Legend of the Borphukan

The rain poured down heavily through the canopy. The bleeding sky seemed to reflect the cry of the scarred land below — once mighty and proud, now left bruised and battered by repeated invasions. Lachit Borphukan did not mind the rain; to him, it was an omen that the Gods were on his side. The invaders had never marched through a dense rainforest, where death mocked them at every turn. The rivers had overflowed, impeding the progress of their cavalry. Split into smaller groups, the enemy’s soldiers were easy pickings for the archers hiding patiently in the trees high above.

The numbers were not on his side; they never are when you have to resort to guerrilla warfare. Through desperate measures and strategies, he had willed the circumstances in his favour; he could sense a temporary victory approaching.

‘Twang!’ An arrow hissed past his ear, bringing him back to the present.

“The enemy is here!” he yelled. “Fight! Fight for your motherland till your last drop of blood!”

One by one, the hidden archers let loose their arrows. One by one, the approaching infantry fell victim to the accurate marksmanship. The cavalry, however, was too fast for the arrows and was equipped with a strange weapon hitherto unseen. Just a sound of an explosion from this weapon made the archers start falling like a pile of autumn leaves.

“It is this unknown beast that is wreaking havoc among my ranks,” Borphukan thought. Leading the charge against the onrushing soldiers, he motivated his men with the Ahom war-cry,

“Neither the serpent bites, nor the tiger eats, even the God of Death is afraid when the ancestors seek to protect.”

For the Ahoms, their ancestors were above the Gods themselves.

As the rain started to pour down even heavier, the Ahom warriors, unknown to the enemy, emerged from the thicket. As they silently crept ahead, Borphukan could feel the water droplets hitting his face, trickling along the veins of his arms and dripping off the hilt of his sword.

The memory was still fresh in his mind. The Mughals had, repeatedly, plundered the prosperity of the peace-loving, but proud, Ahoms, compelling them to walk the path of blood and death to protect their honour and dignity. The humiliating defeats had been too much for their beloved king, Jayadhwaj Singha. Unable to bear the pain, he had died in grief and self-deprecation.

“Remove the spear of disgrace from the bosom of the motherland” — the words still rang in Borphukan’s ears, as clear as the day Jayadhwaj had uttered them on his deathbed. Borphukan remembered how he had sworn to restore the former peace and glory on Hengadang itself, the legendary ancestral sword of the Ahoms. Borphukan remebered the light of the evening sun reflected off its golden scabbard as Jayadhwaj breathed his last. Borphukan remembered his promise.

This, then, was their resistance against the enemy that had raided and looted the mother who had nurtured them for years.

He could see his reflection as the raindrops slid down the sword, knowing that the only thing missing was the enemy’s blood decorating the fine double-edged blade. Continuing the slow, stealthy steps, him and his men encircled the Mughal cavalry. Once a cavalry is trapped within the melee radius of a surrounding infantry, defeat is certain. Neither God nor Beast can save those caught in the eye of the storm.

‘Charge!’ yelled the Ahom commander.

Before the cavalry could make sense of what was going on, they were swept away. The foreigners, trained to fight on flat, open plains, were no match for the men of the hills. It was carnage, the final act of a beast that stalks its prey to a corner from where escape is impossible. The splattered blood mixed with the torrents, leaving the earth drenched in the same rage felt by each one of the Ahoms — blood that flowed for the justice of some and avarice of others.

The battle was over before long. The small army comprising only seven hundred foot soldiers and a few hundred archers was able to hold back the five thousand strong infantry and the three thousand strong cavalry of the Mughals, also armed with the dark magic of gunpowder. The Mughals were puhed past the Nilachal Hills, away from Guwahati, the capital. The Ahoms had put the densely forested, hostile valleys to good use.

Hours later, Borphukan lay shivering in a tent. This battle had drained him completely of all his strength. His sleep-deprived self was but a shell, walking amongst his men. The wounds were starting to fester; the rains lashing them did not help. He could feel a fiery fever coursing through his body, as painful and intense as the flames of a funeral pyre.

“The war is not over,” he reminded himself, swallowing the pain and discomfort. True, the Mughals had been temporarily pushed back, but they would retaliate harder. He felt a terrible sense of helpless agony; now, there was very little he could do except prepare and hope for the best against the subsequent attack.

***

“This cannot be! We came to conquer the Ahoms, not make friends with them. We will use whatever force necessary to achieve this,” Ram Singh bellowed at his commander, Munnawar Khan, who had suggested a diplomatic treaty with the Ahoms. Ram Singh was a hardened war-veteran, having faced harsh battles at Koch Bihar and some parts of Bengal. A man of ruthless discipline and cold logic, he was the Mughals’ trump card against the Ahoms.

“Get the warships ready. Load them with all our cannons and let’s give these hill dwellers a taste of gunpowder fire.”

***

Standing on the high ground along the banks of the Brahmaputra, Atan Burhagohain struggled to fathom the gravity of the impending threat. Eighty Mughal warships were being readied for battle. Each of them was the size of ten elephants put together and easily garrisoned at least five-hundred soldiers.

“This is too much for us to defend. The tired and wounded soldiers will break ranks at the sight of these giant ships approaching. I must inform Borphukan immediately.” He pushed his horse to a full gallop towards the camp where Borphukan lay battling with illness at the doors of death.

“I need to see Borphukan immediately!” said Burhagohain.

“But sir, the general has been fighting for his life for the last four days. I’ve been told to not let anyone in,” replied the guard stationed outside.

Despite this resistance, Burhagohain forced his way into Borphukan’s tent. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight of the once mighty commander reduced to a dying man. Steeling himself, he gave the leader a detailed description of what he had seen; of the impending doom and how a retreat was the only viable option.

Borphukan’s reply stunned him afresh: “How can we run away and watch while the enemy strips us off our honour? Won’t we be considered pitiable cowards by our sons and their descendants? I will myself lead a charge of war boats against them, even if my body rebels against me!”

Lying in his bed, Borphukan tried to mask the agony that stung his conscience. “If only my mind could conquer the wraiths haunting my body! If only we could bring down the Mughal juggernaut!”

Suddenly, a thought struck him. He remembered something about the Mughals — their infantry, cavalry and archers had been indomitable through centuries, but if there lay a weak link, it was in their navy. The Mughals did have the strength of numbers, but that had never stopped the valiant Ahoms, had it? A decisive blow by his expertly trained navy and the Mughals would think twice before invading for years to come.

However, he knew that stirring his wounded, tired and broken army in front of a seemingly unsurpassable enemy was not going to be an easy task.

When all hope is lost and things fall apart, it is one’s promises and choices which make all the difference. Borphukan knew that the face of a dying Jayadhwaj Singha would haunt him till the end of his days if he failed to make the right choice now.

Barely able to stay coherent, Lachit Borphukan made his decision.

***

The reverb of the distant war-conches sounded, followed by a fluttering of birds and an uncanny silence, announcing the enemy’s approach. Only this time, it also struck fear in the hearts of those who had fought gallantly to drive away the Mughals.

Borphukan instructed his subordinates to assemble all the war boats and carry him to one of them. They were aghast at his orders, but who would defy such a brave leader! The sight of an almost unconscious Borphukan being carried to a boat drew awe and guilt, in equal measure, from each of the assembled soldiers. If a man who was unable to stand could will himself to go to war, how worthy were they who had nothing but fear in their hearts?

Borphukan gathered his strength and shouted, “If you seek to flee, flee! Tell the King that his general never gave up! That he fought until the enemy’s blade extinguished the last embers of life from his heart.”

Heavy mist lay over the banks of the Brahmaputra. As the fog dissolved with the first rays of dawn, so too did the thick blanket of trepidation that had settled over the Ahoms. One by one, they began filling into the boats without as much as a hint of fear. Was it a divine sense of invincibility, or an accepted sense of inevitability that now drove them? The whole of nature seemed to have been lulled into spectatorship, as the mist of the Brahmaputra gave way to the brave Ahoms setting sail to fight against fate.

In the distance, a lonely songbird sang a tune, welcoming the arriving red dawn.

*****