit Borphukan knows the terrain inside out. The Brahmaputra is at its narrowest near Guwahati. Narrowest — a kilometre wide. Lachit Borphukan plans to use the river like a mountain pass, cutting off and guarding its narrowest point. Not only is he well conversant with strategy, but also has deep knowledge of how boats would behave on a narrowing, restricted and flowing river. He shapes his strategies accordingly.

I am directed to Agiathuti  — a vital spot in the war with the Mughals. The urban chaos of Guwahati leads to a quieter suburb melting into rural landscape. On the other side of the road are low-lying hills. I imagine them being guarded by Ahom soldiers. I meet them, at the Battle of Saraighat. In statues and sculptures.

In the evening, I meet Madhurajya Buragohain, who has helped me know a lot on Ahom culture. He asks me to visit Dighali Phukuri, Doi Phukuri and Lachit garh.

 

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Dighali Phukuri

 

Dighali Phukuri is a man made lake. It is said that it was built by Bhagadatta during the times of Mahabharat. In the days of Lachit Borphukan, it served as a dockyard for boats and was connected to the Brahmaputra by a channel. Boats would be brought here for repair, refitting, or restocking with men and weapons before being sent off to battle again.

It takes me an hour to reach Lachit garh. I spot Lachit Garh High School. It stands on top of a mound. The mound stretches all the way to the mountains on either side, broken only by NH 37. This was no natural hill. It was a man made embankment. One of the few remaining structures from the war between the Assamese and the Mughals. The Ahom fortifications were made of mud, clay and bamboo. They have either been washed away, over the years, or have been conquered by vegetation.

 

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The school on top of the mound

 

I proceed to the embankment’s base. I am beginning to grasp what was meant by “throwing a ring of defences around Guwahati”. Such fortifications would connect hills and make Guwahati impossible to capture. At the Guwahati University, I meet the head of the history department, Dr Mumtaz.  She directs me to Centre for Historical and Antiquarian Studies. I meet Madhurajya who shows me a part of the broken fortification, which people around the University believe was Momai Kota Garh.

At the Centre for Antiquarian and Historical Studies, I get a chance to see Ahom Buranjis — records maintained on tree barks — kept in shelves, well preserved. The Ahom dynasty has a carefully- documented record of politics and administration on Buranji. They are our window to the past.

I return to the Brahmaputra. The sun drowns unwillingly. Boats linger on the calm waters against the setting sun. Statues of my hero, the great Lachit Borphukan and other warriors, I am told, will rise from the brave river.

 

— Aneesh Gokhale is author, Brahmaputra – Story of Lachit Barphukan.

Featured Image: Getty Images

Travel pictures sourced from the author.

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  • thiactsupporter

    Very good article. Thank you Aneesh Gokhale Jee !.