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Image: detail from a painting of a Sikh Warrior by Mortimer Menpes, 1910.


The Doughty Defender of Harmandar Sahib
Part I





This is the seventh of a series of works on by the author to mark the 30th anniversary of the Indian Army’s desecration of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Author's Note : Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of joining my friend Harinder Singh, CEO and Founder of the Sikh Research Institute at a seminar in Long Island, where we were co-presenters. The subject was the 1984 attack on Harmandar Sahib by the Indian Army. During his presentation on 1984 titled ‘Through a Sikh Lens’, Harinder Singh talked about another attack on Harmandar Sahib that occurred centuries ago by the forces of the Afghan King, Ahmad Shah Abdali and the gallant defence mounted by Akali Gurbaksh Singh and his small band of Sikh defenders. This prompted me to seek out the tale of this attack, as told by Sardar Rattan Singh Bhangu, which this piece is based on. This piece is dedicated to the fine work of The Sikh Research Institute.

It was a time of great turmoil. The peril was grave and imminent. A large, well-armed force was about swoop down upon the Harmandar Sahib.

In its path stood a young man of steely resolve. A man who had decided to resist. Many had fled. Only a few stood shoulder to shoulder with him.

The invading force arrived. It was even larger and more fearsome than had been rumored, but the young man stood his ground. The battle began. The ferocity of the defenders shocked the invading force. Their resistance became the stuff of legend.

The end was inevitable. The young warrior and his comrades lay dead. The invading force captured and desecrated the Harmandar Sahib, as they had set out to do.

Victory, however, eluded the invaders. For the history books until today resound with paeans to the gallantry of the fallen defenders.

Even in death, the defenders, led by the young warrior, carried the day.

This is his story.

No. This is not the story of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his defence of the Akal Takhat against the Indian Army’s onslaught in 1984.

This is the story of Baba Gurbaksh Singh, the Akali warrior who dared to defy the might of the Afghan hordes.

His tiny band was outnumbered. Outgunned. And yet he embraced death like a bridegroom joyously bound for his wedding.

The account is from Rattan Singh Bhangu’s opus, Panth Prakash.

As I savor and translate each verse from Rattan Singh’s rousing tale, several thoughts play in my head. Perhaps on that other fateful day in June 30 years ago, a similar sight was seen in Amritsar by the gallant defenders of the Akal Takht.

Perhaps Bhai Mani Singh and Bhai Taru Singh and their cohort of martyrs long gone, appeared that day too. On shining steeds and in bejeweled chariots with pennants flying to welcome the newest recruits into their ranks! For after all, from a Sikh perspective, there was not much difference between the actions of Ahmad Shah Abdali and Indira Gandhi.

Any student of Sikh history will see a similar pattern, where tyrant after tyrant who sought to ‘teach the Sikhs a lesson’ chose the Harmandar Sahib, the most visible symbol of Sikh sovereignty, as the primary target of their depredations.


Translator’s note: I have attempted to be more or less faithful to Rattan Singh’s meter, but I would urge my readers who can, to read it in the original. This is not a word by word translation; I have, however, endeavored to faithfully present the narrative and capture the spirit of Rattan Singh’s poetry.



The tale of a martyr, brave Nihang

Who gave his head and Death did wed

And thus the mighty Gurbaksh Singh

Truly did become a king

On the hallowed earth of Amrtisar

Martyrdom did the man embrace

Join with me O gentle ones

As the mighty fallen Nihang I praise

Young man of steel this warrior brave

Steadfast and sober dressed in blue

Rises at dawn and drains his cup

And girds up for the coming day

Prayers are said in early morn

Proud turban does his head adorn

To shining steel he bows his head

Before it’s on his person borne

A chain of steel around his neck

Shining bracelets upon his wrists

Quoits of steel upon his head

Together his impervious shield

Gloves of steel, a mighty club

Breeches that hang down to his knees

On his breast a coat of mail

Resplendent is The Warrior brave

He shall be worthy of this name

To whom is sorrow as is joy

He will be honored as a sage

To whom is comfort as is pain

Steadfast and steady as a rock

Worthy kind generous and brave

Firm of purpose never swayed

By flattery of chief or knave

At the urgent beat of the drum of war

He shrinks not from the fear of death

At the whisper of a threat to his own

Ready to fight till his last breath

And when the time to fight is nigh

He jumps in standard flying high

And as the war drum thrums and growls

In the van The Warrior prowls

From Bhai Mani Singh’s very own hands

He drank the immortal brew of love

By Khemkaran, Leel, a village fair

In Majha lies this lion’s lair

A leader true, always out front

His men forming his glorious train

Wherever he would plant his flag

His men so steadfast would remain

His face toward most holy shrine

In the Timeless Tower he would dwell

Watchful ever his mighty horde

Chanting the name of the Timeless Lord

Hear ye this tale of warrior brave

How he withstood the Afghan might

Of the rampage of the Gilji tribe

My words render that terrible sight

In Bharatpur there was a king

Who sacked the wealth of Agra fair

Made off with two incomparable steeds

Mountains of wealth did his soldiers bring

One hundred laden carts of loot

And yet the treasure house was full

His mighty victory rendered moot

Beaten by the Ruhela Chief

In anger the king’s vengeful son

Resolved to build a mighty host

Caring for treasure not a whit

He built a lethal fighting force


The chief of the Jutts Delhi besieged

Circumscribed the Ruhela Chief

And thus when he was helpless pinned

He turned to Kabul for relief

Seduced by dreams of a ransom rich

Set out a fearsome Afghan force

At the rumor of its coming mere

Amritsar was plunged in fear

To the hills they fled in panicked haste

Only to fuel the bandits’ feasts

Those who sought shelter by the streams

Fell prey to fierce and hungry beasts

Those who dared to stay behind

The Giljis bound with rope and chain

And all of those who left their homes

Found nothing but heartbreak and pain

In forests and in place strange

The fleeing Sikhs in misery dwelt

And pondering their pitiful state

Their pain the mighty warrior felt


The Sikhs gathered for evening prayers

In the shade of the Timeless Tower cool

To leave the town was the sacred writ

Save Warriors by the sacred pool

Was heard the mighty Warrior roar

Is there today one single man?

To valiantly pick up the sword

In the name of the ever glorious Lord

Steadfast and strong, meditative, calm

Truthfully who treads the path

Unselfish brave, to the very core

Like the martyr Taru Singh of yore

The Sikhs then spoke in a single voice

None here is worthier or more brave

You are the one, young warrior strong

The Lord will hear your rousing song

Hearing this then The Warrior bows

His hands in fervent prayer joined

 With folded hands and pendent head

The maiden Death agrees to wed


Then sallies forth The Warrior bold

Is there one willing to stand

Beside me in this noble plan?

I shall be groom and he best man

They hear his words rise to their feet

Addressed to him this humble plea

And solemnly they did declare

From the bonds of fear let us be free

Standing now there were many more

Each willing to be a wedding guest

The mighty warrior did declare

In the next world too you will be blest

To be wed I shall give my head

My prize will be kingdoms galore

My wedding guests who with me sing

Each of them too shall be a king

For he who dies a glorious death

Is honored as a royal liege

It’s true it’s what the scripture sayeth

These are the words of the master Tenth


Fearlessly offer up your head

Fear not, divine reward you’ll get

For this is what the Master said

Reiterates The Warrior brave

And Ahmad Shah has reached Lahore

Ramparts of Delhi he will raze

Sikhs gathered in fair Amritsar

Draw the tyrant’s rapine baleful gaze

Making great haste the cowards flee

The Warrior does not stop their flight

His soldiers young, brave hardy souls

Stand girded for the coming fight

Some are resplendent in blue

Others in saffron or dazzling white

By Timeless Tower they proudly stand

They swear to be Abdali’s blight

The heady brew they do partake

Eager to jump into the fray

Ready to die they show no fear

So glorious in their battle gear

Continued tomorrow …

July 11, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder Singh (Bridgewater, New Jersey, USA), July 11, 2014, 7:14 AM.

Prof. Puran Singh elucidates: "Death is the bride of the brave." I have gone through two English and four Punjabi translations/editions of Rattan Singh's Sri Guru Panth Parkash. The way Sarbpreet Vir ji captured Baba Gurbaksh Singh's episode for the non-Punjabi audience is excellent. I will be sharing it during Sidak when I teach a session on Sikh poetry this summer in British Columbia. By the way, the best available people's history response to Sir David Ochterlony via Capt Murray by Rattan Singh Bhangu is an edition with notes by Dr Balwant Singh Dhillon of Guru Nanak University, published by Singh Brothers.

2: Inni Kaur (Fairfield, Connecticut, USA), July 11, 2014, 9:05 AM.

Thank you, thank you, thank you ... Can't wait for the next instalment.

3: Inderpreet Singh (Chelmsford, Massachusetts, USA), July 11, 2014, 10:11 AM.

Awesome translation! This is the exact episode that is read and studied in its original text during a "Secondary Texts" session within the Gurmukhi 201 course of Sidak. The session is called "Parkash" and is a study of the Bhraj Bhasha genre of Sikh historical texts. Panth Parkash, Suraj Parkash and other texts are surveyed. This year Sidak is being held at the Khalsa Centre in Mission Valley, British Columbia, Canada. Spots still open for Gurmukhi 201. Sign up today!

4: Inderpreet Singh (Chelmsford, Massachusetts, USA), July 11, 2014, 11:35 AM.

Another note - Until recently there was a small memorial to Baba Gurbaksh Singh Nihang and the shahids. It was a smallish gurdwara behind the Akal Takht. Last time I visited in 2011 it was nowhere to be found. Could I have missed it? Is it still there? The physical memorial may or may not be gone, but this story (as well as the '84 episodes) needs to be etched within each young Sikh man and woman's bosom. Share it, bosom to bosom, with your young ones and do it now!

5: Harpreet Singh (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA), July 11, 2014, 8:10 PM.

In addition to Rattan Singh's powerful narrative, we have a more contemporaneous account of Qazi Nur Muhammad in Persian. The Qazi accompanied Abdali in 1764, and was an eye-witness to the incident. Section 25 of his text has the heading, "Ahmad Shah's March upon Chak Guru and its Destruction." (Chak Guru is a reference to Amritsar.) Here is what Nur Muhammad's account tells us: "When the Shah arrived at the Chak there was not a single kafir to be seen. But a few of them had remained in an enclosure so that they might spill their own blood. And they sacrificed their lives for the Guru. When they saw the renowned king and the army of Islam, they came out of the enclosure. They were only thirty in number. They, however, did not possess even an iota of fear. They had neither the fear of slaughter nor the dread of death." This is, indeed, high praise for one's enemy. There are many other fascinating sections in a largely acidic text that sees Sikhs as dogs, dogs of hell, and pig-eaters. In another section, he describes the remarkable fighting abilities of Sikhs: "If their [Sikhs'] armies take to flight, do not take it as an actual flight. It is a war tactic of theirs. Beware. Beware of them for a second time. The object of this trick is that when the furious enemy runs after them, the enemy is separated from his main army and from his reinforcements. Then they turn back to face their pursuers and set fire even to water." (Section 41). The praise does not end here. At another place the Qazi writes: "Leaving aside their mode of fighting, consider another area in which they [Sikhs] excel all other fighting people: Under no circumstances would they slay a coward or put an obstacle in the way of a fugitive. They do not plunder the wealth and ornaments of a woman, whether she is an affluent lady or a maid servant. There is neither adultery among these dogs, nor do these mischievous people engage in any kind of theft." (From the Jangnamah's 1939 text edited by Ganda Singh.)

6: Kaala (Punjab), July 12, 2014, 6:34 AM.

All tyrants who came to teach us a lesson themselves ended up learning a lesson or two.

7: Jasdeep Singh (Canada), March 07, 2016, 1:52 PM.

It's really nice to see an English translation of the book but it's unfortunate to see it being referred to as "SRI GURU PANTH PRAKASH".

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Part I"

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