Behold we are the Kaurs: Tracing the Emergence of Sikh Women’s Agency as Warriors in the Eighteenth Century

Simran Dhingra is pursuing a Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Peace Building from Jamia Millia Islamia, India. She has interned at the United Nations Global Compact Network and National Human Rights Commission, India. An avid reader, she constantly seeks to understand the world around her and challenge the preexisting knowledge, beliefs concerning prominent socio-cultural issues in society. As a budding researcher her main areas of interest are women’s writing, postcolonial literature and memory studies.


Sikhism, one of the youngest religions in the world, and founded in Punjab, ‘the land of five rivers’, is renowned for propagating revolutionary ideals, perseverance and commitment towards serving humanity. However the Sikhs remain one of the most persecuted communities in the world. Since their religion’s inception, Sikhs have had to fight for their survival, resist atrocities, preserve their identity and right to practice their faith. Contemporary scholarship has widely believed that women during the World War were the first ones to actively participate in war.[1] Yet, much before that, in the eighteenth century, Sikh women were actively taking up combatant roles in a quest to save their faith and land from occupation by the Mughals and Hindu chiefs. Even in contemporary times, as the Farmers protests in India are gaining momentum, Sikh women are at the forefront of the fight to have the unfavourable new farm laws repelled.[2]

Mai Bhago, believed to be the first Sikh warrior woman, led the Sikh troops in a battle against Mughals, fiercely defending her faith.[3] She was born in Jhabal village, in present day Amritsar in Punjab, to a Sikh family. She was married and lived in Patti village. From a young age she was inspired by the teachings of the Sikh gurus and longed to join the Sikh army and learn the Gatkha, or Sikh warfare. Her gender obstructed her from seeking formal training, but her zeal and commitment convinced her father to train her in warfare and horse riding. In 1704, the Mughals and hill chiefs had surrounded and sieged Anandpur, the sacred city of Sikhs, and demanded it to be evacuated.[4] They warned of dire consequences and announced that if any Sikh declared that they were not a Sikh of Guru Gobind Singh anymore, their life would be spared. Fear had seeped in some of the Sikh soldiers’ minds; they were aware that their army was severely outnumbered and they had low chances of victory against the Mughals. Consequently, a group of forty Sikh soldiers agreed to comply with the Mughals’ orders and informed Guru Gobind Singh of their decision to denounce Sikhism, his leadership and return to their villages.

Mai Bhago was distressed to hear about the Sikh soldiers from her neighbourhood deserting their revered Guru in adverse conditions. She used her exceptional organisational skills against all odds and mobilized the villagers and wives of the soldiers to not accept the traitors back in the village. Her powerful speech, call to arms and even taunts, made the deserters remorseful over their cowardly act. She put on battle armour and was determined to take forward the brave pursuit of maintaining Sikh rule, single handedly. Thereafter, the Sikh soldiers repented their betrayal and Mai Bhago rallied them to the battlefield. They fought furiously and challenged the pursuing host, forcing them to retreat and accept defeat. Guru Gobind Singh and an injured Mai Bhago were the sole survivors of this fierce battle for safeguarding the beliefs and rights of Sikh community. Guru Gobind Singh forgave and blessed the forty martyrs as the Forty Liberated Ones. The place was later renamed Muktasar (meaning The Pool of Liberation.) Mai Bhago, who had lost her own husband and brother in the battle, did not wish to return to her village. Instead she expressed her desire to become a saint-soldier and serve Sikhism. Her request was granted and she joined the Guru as a member of his bodyguards. Bhago remains an emblem of courage, persistence and gallantry. Her life story is a key milestone in the history of Sikh resistance and continues to inspire millions of Sikh women. Bibi Sahib Kaur and Rani Sada Kaur are the royal Sikh women warriors who stood shoulder to shoulder with their ruling male relatives, playing a prominent role in administration and defending their state against the Marathas, Mughals and British. They were empowered, ambitious women who fought to restore and reestablish their ancestral legacy. They mobilized and encouraged thousands of Kaurs (Sikh women) to take up combatant roles in the battles alongside Sikh men.

It is crucial to remember that these were the times when women were inculcated with values of sacrifice and ‘jauhar’ (self-immolation), with widespread stories of Rajput women committing themselves to Sati, to protect their honour from the enemies when the Rajput men had perished on the battlefield[5]. The Kaurs faced a similar predicament but instead of Sati they chose to fight till the end. They proclaimed they were Singhanis (lionesses); they chose to challenge the enemy and die on the battlefield with dignity. They echoed, “we too have partaken the amrit from our Guru and the moment to prove it has come upon us.” With this they took up arms, held their positions at the fort and faced the enemies. A baffled Mughal governor who witnessed the battle stated: “where women are instilled with such spirit to fight, no force in the world could ever succeed in defeating the tribe.”[6] 

Sikhism is often regarded as the first religion to provide equal status to men and women.[7] Sikh women have a glorious history of battling patriarchy, resisting gender stereotypes and accelerating radical transformations by taking up leadership roles. Sikh women have fought, ruled, guided communities, managed organisations and led revolts for centuries. Chronicles of these warriors present an opportunity for exploring gender inclusivity in Sikhism. Over the years patriarchy has concealed the inspiring accounts of these warrior women and ensured that they remain ousted from the larger Sikh narratives. Sikhism today is varyingly different and Sikh women possess limited agency, with them being policed for every life choice. We need to revisit the history to examine the agency that they exercised and the space that these ordinary women with extraordinary valour occupied, in order to challenge the existing gender norms.

[1] Pruitt, Sarah. “Women in WWII Took on These Dangerous Military Jobs.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, February 25, 2021. https://www.history.com/news/women-wwii-military-combat-front-lines.

[2] Siddiqui, Danish, and Zeba Siddiqui. “Thousands of Women Join Indian Farmers’ Protests against New Laws.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, March 8, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-farms-protests-idUSKBN2B00KQ.

[3] “Mai Bhago.” Gateway to Sikhism, February 8, 2021. https://www.allaboutsikhs.com/biographies/great-sikh-women/mai-bhago/.

[4] “History of Sri Muktsar Sahib.” History of Sri Muktsar Sahib | District Sri Muktsar Sahib, GOVERNMENT OF PUNJAB | India. Accessed May 5, 2021. https://muktsar.nic.in/history/.

[5] Narasimhan, Sakuntala. Sati: Widow Burning in India. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

[6] Singh, Harjit. The Warrior Princess 2: Sikh Women in Battle: the Moving Story of Guru Gobind Singh through the Eyes of Four Saintly Sikh Warrior Women. India: http://www.sikh-heroes.com, 2003.

[7] Kaur, Surinder. “EQUALITY OF WOMEN IN SIKH IDEOLOGY.” JOURNAL OF SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH 6, no. 2 (2014): 1000–1003. https://doi.org/10.24297/jssr.v6i2.3468.


Bibliography

Aneja, Gagan. Great Sikh Women. Bridgewater, NJ: Unistar, 2007.

Singh, Pashaura, and Louis E. Fenech. The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

“Bibi Sahib Kaur.” Gateway to Sikhism, February 7, 2021. https://www.allaboutsikhs.com/biographies/great-sikh-women/bibi-sahib-kaur/.

“Rani Sada Kaur.” Gateway to Sikhism, February 8, 2021. https://www.allaboutsikhs.com/biographies/great-sikh-women/rani-sada-kaur/.

Wani, Aasif Rashid. “Role and Status of Women in Sikh Religion through Sri Guru Nanak Perspectives.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3607960. 

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