Sunday, May 28, 2006

Assam and the naval wars

The Turk invaders attacked Assam (as they also did Orissa) in 1205 CE, within a few years of invading Bengal. Although the lone Muslim text that describes the early history of the eastern regions, attributes Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji’s march into Assam as an invasion of Tibet[1]! The warriors of Kamarup destroyed a stone bridge behind the invading army and broke its communication and supply line. Khalji with a few close followers jumped in the river and made their way back with difficulty—the rest of his army was destroyed by the Hindus. The rivers and rains of Assam would more than once prove to be the greatest protectors of the land from future invasions.

The great rivers of North India rise from the snows and glaciers of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau to pour their water on the Indo-Gangetic plain. One such river though continues flowing in Tibet, parallel to the Himalayas, and crosses them far in the east where it flows into Assam—this river is the Brahmaputra. The river flows west and joins the Gangetic delta where the plains of Bengal meet the plains of Assam. On the south the Brahmaputra valley is protected by hill ranges inhabited by Nagas, Cacharis, Khasis, Garos, and other local tribes.

The Turks of Bengal led repeated, but unsuccessful, raids into Assam until the major invasion of 1257 under Yuzbak. The Raja of Kamarup withdrew his forces from his capital and offered to pay tribute but the Muslims occupied Guwahati and declared their own rule over Kamarup. A few weeks later the Raja cut the embankments of the upstream rivers and flooded the plains—destroying the standing crops and breaking the invader’s supply lines. The Turks withdrew towards Bengal but were bottled up by the Kamarup forces and the local tribes in the hills of modern Meghalaya, where they were taken prisoner.

After this splendid victory the Kamarup Kingdom went into decline and was replaced by the Kingdom of Kamata, which possessed lands up to the Karatoya River in modern Bangladesh. Eastern Kamarup was divided into small landholdings under the local Bhuya chieftains. This Kingdom of Kamata continued the conflict with the Bengal Sultans, in the south, and the Ahom Kingdom, in the east. It came under the Khen tribe in the 15th Century and expanded up to Sylhet in the east—Hussain Shah of Bengal defeated the third Khen King Nilambara, and annexed the Kingdom of Kamata. The town of Hajo in Assam became the headquarters of the invaders—several local people were converted to Islam and Bengali Muslim immigrants were also settled around that town.

The Ahoms – concurrent with the first Turk invasion in western Assam, a new kingdom was established in eastern Assam by a prince of the Ahom tribe from upper Myanmar. The Ahoms were a branch of the Thai race that had established the ancient kingdom of Gandhara in South-East Asia—from ancient times they had been under the influence of the Vedic civilization. In a later period, when Buddhism became popular in eastern India, the kingdoms of this adjoining region also saw the spread of this new religion—Indian influence was supreme in South-East Asia till the 14th Century.

The Thai Kings bore the title of Maharaja and claimed descent from the dynasty of Ashok Maurya. Their Kingdom of Gandhara[2] was victorious over China and their ambitious princes had formed small kingdoms in Siam and upper Myanmar—in 1253 CE the Mongol Kublai Khan destroyed Gandhara and pushed out the Thais south into Siam (later called Thai-land). Branches of the Thais like the Shans and Ahoms also went west (into upper Myanmar) and north (into Assam) respectively.

The Ahoms[3] absorbed several local tribes in upper Assam and came into conflict with the Chutiyas of the upper Brahmaputra valley and the Cacharis of southern Assam—their initial battles with the Kingdom of Kamata were concluded with peace treaties and a matrimonial alliance. The secluded Kingdom of Manipur retained independence, as did Tripura[4] and the tribes of Meghalaya and Mizoram. The Naga tribes inhabiting the hilly regions remained a thorn in the side of the Ahoms for a very long time.

Just as their Thai ancestors had imbibed first the Vedic civilization and later the Buddhist teachings, the Ahoms now came under the influence of the Vaishnav religion then popular in Assam—this process was hastened by the royal marriages with the Kamata and Cachari families. Socially the Ahoms were organized into the fluid caste system of the Vedic era and their entire population could be called upon to perform military service—the Ahom nobility had titles like Barua, Gohain, and Phukan. From their time in South-East Asia the Ahoms had become experts in plying boats and building bamboo bridges and forts—their main army comprised of infantry with the nobles riding elephants.

With their new base of Hajo, the Sultans of Bengal came into direct contact with the Ahom Kingdom—in 1527 Sultan Nusrat sent an army to invade the Ahom Kingdom. The Ahom King Swarg Narayan repulsed the invaders and his men captured forty horses and some cannon from them—two years later they assumed the offensive against the Muslims but did not gain any major victory. Such to and fro battles continued for the next five years, by which time Sultan Nusrat was assassinated and the Bengal Sultanate was convulsed by internal troubles. The local Muslim governor of Hajo continued the war against the Ahoms but was finally crushed in 1533 and the entire land up to the Karatoya River in Bengal came under the Ahoms.

In a land of dense undergrowth and innumerable rivers and ravines, the Muslim cavalry was ineffective, and after all these centuries the Ahoms had adapted to the use of cavalry themselves. In this campaign they had also captured some cannon from the invaders and learnt to use it in their own wars—in particular against the Naga tribes in 1535-36.

The most extraordinary fact of all these battles though is that they were naval clashes on the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries!

Naval wars

The rivers in Bengal carry a huge volume of water and have a gentle pace—they meander on in loops, break up into channels, form junctions with other rivers, and leave behind estuaries, lakes, and marshy lowlands in their wake. It was impossible for trade and transport to move efficiently without boats—it was equally impossible for an army to march through the land without the aid of ferries, bridges, or boats. From ancient times it had been the practice of the local kings to maintain a flotilla of boats—this practice was also adopted by the Turk invaders[5].

Their fleet of ships was called the nawwara and it was used for three purposes:
1) As a defence against their Turk overlords of Delhi,
2) To fight coastal wars against the Rajas of Arakan[6] (western Myanmar),
3) To invade Assam along the Brahmaputra River.

The best illustration of the first was the invasion of Bengal by Sultan Firuz Tughluq in the middle of the 14th Century. His crossing of the Kosi River was blocked by the Bengal nawwara[7] that patrolled the rivers and defended every crossing point—at last Firuz marched north and took the aid of a local Raja in crossing the shallow river at the foothills. The Bengal ruler fled to the island-fortress of Ekdala, which was built of clay and lay between two looping rivers. Firuz made two efforts to take this fort but failed each time since he did not have any naval capability.

After their first fierce encounter with the Ahoms the Bengal Sultans were convulsed by internal conflicts and foreign conquest by the Mughals—in this time the situation in Assam had changed appreciably. Between 1540 and 1584 the Koch tribe took advantage of the disturbed conditions to seize the old Kingdom of Kamata and the Muslim territories in eastern Assam—they even forced the Ahoms to pay them tribute. While the Mughal conquest of Bengal was being completed, there was an internal quarrel in the Koch ruling family, which led to the break-up of the kingdom into two. The Koch ruler Lakshmi Narayan took the aid of the Mughal governor of Dacca to defeat his rival—the lands of the latter were annexed by the Mughals and were called Koch Hajo since they were in eastern Assam. The lands of Lakshmi Narayan on the other hand, lay near Bihar, and his kingdom was now called Koch Bihar[8].

The Ahoms gave refuge to a prince of Koch Hajo and the Mughals continued the war with the new enemy, which ended with the recognition of the Bar Nadi as their boundary. In the long war of succession fought by Aurangzeb and his brothers to gain the Mughal throne in the middle of the 17th Century, the government of Bengal under his brother Shuja fell into disarray. The Koch and the Ahoms took full advantage of the changed conditions.

The Koch ruler Pran Narayan sent an army to occupy Hajo while from the east the Ahom ruler Jayadhwaj advanced into Mughal Kamrup—crushed between two invaders the Mughal governor fled from Guwahati in his boats. Pran Narayan sought friendship and an equal division of the Mughal territory with the Ahoms but Jayadhwaj refused and pushed the Koch army out of Assam. By this time (1660) Aurangzeb had defeated Shuja and had appointed the Persian adventurer Mir Jumla[9] as his viceroy of Bengal.

Mir Jumla took 12,000 cavalry, 30,000 infantry, and a fleet of 323 ships and boats up river towards Koch Bihar—the naval contingent comprised Portuguese, English, and Dutch sailors. Faced with these overwhelming odds Pran Narayan left his capital and fled to Bhutan, his soldiers and people following in his wake. Koch Bihar was now occupied and renamed Alamgir-nagar while the Muslim azaan was cried out from the roof of its palace—the main temple was demolished and a mosque was ordered to be constructed in its stead. Mir Jumla himself broke the murti of the God Narayan with an axe[10].

After a few days stay in the city, Mir Jumla sailed up the Brahmaputra on 4th January 1662 to oust the Ahoms from Hajo and Guwahati. The army marched along the south bank of the river and defeated the Ahom formations along the way while the ships bombarded every bamboo stockade and fort built along the banks. Against this force the Ahoms fled into the mountains while their subordinate rulers, the Rajas of Darrang and Dimarau, joined the victorious Mughals—even the Ahom navy was defeated on 3rd March and 300 of its boats were captured by the Mughals. The Mughal nawwara sent detachments up the many tributaries of the Brahmaputra while the land army captured the Ahom capital Garhgaon on 17th March.

But the Ahoms had not been routed. Their skill in jungle warfare, familiarity with every stretch of forest or knot of hills, and ability to attack in complete darkness, soon gave them the upper hand. Their dispersed infantry units and elephant forces would make hit and run attacks on the Mughal posts and then combine together whenever the Mughals came out in the open—this is today called ‘loose formation fighting’. But another ally now came to their aid.

While Russia has its General Winter whose bitter cold defeats enemies that attempt to occupy that country; Assam has its General Rain. From the month of May in the words of the Mughal historian, “The rain fell from the sky and water swelled up from the ground; the flood spread over the encampment. The tents looked like bubbles on the surface of water; the horsemen sat all night on their chargers and the infantry stood in water.”

Garhgaon was built on the River Dhiku, which is joined to the Brahmaputra by the River Dihing—unlike the other rivers the Dhiku was too shallow for the Mughal ships and Mir Jumla was now trapped in Garhgaon. The Ahoms began recapturing their posts and stockades along the rivers and had full command of the countryside—Raja Jayadhwaj appointed the Baduli Phukan as prime minister and commander-in-chief of the army. All nobles, subordinate kings, and soldiers were ordered to obey him. The Baduli Phukan made several attacks on Garhgaon and burnt down its bamboo wall and many houses—Mir Jumla thereafter had a mud wall built to deter further attacks. The Mughals lost their horses, draught animals, and many soldiers to famine—in this period the Raja of Koch Bihar recovered his capital and expelled the occupying Mughals.

In the meantime the Mughal nawwara under Ibn Hussain kept up the communication with Dacca and protected the forts along the banks of the Brahmaputra. When the rains finally ceased Mir Jumla built a bridge over the Dhiku and resumed the offensive, receiving fresh supplies from the naval fleet. The Mughal cavalry and artillery could operate freely on the dry ground and the entire force advanced eastwards—on the 30th November the Baduli Phukan came over to the Mughals with 3000 men. Practically the entire kingdom was occupied by Mir Jumla.

But a severe epidemic was raging in the land and both sides suffered from it—Mir Jumla himself contracted a raging fever. The desertions were growing on the Ahom side and at last Raja Jayadhwaj proposed peace[11]. The Mughals annexed the land up to the Bharali River and Mir Jumla retreated to Dacca by boat, dying on the way from high fever.

Later developments

Disputes over the payment of tribute and the grasping nature of the Mughal commander at Guwahati broke down the peace a few years later. The new ruler Raja Chakradhwaj appointed Lachit Barphukan as his commander-in-chief and constructed several forts and posts along the river in preparation for the war. The Ahom navy and army moved in tandem and after capturing several Mughal posts along the way, assaulted Guwahati from all sides in November 1667. The Mughal commander was captured and many of his soldiers were massacred—Chakradhwaj did not repeat the mistake of his predecessor and wisely established friendly relations with the neighboring ruler of Koch Bihar.

At this time the Mughal Subahdar of Bengal and his naval fleet had been employed in fighting against the Raja of Arakan and the firengi pirates of Chittagong. So Aurangzeb appointed Raja Ram Singh to recover the Mughal possessions in Assam—unlike Mir Jumla the Raja was not made viceroy and had no control over the local forces in Bengal. His army was surprisingly small, comprising 4000 Rajput cavalry of his own Kachhawa clan, with 1500 Mughal cavalry and 500 artillerymen supplied by Aurangzeb—it was speculated that he had been sent to Assam as a punishment for his having helped the Maratha King Shivaji in escaping from the Mughal capital Agra[12].

At Patna Ram Singh took the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur[13] along with him and also hired 15,000 archers from Koch Bihar, whose real military value and loyalty was minimal. The Mughal officer on the Assam border was secretly in league with the Ahoms and Raja Ram Singh first defeated him before leading the invasion. Unlike Mir Jumla the Rajput king was provided only 40 ships for this operation, which began in February 1669.

To everyone’s surprise Raja Ram Singh was initially successful and captured the lands up to the frontier of Bar Nadi—but he was deluded by the organized Ahom withdrawal. The Ahoms regrouped and began their loose formation fighting while the river town of Guwahati still held out under Lachit. Ram Singh fell back to Hajo while Assam’s ‘General Rain’ again came down to torment the invaders. A surprise attack on Darrang through the southern hills was defeated and negotiations were opened for restoring the old border.

At this time Raja Chakradhwaj became suspicious of Lachit Barphukan and exhorted him to take the fight to the enemy. Attacking from the land the Ahoms were defeated by the Rajput cavalry and the Mughal artillery. Chakradhwaj died in 1670 and Ram Singh threw his small navy to oust the demoralized Ahoms from Guwahati—though suffering from a severe fever Lachit Barphukan led the Ahoms to victory in this Battle of Saraighat before his own death. The negotiations between the two sides failed and indecisive fighting continued for a few months—Ram Singh though did not receive any compensation for his material losses from the Mughal Emperor and he retired back to the border in March 1671.

For by this time the Mughal Empire was involved in continual warfare that would take it down to a dismal end. Beginning with the rebellion of the Afghan tribes (from 1667-77), to the Rajput war from 1679-81 that drained all the empire's resources, and which in turn became linked with the southern wars against the Marathas and the Deccan Sultanates. These southern wars lasted a quarter century and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the break-up of his empire.

Unfortunately the Ahoms too were suffering from internal dissensions through this period and could not take full advantage of the Mughal weakness—the internal conditions worsened to such an extent that the Barphukan ruling Guwahati went over to the Mughals in 1679. Finally in 1681 Raja Gadadhar Singha restored order in his kingdom and ousted the Mughal force in that town. The wars of expansion ceased in the tottering empire and the Monas River now became the boundary with the province of Bengal.

[1] The Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of Minhaj-ud-din claims that this medieval army crossed the dense jungles and rivers of the lower Himalayas and the towering snow-clad mountains of the upper Himalayas in only sixteen days! The description of Tibet in that work is also very vague and it is erroneously believed to be inhabited by Turks.
[2] The Chinese called this kingdom Nan-chao, which had defeated the Tang dynasty in the 9th Century. Another Thai kingdom was Annam, which was more under the influence of the Chinese civilization.
[3] The provincial name Assam is an anglicized form of Asom, which in turn is derived from Ahom.
[4] The Bengal Sultans made several attempts to conquer the hilly kingdom of Tripura—on one occasion the Tripura general Rai Chaichag broke the dam on the River Gumti and swept away the invading army.
[5] They also had Afghans, Arab Sayyids, and Abyssinians among them in later periods. The last two were more familiar with the use of ships than the land-based Turks and Afghans.
[6] The conflict with the Rajas of Arakan was over the region of Chittagong, which changed hands frequently between the two sides. In the wars the Arakan forces would ply their boats along the coast and upstream through the mouths of the Gangetic delta to attack cities and villages in Bengal. In the Mughal period they also employed the Portuguese pirates to boost their own capabilities—the Mughals could capture Chittagong only after they had bribed the Portuguese pirates to their own side in 1666.
[7] The Nawarra had big ships called ghurab, faster attack vessels called jalia and row boats called kosas…smaller huri boats were attached to the bigger ships and were used for landing men on shore. Besides these there were also merchant vessels for carrying supplies and provisions.
[8] This kingdom survived till the British Raj and was then called the princely state of Cooch Behar.
[9] Mir Jumla had an interesting career. He came to South India and took service with the Sultan of Golconda; in the Sultan’s jehad against the Hindus of Carnatic, Mir Jumla accumulated much treasure in jewels and gold taken from the desecrated temples. Shah Jahan recruited him into his administration and during the Mughal war of succession Mir Jumla was on Aurangzeb’s side.
[10] Unlike the age of Akbar there was little toleration under Aurangzeb for the indigenous Hindu states or the Hindu religion. There were several other instances of attacks on small states and the demolition of temples. And even while making peace proposals, Aurangzeb would insert the condition of the rulers converting to Islam—this was never done under Akbar.
[11] His daughter was sent to Mir Jumla to be eventually married to the Emperor's son; the Baduli Phukan became a Mughal officer and his family was sent to him; a war indemnity in gold and silver was to be paid by the Ahoms and subsequently an annual tribute of 20 elephants.
[12] Ram Singh’s father Jai Singh had defeated and made peace with Shivaji and had sent him to the Mughal court. The Maratha King hoped to be appointed the Mughal viceroy of the south, instead he was imprisoned. Some Brahmins in Ram Singh’s employment helped him to escape and the prince was thus deprived of his rank and was banished from court. On the death of his father, Ram Singh became the head of the Kachhawa clan and ruler of Amber (later called Jaipur) and was again restored to all his ranks and privileges.
[13] Assam had a reputation for being the home of witchcraft and magic spells and Ram Singh probably realized the need for some spiritual strength on his own side to counter these.