How King Prithu of Kamrupa Assam Badly Defeated Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1206 AD
The antiquity of Assam dates back to several thousand years. Assam finds mention as ‘Pragjyotishpur’ in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and other ancient Indian scriptures. Later, the kingdom was named ‘Kamrupa’, which also finds mention in several scriptures. Nidhanpur and Doobi inscriptions tell about the kings of the dynasty of Naraka, Bhagadatta and Vajradatta and their descendants, who ruled for 3000 years. The Allahabad inscription of Samudragupta mentions Kamrupa as a frontier territory.
There is another connotation to the naming of this northeastern kingdom of Bharat as Kamrupa. Assam is home to the Peacock Island, a small hillock in the middle of the Brahmaputra River. It is the world’s smallest inhabited river island. According to legend, it was at this hillock that Kamdev interrupted Lord Shiv’s meditation. Lord Shiv burnt Kamdev to ashes with his anger. The hillock is also, thus, known as Bhasmacala. The Umananda Temple, built during the 17th century by the then Ahom king Gadadhar Singha, is located on Peacock Island.
Following Ahom rule, the area to the east of the Manas came to be known as Assam. Kamrupa, today, is a district in Assam. Do you know Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji invaded Kamrupa in 1206 AD? He attacked with a huge army of 12,000 horsemen. Prithu, who was then the king of Kamrupa, badly defeated Khilji. The Turkish general lost all of his army except a few in this battle. A sick Khilji somehow managed to save his life with the help of a local tribal chieftain and escaped out of Kamrupa.
Persian historian, Minhaj-i-Siraj in his book Tabaqat-i Nasiri, recorded many of Bakhtiyar Khilji’s battlefield exploits, loot, and plunder in India. Tabaqat-i Nasiri contains a detailed account of Khilji’s attack of Kamrupa and his defeat. An inscription near Guwahati, dating back to this period, records the utter rout of the ‘Turkish’ or Muslim army in Kamarupa. This implies that Khilji penetrated to the interior regions of Kamrupa. Historian Edward Albert Gait in his book History of Assam writes that during Bakhtiyar Khilji’s attack of Assam, ‘the ruler of Kamrupa bore the title Kameswar, and his western boundary was the Karatoya river’.
Bakhtiyar Khilji was the first Islamic invader who attacked Kamrupa. Khilji was assigned two villages on the border of Bihar which had become a political no-man’s land. Later, he began a series of successful plundering raids in Bihar. He was recognized and rewarded for his raids by his superiors. It was then that Khilji destroyed the ancient Nalanda University and set fire to the library that contained 9 million manuscripts! It was the year 1193 AD. Tabaqat-i Nasiri mentions how thousands of monks were burnt alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to plant Islam by the sword. The book also mentions about the burning of the library that continued for several months and ‘smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.’ He also destroyed the ancient Vikramshila University and burnt its library to ashes. Khilji started looting and plundering more kingdoms until he set on an expedition to Kamrupa towards the end of 1205 AD with an army of 12,000 horsemen. He actually set out to conquer Tibet besides attacking and plundering kingdoms on the way. His defeat of Lakshman Sena, the last Sena King of Bengal, further boosted his confidence to conquer more regions around and beyond the Himalayas.
Devkot (modem Gangarampur), ten miles south of Dinajpur, was the starting point for Bakhtiyar Khilji to attack Kamrupa. Few miles ahead of the border of Kamrupa, he succeeded in converting a local Mech chieftain to Islam. The convert took a new name ‘Ali, the Mej’. Ali and his followers guided Khilji in the expedition. Following his guidance, Khilji and his army entered the city of Burdhankot, in the east of Bengal. Ali marched along with the Turkish army for 10 days until they reached a giant stone bridge over a channel of river Barnadi in Hajo near Kamrupa. (Currently this ancient stone bridge is stranded in the middle of a small lake as Barnadi river changed its course over time).
Tabaqat-i Nasiri mentions that at this place where the giant stone bridge is located, Khilji’s army ‘built a bridge of hewn stone consisting of upwards, of twenty arches’. Before Khilji proceeded further, he entrusted two of his commanders along with a troop to keep guard of the bridge until he returned. After few more days of marching amid the hilly terrains and treacherous jungles, Khilji and his army reached the kingdom of Kamrupa, an open tract of land that was densely populated. There was a strong fort in the middle of the villages. Khilji’s army immediately set to action, plundering the villages.
Kamrupa was then ruled by king Prithu of the Khen dynasty, who drew their lineage from Narakasura. They worshipped Kamatashwari, a form of Goddess Durga. Kanai Varasi rock inscription mentions Prithu of the Khen dynasty as the ruler of Kamrupa during Khilji’s attack. This inscription records the destruction of the Turks who invaded Kamrupa in 1206 A.D.
Koch Rajbongshi, Bodo and Keot (Kaibartta) tribes also resided in the region and surrounding areas. Knowing the gravity of the situation, the three tribes extended their support to Prithu. The combined Kamrupi forces attacked Khilji’s army. Such was the valor of the tribal army that many Turkish soldiers were killed. Khilji’s army could not advance further. Many of Khilji’s soldiers were taken prisoners.
The first day of the first battle ended with a huge loss for Khilji. The battle was to resume the next day. Meanwhile, Khilji learnt that king Prithu would attack them with a larger army reinforced by a well-trained cavalry force from the neighboring city of Karampattan. The Turkish chieftain thus broke up his camp the same night and began to retrace his steps.
But king Prithu attacked the Turkish Muslim army on the road. A fierce fight followed. Khilji lost more of his army. Many of his soldiers were captured. Khilji somehow managed to escape with few hundred soldiers until they reached the stone bridge. To their utter dismay, they found the middle arch of it broken off by the natives. With the Kamrupi forces behind, Khilji and his army were forced to swim to reach the other end of the river. The strong current of the river led hundreds of the Mohammedan soldiers to their watery grave. Only Khilji and few men could survive the disaster. At the other end of the river, the converted Ali and his tribe helped the sick and discomfited Khilji reach Bengal.
Do you know after the failed Assam expedition, Khilji became a completely sick man? He could lead no further expeditions or plunders and loots. While he was lying ill at Devkot (Bengal), he was assassinated by Ali Mardan, a general, who then became the ruler of Bengal.
What happened to the prisoners of war in Kamrupa? Hundreds of Khilji’s soldiers were captured by Prithu in battle. The imprisoned soldiers sought pardon and shelter. The kind king Prithu excused them and made arrangements for their settlement. He gave them all essential commodities for a living. As they came from Gauda (Bengal), the king christened them as Gaudia. This marked the beginning of Islamic settlements in Assam.
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