A few kilometres away from the Golden Temple in Amritsar lies a little-known memorial with immense significance in India’s colonial history — the Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara. The memorial pays homage to the unparalleled bravery of the 21 Sikh soldiers who fought against 10,000 Pashtun tribesmen on September 12, 1897, in what came to be known as the Battle of Saragarhi.
Despite facing such overwhelming numbers, the warriors (part of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry) valiantly defended the Saragarhi outpost in the rugged hills of the North-West Frontier Province. They set an example that continues to inspire countless soldiers across the world. Yet books on Indian history have often shied away from discussing this incredible tale.
Here’s the story of the Saragarhi’s legendary battle.
In the late 1800s, tensions had heightened between Britain and Russia as the two nations battled over territories in central Asia. As such, threatened by both Russian forces and Afghan tribes, the frontier region between British India and Afghanistan had become a place of danger and constant unrest.
On September 12, 1897, a small British outpost called Saragarhi, 40 miles away from the garrison town of Kohat (in what is now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan), was attacked by 10,000 Orazkai-Afridi tribesmen.
Located between the main forts of Lockhart and Gulistan, this outpost was of vital importance. Through it, heliographic signal communications (Morse code using flashes of sunlight) could be maintained between the two forts.
Enemy tribesmen had surrounded Saragarhi with the intention of cutting communications and thus affecting troop movements of the British Indian Army. The 22 men inside were led by an experienced sergeant – Havildar Ishar Singh, who rallied his men to defend their positions.
Defending Saragarhi, 21 gutsy soldiers of the 36th (Sikh) Regiment of Bengal Infantry stood their ground against the mammoth onslaught.
Led by Havaldar Ishar Singh — a feisty and experienced sergeant described by a British historian as “a nuisance in peacetime, he was majestic in war” — the men (aided by their helper, Daad) repulsed numerous attacks, killing scores of attackers.
The heliographic signaller among the Sikh soldiers at Saragarhi, Gurumukh Singh, sent an urgent message, “Enemy approaching the main gate…Need reinforcement”, to Fort Lockhart. Only to receive a disheartening reply — “Unable to breakthrough…Hold position.”
After discussed the situation with his men and reaching a consensus, Havildar Singh had his signaller send a single word as a reply: ” Understood.”
Outnumbered but undaunted, the Sikhs continued defending the outpost against the onslaught. They also used delaying tactics to give sufficient time to the two nearby forts to prepare themselves for the attack that would be directed towards them once Saragarhi fell.
Taken aback at the fierceness of the fight, the tribals shouted the message that if the Sikhs surrendered and joined them, they would be provided safe passage. It fell on deaf ears for Havildar Singh refused to budge an inch.
However, unseen by the Sikhs soldiers inside the outpost, the enemy had begun digging beneath the walls to edge forward. Once this was done, they set fire to the surrounding shrubs to create a smokescreen that would hide their approach.
In the meantime, after fighting for several hours, the defenders had begun to run low on ammunition. The battle culminated when a section of wall caved into the underground tunnel and enemy soldiers took advantage of the breach to over-run the outpost.
Havildar Singh, grievously wounded by this time, displayed a final act of incredible valour and asked his surviving soldiers to retreat to the inner parts of the outpost’s building, while he stayed outside, with two other injured sepoys to face the tribesmen in one-on-one combat. Soon after, all three breathed their last.
By the time, the tribesmen managed to enter the building, only five Sikhs were left alive, including Gurumukh Singh. Engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat, they fought bravely but were completely outnumbered.
As the day transitioned from afternoon to evening, Gurumukh Singh sent the final message from Saragarhi to Fort Lockhart: “Request permission to dismount and join the fight”. And received a prompt reply: “Permission granted.”
Just 19 years, Gurumukh was the youngest among the Sikhs. Single-handedly taking down nearly 20 men with his bayonet, the braveheart went down fighting.
At the end of the seven-hour battle, all 21 Sikhs of Saragarhi had breathed their last. But they had made the most of their ammunition to inflict the maximum casualties on the enemy — over a hundred enemy tribesmen had been killed and the two British forts had been given crucial time to fortify their defences.
Fittingly, the heliograph, the reason why the men had fought to defend Saragarhi, would also be the source of their fame: details of their bravery were heliographed (and then telegraphed) back to Britain and sent ripples across the world.
The then commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army recorded his “admiration of the heroism shown by those gallant soldiers”. The British Parliament halted their session of 1897 mid-way to give the martyrs a standing ovation, with Queen Victoria praising the men and saying:
“It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war. 21 vs 10,000. To the last man, with the last round.”
In an unprecedented gesture at a time when gallantry awards were not given posthumously, the 21 martyrs were awarded the Indian Order of Merit class III, on a par with the Victoria Cross. It was also the only time when an entire unit received the highest gallantry award for the same battle.
Every year, Indian Army’s Sikh regiment (which is also the most decorated regiment of the Indian army) also celebrates September 12 as the Saragarhi Day.
Interestingly, in September 2017, twelve army officers from England visited the Saragarhi memorial to pay tributes to warriors of the famed battle on its anniversary. As many as three films and a TV series are also being made on this battle.
While Akshay Kumar recently revealed the first look from his film Kesari, actor Mohit Raina also shared pictures from upcoming TV series, 21 Sarfarosh: Saragarhi 1897. Ajay Devgan and Randeep Hooda are also working on movies based on the historic 1897 battle, namely Sons of Sardaar: The Battle of Saragarhi, and Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Battle of Saragarhi.