Beyond Chamkaur: Wars, battles and memories

When we talk about the Battle of Chamkaur, historians generally refer to the siege and “fall” of the fort of Chamkaur in December 1705. Was it a setback for the Khalsa? PROF I.J. SINGH argues that Guru Gobind Singh had shifted tactics at Chamkaur.

I.J. Singh | Opinion | 23 Dec 2015 | Asia Samachar |


By I.J. Singh

Around us the world, particularly the Christians, are busier than a bee celebrating Christmas.

These are intriguing times for Sikhs across the globe as well. We celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, whose stewardship of the then 200 years old Sikh movement was transformational. He put the finishing touches to the Sikh message. Guru Gobind Singh fought many battles with the forces of that time that were inimical to Sikhi – the Islamists of the day aided and abetted by Hindu chieftains and satraps who were intolerant of the universal but unique message of Sikhism.

Another seminal event continues to connect us to those times – Chamkaur, where the two older sons of Guru Gobind Singh were martyred in battle. Days later the two younger sons were in custody of the Muslim rulers and were sentenced to death.

Many historians, as well as some kathavachaks, look at this as a “lost” battle. For better than 300 years Sikhs worldwide have been commemorating the siege and “fall” of the fort of Chamkaur in December 1705. Our local gurduaras are now in the midst of elaborate commemorations.

And that’s the way most, if not all, historians – Sikhs or non-Sikhs – have looked at it as a historic fall and setback to the Khalsa led by Guru Gobind Singh. My take is more nuanced and different.

History tells us that Anandpur was besieged by an overwhelming force of the imperial troops and their Hindu ruling allies. Anandpur was vacated by Guru Gobind Singh on the night of December 5th and 6th accompanied by his family and four sons, because the besieging forces had falsely promised the Guru safe passage. The column of Sikhs and their Guru was attacked enroute. They reached the Sirsa River which was in spate. The Guru and his two older sons, Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh, with a small retinue of Sikhs, successfully forded the river and reached Chamkaur on the evening of December 6th. But in the process they got separated from the two younger sons, Zorawwer Singh, barely 9 years old and Fateh Singh who was almost 7, and also their grandmother, the Guru’s mother. Such was the chaos of battle.

History tells us that there were few Sikh warriors with Guru Gobind Singh when he arrived at Chamkaur. With the Guru were his two older sons. The imperial troops, egged on and abetted by the local Hindu chieftains, saw an unparalleled opportunity to deliver a final lethal blow to the Sikh movement. And they seized the moment. Carpe diem, as they say.

The battle raged fiercely. The numbers of fighters on each side were grossly mismatched. The imperialist enemy forces were larger than the Sikh defenders by a magnitude. This meant that from within the fort Sikh fighters emerged in groups of five one sally at a time, to engage the enemy and they fought until martyred. Then a new Sikh fighter emerged from the fort to carry the battle forward. Thus, Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh, the two older sons of Guru Gobind Singh, attained martyrdom.

Days later, because of the perfidy of their attendant Gangu Brahmin, these young boys barely 7 and 9 years old, along with their grandmother, were in the custody of the Nawab of Sirhand. At a trial in a kangaroo court where they pointedly refused to recant their faith, the two were sentenced to death and bricked up alive.

This, in a nutshell, ended four promising young lives. These events have become defining markers of Sikhi and the worldwide Sikhs, a nation without borders, has always commemorated the day with intense emotional connection to it. We hear these details at every gurduara across the world every year, and we rue the callousness of those who wielded power. In fact, the four sons – martyrs all, are specifically remembered at every Sikh prayer.

Do these events mark a historic defeat and setback for the Khalsa and Guru Gobind Singh as many historians posit even while they charitably underplay it and gloss over it?  

Most readers know the details so I will not touch them any further. Today, I aim to offer you a slightly different perspective on it. My take today is not a tear jerker at all.

These weeks, sermons in gurduaras repeat the message of a setback in Sikh fortunes by the fall of Chamkaur. Just days ago we heard a good one along these lines and then when at home those close to me took the same direction as well, they jolted awake my contrarian instincts.

Why didn’t Guru Gobind Singh and his few surviving Sikhs set up a stand like the small unit of barely 21 Sikhs at Saragarhi 200 years later? In this every Sikh perished in a historic battle with Afghani hordes and won top honors and medals for courage?

Think a moment with me. The war of life offers us a plate full of battles. Ergo any significant war is likely to be composed of many battles.

A good commander will see the whole vista that is the sum of many parts; the larger scene of many possible or active fronts, as well as the particular battle being fought at that specific time; weigh the resources at his command and the relative strength of the enemy. Visualize the long-term repercussions of a contemplated action, and order a strategic change of tactics that allows a resifting and retooling of energy and tactics. Look at any major war and the shifting fronts and tactics that often dot the landscape.

This is how battles are defined and conducted. And I would say that this is what the Guru did, considering that he had only 5 Sikh fighters left with him and they were surrounded in hostile territory by hordes in the thousands. A suicidal mission would have been dramatic but then what …perhaps unproductive.


Allow me to illustrate my view with a trivial but tangential detour and not so dramatic an example to buttress my argument. About 50 years ago, I was a student and, like most students, perpetually short of funds. So I looked for a night job. When I appeared for the interview the boss looked askance at my turban; this was a time when I was perhaps the only man with a turban in that part of the United States.

The minimum pay scale then was $1.50 an hour. Without explanation or pause he offered me $1.25. I was flabbergasted but desperate. I did not have the wherewithal to mount a legal challenge, nor was there any community nearby to offer solace, comfort or encouragement. So I accepted the illegally lower wage but kept my turban. My job was to precisely mix chemicals in 50 gallon drums to process thousands of color films every night.  (This was way before digital cameras.) Two weeks later, my boss realized that I was a reasonably educated graduate student and knew sufficient chemistry as well. He promptly doubled my salary and all turned out well.

My justification: It seemed wiser to shift tactics than to engage in a head on battle for which I lacked resources and was unprepared. I felt in my heart that my gentler tactics would work out.

If Guru Gobind Singh shifted tactics at Chamkaur the only question is this: Was the Guru successful in the long run? On that, history offers us an unqualified and resounding “yes.”

Sikhi survived the events at Chamkaur. In fact it was emboldened. Within a few years Sikhs had liberated Punjab from the imperialists and established a governing system where the people were sovereign and self rule prevailed.

No one can argue with the truism that we all must die, no matter how virtuous, strong or admired in life. But how long does the world, even our most intimate kith and kin, remember us? Perhaps a day, a week, a month or a year; sometimes at memorial meetings for colleagues at the office it may be as little as thirty seconds. In the larger scheme of things these remain merely the blink of an eye.

It has been over 300 years since the happenings at and about Chamkaur and how well do we remember the four sons of Guru Gobind Singh? Every year without fail! The past is a prelude to the future so how long will we continue to remember them? I would say as long as there are Sikhs – through the end of time, I would guess. Let these four sons of the Guru remain our inspiration – yesterday, today and tomorrow. There was no compromise, merely a resourceful shifting of battle grounds and tactics. And this is the question that life often drops in our overfilled inbox.

Now Chamkaur and its history are embedded in the Sikh DNA. There could be no better outcome?

The danger of ignoring such lessons and opportunities is that one can win battles while losing the war.


I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. This article was dated 22 Dec 2015. Email:


[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website:]


Vand Chhakna: The Sikh way of sharing & caring (Asia Samachar, 4 Dec 2015)

To remember & to celebrate (Asia Samachar, 10 Nov 2015)

The purpose of life (Asia Samachar, 14 Oct 2015)

On sects and denominations in Sikhi (Asia Samachar, 27 Sept 2015)

Mixed marriages in gurduaras (Asia Samachar, 31 Aug 2015)

The fallen amongst us (Asia Samachar, 22 Aug 2015)

Is Sikhism Turning Into The Superbowl? (Asia Samachar, 4 Aug 2015)

Human savagery & nobility (Asia Samachar, 30 July 2015)

When ignorance is bliss… (Asia Samachar, 24 July 2015)

WORSHIP…Love of God: Greed or Mortal Dread (Asia Samachar, 8 July 2015)

Deras & Babas: Why So Many? (Asia Samachar, 24 Oct 2014)


  1. Thus, this was never a battle lost, or a defeat for Sikhs.It was all part of a guerilla warefare Sikhs had introduced to Asia.

    The essence of CHARDHI KALA was victorious living far above ordinary in continuous stream of life was the victory in essense for the Guru and the his Sikhs.
    ADDENDUM— One final point,making comparison between the Gurus battles and current day Saragarhi are two different issues.The battles by the Guru were fought with greater, zeal and energy and spiritual thought, than at Saragarhi-where the only incentive was to ensure the Sikh carried out his duty fully.The difference than was, while the Sikhs failed to tell the world,about our battles at Chamkaur, and Anandpur etc, the BRITISH made sure THEY told the world the heroics of their Sikh soldiers.That is where we failed the battles of Chamkaur and Anandpur, and Guru sahib these battles were fought with greater energy and determined spirituality by the Guru and Sikhs.

    Who is to blame?The Sikh writers, who are spending far more time over irrelevant and dubious writings, than addressing the real history and issues of the Sikh community.

  2. I don’t know where from in the air, has IJ Singh plucked that “some writers” say these two battles and were a “defeat” for the samml rising Sikh community.No Sikh has ever said or accepted that Anandpur Sahib or the Battle of Chamkaur was a “defeat” as claimed by IJ Singh.IJ Singh’s failure to offer references to who said what , how and where such was said is testimonious that nothing such really has ever been said by honourable and reputable serious writers.

    However, the biased and right wing Hindu facist writers have written more than often such nonsensical myths, without an iota of truth nor understanding of reality.These are not writers and cannot be claimed to be, worth a nickel for dried up onions.Similar writers are responsibile for false literature created and attained to Guru Gobind Singh; to belittle the Guru and halt the transformational awakening of Sikhi.

    This idea is IJ’s own- to create doubts in the minds of Sikhs, about Guru Gobind SIngh ji and the reallity of history. Similar doubts as have been created by the alleged writings in a book called dasam.

    Many top academics have been claiming that Banda Singh Bahadur was the first great Sikh General- a fact that I challenge strongly and say he was not the first great Sikh general.

    The very first Sikh general was Guru Hargobind Sahib, who for the very first time organised Sikhs into a fighting force and took on four wars, culminating in his victory in all.

    The next to be greater than GREATEST Sikh General was GURU GOBIND SINGH -The Magnificent GURU-and His majesty continues to top the list of the greates genral of the Sikhs.His valour, bravery and courage is known to all and yet lkiitle is really understood by even the Sikhs about his military skiils.

    The story of Guru Gobind Singh ji has been little shared by Sikhs with the rest of the world despite the fact he gave the Sikhs the undeniably unique identity that Sikhs are known for the world over.The beautiful known dimensions of the Tenth Master of Sikhism are many, but strangely few applaud it and fewer still follow them, as they lack the understanding and knowledge!

    Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s forty two brief earthly years were filled with multi- sided activity.His versatility would baffle many historians and readers, as well people of religion.Different aspects of his characterismatic genius may have been pondered and studied, many in minute details repeatedly often.There is already a considerable body of written material that exists, treating him as a spiritual leader, a poet,a social revolutionary, a maker of history, an upholder of moral values in war and peace aand so on.But what has constantly remained scant and rec eived scant attention from qualified scholars is an appreciation of his military ingenuity.
    However,no one has ever tried to understand his great leadership, personality,character and the magnitutude of his greatness.

    When we consider, the Tenth Master’s sole aim in life and of life , like his predessors was the elevation of man in a nation that was down trodden; and depressed of social beings that were forever, at the receiving end of cruelity and harshest treatment from the powers that be.In such trying times, Guru Gobind Singh ji’s message presented a challenging idea,a ray of hope and a feature of which was the charateristic valour.It was Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s unique personality which refused the idea of defeat in his fight for defending the rights & claims of conscience.The magnetic spirit of fighting for the cause of righteousness infused in his disciples by Guru Gobind Singh Ji,enabled the common folk to endure hardship, imprisonment, torture aand death in a lighter vein.With the guidance given by Guru Gobind Singh ji, the Sikhs became a community that remains defiant and vibrant in face defeat, and vibrantly over comes all odds at the thickest of times known to them in history.

    Guru Gobind Singh ji rightly and successfully tackled all odds thrown at him by the tyrant rulers and powers.No matter how cruel and harsh they became, his career and achievements remained rightly focussed.The strategy of war adopted by him and his leadership traits remained judiously righteous and fair.Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s intellect and wisdom gave him comprehension of the highest truth, his warm heart led him to devote aand sacrifice his sons, wealth aand his own life, to save hsi countrymen suffering from the tyranical injustices.With such broad and clear thinking his military genius created world reknowned marvellous soldiers.

    Strangely even among the Sikhs, his military genius has received very little appreciation.The term “military genius”should not be taken within any narrow sense because Guru Gobind Singh Ji not only led his floowers in battle and won spectacular victories against untold heavy odds, but also almost miraculously created out of an incombatant commonality , a body of men of saintly soldiers and leaders who continued to perform marvellous deeds of sacrifice aand valour even after he, himself had passed through the world.

    Very few Sikh historians and scholars have actually studied or tried to understand how Guru Gobind Singh Ji planned his tactics and strategy.Any academic interest on such a theme should be very interesting , eye opening and academically inspiring for current and future Sikh generations, but sadly this area has remained very little explored, and thus deprived Sikhs of great pride and knowledge about such a marvellous saviour of humanity and Guru.

    Some narrations and evaluation of a few military actions fought by Guru Gobind Singh ji would expose his professional expertise in the science of war.Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s forty two brief earthly years were filled with multi- sided activity.His versatility would baffle many historians and readers as well people of religion.

    In this what is common, is that both the historical and non historical works of the earlier writers and that of modern day writers is the remarkable trait of bravery of Guru Gobind Singh and his Sikhs, which distinguishes them from others.

    BRAVERY, here does not merely mean fighting by brave soldiers in the battlefield, it is the broad sense covering the courage , determination, the fortitude and the heroism shown by these people in and out of the battle field.It is in this context we remember the battle of Chamkaur, and the battle of Anandpur sahib.

    Such is heroic contribution of a community that numbered merely no more than 2000 people in the whole of the Punjab by 1750s, that the distinguishing names of their heros, within mere 316, will be so manay that it will push into significance , the history of any other nation or people.

    A Moslem sufi poet Bulle Shah of that period has rightly said,

    ਨਾ ਕੰਹੂ ਅਬ ਕੀ ਨਾ ਕੰਹੂ ਤਬ ਕੀ

    ਗਰ ਨਾ ਹੋਤੇ ਗੁਰੂ ਗੋਬਿੰਦ ਸਿੰਘ

    ਤੋ ਸੁਨੱਤ ਹੋਤੀ ਸਭ ਕੀ ਸੁਨੱਤ

    I dont say of now, nor say of then,
    But truth is, had the Guru
    not appeared, every body would have been
    circumcised and converted to islam.

    Shows just the depth of honesty and courage of the Guru ji.

    BEFORE the seize of Anandpur, the Guru Ji had successfully fought the battle of Bhangani.He selected a place 10 kilometres north east of Paonta to meet the invaders.With small numbers of Sikhs, the invading enemy takes flight, despite that some Pathan soldiers of Pir Buddhu Shah abandonned the battle mid way and fled.This triggered Pir Buddhu Shah and his four sons to enter on side of this Guru ji.The enemy soldiers fled with heavy causailties.Some account of this battle is found in the alledged writings of bachiter Natak

    Then came the battle of Nadaun, where again Guru Ji with small numbers of Sikhs defeated the Hill rajas and their Mughal partners.

    Then there is the battle of Nirmoh,again a combined force fought against the Guru ji and his very small band of Sikhs for two days, without success.From here the Guru ji crossed over to Basoli across the Satluj River.

    There were only 10,000 force of Sikhs, at Anandpur, while Moghuls had massed in excess of 300,000 by conservative estimates.It is said, many big names of the Mughals and hill rajas fell in the battle at Anandpur.

    It is said, General Said Khan, was wonder stuck, to see the valour of the small number of Sikhs , facing the combined Imperial and Hill raja armies, number into several hundered thousands.When he realised that the Guru was not an enemy of the Musalmaan,but a divine personality, considering everyone his brother,and the war was thrust upon the Guru, he surrendered before the Guru ji and gave up fighting for ever.

    Guru sahib’s strategy was of great military genius.To fight at Anandpur the Guru Ji constructed five forts,where he deployed 500 Sikhs in each of the Forts.These were Keshgarh,Anandgarh, Holgarh,Lohgarh and Agampura.

    When the enemy marched from Ropar, the Sikhs engaged them outside Anandpur with view to check their advance.One of the most terrifying war was fought at Anandpur.Havoc was caused by small bands of Sikhs falling upon the enemy, just before night time or day break.

    The seize lasted for over several months.No attempt by the enemy would break the Morale of teh Guru and Sikhs.However, when water started running short, Sainapat writes:-

    Char Singh paani ko javan,
    do jhojhen, do pani liawan

    Four Sikhs were going to get water, two engaged with the enemy, and two would successfully bring in the water.

    When the Sikhs realised they were running short of food supplies, they rationed their food intake, to prolong the fight.However, the number of enemy dying in battle was much higher, as the Sikhs chose to engage when and how.

    The Sikhs would come out in the night, attack the heart of the enemy encampment, snatch food, arms from their enemy and retreat back into the fort.The enemy became very panicky and shifted their supplies outside of their camps.

    The enemy could not prolong their seize, as the local people were getting angry and there was fear they would turn against the army,thought of swearing upon the cow, and koran a safe passage to ensure peace for all, if the Guru ji left the Fort.

    Eventaully, when the Sikhs ordered the Guru ji accept and evacuate the fort, the promises were broken, and the enemy started chasing the Sikhs, looking for an opportune moment to attack.Eventually, they clashed with the Sikhs at Shahi Tibbi, where few Sikhs took on an estimated force of 30,000 men of Wazir Khan of the end of the day as hundereds of enemy lay dead, few Sikhs including the the Guru’s sons’ baba Ajit Singh successfully crossed the River Sirsa, where another battle took place, and the Sikhs, Guru Ji and his family became separated from each other.

    Thus, this was never a battle lost, or a defeat for Sikhs.It was all part of a guerilla warefare Sikhs had introduced to Asia.

    Indeed, this was very basics of building into a warrior race for the future.We should rightly share such information and history of our people with our young, and the world.But we have done very little of that, sharing!