Mai Bhago was the first Sikh woman to fight on a battlefield as part of the Khalsa army.
In 1704, the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji and his Khalsa army were taking refuge at a fortress in the city of Anandpur. The city had been laid under siege by Emperor Aurangzeb’s Mughal army with help from their allies, the hill chiefs.
The tyrannical Emperor hated the Sikhs’ mission to attain social justice for all and wanted to stamp them out so that he could rule freely as a dictator, without any interference from these social activists.
Indeed in 1675, the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji had been publicly beheaded under the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb. The Guru’s crime was that he had defended a group of Hindu Pandits in Delhi who were being forced to convert to Islam against their will. When the Guru also refused to change his faith, he was tortured and decapitated along with three of his Sikhs.
For around 8 months, the Sikhs had been living off rations of leaves and tree bark at the fortress in Anandpur Sahib; their food supply had run out and since they were surrounded by the Mughals from all sides, no external food supplies could reach them.
As time went on and winter arrived, a number of the Sikhs grew bitter and frustrated at the poor living conditions within the fortress; they were starving and weak and did not see any way for their Khalsa army to overpower the Mughals.
And so, led by Bhai Mahan Singh, hundreds of Sikhs made the decision to leave their Guru and return to their homes. Guru Ji requested that they rethink their decision, but they refused.
And so on their way out of the fortress, the Sikhs were asked by the Guru to declare themselves to no longer be his Sikhs if they were to leave (this paper of declaration containing the thumb print of each deserter came to be known as the bedawa).
Once the blank bedawa was laid out in front of them, only 40 of the Sikhs laid their thumbprints upon it and agreed to renounce their titles as Khalsas. Those 40 men abandoned the fortress and embarked upon the long trek back to their homes in the Majha region.
Upon hearing of the desertion of the 40 men, Mai Bhago, a Sikh woman from the Jhabal Kalan village in Majha was disgusted. She rode to all of the nearby villages calling upon her sisters to take up arms in their husbands’ places instead.
She mocked the 40 deserters telling them that they were embarrassments; she could not fathom how they had lost all faith and willingly abandoned the Guru when he needed them the most. She told the 40 men that they would be better suited to wearing their wives bangles and sitting at home with their children; their wives would take their places and go out to fight for social justice as true Sikhs of Guru Gobind Singh Ji.
After bearing witness to Mai Bhago’s unwavering devotion to the Guru, the 40 men were filled with remorse. They saw the extent of their treachery reflected back at them in the eyes of their wives and families and they dropped their pride. Following Mai Bhago’s lead, they made their way back to the Guru to beg for forgiveness.
Upon finding Guru Ji in the forest, the 40 men were given a chance to redeem themselves. Guru Ji requested them and Mai Bhago to slow down the Mughal army that was closing in on them. In doing so, the Guru would be able to move the residents of Anandpur, who were travelling with the Khalsa army, to safety. The 40 men and Mai Bhago agreed and prepared themselves for a battle.
Guru Ji lead the residents of Anandpur Sahib ahead, while Mai Bhago and the 40 men stayed back and set up camp at a place called Khidrana. But it wasn’t long until they were faced by the 10,000-strong Mughal army. The battle came to be known as the Battle of Muktsar.
Mai Bhago cleverly instructed the 40 men to defend the reservoir that was there, knowing that this was the only source of water for miles around and that the Mughals would be forced to retire if their access to it was blocked.
The 41 of them bravely fought for their Guru. As the battle went on and both sides were waning, Guru Ji arrived, firing a sea of arrows from above in aid of his Sikhs. Battered, weakened and thirsty in the stifling heat of May, the Mughal army eventually withdrew.
The 40 men had redeemed themselves in the eyes of their Guru but in doing so, almost all had become Shaheeds (martyrs). When the Guru arrived on to the battlefield, he found Bhai Mahan Singh taking his last breaths. Guru Ji expressed his pride at the valiance of the 40 men and forgave them for their abandonment of him at Anandpur.
With his final words, Bhai Mahan Singh smiled and requested the Guru to tear up the bedawa, thereby reinstating the 40 men as Sikhs of the Guru. Guru Gobind Singh Ji told Bhai Mahan Singh that while a Sikh may choose to leave his Guru, the Guru will never turn his back on his Sikh; Guru Ji had been with them all along.
Shortly afterwards Bhai Mahan Singh closed his eyes and joined the other 39 Singhs as a Shaheed. The 40 deserters of the Guru came to be known as the Chali Mukte (the 40 liberated ones).
Mai Bhago was the only person from the Sikh army to survive the battle of Muktsar. The Guru found her lying injured on the battlefield. Guru Ji was extremely impressed by her bravery and nursed her back to health. Mai Bhago was then invited to join the Khalsa army as one of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s five personal bodyguards, a huge honour which she had earned by demonstrating the utmost courage, strength of character and unwavering loyalty to the Guru.
This strong female saint warrior is a prime example of the power that we as women hold. Mai Bhago was a leader, she commanded respect, single-handedly leading an army of 40 men into battle. She’s not just an inspiration in terms of her leadership skills, but also in terms of her physical prowess.
Skilled from a young age in gatka, (the Sikh form of martial arts), as well as horse-back riding and the long-spear, she showed the Punjabi community that she was just as physically capable to go into battle as any man, if not more capable than any man!
And she always put Sikhi first. Mai Bhago lived and breathed the Guru’s bani, that was her true strength. Teamed with her physical power, her faith in Waheguru made her a force to be reckoned with.
As a daughter, a wife, as well as a daughter-in-law, Mai Bhago demonstrates how we as women should never limit ourselves by conforming to gender stereotypes; we can do whatever we believe ourselves to be capable of.
She exemplified how the fire in your heart can drive you to achieve anything. She’s a hero, a legend, an icon in not only Sikh history, but all history and I believe that everyone should be privy to the power she had.
Who knows, upon hearing her tale, it might unlock something special buried deep inside you. I know for me personally, whenever I’m faced with any type of predicament, if I just close my eyes and invoke the spirit of Mai Bhago, then nothing in this world will be able to stop me. 😀
Please forgive any mistakes I may have made in re-telling these stories. And thank you for taking the time to read this post. 🙂