Thursday, February 8, 2007

Childhood memory and the forts around Guwahati

Few days back, a very good friend of mine advised me to write a note on the medieval forts of Assam. I was startled as when I took to the pen, I was horridly taken aback by the inadequacy of my knowledge on the subject.

Since my childhood, I have been listening to the stories of Lacit Borphukon, the great hero of medieval Assam, who is credited to have repulsed the invasion of the Mughal army of Aurangzeb in the year 1665. The Mughal army was headed by none other than the great Rajput commander Raja Ram Singh. As a child I used be thrilled by the bravery displayed by the Assamese army. The glorious victory in the naval battle of Saraighat on the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra made a strong imprint in my mind and memory as well. More was I stunned at the courage shown by Lacit, the Commander-in-Chief of the Assamese army, who despite being bedridden owing to high fever caused by a painful boil on his left armpit, lead the Assamese fleet to the water and took the enemy by surprise. The battle was won at that very moment. Lacit did not survive for long after this great victory. The festive mood of the victorious Assamese camp was dampened and all were engulfed with grief at the loss of their great warrior, a real hero. I used to question: why should he die just after that victory? Why didn’t he live longer? He could have achieved so much in his life!.....I am ashamed of my childish anxiety, as I could not realize that had Lacit not died at that time, his fame would have dissipated. That single achievement was enough to make him immortal and secure his name among the great heroes of all time. Also I was ignorant of the reality that he was one of the two great warriors of the contemporary India, who stood firmly against the might of the invulnerable army of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The other one was Shivaji, whose achievement Lacit could hear from his home. Shivaji’s feat was a real source of inspiration for Lacit.

Let me keep aside my emotions for a moment and focus on some vital questions. They are many: Who was Lacit and how many of us know him? Is he considered to be a national hero in the similar lines of Shivaji and many others? Who is responsible in case we have not remembered him?....I must confess that although I have committed not to be emotional while I state these questions, yet they are borne out of my emotions only. These emotions, in a way, helped me realize some horrendous truths, which I shall focus on at a later stage.

The seat of the Assamese army during this war with the Mughals was at the heart of the modern city of Guwahati. There is a considerable amount of historical source material to know about the preparation of the Assamese army for the war. It is clearly mentioned in the buranjis that the Assamese constructed a series of fortification walls surrounding the main military camp at Guwahati. These forts were made of mud, and bamboo was used to strengthen it. Walls were raised to height of 25m. Lacit’s head office was situated inside the fortified camp of ‘Itakhuli’, which can be identified with the present Panbazar area just on the south bank of the Brahmaputra. ‘Itakhuli’ has been mentioned in the historical sources as an impenetrable fort initially constructed the Fauzdar under the Nawab of Dacca, when the administrative headquarters of Lower Assam was shifted from Hajo to Guwahati. This was a time when the kingdom of Koch Behar already declined and the Lower Assam region went to the hands of the Bengal Nawabs. Lacit defeated this Fauzdar in the famous battle of Itakhuli and captured the lost Guwahati. He sensed immediate danger of the inevitable war with the Mughals after this victory, and so, along with Aton Burhagohain, the shrewd minister of the Ahoms, made an elaborate plan to bring about an array of fortification walls surrounding Guwahati. Aton Burhagohain became the in-charge of the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, while Lacit himself settled on the south.

The fort of Itakhuli was well protected by small army camps on all sides. These camps were the gates to the main fort and were situated amidst thick and impenetrable forests. The western gate was known as 'Andharu Soki', and the northeastern one was known as 'Joiduar Soki'. The eastern gate was known as 'Dharmaduar Soki'. Beyond the Andharu Soki on the western side, there was another gate known as 'Bogoribari Soki'. One gate to the south was known as 'Daurgondalah Soki', while further east near the boundary of the Dimaria kingdom, there was another gate known as 'Jamuguri Soki'. We need to know about the geographical set-up of Guwahati to have a clear picture of the positioning of these gates. From the south bank of the Brahmaputra upto the foothills of the Khasia Pahar, the modern Guwahati city is spread upto almost 15 km north-south, and from the Bonda Hills in the east to the Jalukbari Hills in the west, its extent is 25 km. topographic maps show that almost 2/3rd of this area is covered by several isolated low hills. These scattered hills are interspersed with several low-lying and marshy flat lands. It is through these low-lying passes between the hills that one could enter the heart of the city.

The Assamese army constructed imposing fortification walls in each of these passes between the hills. Moreover, the banks of the Brahmaputra were also fortified with long-stretching ramparts on both sides, barring a small section near the fort of Itakhuli. Soldiers were stationed at each fortification with kamans and weapons. There is a lot to be studied on this warfare tactics of the Assamese soldiers. Looking at the strategic positioning of the forts, it was virtually impossible for an advancing enemy to penetrate into the heart of the camp, as they would have to destroy and surpass at least four to five gates to come anywhere near the fort of Itakhuli. The Mughals realized the difficulties and tried to blast open a few such fortifications with gun-powder, but in vain. A helpless ram Singh, the Commander Supremo of the Mughals, at last, had to take resort to the waterway via the Brahmaputra, of which unpredictable nature was no one better aware of than the Assamese. The Mughal fleet was destroyed in the final combat near Andharubali in 1665. This battle came to be known as the Battle of Saraighat.

Thomas Wood, an engineer who accompanied the detachment of Cpt. Welsh to Assam in the year 1794, recorded the fort of Itakhuli. Where now stand some imposing buildings of the District Commissioner’s office and the GPO, and also the bustling market place of Panbazar, according to Wood, was once occupied by the Itakhuli Fort surrounded by a bad ditch. This fort is impossible to trace now. Not only this, but most of the peripheral fortification walls, which once stood as the protector of Assam’s pride, have disappeared now, thanks to the unscrupulous vandalism done in the name of urbanization.

My mind is again flashing back to a childhood memory. After watching a play on Lacit Borphukon, I used to enact at home a memorable scene from the play with my brother. It was on the beheading of his maternal uncle by Lacit due to the formers negligence of duty. The story goes like this:

An important outer fortification was damaged by the Mughals by gun powder blasting. This created grave concern in the Assamese camp. Lacit assigned his uncle with the responsibility to repair the portion of the wall as quickly as possible. But his uncle became complacent as he thought Lacit won’t do any harm to him because of his blood relations. Such an act of truancy could not escape the vigilant eyes of Lacit, who took no time to unhesitatingly behead his uncle.

The fort came to be known as the Momai Kota Garh (meaning fort where uncle was beheaded) after this incident. As a child, I was really very excited to repeatedly enact the patriot Lacit and make my brother the poor uncle. Later on, I could realize the impact that this unique incident had on the minds of the Assamese soldiers. One way, it created a kind of fear for a madly patriotic General, while on the other hand, it showed an unparalleled precedent of patriotism and will to protect the motherland. Both helped in the tactful management of the Assamese army. This was a real achievement of the ‘General Lacit Borphukon’.

I have lived in the city of Guwahati for a major part of my life, and have always wanted to see this special ‘Momai Kota Garh’. But never has anyone, nor even any archaeologist, been able to locate this fort on a firm basis. Certain scattered remains of this series of medieval fortification can still be seen in and around Guwahati, and also in the North Guwahati on the other bank of the Brahmaputra. Most of these remains are known as Momai Kota Garh. This has created a baffling confusion among archaeologists to find the exact ‘Momai Kota Garh’. My knowledge, at present, is insufficient to suggest a solution to this problem.

All these medieval remains of Guwahati need proper conservation and careful study. There is no other better way to make our heritage known to the world.

1 comment:

Hemant Dave said...

Cha'ailllahh.. kitna lamba..
par bahot hi achha..
dadu you never told me about your blog.. Adi, the clueless detective told me about it..