On 3 May 1718, a leader of the Dal Khalsa was born who established an independent kingdom in the Panjab. In this era, every Sikh head had a bounty on it: hunt and kill!
Jassa Singh Ahluvalia (popularly Ahluwalia) was his name, his nanke (maternal) and dadke (paternal) were strong Sikhs inspired by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. But it was his mother’s intellect and faith which Jassa’s life was modeled on, and no his-story records her name.
Ratan Singh Bhangu in Sri Guru Panth Parkash, devoted a chapter on the “Story of Jassa Singh” subtitled “Jassa Singh Kalal to be known as Shah.” Here’s my trans-creation of the entire story where Bhangu introduces Jassa Singh:
Now I tell the story of Jassa Singh. He joined the Khalsa (Sovereign who belongs to the Guru) as a beggar, but rose to be the Panth’s Sovereign.
A community known as Ahluvalia lived between Lahore and Kasur. There lived one poor Kalal (alcohol distillers and sellers classified as so-called low castes) who was a dear Singh (initiated Sikh who join the Khalsa collective) of the Guru. His name was Dyal Singh who performed odd jobs. He died, leaving his wife and son who both loved each other greatly. She was a daughter of the Singh whose father taught her [Gurmukhi] alphabets. She knew a lot of Gurbani (Guru Granth Sahib) by heart, she had a Sikh background from both sides (paternal and maternal). She always carried pothi (selections from Guru Granth Sahib in a book-form) in a gatra (strap around shoulder or belt around waste, normally to don kirpan-sword). She would go to the Sikh sangat (congregation). In the morning, she would perform caunki (literally quartet, popularly chaunki; singing of Asa-ki-Var daily morning collective bani-prayer); at dusk, she would recite Sodar (‘That [Divine] Door’ daily evening bani-prayer).
While holding a double-stringed instrument and loving the child as a votary, she would perform caunki twice a day – this was her daily routine!
Wherever the Sikh sangats assembled and whosoever invited her, she never declined. Day or night, she would reach, perform caunki to recite Sabad (Infinite Wisdom from Guru Granth Sahib). On every festival, she would go to the Gurduara (Sikh place of learning and worship); she never neglected Guru’s work. Wherever the Khalsa held Divan-Court, she would go and sing sabad caunki. She heard the Khalsa came to Amritsar, she also went for the Panth’s darsan (glimpse). She lovingly performed caunki, the Panth listened and felt great peace. The Panth was very happy with her, an auspicious moment had arrived then. Kapur Singh called the child; the Singhs themselves administered Amrit (‘Immortal’ initiation).
His mother was very happy, she handed him over. He was feeling the good fortune, he became protégé of Nibab (popularly Nawab or ‘ruler’ Kapur Singh; this is how it appears in original text).
Nibab was kind to Jassa Singh and made him in-charge of horse feed. He performed the duty for several days; the people often made the child cry. Children’s strength is in their cry; he came crying to Kapur Singh. ‘I can’t distribute the feed, many severely thrash me.’ Feeling happy, Nawab called him near and placed a hand on his special head. With love his mouth remarked: ‘You will dispense feed to a herd of thousands. The Panth made me only a Nawab, they will entitle you to be a Sovereign.’ At that moment he felt the joy, Jassa Singh Kalal came to be known as Shah (King).
Rattan Singh wrote the story as he heard it from the wise ones. In recognition of my services, forgive my lapses.
In 1722, when Jassa Singh was four years old, his father died. His mother along with him moved to Delhi to serve the Sikh sangat. While in Delhi, Jassa learned history, religion, Persian, and Hindustani (language spoken in what is now Northern India and Pakistan; it is also known as Hindavi, Dehlavi, Hindi-Urdu, or Rekhta). They served Mata Sundari, wife of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, for seven years before coming back to the Panjab. Mata Sundari gifted Jassa Singh a sword, a mace, a shield, a bow and a quiver full of arrows, a dress and a silver staff.
From 1729 onwards at Kartarpur, Jassa Singh was under the mentorship of Nawab Kapur Singh. Jassa Singh was trained to serve the Panth: continued learning sabad and started horse-riding and weaponry (sword, spear, bow and arrow, and so on). While fellow Sikhs made fun of his Panjabi pronunciation by ridiculing him with hamko-tumko, he remained focused to become part of the Nam Culture: incessant connection with Ik Oankar and ever-ready to administer justice in the world.
This was the time when emperor Mohammad Shah had appointed Zakaria Khan as governor for declaring: “If Your Majesty appoints me the Governor of Lahore, I would eliminate the Sikhs from Majha, Doaba, and Malva” regions of the Panjab. Awards were declared on Sikh heads and a genocidal campaign against the Sikhs started. Thousands were killed, many took refuge on the banks of river Ravi, Kahnuvan and Lakhi jungles, Shivalik Hills, and in Bikaner. The Khalsa organized itself into two Dals (groups): Budha (senior) Dal and Taruna (young) Dal.
In 1730, Sarbat Khalsa (Collective Sovereign deliberations) under the leadership of Bhai Mani Singh re-organized the Taruna Dal into five units to deal with far targets and campaigns in liaison with Budha Dal headed by Kapur Singh. Jassa Singh, though young, remained with Kapur Singh as his personal assistant. And they raised havoc for the Delhi and Lahore administration for the next six years and forced them to offer a peace deal.
In 1736, via Sarbat Khalsa Kapur Singh becomes Nawab of a principality near Amritsar where the Khalsa was free to operate; it included Chuhrian, Dayalpur, Kanaganval, and Chabbal. Leading Sikhs stayed in Amritsar from here onwards.
Dr. Ganda Singh in Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia provides the context for “The Beginning of the Achievements of S. Jassa Singh” in the chapter entitled “Nawab Jassa Singh, The Leader of the Sikh Panth”:
During the times of Abud-Samad Khan, Zakria Khan, Yahya Khan and Mir Mannu whenever the Singhs looted a royal treasure, a private caravan or a village or made a forcible tax collection, their aim was to arrange for food and other provisions to spend their days in the hill caves and deserts to weaken the Muslim rulers through guerrilla tactics and attacks so that the country could be liberated from their rule. Up to the time of Mannu, the Mughal power was so formidable that it was not possible to break it without effective weapons-and arms and ammunition in good quantities. But even then, the Singhs were able to maintain their enthusiasm and their determination to carve out an independent Sikh State, and in the process, they won the public sympathy. The ordinary Sikhs were passing through hard times and were making heavy sacrifices. The dream of the Khalsa Raj had been realised, though for a short period, by Banda Singh Bahadur, and this was a source of great inspiration for the Singhs. Therefore, when after the death of Mir Mannu, the Singhs returned from the jungles and hills to their villages, large organisations of the village Gurmukh Singhs welcomed them. This enabled the Khalsa not only to establish its control over Punjab, but also made it possible for the Singhs to resist the foreign invaders like Ahmed Shah Durrani, and his son Tehmur Shah coming from the side of Afghanistan for loot and plunder. The position of the Singhs had become so strong that they not only repulsed the foreign invaders but they also helped the Jat kings of Bharatpur and frustrated the Maratha designs to establish their control over Punjab. Moreover, they began to invade the neighbouring territory to further strengthen their position politically and economically.
(In the aforesaid context of Banda Singh Bahadur’s Khalsa Raj period (1710-1716), Gurmukh-Singhs term was used for Sikh farmers or traders whereas the Singhs were the warriors.)
Jassa Singh either witnessed or participated in: Dal Khalsa helping Phulkian Sardars (chiefs) expand their territories; Zakaria Khan confiscating jagir (land) and restricting access to Amritsar; martyrdoms of Bhai Mani Singh and Bhai Taru Singh; killing of Massa Ranghar by Sukha Singh and Mehtab Singh for desecrating Sri Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib complex; charging of toll tax by Bota Singh and Garja Singh to show Sikhs are alive; defeating Murtaza Khan who supplied central Asian horses to the emperor; the Khalsa snatching plunder of the invader Nadir Shah who was returning triumphant from Delhi; and genocidal campaigns to eliminate Sikhs by Zakaria Khan, Yahuiya Khan, Lakhpat Rai and Jaspat Rai.
In 1746, the Chota Ghallughara was ordered by Yahya Khan and implemented by Lakhpat Rai. 15,000 Sikhs were surrounded in Kahnuvan. Jassa Singh convinced the Khalsa to fight back since “there was no question of surrendering for the Khalsa does not surrender to any other authority except that of the Guru.” About 7,000 Sikhs were killed; 3,000 captured. All of them were tortured to death in the horse market near Delhi gate, Lahore; Sikhs termed this place Shahid-Ganj. Jassa Singh and several other survived and regrouped within six months.
In 1747, Jassa Singh along with Nawab Kapur Singh, Tara Singh Vain, and Chuhar Singh Bhakian established their control over Amritsar after defeating Slabat Khan. Amritsar became the rally point and resistance center. In 1748, Ahmad Shah Durrani (aka Abdali) invaded Panjab. Jassa Singh and Nawab Kapur Singh caused him much harassment at Nur-di-Sarai and Vairoval. Sarbat Khalsa convened on Vaisakhi day to consolidate the sixty-five Jathas into one military command to address the continuous persecution by the ruling Mughal authorities. They selected Jassa Singh as the commander of 11 Misls (states); the twelfth Misl Phulkian traced a separate origin. Misls acted in unison and were subject to Gurmatas (Guru’s resolutions) via Sarbat Khalsa process, binding to all. Jassa Singh initiated Ram Rauni, a fortress compound named after Guru Ramadas Sahib.
Between 1748-53, Jassa Singh witnessed the reign of repression by Mir Mannu, Governor of Lahore, to eliminate the Sikhs yet again. Amidst complex scenario, Jassa Singh dialogued, battled and negotiated with Adina Begh, Administrator of Doaba; and supported Divan Kaura Mall of Multan to seek help for the Sikhs. It worked and renovations at Harimandar Sahib, Amritsar and Bal-Lila Nankana Sahib were secured. All this while Ahmad Shah Durrani kept invading the Panjab!
In 1753, Nawab Kapur Singh before his death instructed Jassa Singh to free Panjab in the name of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib by serving the Khalsa. Jassa Singh conquered Khavspur and Fatahbad; established Rakhi system of protection in exchange for revenue.
Jassa Singh’s victories included defeating Shah Nawaz of Multan while helping Kaura Mall; Aziz Beg and Bakhinda Khan who attacked Amritsar; Adina Beg Khan and Buland Khan at Mahalpur; Saadat Khan, Durrani’s representative at Jalandhar; Ubaidulla Khan, Durrani’s Afghan general; Hira Mal and Gulsher Khan; Jahan Khan, Durrani’s outstanding general; Ubaid Khan with Charat Singh Suckarcakia, Ranjit Singh’s grandfather; and Zain Khan at Sarhind. Then onwards, Durrani was on defensive.
The conquests started at Khavspur and Fatahbad; subsequently conquered Lahore and Sarhind.
Ahmad Shah Durrani attacked Panjab seven times; many a time demolishing Sri Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib Complex. When Durrani heard the fall of Lahore, he hastened towards the Panjab. This was in 1762, his sixth incursion into India. 30,000 Sikhs (men, women, and children) retired to the south of the river Satluj; the caravan moved from village to village covering a circle of several miles. Durrani ordered all his faujdars (commanders) in the Panjab to join forces with Zain Khan, Governor of Sarhind. With 150,000 men army, Durrani left Lahore and covered 250 km in 36 hours to reach Malerkotla on 5 February. The Dal Khalsa camped at Kup, 9 km from Malerkotla to protect the Sikhs. In what followed 30,000 Sikhs were killed. All Sardars (Misl chiefs) received 5-7 wounds, Jassa Singh sustained 22 wounds on his body. Bhangu’s Sri Guru Panth Prakash on “here’s story of Ghallughara at Malerkotla and Kup” describes how all Sikhs who identified with the Guru, defended:
Jassa Singh sustained 22 wounds, even then the respected Singh continued fighting.
When they heard Jassa Singh is injured, all chiefs shook their head.89
They all came and stood among contingents: Bhangi, Ghania, Ramgarhia,
Nakkais, Nishanvalias and Dallevalias, along with Kapur Singh of Ahluval.90
Sukarcakia, Sham Singh, Shahid-Nihang, other Guru-lovers,
from Amritsar and Anandpur, Ramdasie, Ranghrete, and Masands.91
Bedis, Sodhis, Trehans, Bhallas, joined themselves with the Khalsa:
They were martyred or injured; sometimes they paused, sometimes they marched to fight.92
In Sikh collective memory, it is still remembered asVadda Ghallughara for the Khalsa had never suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day. Yet, several genocidal campaigns of last 50 years had raised a new generation of the Khalsa in the shadow of Kirpan – the Guru’s sword graced to protect honor! In next three years, a Sikh nation-state was born in the Panjab out of Sarbat Khalsa deliberations. Another critical event was in 1764 when Baba Gurbax Singh along with 30 Sikhs confronted 30,000 (18,000 Afghans and 12,000 Balochis under Durrani) and embraced martyrdom defending Sri Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib Complex.
Some notable Sarbat Khalsa Gurmatas at Akal Takht Sahib, Amritsar during this period:
- In 1756, on Vaisakhi day, Jassa Singh was appointed as the religious and political leader of the Khalsa as Nawab Kapur Singh had also assumed the religious leader role after the martyrdom of Bhai Mani Singh.
- In 1760, on Divali day, decision to attack Lahore.
- In 1761, on Vaisakhi day, decision to free Hindu women. Jassa Singh left immediately with a volunteer force, caught up with the Afghans at the River Sutlej at Goindval, rescued 2,200 women whom Durrani was carrying as his slaves, and gallantly escorted them to their families.
- In 1761, on Divali day, to eliminate the rule of Durrani.
In 1765, on Vaisakhi day to capture Lahore. A week later Lahore was occupied by the Dal Khalsa and the Gobindshahi coins were struck in 1765 as the formal declaration of their sovereign status. The Panjab was now free after 750 years.
Jassa Singh and the Dal Khalsa consolidated the Panjab. Durrani’s empire was ruined. Emperor Shah Alam corresponded with Jassa Singh and other Sikh chiefs to secure his trans-Jamuna territories. Jassa Singh helped Amar Singh of Patiala by defeating Abdul Ahmad Khan who returned the entire tribute collected from the Sikhs and paid Rs. 700,000 as an indemnity to the Dal Khalsa.
As a leader of the Dal Khalsa, Jassa Singh had organized the Sikhs militarily, overthrown Afghans, and won the right for Sikhs to rule Panjab independently. Sarhind came under Phulkian, Lahore under Bhangis, Jalandhar Doab distributed among several Misls, and Kapurthala under Ahluvalias.
On 20 October 1783, Jassa Singh died at the age of 65. At that time, Dal Khalsa was 200,000 Sikhs with 70,000 horses. The rule included Lahore, Multan, Jammu, Kashmir, Kangra Hills to Delhi; the influence was exerted to Ganga Doab, Rajasthan, and Agra. Baghel Singh continued the mission and built eight main Gurduaras in Delhi. Jassa Singh and fellow Misl leaders spent their lifetime training, fighting, and in diplomacy; their impact was that the Mughals were suppressed, the Afghans defeated and the Panjab belonged to her people.
In Panjabi-Sikh parlance, Jassa is famous, Guru is Perfection, Lal is beloved. Hence, Jassa Guru-ka-Lal becomes “Famous Perfection’s Beloved.”
Besides his leadership in the military and political spheres, Jassa Singh was widely revered for his deeply religious and pious character. He inspired many to study Guru Granth Sahib and receive Khande-ki-Pahul (Sikh initiation to become the Khalsa).
Jassa Singh showed strategic boldness and outstanding generalship. While he confronted tyranny, he felt certain of victory too, even when all appeared to be lost. His closeness to the Guru propelled him to excellence. Guru’s ideals of fighting for justice, not revenge, stood tall with him. There were no prisoners murdered in cold blood; there were no maltreatment of women by his armies. Enemy soldiers were allowed to go free if they laid down their arms. He kept the chiefs loyal to him through his statesmanship and diplomacy. He showed excessive generosity by not adding more territories to his Misl and let other Misls take a greater share for the sake of unity. He could have ruled Lahore from 1765 onwards having a greater claim to it and even having conquered it earlier as well, but he chose not to.
Misl chiefs united when Jassa Singh asked, because he had helped them defeat the invaders or Mughals. He restrained Misl chiefs who were bent on destroying Patiala (Sikh Misl friendly with the Afghans) in order to unify the Sikhs for a much greater purpose. He gained influence through close strategic relations with Suraj Mal and Jawahar Singh by helping them against the Rohillas, Mughals, Rajputs and Marathas.
This was all achieved because the independent Sikhs came together to answer the Guru Khalsa Panth’s call! Sikhi strengthened them internally, and their resentment to authority externally brought them together. Misl leaders though competing against each other displayed unison under a single command of Jassa Singh for he exemplified Miri-Piri (Political-Spiritual) doctrine. He was successful as a Misl leader and as the Panth’s leader, regardless of whether he fought alone or jointly.
Within Jassa Singh’s lifetime, Sikhs went from running for their lives to independent land owners and their own country. All this within two generations. This was the legacy of Jassa Singh and his fellow Sikh leaders who led the Panth via Misls and Akal Takht Sahib in the eighteenth century.
On Jassa Singh’s 300-yr commemorations, misappropriations are full-on to label him as national hero of India. If anything, he trained and fought for the Panjab. His legacy was built on chiseling via Guru Granth Sahib and serving the Guru Khalsa Panth. He was, and will remain, Sultan-ul-Qaum, Sovereign of the Sikh Nation!
200,000 Sikhs were killed within 70 years of 1699 inauguration of the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. Khalsa Raj, two major Ghallugharas, multiple genocidal campaigns, series of Mughal, Afghan, and Iranian invasions of the Panjab, yet Sikhs kept organizing and governed with Sabad-wisdom and Sarbat Khalsa process throughout the Dal Khalsa and Misl period. No Misl chief collaborated with hostile regimes or invaders to settle scores with fellow Misl chief amidst constant alliances between Misls. And they declared Sikh Rule in 1765.
We have lot to learn from the eighteenth century Sikhs who in their imperfections still delivered for the Panth, be it as farmers/traders or as warriors.
Are the Ahluvalias and other Misl-driven Sikhs back to caste-aggrandizement or are they ready to become Guru-ke-lal?
How are the self-identified sovereigntists going to empower the Panth without gurbani and khande-ki-pahul?
1984 Ghallughara was 34 years ago. We are now about halfway mark of the eighteenth century Sikhs journey. Are the 30 million Sikhs globally ready to train themselves with sabad caunkis for the next ‘Jassa’ Kaur or Singh to lead the Sikhs for collective sovereignty in the twenty-first century?
Harinder Singh is an educator, thinker and activist who tweets @1Force
All images courtesy of Panjab Digital Library.