Banda Singh Bahadur
Dr M S Ahluwalia
The period of Banda Singh Bahadur represents one of the most formative stages of the Sikhs as a political power and is, therefore, of absorbing interest and historically very important.
Apart from the most noble task of the creation of the Khalsa, another everlasting heritage of Guru Gobind Singh is the continuation of the Sikh tradition through the choice of his lieutenant Banda, popularly known to the Sikhs as Banda Singh Bahadur. He was the first veteran Sikh fighter who spear-headed the liberation movement and laid down the foundation of Sikh sovereignty.
Like his master, Guru Gobind Singh, whose influence was most potent in shaping his life and career, Banda Singh too fought for every good cause with selfless devotion. The Sikh struggle under Banda Singh was undoubtedly more vehemently carried out against the Mughal State, which had become ‘the source of all tyranny’.
According to one estimate, Baba Banda Singh was “to all Muslims an ‘unbeliever’, a ‘dog’ to Sunnis, an ‘impostor’ to Shia Mullahs, an ‘untouchable’ to the Hindu Brahmins, a ‘rebel’ to the Mughal government itself, and to many disaffected Sikhs, mostly Sahajdharis, only a ‘false guru’. But to the Khalsa Sikhs, the Singhs, especially, he is now remembered as a man of valour, cool in the face of death, a champion of the cause of sweepers and pariahs but one who found favour with the well-born also, a leader who would himself have chosen to propagate the faith by persuasion rather than by force of arms, a Sikh who led a pure life, true to rahit or the code of the Khalsa....”1
The above observation will amply illustrate that different authorities, contemporary as well as later, Sikh as well as non-Sikh, have different assessment of the great hero and martyr, Banda Singh, who happened to be the forerunner of the first Sikh State during the post Guru-period of Sikh history.
Birth, Childhood and Early Ascetic Life
Banda Singh Bahadur alias Madho Das, whose original name was Lachhman Dev, was born on 27th October, 1670 CE (Kartik Sudi 13, 1727 BK). He was a Pahari Rajput of Bhardwaj clan and belonged to Rajouri in Kashmir.2 Very little is known about the early life of Banda Singh, which was, as usual with the Rajputs of his age, spent in ploughing and hunting coupled with riding and archery.
During one of his hunting excursions, Lachhman Dev killed a doe which immediately delivered itself of two cubs who expired in his presence. The sight shocked him so much that he pledged to renounce this sport, which to him, appeared very repulsive. His sense of penitence grew so strong that he resolved to lead an ascetic life.
Lachhman Dev, a youth of barely fifteen, renounced worldly life and became a bairagi.3 He occasionally sought the company of wandering hermits, who halted at Rajouri (an important halting place on the banks of river Tawi, a tributary of Chenab) on their way to Kashmir. During this period, a bairagi, Janaki Das by name, captivated the heart of the young boy through his ascetic teachings, and the latter became his disciple under a new name, Madho Das.4
In 1686 CE, Madho Das accompanied Bairagi Janaki Das to village Thamman (near Kasur in Punjab) on the eve of Baisakhi fair. There he came into contact with another bairagi named Ram Dass and accepted his discipleship. Later Madho Das wandered from place to place until he settled at Nasik (Maharashtra). He selected the historic Panchvati and meditated there for several years. While at Panchvati, he came into contact with one tantric yogi (Aughar Nath or Luni) and became his ardent devotee.
After having mastered the tantric knowledge, Madho Das left Panchvati. Following the course of Godawari river, he finally settled at Nanded (on the banks of river Godawari, about 100 miles north-east of Hyderabad) in Maharashtra. There Madho Das established his own monastery. It was at Nanded that he earned great name and fame as a sorcerer and his monastery became the rendezvous for thousands of persons from nearby areas. For his followers, bairagi-cum-tantric Madho Das became their chief mahant or presiding abbot.5
In his earlier role as a tantric yogi, possessing supernatural powers, Madho Das had been carried away by a false notion of ‘superiority and self-importance’. His enthusiasm and energy were apparently directed towards inappreciable channels.
Initiation and Advent in the Punjab
It was after spending sixteen summers at Nanded that Madho Das found a ‘reforming chemist’, Guru Gobind Singh, who reclaimed the misdirected energies of the ascetic-cum-wizard and made these flow in the channels of Khalsa brotherhood and emancipation of the people of Punjab suffering under the iniquities and oppressions of the age.
At a time when Banda Singh Bahadur was leading an ascetic life at Nanded (1692-1708 CE), Guru Gobind Singh was busy in his mission of fighting against political iniquities and religious intolerance in the Punjab. During the closing years of his reign, Emperor Aurangzeb sent a conciliatory message to the Guru, inviting him to the Deccan for negotiations. The Guru, however, sent in reply his famous epistle, the Zafarnamah6, wherein he reprimanded him about his unkingly behaviour and telling him that he had taken to sword as the last resort.7
However, as the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was too old and weak to come up to Kangar, the place suggested for a dialogue, the Guru set out for the Deccan for peaceful negotiations. While passing through Rajasthan (Baghaur), he received the news of Aurangzeb’s death (20th February, 1707 CE), and, therefore, returned to Punjab. While the Guru was near Shahjahanabad (Delhi), he was approached by the heir apparent, Prince Muhammad Muazzam (Bahadur Shah)8, for assistance against the usurping brother, Muhammad Azam (June 1707 CE).
Like a true saint, the Guru helped Muazzam in the battle of Jajau (18th June, 1707 CE). On assuming sovereignty, the new emperor, Bahadur Shah, invited Guru Gobind Singh at Agra and gave him a Khil'at (robe of honour) and a Tukhturhi (a kind of necklace) studded with precious jewels, as a mark of his gratitude.9 The Guru addressed a letter to the sangat of Dhaul (17th October, 1707 CE) informing about the progress of the negotiations. Meanwhile, the emperor left for Rajputana to quell the Rajputs and then to the Deccan to crush the rebellion of his brother, Kam Baksh.
As the negotiations had not concluded, the Guru accompanied Bahadur Shah to the Deccan. The negotiations continued during the southward march for about two months, but were broken off when the royal camp reached near Nanded. The Guru separated himself from the royal camp and the emperor headed towards Hyderabad Deccan (September 1708 CE). It was here that the Guru met Madho Das.
Bairagi Madho Das had a big monastery at Nanded and also possessed a masnad (cot). It is said that whosoever tried to sit on the masnad, was thrown on to the ground through his magic and supernatural powers. However, all efforts of Madho Das to dislodge the Guru from his masnad ended in failure. Ahmad Shah Batalvi10 records the dialogue between the Guru and Madho Das as under :
Madho Das – Who are you ?
Guru Gobind Singh – He whom you know.
Madho Das – What do I know ?
Guru Gobind Singh – Think it over in your mind.
Madho Das – So you are Guru Gobind Singh.
Guru Gobind Singh – Yes.
Madho Das – What have you come here for ?
Guru Gobind Singh – I have come here so that I may convert
you into a disciple of mine.
Madho Das – I submit my Lord. I am a banda (a
slave) of yours.
Madho Das, without further arguments, submitted to Guru Gobind Singh and accepted his creed. The erstwhile proud and invincible bairagi was formally initiated as a Sikh by administering the Amrit (nectar) and given a new name – Banda Singh. From now onwards, he was no longer a bairagi, wizard or magician, but acquired a distinct identity as a Sikh and a leading disciple of Guru Gobind Singh and a member of the Khalsa brotherhood.11 Banda Singh was now ready for a new assignment in accordance with the orders of his master, Guru Gobind Singh.
By the news that Emperor Bahadur Shah had presented a robe of honour to Guru Gobind Singh in token of his gratitude for assistance in the battle of Jajau, Wazir Khan, the governor of Sirhind, was very much alarmed. He knew well that he would be the greatest sufferer in the event of successful termination of the negotiations between the emperor and the Guru, since he had acted as active persecutor of the Guru’s Sikhs and his younger sons. It may not be out of context to mention that presumably it was Wazir Khan of Sirhind who deputed the Guru’s assassins for his personal safety. It is most likely that but for his physical disability, resulting from the stab by a Pathan of Sirhind, he might have returned to the Punjab.12
He had written to his people on this point in his letter of the 1st Kartik, 1764 BK (mid-Oct. 1707 CE). Of course, he would have gone back from Agra itself, had it not been for his negotiations with Bahadur Shah. He had now, therefore, no other course left open to him than to accede to Banda Singh’s request and entrust the military command of his people to his charge. The constitutional means and negotiations for peace, which cost Guru Gobind Singh his life, had all proved futile. The sword was now the last resort, and the duty of plying it devolved upon the Khalsa, with Banda Singh at their head, of course, ‘not as Guru, but as commander of the forces of the Khalsa’.
The Guru appointed a council of five piaras, consisting of Bhai Binod Singh, Kahan Singh, Baj Singh, Fateh Singh and Ran Singh to assist him, and some twenty other Singhs were told to accompany him to the theatre of their future war-like activities. A nishan sahib (flag) and a nagara (drum), were bestowed upon him as emblem of temporal authority. The secret of his success lay, he was told, in personal purity and chastity, and in the propitiation of the Khalsa, who were to be regarded as his very self (the Guru’s very self). Thus raised to the position of jathedar (leader), and strengthened by the Guru’s hukumnamahs (letters), to the Sikhs all over the country to join in his expeditions, Banda Singh left for the Punjab. Before leaving, Banda Singh promised to obey the commands of the Guru. He was also given a letter addressed to the Sikhs of the Punjab to acknowledge Banda as their new leader and fight under his flag.
As soon as the devout Sikhs received the edicts of the Guru, they abandoned their hearths and homes in their hundreds, especially in Majha, Malwa and Doaba, and marched out to join Banda Singh’s forces. Meanwhile, the news of Guru’s assassination set the Punjab Sikhs literally on fire. The cold-blooded murder of his two young sons at Sirhind only a few years ago was still rankling in their minds and hearts. Therefore, when they heard of Banda Singh’s coming, they gathered around him from all sides, irrespective of the difficulties put by the local administrators.
In the next few months, he arrived at the frontier of the Delhi province. Here, he slackened his speed and moved very leisurely and cautiously, probably to avoid detection by or collision with the imperial troops. For want of men, money and ammunition, he was not yet prepared for such an encounter. He had decided wisely to first attack small citadels of power nearby, firstly to create a general disorder and contempt for imperial authority, and secondly to put to test his own forces regarding their capacity for warfare, sacrifice and hardship.
As Banda Singh proceeded further, he became very popular for his saintly blessings and princely generosity. Common people knew him only as a deputy of Guru Gobind Singh, and they flocked to him for benediction, begging for dudh, put (milk, offspring). He would not send away any one disappointed. Such reports about him spread far and wide, so that people brought to him complaints and received justice. Thus Banda Singh, who had so far refrained from interfering with the government, found himself ready to do so.
These noble acts of bravery were only the beginning of a glorious, though short, career of this hero. He invited the people to join into the fold of the Khalsa brotherhood and promised them a share in the conquered territories. After making successful raids into several territories en route, Banda Singh Bahadur moved into the parganah of Kharkhauda and established himself near the villages of Sehri and Khanda.13 From here, Banda Singh despatched the Guru’s letters to the Sikhs of the Malwa, Doaba and Majha areas of the Punjab, calling upon them to join him in the laudable object of uprooting the tyrannous rule of the intolerant Mughals.
Banda Bahadur’s companions from Nanded also wrote a number of letters to the leading Sikhs all over the country telling them that Banda Singh had been appointed by the Guru as jathedar of the Khalsa and called upon every Sikh to fall in under his banner to punish Wazir Khan of Sirhind who had so cruelly butchered the two sons of the Guru. The letters containing this sentimental appeal had the desired effect on the minds of the Sikhs who were already waiting for an appropriate opportunity to agitate against the State atrocities.
The preparations of the Sikhs, all over the country, to join their new leader alarmed the Mughal officials, particularly Wazir Khan. He issued instructions to obstruct the passage of the northern Sikhs into the Malwa districts. The caravan of Banda Singh, however, went on increasing day by day. The first who joined Banda Singh included Bhai Fateh Singh, Karam Singh, Dharam Singh, Nigahiya Singh and Chuhar Singh, along with their followers. Apart from the Banjaras, the Jats and Brar Sikhs of the Bangar territory too came under the banner of Banda Singh. The Phulkian chiefs, who could not join personally, liberally contributed in men and money.
As usual, a large number of professional robbers and soldiers of fortune also joined the holy warriors with a view to collect large booty from the condemned city of Sirhind. Meanwhile, the Sikhs from the Majha and Doaba had collected in great numbers in the hills at Kiratpur on the other side of the Satluj. However, they could not proceed further as their passage was blocked by the Pathans of Malerkotla and Ropar. Banda Singh sent a word to them not to advance further till they received instructions to that effect.
It is, however, not possible to give a fair estimate of the total strength of Banda Singh’s forces at any given time. The intelligence men, from time to time, also seem to have exaggerated the figure in the Akhbarat (News reports sent to the Mughal Court) to alarm the Mughal rulers to get more reinforcements.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2010, All