When the dust cleared at the battle of Khidrana, one thing was clear: the Sikh religion had escaped extinction. This was due to the heroics of a ragtag group that came to their defense at the last minute—all of whom, save one, were now dead. That one? A woman named Mai Bhago.
But let’s take a step back and take a look at the history of the Sikhs. You probably know that they’re the men who wear turbans, don’t shave, and consistently get mistaken for Muslims by ignorant morons. Frustrating as that is, jerks attacking them for virtually no reason is something that Sikhs have had to live with for the majority of their religion’s existence. Exhibit A: the Mughal Empire.
The Mughals were tough customers. Their founder, Babar, had quite the lineage himself: descendant of Tamerlane (an Uzbeki warlord known for constructing pyramids out of his enemies’ skulls) on his father’s side and grandson of Genghis Khan on his mother’s. The Mughals carried on and refined this legacy. On the one hand, they did so militaristically, riding elephants into battle, redefining warfare, and expanding the empire until it encompassed all of present-day India and beyond. On the other hand, they also advanced literature, culture, and the arts tremendously. They built the Taj Mahal and giant libraries and had a tremendously multicultural empire. For more info on that, check out Akbar the Great, who—having brought together a huge number of disparate peoples, including the Sikhs, in a surprisingly peaceful, literary, and secular empire, especially for the time—definitely earned the moniker.
Unfortunately, by the time our story begins, the Mughals were being ruled by Aurangzeb, who was neither peaceful nor understanding. He was particularly aggressive toward the Sikhs, partly for religious reasons, and partly because the Sikhs weren’t down with the caste system. In fact, the Sikhs were egalitarian in general and considered women equal to men.
Which brings us to Mai Bhago.
Mai Bhago lived in a peaceful rural town with her parents. She spent a lot of time with her dad, who, during their daddy-daughter hangouts, taught her what any good father should: how to be a devoted Sikh, how to ride a horse, and how to kill anyone who starts a fight with you. All of these skills came in handy just a few years later when the leader of the Sikh, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, founded the Khalsa—the warrior-saints.
You see, the previous guru before Gobind Singh Ji—and there were only ever 10 of these guys total—was executed by Aurangzeb when was only nine years old. Rather than capitulating to Aurangzeb and living a quiet life, the guru ordered his followers to eschew the caste system, forsake their family names, be baptized as warrior-saints, and kick butt for the lord.
Mai Bhago was one of the first to get down on that.
The following years were very difficult on the Sikhs as the Mughals waged nonstop warfare on the guru. As tough as it was on him, it was arguably tougher on his warriors, holed up in fortress after fortress, eventually subsisting on nothing but nuts and leaves. After months of this, 40 of them, with heavy hearts, forsook the religion and left the Khalsa in order to return to their normal lives.
Mai Bhago was not on board with that decision. Upon hearing about the 40 deserters, she rode to every nearby city and convinced all the local women to refuse them hospitality. She even rounded up a group of women to take up arms in the deserters’ place—telling the 40 to either stay behind and look after the children or sack up and fight. Suitably ashamed by this, the 40 deserters had a change of heart.
This happened just in time, because as the 40 (plus Mai Bhago) were riding back to the guru, the Mughals were making another assault on the guru’s stronghold. The size of the army is difficult to determine from historical records, with the only source claiming the Mughals had 10,000 men, which seems a bit ridiculous. In any event, it is agreed that the Sikhs were massively outnumbered.
On December 29, 1705, the 41 Sikhs rushed in to cut off the Mughals anyway. They did several clever things leading up to and during the battle:
They positioned themselves in front of the Khidrana reservoir, the only source of water for miles around, and defended it viciously.
They laid sheets across bushes everywhere, giving the appearance of tents—and then hid nearby, ambushing the Mughals when they started attacking the empty “tents.”
They kicked up a colossal amount of dust, attracting the attention of the retreating guru—who proceeded to unleash an incessant barrage of arrows from a nearby hill upon the Mughals.
Eventually the Mughals, battered and thirsty, withdrew. All 40 of the deserters died in that battle, as did a large number of Mughal soldiers. Mai Bhago was the only Sikh survivor. From there, she became bodyguard to the guru. She outlived him and later died of old age. The Mughal Empire under Aurangzeb’s leadership began a slow decline and petered out over a century later. The Sikh religion continues strong to this day. Mai Bhago’s spear and gun can still be found in Sikh museums, and her house has been converted into a gurudwara (Sikh place of worship).
And lastly: although best known by the name Mai Bhago, technically her name, after she converted to the Khalsa, was Mai Bhag Kaur—Kaur being a surname all female Khalsa take, which roughly translates to “princess.”
- She is depicted here not just wearing the traditional Khalsa clothing, but that of the Nihang, an elite warrior Khalsa sect. This outfit includes a variety of bladed weapons (the Guru was known to have five weapons on him at all times), electric blue robes, steel-wrapped turbans, and steel bangles about the wrist. I am unsure if she was technically Nihang, but for damn sure she had their spirit.
- And yes, she is decapitating that guy. Follow the trail of dust to see the arc of her sword.
- Lastly: the Mughal being beheaded has period-accurate clothing, although his helmet is one of an infantryman and his outfit is that of a cavalryman. I wanted to be able to see his face.