The murky waters of the river were putting on a hue of grey as our boat ‘Bijoya’ bobbed up and down violently. The gusts were growing stronger. I could see rumbling clouds approaching from the south. A guffaw escaped by mouth and the fifteen men on ‘Bijoya’ turned towards me in unison.
“The monsoon might just be our ally this year.” I declared. “The Gods are on our side today. We are sons of ‘Bijoya’ today. Defend your mother. Let only the mangled remains float on the mighty Brahmaputra of whosoever tries to defy her advance.”
A chorus of ‘Joi Ai Axom’ emerged from the men who held their Hengdangs, singled edged swords and tapped the hilt on the hull as a mark of respect. Like a pack of foxes, the response emancipated. The four naval vessels on our left Agni, Ajagor, Gor and Baiyulet out their war cry in suite. The five on the right Padma, Joymoti, Jalabagh, Bijulee, Baaz and Trishool did not allow their predecessor’s cry to die out and joined in. The valley between the Ashwakranta and Andharubali banks reverberated with the echoes of Ahom warriors, clad in maroon Solah(shirt) and militia headgear.
I was the Pani Phukan of the ‘Bijoya’, well set wood, hammered together by nails, made sturdy by filling gaps with resin and bee wax, spanning 20 metres, the nose decorated with a brass snake. The fifteen able men at my command were restless. They were inhabitants of Axom. They were not letting their home be laid waste to by anyone, even if he claimed to be the Emperor of a nation.
‘Dom. Dom. Dom. Dom…..’
The warning drum played aboard the Baaz, the scout boat with the strongest rowing arms in the kingdom. It was a spotter for us. The Moghuls were here.
I peered into the horizon towards Saraighat. At the foot of the Neelachal Hills I saw them. Thirty broad hulled naval warships. The beastly ships advanced slowly in a disciplined formation.
“These Asurs have loaded more than 10 battle guns on one ship, the only reason they are moving slow.” I shouted to the other Phukans.
“A hard day at work indeed. I need to finish this and head home for some rice and pork.” Dhon Saikia commandeering the Jalabagh sneered.
The spotter atop the Neelachal Hill lighted the fire as the smoke signal. That was our signal and the Ahom fleet glided downstream towards a direct confrontation.
Baiyuand Bijuleewere lightning fast and highly manoeuvrable with 30 men each. They were in the centre of the formation, flanked by Padma and Joymoti. They were the vessels with highest capacity of 50 militia and 20 archers each. The Ajagor and Gor were moving much nearer to the right bank. The Ajogor boasted of being the longest boat in the navy and also the swiftest. The Gorwas clumsy but for a better purpose. The Jalabagh, Agni and Trishool were the first line of attack. They were gunships with medium sized guns which could make many a coconut tree fall.
The Bijoya was an agile warship with a JuiTope (Fire Canon) which was hidden from plain sight. Lachit Barphukan entrusted us to play the Dark Horse in this Battle of Saraighat and we were precisely going to play that.
The Sepena manoeuvre was devised inspired from pincher of a crab. The objective was to secure a break in their formation and force them to congregate at the centre and squeeze them from the side till they surrendered or spilled out like intestines when cut open.
The Agni passed between two ships at the centre and let a barrage of their artillery rip through the Moghul war monsters. The ships let a counter fire loose on Agni but the eel escaped and re-routed to move for the second wave. The third and the fourth ships were targeted next and men flew around as the Ahom artillery tore through the light wood. The loss of ships in quick succession created a space in the middle of the river. It was a matter of worry for them and so they moved in to close the gap. Agni positioned itself for another wave and moved in. The converging ships dropped their anchor immediately and halted. A second later a barbaric rain of cannons left splinters and spleen of the crew aboard Agni, flying.
There were cries of shock for a moment and then blind rage took control of the entire platoon of Ahoms upon the Brahmaputra that fateful day.
The Trishool glided menacingly towards the two warships in contrasting colours, black and white. The two horns made of iron attached to the front end rammed into the lower hull of the two warships and rendered them unable to be steered. The huge cannons were not mobile enough to be pointed towards Trishool. The two Shools were the horns, but the third Shool was infact the armed militia of the vessel who riddled the Moghul crew with indigenous guns. It laid waste to six Asurabahans.
The Jalabagh was given the name ‘Water Tiger’ as a respect to its commander’s ability to use his resources to pounce on a naval vessel and decimate it. It moved cautiously towards a ship and with a sudden surge in speed, it laches on to a hull by means of jagged sharp hooks and blows an enormous hole in its hull from a close range for maximum damage.
The Trishool andJalabagh were unleashing chaos and mayhem in the middle of the Brahmaputra. The Moghul ships were reinforcing their formation with the strength of quantity. The Bijulee and Baiyu raced ahead to execute their operation. In random patterns they encircled the ships and rained arrows and bullets. They were to distract the fleet like flies.
The Padma and Joymoti stealthily moved towards the confluence of more than half of the Moghul fleet in the middle. The final blow was disembarking on them and finishing off each Moghul by severing their heads.
A blinding flash followed by whiff of burnt blood in the air. The Padma was half of what it used to be. The lifeless bodies of the men floated away in the river emerging from the sinking boat.
This time around, the surge for the loss, did not fuel the want to win. Rather, it made us feel for the miniscule moment that this was an endeavour in futility. The instilled horror and fear filled the men’s mind with doubts and Trishool was surrounded by ships and its men massacred.
Two successive noises of metal crashing through wood and the cheering of the Moghuls made me realize we had lost Bijulee and Baiyu too. Jalabagh was retreating and Joymoti was close in its heels. Dhon Saikia signaled me to fall back. I knew the time had come.
“Today we might know where men go when they die for their country. The dog should be taught not to piss on a rhino’s leg to mark his territory.” I egged my men on.
The Moghul warships were in pursuit of Jalabagh and Joymoti. The ‘Bijoya’ was moving towards a barrage of ships in the middle of the river. We were the last line of defence between the landing port and the Moghul forces.
The bastards never knew what hit them. The Jui Tope had a violent fire capacity and minimal reload rate. The men were at their efficient best. I could see each one had a look of desperateness. Desperate to make the march of the Moghuls halt. Three ships were washed ashore and experienced the brunt of the Fire Canon. An arrow whizzed past me and hit the militia behind me. The gigantic fleet was still not weakened and a warship which was painted olive green rained arrows on the ‘Bijoya’. The causalities were piling up. I screamed at the men to grab their swords and jump onto the ships. I hauled myself into the red one, sliced open a Moghul’s belly. Ducked and jammed the sword in another’s throat. Knocked one off the boat with the hilt. Then I saw it.
Seven boats marked with the Ahom insignia were approaching our ship. I roared to my men.
“Those are the Seven Gharials. Those are under the direct command of only one man capable enough to lead them. Lachit Barphukan is in the battle field.”
The rush of adrenaline this development provided, made me and my men rid the Moghul warship of its crew, and we jumped aboard the ‘Bijoya’ to join the Barphukan.
“The King has put all the people in my hands to fight the Moghuls. Shall I go back to my wife and children?” he asked and did not wait for an answer but charged right into the heart of the revived battle.
The four boats from the Seven broke off and moved towards the left bank. The retreating Jalabagh and Joymoti added to the remaining three and the six charged towards the still functioning fifteen Moghul warships.
The strong hull of the Ahom ships crashed onto the enemy vessels and we poured into their ships like ants. A land war was being fought over water. The foes were of sturdy build and it started to become a matter of concern about the sheer number of soldiers each ship was holding. We needed reinforcements.
A thunderclap sounded and it started to drizzle. That was however not the actual sound of thunder. It was Gor, the boat following its orders. The ramming boat of the Ahom Navy was merrily demolishing the ships from the right side. The Sepena had been deployed. The four boats from the Barphukan’s fleet formed a bridge from the left to the heap of ships in the middle of the river. The Ajogor joined in from the right bank.
The Ahom soldiers charged in on horses over the boat bridge and broke the resisting Moghul defence. The bank of the right also had substantial forces which pressed on from the opposite direction suffocating the Moghuls.
The sound of a distance trumpet caught my attention. Three hundred strong Moghul cavalry emerged in the horizon on the bank near Ashwakranta. They charged towards the boat bridge. If they would have got to the bridge, the Ahoms would have been vandalized. I closed my eyes and accepted my fate. I opened them and grasped my hengdang tightly for clean severing of heads.
As the first row of cavalry approached the bank, it vanished into a curtain of dust. I scanned the area in awe. The sight brought a smug smile to my lips. Trenches had already been dug and filled with sharp ended bamboos. Half of the cavalry was lost at that instant.
By the time the rest reached the boat bridge. It was dismantled and the crew of Ajogor andGor waved at the Moghuls on the North Bank and were shouting “Eat what you can digest.”
About The Writer
Raheef Rasheed Aowal is a Civil Engineer who pursued his Masters in Structural Engineering from Weimar, Germany. An avid quizzer, his love for history and trivia helps him to conjure many day-dreams in his confused head. He is a self-proclaimed storyteller who aspires to make it as a writer one day using Assam and Assamese roots as his canvas.