While the Mughals were an invincible force everywhere, they never succeeded in getting a foothold in the North East India. The North East was an attractive proposition for the Mughals, rich Brahmaputra flowing through many countries and hence a great trade opportunity, and by controlling this region, one could control the trade route. The region was fertile and it meant great agricultural bounty.
The story of Ahom dynasty of Assam vs Mughals is incomplete without the story of Lachit Borphukan. He was one of the five Patra Mantri (minister) in the Ahom Kingdom. He was the ruler of Lower Assam during that period.
From 1615 to 1682, the Mughals attacked North East 17 times. In 1667, the Ahoms lost Guwahati (Pragjyotishpur) to Mughals and had to pay a war indemnity of 3 lacs rupees and ninety elephants. Two Ahom princesses were taken as hostages by the Mughal Army. King Chakradhwaj Singha selected Lachit Borphukan to lead the forces and get Guwahati back from Mughal captivity. Lachit raised the army and seized Guwahati from the Mughals. He was sure that Mughals will be back soon, and hence immediately started preparing for the next battle. . He was right, Mughals came knocking at their doors with a much bigger and powerful army.
The Battle of Saraighat
The Mughals did not take this defeat lightly and came back with 30000 soldiers, 15000 archers, 18000 Turkish cavalry, 5000 gunmen and over 1000 canons. This was a mighty fleet and defeating them looked like an uphill task. Lachit was brave and a master mind. He forced the Mughal army to fight at the Brahmaputra River. Lachit had identified the weakest link in the Mughal force – their navy. The Ahom army built multiple mud embankments around Guwahati so that the Mughals were forced to attack them through Saraighat using their Navy.
For the Ahoms, the knowledge about the terrain was a big advantage. During the battle, there was a time when Lachit Borphukan fell terribly ill and the morale of the Ahom army started dwindling. His response to his team was very clear “If you want to flee, go ahead… the King has assigned a responsibility to me and I will do it well irrespective of my health. Let the Mughals take me away. You report to the king that his general fought well following his orders”. His soldiers rallied and a fiercely fought battle resulted in a victory over the mammoth Mughal army. The general was not fighting for fame, religion or the King. He was fighting for his motherland and its people. Every year, 24th of November is celebrated as Lachit Diwas in Assam.
Ahoms and their Navy
Ahoms always had a war strategy in place and that was about keeping invaders west of the river. The paik system ensured that each family in the Brahmaputra valley had to depute the male members whenever there was a war or any other extraordinary situation. This implied a backup of army men whenever the need arise.
The Ahoms made excellent use of the terrain and developed perhaps India’s only “river specific” navy! Inside-out knowledge of the terrain was what made the guerrilla warfare highly effective and they called it “Daga Yuddha”! Even towards the end of Ahom dynasty, their navy had more than 7000 sailors. There were sophisticated docks for boat building. They also knew how to build bastions (Pani Garh) in the middle of the river without using any existing island.
The Ahom war boats were smaller in size, but made up of wood from a specific tree, which would not sink even if overloaded. Each boat had a life of more than 10 years and was equipped with guns and artillery. The small boats were easy to maneuver in the river as compared to the large boats used by the Mughals. The Ahom boat men were expert in steering the boats in the battle field (river).