The Battle of Saraighat was the last battle in the last major attempt by the Mughals to extend their empire into Assam. The Battle was fought in 1671 between the Mughal Empire, led by Raja Ramsingh I and the Ahom Kingdom, led by Lachit Borphukan, on the Brahmaputra River at Saraighat.
The Ahom Army defeated the Mughal Army by brilliant uses of the terrain, clever diplomatic negotiations to buy time, guerrilla tactics, psychological warfare, military intelligence and by exploiting the weak navy force of the Mughal forces.
In early 1600s, Mughals realized the strategic importance of Brahmaputra valley. After a few battles with Ahom kings, they signed a treaty of Asurar Ali in 1639, marking the Barnadi river in the north bank and Asurar Ali in the south bank of Brahmaputra as the boundary of Ahom Kingdom and Mughal Empire. When Aurangzeb became the Mughal emperor, Mir Jumla, the Mughal Viceroy at Dhaka was asked by Aurangzeb to recapture Assam. In 1661, he marched with a large army and defeated Ahom and captured their capital Garhgaon. The Ahom King Jayadhwaj Singha agreed to a humiliating treaty. According to the treaty, Ahom gave territory from Guwahati to the Manas river and also a large amount of money. The Mughals retreated and Mir Jumla died of illness.
Road to the Battle
The successor, King Chakradhwaj Singha started making preparation to recover the lost territories. He appointed Lachit Borphukan as the new commander-in-chief. In 1667, the Ahom army advanced from Garhgaon to Guwahati. Lachit captured Guwahati and the Mughal had to vacate Guwahati.
Lachit started bolstering Guwahati defence by erecting walls and planting obstacles to tackle a retaliatory attack by the Mughals. Guwahati has excellent natural barriers as it is surrounded by hillocks and the Brahmaputra river. Lachit was focused in ensuring the full safety of Guwahati and planned each move of the enemy carefully.
In 1669, the Mughals forces consist of 4,000 troopers (from his char-hazaari mansab), 1,500 ahadis (soldiers recruited by the Emperor) and 500 barqandezes by an additional 30,000 infantrymen, 21 Rajput chiefs (Thakurs) with their contingents, 18,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers and shieldmen and 40 ships, under Raja Ram Singh and Rashid Khan, ex-faujdar of Guwahati, reached up to the Manas river with a huge army. Armies from Koch Bihar also joined the Mughal forces as they were also vassals of Mughal Empire.
Aware of Mughal military might and the weakness of the Ahom militia, especially against the professional cavalry and mounted forces in open fields, Lachit Borphukan decided to choose the terrain of Guwahati, which was hilly, on the way to the heart of the Ahom kingdom and without open fields where the Mughal forces would not have sufficient mobility. The only way east was via the Brahmaputra river passing through it. The Brahmaputra at Saraighat, at its narrowest 1 km width, was ideal for a naval defense. To check Mughal advance, Lachit prepared a complex system of mud embankments in Guwahati.
Ahom allies viz. the Garos, the Jaintia, the Nagas, the Rani of Darrang, the Raja of Rani joined battle. The Ahom defense was arraigned as:
- The north bank, under the command of Atan Burhagohain.
- The south bank, under the command of Lachit Borphukan.
Both commanders had a number of pali commanders each defending a specific strategic area, with each pali reorganized in response to the challenge posed by Ram Singh’s forces.
The Mughal forces were arraigned in four divisions:
- The north bank, commanded by Ram Singh himself.
- The south bank, under Ali Akbar Khan, Mir Sayyid Khan, Raja Indramani, Raja Jaynarayan and Marul Khan
- The Sindurighopa entrance, under Jahir Beg, Kayam Khan, Ghanashyam Bakshi, and three Baruah’s from Koch Bihar—Kavisekhar, Sarveshwar and Manmatha.
- The river, guarded by the naval commanders Mansur Khan, Latif Khan, Iswarpati, firinghees (Europeans) and one Kapidan Raja.
When the Mughals found Guwahati impregnable by land, they would be forced to use their navy, which was their weakest asset. When the Mughal march reached the Manas river and defeated some Ahom forces, Lachit decided on a strategic retreat to Guwahati. Three Rajkhowas were asked to meet the Mughal forces and retreat to Guwahati, keeping the Mughal forces in sight but beyond the reach of their weapons. When the Mughals reached closer, he started a sham negotiation via the captured Firuz Khan with Ram Singh, who had set up camp at Agiathuti, calling the Mughal Emperor the “Bhai Raja” (brother sovereign) to the Ahom king.
And when he was ready for the Mughal attacks, he sent words to Ram Singh that “Guwahati and Kamrup do not belong to the Mughals” since they were taken from the Koch and that the Assamese were prepared to fight to the last.
The Mughals laid siege to Guwahati for around a year. Lachit knew that his army could not fight the Mughals in an open-ground attack, so he started guerilla warfare.
Ram Singh became frustrated due to failed negotiations and attacks on his army, thus he asked for a duel with the Ahom king. He promised to withdraw from Assam with his army if he was defeated. Chakradhwaj Singha rejected the offer on the ground that it was beneath his dignity to duel a mere servant “who has no umbrella over his head” (who is not a “Chhatrapati”). Annoyed with Ram Singh’s proposal he ordered Lachit to confront the Mughals militarily. Lachit reluctantly followed the order and sent in 40,000 and using an anti-koch tactic that had worked against Chilarai, they dressed their vanguard archers and musketeers as Brahmans to make the Rajput warriors desist from killing them. Ram Singh, on the other hand, set a woman, Madanavati, dressed as a man, to command the vanguard to deny the Ahoms any glory in case of a victory. The battle took place in the fields adjoining the Alaboi hills.
Ram Singh let loose his veteran horsemen and in the carnage that followed, 10,000 Ahom soldiers were massacred. Lachit did a great job of building a precautionary defence by digging a line in the rear of his army and that helped him from total destruction, by pulling remainder of his troops to safety.
Battle at Saraighat
The Mughals wanted Ahom to honour the Asrur Ali treaty of 1639. Mughals were prepared to compensate Ahom well. However, Ahom did not want to give up their western part of the kingdom. Atan Burhagohain suspected that the commitment given by Ram singh will not be eventually honored by the Mughal emperor. Also giving Guwahati would have amounted to providing Mughals with a hold on the Brahmaputra valley and a launching pad for attacks on the eastern part of the kingdom. He was able to persuade the other commanders and the Ahoms rejected this proposal.
At the failed diplomacy, the Mughals launched a massive naval attack on the river at Saraighat. The Ahom soldiers had not recovered from their earlier defeat and Lachit Borphukan and their admiral were both seriously ill. Ahom were losing the will to fight and some started retreating.
At this crucial moment in the battle, when the Mughals were about to land at Andharubali, the Borphukan sent orders via katakis to all the land and naval forces to attack. Lachit asked his troops to carry him on a boat. Seven boats advanced against the Mughal fleet. Seeing their leader entering the war had an electrifying impact of the Ahom soldiers. A large number of small Ahom boats entered the river quickly and smashed into the Mughal warships. Mughal’s large boats could not maneuver deftly against the attack from small boats.
The triangle in the Brahmaputra River, between Itakhuli, Kamakhya and Aswakranta was filled with men and boat and the Ahoms resorted to a combined front and rear attack. The Mughal admiral Munnawar Khan, smoking a hookah was killed by a gunshot from the back, throwing the Mughals out of gear. The Mughals were pursued to the Manas river, the Ahom kingdom’s western boundary.
Lachit died a year later. After a few years, the Mughals briefly recaptured Guwahati, but in 1682 Ahom won it back. Since then the Brahmaputra valley never became a part of Mughal empire.