Battle of Samdhara: The Ahoms’ First Victory Over the Mughals

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    The Kolia Bhomora Bridge is an important link across the mighty Brahmaputra River in Assam, connecting the city of Tezpur on its north bank with Nagaon district on its south bank. The other reason the bridge is important is that it straddles the confluence of the Brahmaputra and Bharali rivers, a hugely significant place in the history of the region.

    The picturesque location and spectacular sunsets that can be enjoyed from a drive across this bridge belie a bloody and pivotal event in the region’s past, a battle that was fought at this very spot in the 17th century CE.

    It was right here, on the banks of these rivers that two mighty powers – the Ahoms and the Mughals – clashed for the first time. And it was here, in the Battle of Samdhara (1616 CE), that the Ahoms notched up their first victory over the Mughals.

    The only evidence of this historic military conflict is a giant rock inscription commissioned by the then Ahom General Kolia Bhomora Borphukan, after whom the bridge is aptly named, to commemorate the triumph. Located at the Tezpur end of the bridge is the ‘Bhomoraguri Rock Inscription’, which records the victory of Ahom King Swargadeo Pratap Singha over the Mughals and the construction of the Samdhara Fort.

    The Battle of Samdhara marks the beginning of 50-odd years of conflict between the Ahoms and the Mughals, which ended in the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 CE.

    The Back Story

    The erstwhile Koch kingdom had split into two and each kingdom thus created was ruled by separate Kings – the eastern Koch kingdom, or ‘Koch Hajo’, was ruled by Parikshit. It extended from the Sankosh River in the west to the Bharali River in the east.

    The western Koch kingdom, or ‘Koch Behar’, was ruled by Maharaja Lakshmi Narayan, an ineffective ruler. The kingdom stretched from Tirhut in the west to the Sankosh River in the east, and from Ghoraghat in the south, to Bhutan in the north. Several raids into the Koch Behar kingdom by Mughal Emperors Akbar and Jahangir had forced the Koch Behar state to accept Mughal suzerainty and become a Mughal vassal. But Koch Hajo King Parikshit held out.

    Instead, Parikshit attempted to forge an alliance with the Ahoms and the Afghan chieftains of the Greater Mymensingh and South Sylhet regions. Ahom King Swargadeo Pratap Singha was shrewd enough to realize that an alliance with Koch Hajo would bring the Mughals right up to his doorstep, and so he delayed the alliance until 1608 CE, when he married Parikshit’s daughter.

    In 1615 CE, Parikshit renewed his attacks in the Koch Behar territories started by his father. Maharaja Lakshmi Narayan sought help from the Mughals. The Mughal Governor of Bengal, Islam Khan, sent a force under Mukkaram Khan to fight the Koch Hajo army under Parikshit, who sought help from the Ahoms as well as the Afghans. Neither of them responded. The Ahoms remained aloof while the Afghans had been under Mughal control after their defeat in 1612 CE.

    As expected, Parikshit was roundly defeated and had to submit to the Mughal occupation of his kingdom. His brother, Bali Narayan, had sought refuge under the Ahom monarch. The Mughals then set up their headquarters at Hajo under Mukkaram Khan.

    The Mughal territories in Assam now extended up to the Barnadi River. While the Ahoms were not keen on trade relations with the Mughals, the latter were very interested in procuring the rich natural resources of Assam – elephants, deer, aloe-wood, medicinal and aromatic plants, pepper, tobacco and the rivers sparkling with gold dust.

    The greed for these natural resources forced the Mughals to carry on unauthorized trade within the Ahom kingdom, as far as the Bharali River. It was one of the main causes of friction between the Ahoms and the Mughals in years to come.

    A Call To War

    The first organised conflict between the two mighty powers took place after the Ahoms seized the boats and contraband of illegal Mughal traders in Ahom territory. It was the provocation for a much larger battle. The Mughal Governor of Bengal, Sheikh Qasim Khan, sent Syed Hakim, an imperial officer, and his trusted officer Syed Abu Bakr, with a force of 10,000 cavalry and infantry, 200 musketeers and 400 large war-boats to Hajo.

    The imperial detachment started from Bazrapur (now in Bangladesh) in the mid-monsoon of 1615 CE. They were accompanied by Sattrajit, son of a zamindar living near Dhaka, who had fought against Parikshit and was rewarded for his services by being made the Thanedar of Pandu and Guwahati. An Ahom commander by the name of Akhek Gohain, who had been dismissed from service a few years earlier, also accompanied the Mughals.

    The Mughal attacks started on the strategic Ahom post of Kajali, at the confluence of the Kalang/Kopili River and the Brahmaputra River (near the present-day settlement of Panikhaiti). The victory was easy for the Mughals, and the Ahoms made a strategic retreat to Samdhara, at the mouth of the Bharali River.

    As soon as Swargadeo Pratap Singha was informed about the Mughal advances, he sent his Council Ministers Buragohain, the Borgohain, the Sadiya-khowa Gohain and the royal prince Saring Raja to fight the enemy. The detachment of officers halted at the Samdhara Fort and strengthened its defences. The King halted at the Kathalbari Fort, close to Samdhara Fort.

    The Mughals pitched their tents on the opposite side of the Brahmaputra River, near Kaliabor. The first attempt by the Mughals to cross the Bharali was unsuccessful due to the rapids and it was successfully repulsed by the Ahoms. The Mughals then built a forward base on the opposite bank of the Bharali.

    The second attempt was successful as the Mughals had transported their cavalry to the opposite bank in ships and outflanked the Ahoms under the cover of a fog. The Ahoms were badly defeated and had to retreat to their fort. One of the commanders of the fort, Bingsha Patra, was captured by the enemy.

    The Counter-Attack

    The Mughals, however, did not follow up on their victory. When news of the reversal reached the Ahom King Swargadeo Pratap Singha, he sent another army of 14,000 soldiers. The commanders marched down to the fort and repaired the fort and its ramparts. But they didn’t make any moves to attack the Mughals, as they were unaware of the strength of the Mughals. Pratap Singha then sent a messenger with some sharp instruments and the following declaration for the officers, as noted in the translation of the Ahom Buranji by G S Barua:

    “The heavenly king has ordered that he who retreat from the field of battle or would run away, would be severely punished. The flesh of his body would be cut to pieces in the presence of all others.”

    The warning worked and the officers immediately began to draw up strategies for a raid on the Mughal camps. The work on building three bridges made out of interconnected boats over the Bharali had begun and spies were sent to the Mughal camps. Additional troops had also been requested for support. The stockade at the mouth of the Bharali was captured, providing a forward base for attacks.

    The spies returned with information that the Mughal Fort was vulnerable as the ground was sandy, not duly protected and the surrounding jungles had not been cleared.

    Moreover, the Mughal commander had underestimated the Ahom army’s strength and wasn’t prepared for any emergency. Armed with this information, the Ahoms invaded and occupied the forests surrounding the Mughal fort. They waited for the right time to attack the Mughal positions.

    Akhek Gohain, who had deserted the Mughals on the promise of receiving a pardon from the Ahoms, advised the Ahoms to attack at night. Thus, taking advantage of a fog on a wintry night in mid-January in 1616 CE, the Ahom army crossed the Bharali on the three bridges it had constructed and attacked the Mughal camps. The Mughals were completely routed.

    The Ahoms also undertook a naval attack and surrounded the Mughals from all sides, leaving no room for escape. The Mughal commander, Syed Abu Bakr, was killed while trying to escape. Even the reinforcements that had been sent were routed.

    The Mughals lost thousands of men in the conflict. According to the Baharistan-i-Ghaybi (a Mughal chronicle of the history of Bengal, Bihar and Assam), 1,700 soldiers were killed, 3,400 wounded, 3,000 went into hiding in the jungles, and 9,000 were taken captive. Only a few commanders were able to escape.

    An immense amount of war treasure fell into Ahom hands, which included swords, lances, spears, guns, war-boats, elephants, horses, cannons and other munitions of war. After receiving news of the victory and assessing the spoils of war, the Ahom king Pratap Singha performed the ‘Rikkhvan’ ceremony, a Tai Ahom ceremony for longevity.

    Pratap Singha also commissioned the construction of a new and improved fort at Samdhara to commemorate his victory. His General, Kolia Bhomora Borphukan, commissioned a giant rock inscription that records the landmark battle. It reads:

    স্বস্তি শ্ৰী শ্ৰী সকলমঙ্গ লালয় স্বৰ্গনাৰায়ণ দেৱ আগে যৱনক নিপাত কৰি পাচে পৰ্ব্বত কাটি গড়

    শ্ৰী ভণ্ডাৰি গোসাই কৰিলেন্ত ৷ শক ১৫৩৮

    The English translation of the inscription is as follows:

    Blessed be all!! The auspicious Sri Sri Swarganarayan Dev has vanquished the Mughals, then cutting through the hills, Bhandari Gossain erected a fort. Saka 1538.

    The rock inscription is situated on the Tezpur side of the Kolia Bhomora Bridge. The site is known as the Bhomoraguri Historical Stone. It is a 3.5-hour journey from Guwahati, a distance of 172 km.

    The aftermath of the Battle of Samdhara proved beneficial for the Ahoms. The western boundary of the Ahom kingdom shifted westwards, from the Bharali River to the Barnadi River. Bali Narayan, the fugitive brother of Parikshit, was installed as the tributary Raja of Darrang, with the title ‘Dharma Narayan’. His territories extended from the Barnadi River in the east to the Sankosh River in the west.

    In a dramatic twist, the pardon granted to the dismissed Ahom commander Akhek Gohain was revoked and he was put to death.

    According to the Padshahnama (the official history of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan), due to the disastrous loss in Assam, the Mughal Governor of Bengal, Qasim Khan, was removed from his post.

    Although the Ahoms were victorious, peace would be short-lived as the local hill chiefs in the Kamrup region would rebel against the local Mughal government and attack the fort at Pandu, dragging the Ahoms into a direct confrontation with the Mughals, again, in 1617 CE.

    Cover photo: The insignia of the Ahoms


    Shounak Dey, from Guwahati, is currently majoring in mechanical engineering and fosters a keen interest in history of the Ahom kingdom.

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