Banda Bahadur: From ascetic to warrior
Fascinating, colourful and larger than life, Banda Singh Bahadur was a follower of Guru Gobind Singh. He started his life as an ascetic, distinguished himself as an administrator and is celebrated as a great warrior. A new work of historical fiction attempts to flesh out the story of this enigmatic person
Sirhind Fort: The battle of Sirhind is considered to be the first major battle fought and won by the Sikhs against the Mughal Empire
THE journey had been a long and difficult one, long not so much in terms of distance as of time. He had taken almost a year to cover 1,700 kilometres. These were deeply troubled times and there was turmoil in the area between Nanded and Delhi. Banda and his group had followed the guru’s advice and done everything possible to avoid suspicion and confrontation with representatives of the Mughals. They had broken up into smaller groups and leapfrogged from one destination to another, getting together and regrouping at intervals of three or four days. They studiously avoided the highways and used circuitous, rarely used tracks deep in the arid areas of Rajasthan. Banda with his group of four, after a long and tiring journey, had found shelter for the night in the ruins of an old fort that was now used as a serai, an inn. They had eaten a frugal meal and wrapping themselves up in their blankets, had curled up for a well-earned sleep, when they were awakened by the approach of galloping horses; the hoof beats sounding loud and clear in the stillness of the night. They all sat up with a simultaneous start. The feeble light from the still smouldering campfire lit up their tense faces. The confidence with which the hoof beats had rung out had made it abundantly clear that men in authority were riding the horses. Under the circumstances they could only be officials from the Mughal army. Banda look closely at his followers and smiled reassuringly: “This is our first real test. I do not think God would have set us on this mission if he had wanted our journey to end so soon. Wrap yourselves up in your blankets again and assume the pretence of sleep. Drop this pretence only when you perceive a definite threat.”
The photograph of an old structure in Wazirabad, which was the city of Banda’s in-laws. His wife Sahib Kaur is said to have belonged to this place
Banda Singh’s abode from 1713–1715. He stayed in the Jammu hills at a place now called Dera Baba Banda Singh Bahadur.
Chhapar Chiri: The present-day gurdwara is on the edge of the historic battlefield. The battle took place on May 12, 1710
Photos by malkiat singh
Wall paintings inside Dera Baba Banda Singh Bahadur at Riasi (Jammu)
The Sikhs did as Banda advised. The horses came to a halt and then they heard a loud voice hail the keeper of the serai by name. It was clear that these soldiers were frequent visitors to this place. There was an exchange of greetings, the telling of jokes, laughter and then the sound of the clatter of earthenware and of water being poured as food was served and eaten. There was a lull in the conversation for a short while broken only by the gurgle of hookahs. “So, there is nothing new in the developments in the Deccan?” the keeper asked.
“No, there is nothing new. There is a stalemate as far as the emperor’s campaign is concerned and no fresh gains have been made. But yes, there is one piece of news that might interest you. Gobind Singh, the guru of the Sikhs, is dead.” Banda heard the sharp intake of breath from the ‘sleeper’ besides him. It was a terrible and tragic news, news that would provoke reaction from his followers. Banda himself did not move and prayed that the others would be still as well. The speakers resumed their conversation.
“But I had heard that his wound had healed and he had recovered.”
“Yes. So it was said. But he was given the gift of a powerful bow. He had an obsession with weapons and could not resist trying out this wonderful new bow. It required great strength and as he drew the string, the strain became too much and his wound reopened. He bled to death. They say that even in the face of his impending death he remained as always, serene and strong, giving advice to his followers and in the end, reciting prayers.”
There was a long silence and then a deep sigh. “He was a great man,” said the serai keeper. “Yes, he was a great man,” a soldier said without any reservation or grudge in this admiration. “May Allah have mercy on his soul.”
Prayer for strength
The Sikhs lay still, wrapped up in their blankets, overcome by the enormity of what they had heard. After the initial, momentary numbness, Banda realised that he was not as shocked by the news as he ought to have been. There was regret that he had not had a chance to say goodbye. Then his mind went back to his last meeting and he realised that the entire meeting had been in the nature of a farewell and the regret too passed from him. Banda prayed for the strength to bear this loss and to live up to his guru’s trust and faith. As he prayed, the stillness came back within him and with it a resurgence of strength and confidence.
The group only came to terms with the loss of their guru four days later when all thirty-one Sikhs came together at the pre-designated rendezvous. Banda and his group were the last to arrive; the others had been waiting for him. They greeted each other in subdued whispers and then sat in silence. “It is the will of God,” he said simply. “And we would be failing our guru if we did not accept it with grace.” He looked into the eyes of the five senior leaders, one by one, and marvelled at how well they had been chosen. He saw in their eyes as fierce a determination as when they had received their mandate from the guru, and said:
“The circumstances have changed and with this change some rethinking is required. The Khalsa must decide how the loss of our guru is to affect the course of action that we must now pursue.”
First Raj of the Sikhs: Life and Times of Banda Singh Bahadur
by Harish Dhillon, Pages 320. ~ 499. Published by Hay House Publishers India, New Delhi.
Binod Singh cleared his throat and spoke. Even though there was firm resolve in his voice, it was soft and gentle and comforting. He too had sensed the drooping of spirits amongst some of his friends and this was his way of restoring their faith in themselves: “Our great loss, the loss of our guru, has brought about a great change in our lives, but the circumstances that gave birth to our mission have not changed. Though the guru has gone from us, his mandate remains unchanged. If we love our guru we must ensure that we fulfil the responsibility that he laid on our shoulders. We must go out and fight – the fight he wanted us to fight. Only now it will not be under his leadership, it will be under a changed leadership and even this change the guru provided for by appointing Banda Singh Bahadur as our leader. You must take charge in the coming battles as the commander of the Sikh forces.”
Carrying forward a dream
“It is a heavy burden that the guru has laid upon my shoulders,” Banda said almost immediately. ‘But it is a burden that I carry willingly and with pride. At this stage I can only endorse what Bhai Binod Singh has said. Our hearts are heavy with grief and our minds overwhelmed by this great loss. But even in this state of mind, we all know that we have no choice, there is only one course of action open to us. We must do our utmost to make the guru’s dream come true – the dream of a Punjab where all men are equal and there is no shadow of oppression or exploitation to blight the lives of ordinary men. This is the only way in which we can show our love for our guru, the only way we can offer proof to the world that we are his true Sikhs.” They sat late into the night sharing their experiences. Strategies for the next stage of their journey were worked out and it was decided that two of the followers would move ahead carrying personal letters from Banda Bahadur to the Sikhs in the Majha and the Doab, telling them that the time to carry out the guru’s orders was now close at hand.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher