Two Entries in a Ledger

How a Mughal siege relates to a Navajo ambush

Narbona Pass in New Mexico, USA. © DILIP D’SOUZA
Narbona Pass in New Mexico, USA. © DILIP D’SOUZA
01 February, 2010

AT THE GOVERNMENT REST HOUSE in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, where my family and I were ensconced in the VIP room, I went in search of the attendant. “I need a couple towels,” I told him. Helpful until then, he looked puzzled by this unexpected demand. But helpful nevertheless, he led me down the corridor to a locked room, opened it and pointed a crooked finger at a large dusty wooden trunk in the corner. Following his finger, we walked over, he opened it, and pulled out a piece of cloth that may once have been white, may once have been a towel.

“It’s the only towel we have,” he said, “and the other attendant is using it right now. If you don’t mind, you can use it too.”

I spluttered, declined politely and returned to our room towel-less. Such is the treatment, I reflected yet again, that VIP room occupants are subjected to in such establishments. For I have been in government rest house VIP rooms before, and if not towels in use by someone else—this is a new one, for sure—I’ve contended with bare, live electric leads in wet bathrooms, unidentifiable but definitely not human objects strolling around the toilet, and walls painted red with paan-spit. Tonight in Burhanpur, we’ll just find some other way to towel ourselves dry. Towards that end, the bedsheets look tempting. At least they have been used, so far, only by us.

Still, to be fair to him, the same attendant produced a sumptuous breakfast for us the next morning, scrambled eggs and parathas, and was solicitous about our comforts all through our stay. So when we got on the road again, headed for the centre of Madhya Pradesh—effectively the centre of India—we were rested, sated and satisfied. Clean too, though just in case the Government of Madhya Pradesh chooses to come after us for misuse of Government property, I’m not telling what we did in fact use to towel ourselves dry.

The winding road north from Burhanpur to Khandwa rises and falls gently, and just minutes out of town, starts offering peekaboo views of a curious hilltop. It’s wide and flat. Faintly mysterious on this faintly foggy October morning. Is it just an extended ridge? What, then, is that rocky spire that rises from the middle, no make that two spires? Make that two minarets as we get closer, and by now it’s clear, this is no ridge. This is a fort, high and imposing above us as we curve around the bends. At one point the view is so arresting that I stop the car, get out and shoot some pictures. What is this place anyway?

A fork to the right, and a sign announces ‘Asirgarh, 5 km.’ It takes us just seconds to decide. We’ve made an early start, we’ve got the whole day to reach where we have to, and when are we next going to get to these parts? We swerve off the highway and drive up to a young woman drawing water from a hand-pump; beyond her, the road is blocked with one of those barriers, a long bamboo pole that needs to be raised. She regards us curiously; perhaps not too many cars come this way? Isn’t this the road to the fort, we ask her, and if so, who will lift the barrier? Silently, she points at a dirt track behind us that we had ignored. That way? You’re sure? She nods.

That way begins as a litter-strewn path through a small village, then quickly starts climbing and simultaneously deteriorating into what, five kilometres on, is a mere rocky ledge carved from the hill. As we climb, the views of the Madhya Pradesh plains are apparently magnificent. Apparently, because for that opinion I have to rely on the shouts of wonder from the family. Me, I’m focusing on the view through our windshield, which after one hairpin bend in particular is not encouraging at all. Will our little red Indica, veteran of drives to many other parts of the country, be able to get us over the rocks ahead without breaking an axle or worse?

Yet it’s that very dilemma, once we’ve negotiated the rocks at bullock-cart speed, that gets me thinking about the virtues of this site for a fort. In its heyday, as now and long before the appearance of Indicas, this must have been a hard redoubt to even approach.

Visitors of nefarious intent would have been spotted well in time creeping along the plain. Even if they did reach the foot unobserved, struggling up this hill must have been a serious challenge. And that’s, like us right now, even before arriving at the entrance to the fort itself. What armed defenders lay in wait there?

For us, there are no armed defenders. Though there are, as if to mock my earlier metaphor, two carefully parallel-parked bullock-carts. There is also a band of Malayalam-speaking nuns visiting from Khandwa. In brown and white habits with black wimples, they descend the stone stairs that spill from the fort entrance as we approach from below. While they do smile benignly, their fearless leader is a squat lady in white carrying a long and dangerous-looking stick. While they chat all friendly-like, she stands there with fist on hip, stick braced for action.

But wait. I know that forts like Asirgarh across India have seen fierce fighting in their time. But is that history actually colouring how I react to this altogether harmless nun? Fearless leader with a dangerous stick indeed—I’m letting this fort get into my head.

Asirgarh is in the Satpura range, 250 metres above sea level. While there are legends connecting it to figures from the Mahabharata, what’s known for sure is that it was a stronghold of the rulers of Khandesh, the middle-Indian kingdom with Burhanpur as capital, at the heart of Khandesh’s brief struggle against the Mughal Empire. It was strategically significant because it overlooks a pass through the mountains, and thus was considered a gateway to southern India. If the Mughals hoped to subjugate sovereigns in the south and dominate the subcontinent, they had to first win Khandesh. They had to first capture Asirgarh.

In 1577, the Mughal emperor Akbar sent a military expedition to Khandesh. I imagine Adil Shah IV, king of Khandesh then, considering his options. He could not hope to win an all-out war against the much stronger Mughal force. “It is the business of a general to be serene and inscrutable,” advises the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, and I like to think it was such serenity that persuaded Adil that new in-laws were the better part of valour. Instead of war, he married his daughter to Akbar’s son Salim, later the Emperor Jehangir. That tied knot made Khandesh part of the Mughal Empire.

But not for long. Adil Shah’s successor, Bahadur Shah, had little use for links crafted through wedlock. In 1596, he rebelled against Mughal rule, angering Akbar. The powerful but now aging monarch marched south to subjugate Khandesh by force. Bahadur Shah took refuge in Asirgarh and made preparations for war. Akbar occupied Burhanpur—no word if he had towel troubles as we would, four centuries later—and laid siege to Asirgarh. The campaign dragged on for nearly a year, which is hardly surprising when you consider the setting of the fort even today. A contemporary account explains the denouement, in early 1601, with these enigmatic, even Machiavellian words: “Akbar, unable to storm the place, gained possession of it by bribery.”

No word on what form that bribery took. But clearly, not even a great Emperor was above a degree of trickery. On the other hand, perhaps that’s some of what made him great. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli – I suspect both would approve of the machinations on either side in the Khandesh campaign.

In any case, Khandesh was now Akbar’s again. But the wearying siege of Asirgarh was the end of the man, militarily. He never got any further south. Spent, he and his army returned to Agra. Four years later, this greatest of Mughal emperors was dead.

This is the history we step into, in Asirgarh. While the details are hazy in my mind, the outline of what happened in those turbulent years is the stuff of countless school lessons: the defence of passes, small forces that hold out against superior ones, intricate politics, and of course, trickery and subterfuge. Thermopylae, the Khyber Pass, Asirgarh, even the Trojan Horse—all entries in a ledger that stretches back centuries.

And it’s probably the Madhya Pradesh landscape that first reminds me of another entry in that ledger, from a younger country on the other side of the world. In another rocky place where hills rise suddenly from dusty plains, a place where ‘Indian’ means something quite different from what it implies in Asirgarh—and a place that has seen bitter warfare as well.

In New Mexico, USA, on New Year’s Day 2008, I drove out of a town called Gallup and into the vast territory of the Navajo. This is the area known as Four Corners, because four states—Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah—actually meet at one point. The Navajo Nation, an American Indian reservation, straddles those states. This is land pregnant with history and stirring tales, no less so than Khandesh.

As I found out, some of that history in New Mexico is also geological.

My dinner companion in Gallup, Larry Larason, is a self-taught geologist with an abiding interest in the rock formations of the Four Corners area, as well as its more human history. On his website, he describes himself like so: “I am not a professional geologist, historian or archaeologist. I am an interested amateur.”

But he’s an erudite amateur. On his website too, you will find Larry’s road logs of the area. Despite his self-deprecation, they are delightful travel accessories I recommend you take along if you ever wander there. That New Year’s Day, I had with me his log for the drive north from Gallup. At one point, it led me off the highway, swinging left from the town of Sheep Springs onto a smaller road that twists gently over the hills to Narbona Pass. Ignorant of the history of these parts, I would have paid little attention to the name had it not been for Larry’s words. But when I read them and learned about Narbona, I knew I had to stop and spend a while thinking about the man.

Narbona was a revered Navajo leader of the early 19th century. Over many years, he led his people in battles against other Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans who, in turn, coveted this land. In 1835, aged 68, he brought a band of 200 warriors to the pass now named for him, to where I stood in the January chill, trying to imagine – much as I did in Asirgarh later – what those men were doing, what they saw, what they lay in wait for, nearly two centuries ago.

According to Larry’s log, the area has ‘coaly looking hills which are composed of strata of the Kirtland-Fruitland Formations. These rocks were laid down during the upper Cretaceous as the continental sea retreated and the rising San Juan Dome began eroding into the basin.’ On the ground, those words translate to large rocks. Much like Bahadur Shah’s soldiers lay in wait for Akbar’s much larger army, using Asirgarh’s geography to redress the power balance, Narbona’s 200 were waiting for a Mexican formation of 1,000 soldiers that was on its way to attack the Navajos. The rocks in the pass offered plenty of cover to Narbona’s silent men.

The Mexicans strolled right into the ambush. The hail of Navajo arrows accurately picked off the leaders of the Mexicans first, then accounted for many of the others. Victory came swiftly to the small Navajo band. Narbona commended his young firebrands for their skill and courage, but reminded them that fighting was not the way Navajos wanted to live. This victory, he hoped, would teach Mexicans and others who came to these lands that they had to respect the rights of the Navajo people. He hoped it would allow them to live in peace.

But in those times, there was no place for such sentiment. It was a great victory Narbona won at the pass, but the battles with the Mexicans only continued. In 1846, the territory went over to the Americans, and they too clashed with the Navajos.

On 31 August 1849, Narbona—now 83 years old—led a few hundred warriors to a spot a few miles north of the pass, for a treaty negotiation with the Americans, led by a Lt Col James Washington. When the talks were done, the Navajo men returned to their horses to begin the journey home. But like Akbar before him, Washington had perhaps tired of years of battle and chose trickery to settle matters. One of his men shouted that the Navajos had stolen his horse. With that as pretext, Washington ordered his men to open fire at the departing Navajos. Narbona was hit in the back. Thus did an esteemed elder statesman and astute general die, victim to petty chicanery.

After Narbona’s death, the government named the pass where he had routed the Mexicans in 1835. But not after him. They called it ‘Washington Pass.’ Yes, for the man who dreamed up the duplicitous murder of Narbona. Imagine India’s revered Jallianwalla Bagh named for the man who ordered the shooting that left hundreds dead there in 1919; imagine that spot known to the world as ‘Dyer Park.’ The thought itself makes my flesh crawl.

In the same way, and especially for this rocky place in the middle of this sprawling Indian reservation, Washington Pass must have been a bone constantly sticking in the throats of the people here. Oddly, after Asirgarh I found myself almost wishing that it too had been similarly misnamed (Akbargarh?). At least then it might not be the semi-forgotten spot it is today, and we might know its vivid history.

It took a 1992 petition by the students of nearby Diné College to change the name of Washington Pass. Nearly a century and a half, but now, and finally, it commemorates the hero who fought the Navajo’s enemies so valiantly in this desolate land.

Looking around at upper Cretaceous rocks in Narbona Pass, images from this vivid history drifted through my mind like a flickering TV set. Nearly two years later, I walk up the broad stone stairs in Asirgarh with Narbona and Akbar, Bahadur Shah and Washington, all now forever connected in my mind. Treachery and valour, strategy and death: those ancient elements of war, underlined in these two passes.

Asirgarh’s minarets flank a mosque, the hall defined by pillars and elegant arches that come to a point overhead. The kids run riot through them, luckily stopping just before they fall over the edge to the plains far below. Panels on the walls have finely etched Urdu calligraphy, illegible to me but sensuous in their intricate dots and curves. We find our way to the base of one of the spires, then make our way up.

This involves negotiating a steep spiral staircase that is wide enough for just one person at a time and, despite the bright sunshine, it is completely dark. I climb with the thought of muezzins past who must have glided up these steps to call to the faithful. But when we get to the top and gasp at the view that stretches for miles around, it strikes me that Bahadur Shah must have had lookouts posted in these crow’s nests to keep an eye on Akbar’s besieging forces. Are those long-ago footsteps I imagine I hear, maybe a fit young man descending urgently to report some particularly suspicious movement from the plains? Or is it just the wind, gusting through small holes in the walls?

A couple of hours later, we stop for an excellent dal-fry and roti lunch at a roadside dhaba. Fiery stuff, but just what the doctor ordered for the hungry family. For our appetites are whetted by our Asirgarh exertions. Too, our heads are whirling from the whiffs of long ago calls to arms on those heights, of ancient wheeling and dealing. And it’s a warm day, so we are sweaty from our exertions. To go with this food that’s finger-licking good, a shower would be excellent.

Then again, we still don’t have any towels.