Amongst the sacred points of pilgrimages of Hinduism one of the most popular regions centre around the fabled birthplace and playground of Sri Krishna known as the Braj Matsya region. This area centred around the south of Delhi is annually visiting today as in the past by thousands of the faithful often humbly treading the paths between Mathura, Vrindavan and Gokul.
However in 1757 the sacred soil of Gokul was streaming with blood. The invasion of the Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali sent hordes of his soldiers pouring into the holy places. After a desperate resistance by the Hindu Jats under their prince Jawahar Singh and the death of 10,000 of his solders the city of Mathura was sacked and brutalised.
Amidst the wholesale destruction of temples and holy places thousands of women flung themselves into the Yamuna River to escape rape and slavery. Vrindavan faced a similar horror. He had detached Jahan Khan and Najib with 20,000 men, telling them,
[box_light]“Move into the boundaries of the accursed Jat, and in every town and district held by him slay and plunder. The city of Mathura is a holy place of the Hindus ;… let it be put entirely to the edge of the sword. Up to Agra leave not a single place standing”[/box_light]
Vrindavan, seven miles north of Mathura, could not escape, as its wealth was indicated by its many temples. Here another general massacre was practiced upon the inoffensive monks of the most pacific order of Vishnu’s worshippers, (c. 6 March.) As the same Muhammadan diarist records after a visit to Vrindavan,
[box_light]“Wherever you gazed you beheld heaps of slain ; you could only pick your way with difficulty, owing to the quantity of bodies lying about and the amount of blood spilt. At one place that we reached we saw about 200 dead children lying in a heap. Not one of the dead bodies had a head . . . The stench and effluvium in the air were such that it was painful to open your mouth or even to draw breath.”[/box_light]
The prime general of the Afghans, Sardar Khan ; launched an attack on Gokul. Here however stirred by the atrocities of the Afghans thousands of ash smeared warrior monks barred the way. The grim Naga sadhus armed with swords, matchlocks and cannons had called together their wandering bands to rise in defence of dharma.
In the mid seventeenth century the bands of sadhus and assorted holy men coalesced into larger groups often numbering more than 10,000 strong – they provided protection to the temples, the travel routes and even towns and rival armies. For many centuries the monks and disciples began to take up arms amidst the upheavals of northern India and during the fall of the Mughal Empire they emerged as a serious force to reckon with.
One of their notable leaders Rajendra Giri Gosain held such a reputation of bravery that his band of Nagas would contend with over ten times their numbers of enemies with utter abandon and fury. Later times saw some of the larger bands under Himmat Bahadur and Anupgir Gosain lead vast armies across the northern Indian plains
The famed Afghan cavalry launched itself against the Nagas to be met with a wild and reckless counter charge by the Nagas. The utter disregard for their own lives displayed by the Hindu holy men sent the initial Afghan attackers retreating in confusion and defeat. Reinforced some time later the Afghans returned to the attack and a bitter struggle ensued.
Both parties believed they fought for a higher power but the similarities ended there. The Afghans fought for loot, plunder and rape whilst the Naga Sadhus had already given up their worldly and material attachments and in a long tradition of warfare fought solely for dharma and faith. The Afghans fought with the reckless valour for which they were much wonted and the Nagas fought with a determination that spoke of their contempt of death.
The battle cry of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Ya Ali’ rose above the groans and shrieks of the wounded and dying. The battle raged as dusk fell and the protagonists continued their fight stepping on the bodies of the slain until the writer observes grappling in a deathly embrace whilst slipping on the mounds of gore and blood flowing on the hallowed grounds. Still the Nagas did not give ground.
Enraged the Abdali threw further troops into the battle. His as yet undefeated soldiers who had marched victoriously from the borders of India to Central Asia were met with renewed charges and attacks from the Naga Sanyasis. They fought so desperately that the Afghans began to lose hope of victory and as their losses rapidly mounted in the failing light their leader Sardar Jahan Khan called a retreat and the Afghans fell back in defeat and humiliation leaving many thousands of their brethren dead and wounded on the battlefield. The holy town of Gokul was saved but at an appalling cost in lives.
The Naga Sadhus saved the shrines of their faith and the thousands of refugees behind them. They exemplified the age old tradition of valour mixed with dharma – the concept of rising in arms each time they were required. They went on to fight bitter decade’s long struggles with the British expansion in India to be so famously celebrated in the late nineteenth century novel Ananda Math. Their exploits became the inspiration for the freedom fighters of the 20th Century and the living image of the warrior saints can be found in India today.
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