250th Anniversary Of Sindhuli Gadhi Victory How Gorkhalis Thrashed The British
Ritu Raj Subedi
Two-hundred fifty years ago to the day, Nepal had created the bravest history. That day the Gorkhali soldiers had defeated the world’s strongest military power - the British Empire - that had ruled many parts of world. It had tamed Spain, Canada and France, and ruled over India and America. In the second week of November 1767, a 2400-strong East India Company force under captain George Kinloch had a fatal encounter with Gorkhali soldiers at Pauwagadhi of Sindhuli Gadhi located 17-km west of Sindhulimadhi. Pauwagadhi was itself a natural ambush that was strange and unfamiliar to invading British troops composed mostly of inexperienced Indian militia. The tactful guerilla warfare of Gorkhali thwarted the first attempt of Britishers to bring Nepal under its fold thereby removing the biggest external threat to unification campaign. The victory also boosted the morale of American revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine involved in independence war against the British Empire. Paine had mentioned this victory in his political pamphlets.
Nepal’s victory over an advanced army equipped with canons and modern weapons was in itself a miracle. Gorkhalis defeated them with khukuris, swords, khadgas, arrows, slings and stones. The historic win is largely attributed to the founding father of Nepal – Prithvi Narayan Shah - who had masterminded it from his new fort, Kirtipur. The Sindhuli Gahdi war was a do or die for the Gorkha state engaged in the historic mission of unifying the Nepali territory divided into several principalities. The defeat meant losing all newly conquered states and putting a brake on the unification drive. In the first place, PN Shah did not want to fight against the Company. He wanted to talk with the Company officials to justify the blockade on Kantipur and Nepal’s relation with it following the unification. He wrote a letter to Thomas Rumbold, the Company’s head in Patna, stating that the border of Company’s and his state had been adjoined and he wanted to meet him (Rumbold) in person in Patna if his security was guaranteed.
But, the Company government was determined to send its troops to Kantipur to support king Jaya Prakash Malla, who was terrified by the encirclement of his state by expanding Gorkha kingdom. Nuwakot, Makwanpur and Kirtipur had already fallen to Gorkhalis. In a desperate move, Jaya Prakash Malla requested the Company for military enforcement to stop Gorkhalis from taking Kanitupur. The Company had set an evil eye on Nepal apparently for two reasons - it had abundant natural resources, especially forest, and it offered a route to Tibet for commerce and trade. So it leapt at the chance of interfering in Nepal and disregarded PN Shah’s offer for negotiations. It asked him to lift the economic embargo on Kantipur and refrain from attacking it. It warned of considering him as its enemy if he failed to comply with its suggestions. The Company was unlikely to meet its ambition if there were a strong and stable Nepal under PN Shah. It thought that the rising power of Gorkhalis would be nipped in the bud with a small armed detachment so it immediately dispatched its army against Gorkha.
The preparation for war
After sensing that the battle between the Gorkhalis and Company was inevitable, PN Shah had no alternative but to expedite preparations for a looming war with the British Empire. To prepare, oversee and direct the war, he stayed in Kirtipur by entrusting the responsibility of state affairs on prince Pratap Singh Shah in Gorkha. He called up all able commanders to attend in Kirtipur and held extensive consultations on the management of war. They held a unanimous view: Gorkhalis must not lose at any cost.
First of all, he spread the networks of spies in all important nakas (entrances) from Janakpur to Sindhuli after it became certain that the Company’s soldiers would be coming through this route. The Gorkhalis had no problem in strengthening their intelligence in the area. They called paharis from Hariharpur Gadhi where they had been working as spy for the Sen Kings for generations. They were manned in important points. Hanging khurpa around their waist, they looked like Mongols and aggressive nomads. Kinloch had himself encountered with them in the dense forests and had collected a frightening impression about them. In Sindhuli, Champan Singh Thapa was coordinating the spying activities. He supplied all necessary information to PN Shah at lightning speed. The postal services were bolstered to effectively and promptly pass the news about the military activities of Kinloch.
Then, the Gorkhalis moved to hide and empty rations and logistics along the Janakpur-Sindhuli route. They reached Janakpur four days before the arrival of Kinloch’s mission and forced the local residents to hide away their foodstuffs. Terrified by the Gorkhalis, they refused to provide a single grain to the Company men. Rumbold had told Kinloch that he recommended Dandev Chaudhary of Janakpur to arrange foods for the British soldiers. But as his troops arrived in Janakpur, Dandev had disappeared from the scene. He was compelled to keep his soldiers hungry for 32 hours as he led them to Karkare of Sindhuli from Janakpur. He had already committed a blunder by not arranging the foodstuffs for his men. The captain had himself suffered from starvation and had to ask a soldier for food as he wrote in his diary: “…..So we had nothing to eat or sleep on, having now fast above 30 hours I found myself extremely hungry and begged a little rice of one of the sepoys…” – Expedition to Nepal Valley, The Journal of Captain Kinloch (Raj Yogesh).
He had a hope of collecting rations in Sindhuli bazaar but when he landed there, he saw the entire market had been vacated. He neither found local people nor the foodstuff. He naively thought that the Gorkhalis might have fled the scene for fear of English troops. This was another miscalculation of the situation. The Gorkhalis had already relocated the entire settlement to another site so that the Company men did not get any support from the locals.
After depriving the enemy soldiers of essential food, PN Shah left no stone unturned to ensure good logistics and food arrangement for Gorkhalis. They were instructed to carry light and portable food items that help them sustain for longer time in a difficult topography. They were given satu (powder of fried cereals) khatte (fried rice), sakhkhar (brown sugar) and malpuwa (a kind of sweet food). PN Shah was a devotee of Manakamana Devi so he had himself established a temple of Bhadrakali, sister of Manakamana, on the top of a hill at Dhungresbas, seeking a blessing from his homeland deity to get victory in the war.
Deployment of war commanders
The Gorkhalis were going to fight against the enemies that were far superior to them in terms of resources, number and training. So PN Shah had adopted shrewd and successful strategy to give them a bloody nose. He deployed the ablest commanders, including Khajanchi Birbhadra Upaadhyaa (Sapkota), hunting officer Bansu Gurung, Kazi Bansaraj Pandey and Shreeharsha Pantha. Kazi Bansaraj Pandey was the son of Kalu Pandey. He had proved his warfare skill and bravery in a battle against Makawanpur. Shreeharsha Pantha had brought the invincible Kirtipur fort into the hands of Gorkhali with his sword.
Birbhadra and Bansu Gurung were assigned to watch at Pauwagadhi with 500 soldiers. A battalion of 700 soldiers under Bansaraj Pandey and Shreeharsha Pantha was dispatched to Sindhuli by the end of April. They took command at Dhungresbas. Likewise, 300 troops were sent to Hariharpur Gadhi in Makawanpur for defensive battle in view of Kinloch’s initial plan to enter Kathmandu via Bagmati Riverline-Hariharpur Gadhi-Panauti.
The scene of battle and victory
Kinloch’s troops, who were hungry, exhausted and struck down by malaria, arrived at Sindhulimadhi in the second week of November, 1767. The military expedition put up at the deserted Sindhulimadhi that night. Next morning, they embarked for Khurkot. They began to climb 5-km high steep hill of Siureni to reach Pauwagadhi. Dhungrebhanjyang is located at a distance of 3.5-km from the Siureni hill. With 500 soldiers, Bansu Gurung was lying in wait to hit the enemies from back there. Pauwagadhi is 1-km away from Dhungrebhanjyang. Surrounded by difficult slopes from two sides, Pauwagadhi can be reached only through a narrow gorge. There Shreeharsha Pantha and Khajanchi Birbhada Upaadhyaa were hiding with 700 soldiers to strike the enemies on their heads. Both sides of the trail were covered by allo (girardinia diversifolia) and nettles. The hives of hornets and wasps were hanging from the trees.
British officer Hardy was on the front, with the Indian porters walking behind him. They were being followed by the Indian and Company battalions. As Hardy’s troops touched Pauwagadhi, Gorkhalis let the innocent Indian porters pass ahead and all of a sudden pounced on Hardy. Immediately after the breakout of war, the troops of Bansu Gurung attacked from the rear. Facing the assault out of the blue, the British soldiers panicked to such an extent that they threw their guns and jumped into the ravine to save their hide. Wounded by the stings of allo, nettles and hornets, the Company troops were dispersed and ran away. Gorkhalis followed and slew them while many others were killed by rolling stones from above. Crestfallen, Hardy cried, “phiro,” “phiro” and took a hasty retreat. Over 1,600 Company soldiers breathed their last in the desolate forest and hostile hill. Gorkhali soldiers also suffered heavy casualties. Kinloch abandoned his expedition and headed towards Hariharpur Gadhi, leading the remaining 800 wounded soldiers in an attempt to enter Kathmandu from that route.
However, Kinloch has offered a slightly different version of the battle. He said that the Company lost war to Gorkhalis at Solabhanjyang. It had captured Sindhuli Gadhi in the third attempt but met an unimaginable defeat at an entry point of Khurkot, according to him.
“King Prithivi Narayan Shah devised a plan to lure the enemies up to a certain point, trap them and then destroy them,” said Dr Prem Singh Basnyat, former Nepal Army Colonel.
In derelict state
The historic Sindhuli Gadhi site that lies 150-km east from Kathmandu has been reduced to a derelict condition with many of its artifacts and stone inscriptions stolen and lost, thanks to an utter lack of sense of history and degeneration in political leadership. When this scribe visited the site few months ago, he found it in disarray. Inside a well on the top of the fort, weeds were growing and litter was dropped into it. The loose walls of stone slates from the time of battle days stood there. They need immediate renovation and repair.
“We are going to draw out a master plan to preserve the historic battle field and develop it into a modern tourist spot,” Khadga Bahadur Khatri, mayor of Kamalamai Municipality, told The Rising Nepal. The municipality is conducting an array of activities for two weeks to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Sindhuli Gadhi battle victory on Kartik 24. President Bidya Devi Bhandari is scheduled to hoist the national flag at the historic site. Chief of the Army Staff Rajendra Chhetri is also attending the function with active participation of Bahini No 9 of NA. It is worth mentioning that Khajanchi Upaadhyaa was the ancestor of present Chetri
Sambridha Sindhuli Abhiyan is organising a cycling journey entitled ‘Ride to Sindhuli Gadhi’ from Kathmandu to Sindhuli. “We want to revive our valorous history and inform the new generation about how our brave ancestors fought for independence and dignity of the nation,” said Deepak Shrestha, who is involved in the ‘Ride to Sidhuli Gadhi’ campaign.