The Khalsa Woman in Guru Gobind Singh’s Army
Khalsa women have played an important role in Guru Gobind Singh’s army and have faced death many times for the Khalsa. Many of the old stories have been lost, and those that remain are scant in detail and description. But the fact is that the Tenth Master, Siri Guru Gobind Singh ji Maharaj, encouraged and promoted women in martial training the in the army of the Khalsa. The Khalsa has no gender, neither male nor female, so those women who were inclined to study in the martial tradition found their places in the ranks of the Khalsa Fauj. Mai Bhago Kaur is an outstanding example, and one of the first, of the women warriors of the Sikhs.
In 1705 the mughal forces under the direction of Emperor Aurangzeb laid a deadly siege on the Fort of Anandpur Sahib in a desperate effort to destroy Guru Gobind Singh and the Khalsa. As food and water were exhausted, the conditions became unbearable and many Sikhs deserted the Guru. Although the Sikhs of the Majha belonged to a tradition of gallant warriors, they also chose to abandon the Guru and return to their villages. Before they left the fort Guru Gobind Singh asked them to put their denouncement on paper; they were no longer Sikhs of the Guru.
When the women of the village heard that their men were returning home, traitors to the Guru’s cause, they were incensed. Bhago, a lady of Jhabal, spoke to the women and together they resolved to reverse the situation. As the men returned, hungry, tired, and depressed from their experience at Anandpur Sahib, the women would not let them enter their homes. They said to their husbands and sons, “Either go back and make amends for your cowardly behavior, or exchange your dress with ours, stay at home and act as house-wives in our place. Dressed in your clothes, we will go and fight for the Guru. We will lay down our lives for him and wash away with our blood the shame which you have brought on us all, nay on the whole Majha itself.”
Shamed by the courageous response of the their womenfolk, a band of forty Sikhs started back towards the Guru under the leadership of Bhai Mahan Singh and Mai Bhago. Dressed in soldier’s battle-gear, Mai Bhago struck a fearsome pose and was respected the Sikh soldiers for her spiritual clarity and her courageous nature. As they made their way toward the Guru, groups of Sikhs from various villages along the way joined them in support of the great Guru Gobind Singhji.
By that time, Guru Gobind Singh and the Khalsa army had left the Fort of Anandpur Sahib with a promise of safe passage from Emperor Aurangzeb. But his promise proved to be a cruel deception and the Khalsa suffered devastating attacks in which the two elder sons of the Guru were killed. Now they were being pursued by Wazir Khan, the Nawab of Sirhind with over 5,000 mughal soldiers. Having already captured and bricked alive the two young sons of the Guru, Wazir Khan was eager to kill the Guru himself and gain favor with the Emperor in Delhi.
The Sikhs from Majha finally met with their Guru between Ramiana and Khidrana. With Bhai Mahan Singh as their spokesman, the forty Sikhs begged the Guru to forgive their desertion and to bless them with his Grace. Together they rode with the Guru to Khidrana where there was a large water tank to slake the thirst of the Guru’s army. But at this time in May the plains of the Punjab were already scorched by the summer heat, and when they arrived they found the tank nearly dry. Guru Gobind Singh signaled for his army to continue on in search of water. Bhai Mahan Singh proposed that his group stay behind and engage the enemy there, allowing the Guru time to reach a place of safety. Guru Gobind Singh agreed to the strategy, and rode about two miles forward with the bulk of the Khalsa army
Big white sheets of khaddar were spread on the shrubs so that the mughal army would think that the full body of the Sikhs was camped there in great numbers. Fearlessly, the small band of Sikhs waited for the huge army of Wazir Khan to approach the tank.
5000 mughal soldiers advanced towards the tank of Khidrana in search of water under the burning Punjabi sun. Under the leadership of Mai Bhago and Bhai Mahan Singh, the Sikhs from Majha fell upon the advancing mughal forces with a righteous fury free of petty revenge. This has come to be known as the battle of Mukhsar, and it began on the 8th of May 1705. Mai Bhago was seen fighting in the first rank, firing her long-barrel musket with the skill and precision of a true soldier. The mughal army rushed forward several times in an attempt to dislodge the Sikhs and capture the tank, but had to withdraw each time under the fierce volley of bullets and arrows. When at last the Khalsa’s ammunition was exhausted, they advanced forward in small groups to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. When her time came, Mai Bhago charged into the enemy ranks with a long spear, creating havoc and killing many enemy soldiers.
They were not fighting for victory that day as the mughal army out-numbered the Khalsa by about 500 to one. They had no thought of surviving the battle. They only wished to win time, to stall the mughal army long enough so that Guru Gobind Singh and the rest of the Khalsa might advance to a source of water and a better field of battle. By day’s end, all the Khalsa lay dead on the battlefield. Nearly 3,000 of the turks lay with them in the same bloody bed. The battle had taken its toll on the enemy, and now the mughal army cried desperately for water. When Wazir Khalsa advanced forward to finally take possession of the water tank, he was shocked to find that it was bone-dry. Morale had shriveled in the blistering Punjab heat and discipline in the ranks quickly dissolved. Abandoning the dead and wounded where they lay, Wazir Khan and his army beat a hasty retreat in search of water for his despairing men.
As evening fell, Guru Gobind Singh rode back to the battlefield of Khidrana. He got down from his horse and surveyed the bloody carnage that stretched before him. With the deep affection that he felt for his Khalsa, he knelt by each fallen soldier and blessed him. Coming to Bhai Mahan Singh, the Guru saw that he was not yet dead. He lifted his head gently, and wiped the blood from his face. Mahan Singh opened is eyes and saw the beautiful face of Guru Gobind Singhji. The Guru asked him if he had any last wishes, and Mahan Singh begged him to tear-up the document that he had signed renouncing the Guru. The Guru said, “You have done a great deed. You have saved the root of Sikhism in the Majha. You forty are the Muktas, the Liberated Ones, delivered from round of birth and death forever.” Saying this, he reached in his belt and pulled out the paper they had signed in Anandpur and tore it up into little pieces that floated away on the wind.
Continuing on, the Guru came top where Mai Bhago lay in the blood soaked grass. Dozens of mughals lay dead around her where they had fallen in mortal combat. He was surprised to find a woman here on the battlefield! When he knelt to lift her head, he saw that she too was barely alive and he washed her face with cool water. She opened her eyes and saw the Guru’s face in all his radiance. Such a beautiful sight, after such a brutal day, lifted her soul into spiritual ecstasy.
Guru Gobind Singh had her removed from the battlefield, and her wounds were tended by his personal physicians. When Mai Bhago recovered from her injuries, the Guru gave her Amrit from his own hands and she became Mai Bhago Kaur. Having dedicated her life to the Khalsa, she stayed with Guru Gobind Singh served him as one of his personal guards. Dressed in male attire, she was one of only ten Sikhs who were permitted to guard the Guru when he slept. She lived to be an old woman, and died in Siri Hazoor Sahib (Nanded) where she remained after the Guru’s death.
The legacy of Mai Bhago Kaur lives in all of us. She showed the way for feminine strength to be courageous, powerful, and dynamic. Her actions turned the course of history, and her courage under fire won her the love and respect of Siri Guru Gobind Singhji Maharaj.
The wives and daughters of today’s Khalsa should be given encouragement and support to pursue martial training. It is not always easy for women, as it goes against the social expectation of our culture. It requires building physical strength that women often lack in childhood, and which is difficult to build later in life. Yet it is not only possible for women to become proficient in the martial arts, when given the chance we often excel. More importantly, it builds discipline, confidence, and strength of character that serves a woman and her family for her entire life.