Pakhtun Resistance At Nowshera: Ranjit Singh's Costly Victory

Pakhtun Resistance At Nowshera: Ranjit Singh's Costly Victory
A Pakhtun poet named Mawezi in the poem below describes Azim Khan’s messenger’s arrival at Peshawar and imploring people to rise to the cause of defending their land, to wage a defensive jihad. “Chaharbeiti is very much poetry of the people, passed down over the centuries, but always open to adaption and fresh input. These verses are full of emotion […] Poetry is a very important part of Afghan life, often being quoted in everyday conversation. Sung poetry has great emotional power[…] Chaharbeiti is more of a folk form, essentially created and sung by non-literate people…often concerned with sadness at separation from beloved people or places” (I cried on the mountain top, Veronica Doubleday, 2010).

With the arrival of the King’s messenger, the Yousufzai exclaimed”

“Go to Nowshera for ‘jihad’ and sacrifice thy life”

The King’s messenger, sent by Azim Khan

Called a ‘jirga’ of the mullahs and ‘maliks’


He promised provision of ordnance and expense of war.

The inspiring words of the messenger roused them

The messengers’ sweet words had won over the Yousufzi

People joined the ‘jihad’ in groups, without rest.


As if their house were in fire, a catastrophe had befallen them.

After prayers for success, and trust in God, they proceeded like a flood.

Amongst these God believers, were thousands of the Akozi

Along the riverbank came their elders, steadfast like a rock


Harnessed in armour and silken turbans on their heads.

So eye catching that the kings could not find words in their praise.

So graceful that I shall eulogise them for years

 The were roses that had been withered by the autumn, loved by their mothers and sisters, nature lured them to meet their end.

 They grew up to meet their end on the battlefield.


The Ashirzi fought well and met their fate on the battlefield.

The Salarzi were fortunate, they also got their martyrdom on the battlefield.

The brave Gadzi are not the one to turn their face from the enemy.

O God! When did the Khadin Khel shirk from the fight?


If pestered the Nurizi are like a phantom.

They are the warriors when they are in the battlefield.

On hearing their name the Sikhs used to flee.

The reputation of their marksmanship overawed Ranjit Singh


While fighting on the battlefield Pir Khan attained martyrdom

Along with their men Faiz Talib and Lataf Khan were martyred.

With the martyrdom of his other sons Sarwar Khan became issueless

The Ismailzai with their chief mullah, were martyred.


The prolonged battle was fought with gallantry

 On their martyrdom the angels in the sky also wept.

The earth and the angels on the sky lament

A generation has been destroyed and Akhund Khels imprisoned.


Hazrat Din’s father laments.

His whole family has been annihilated.

The beds are empty

The mothers and sisters are bewailing

The big turbans have been buried in the ground to eulogise their martyrdom Mawezai is emotional like red-hot steel


Bravado! The Yousufzai have sacrificed their lives.

With them all the Pirs, mullahs, and Sahibzadas have disappeared.

The infidels would be in hell and the ‘Ghazis’ in Paradise.

 Each verse of Mawezai is valuable like a pearl

(quoted on page100-101 Volume 2 of History of the Pathans by Haroon Rashid)

In 1823, Ranjit Singh demanded tribute from the Peshawar Sirdar Yar Mohammed who responded by sending some horses to the Sikh. Azim Khan, Yar’s older brother disproved and moved down to Peshawar in January 1823. Azim gave speeches in Peshawar, motivating the people for Jihad and they rose to the call to defend their faith. Azim Khan sent his brother Samandad khan to the Yusufzai villages to mobilise people for jihad. On 14 March 1823, the tribes fought against the Sikhs at Pir Sabaq, Nowshera under the command of Akbar Shah of Sitana.

On the 13th of March, Sikh forces had crossed the Indus and the next day arrived at Akora Khattak. The Sikhs now advanced to Nowshera to clash with a Pakhtun tribal force of 4,000 men under Sayid Akbar Shah son of Pir Baba of Buner on. The Pakhtun reserve force was a mile west at the Tarakai hills.

The battle commenced on 14 March 1823 with a furious charge by the Sikhs. But the Pakhtun muskets and stones that rained down on them from the heights, soon evaporated the Sikh passion for battle. The Yusufzai and Khattaks descended from the Pir Sabak hill, slaughtering the invading Sikh infantry.

Amidst this battle, the Sikh leader Sat Gur Sahae was fatally shot in the head and the other Sikh leader Maha Singh fell to a Pakhtun sword. Looking upon this astounding defeat, Phula Singh, a Sikh desperado who had the reputation for launching headlong attacks against the enemy to succeed against the odds, “made a furious charge with some horsemen as fanatical as himself. But the Mussalman infantry were equally fired with religious zeal and fervour, and were, moreover, advantageously posted. They rushed upon their assailants with such determination and fury that the latter were completely routed and their leader slain” (page 429 of History of the Punjab, Latif, 1891).

Only the Gurkhas held firm, forming a square, firing into the gallant Pakhtuns and then from across the river Ranjit’s artillery poured fire down on those brave men. Victory was snatched from the Pakhtuns by these Gurkha mercenaries. Ranjit Singh was forced to call for reinforcements and the Pakhtuns resisted firmly upon the Pir Sabak hillock with defensive sangers atop them. The Sikh cavalry surrounded the Pakhtuns with a view to killing any who retreated through their surrounding lines. Ranjit’s rifle regiment and Gurkhas moved forward to wipe out the Pakhtuns. Twice the enemy advanced and tried to defeat the Pakhtuns, but “twice were they repulsed by the determined body.” (page 138 of Origin of the Sikh Power in the Punjab, Prinsep, 1834).

The Sikhs tried a third time. But they were not to be third-time lucky as the fight continued unabated, but the best of Ranjit’s men had already failed to defeat the Pakthuns. The Sikh artillery meanwhile continued raining shell upon shell on these brave men from the other side of the river. Azim Khan Durrani was also on the other side of the river from the Pir Sabak Hill with his cavalry force, but did not move to silence the Sikh guns. The evening was drawing to a close as the sun finally set and so did Ranjit’s hope of outright victory, but Azim Khan now retreated with his cavalry force without fighting the Sikhs.

As the Maghrib Azan sounded tauntingly in his ears, there was nothing left for Ranjit but to stake his life and charge with his Gurkhas and those of his surviving bodyguard at the Pir Sabak hill held by the undefeated Pakhtuns. Ranjit was forced into combat to do what his commanders could not.

It was the Gurkha mercenaries who carried the day to seize the Pakhtun position, according to Ranjit Singh himself (page 217, The Pathans, Caroe, 1957), but night had fallen bringing a dark curtain of death down on the day’s proceedings. Ranjit would be sorely disappointed however since he did not have his pound of Pakhtun flesh. The Pakhtuns used the cover of darkness to retreat by cutting their way to freedom through the occupying Sikh force.

The Sikh and the Pakhtun had fought, and the Sikh had definitely been found wanting since man for man the Pakhtun was the far better warrior. Those brave Yusufzai and Khattak Pakhtun farmers that fell to stem the tide of the enemy advance lie in the graveyards south of the Tarakai hills. Heroes who stood tall against an expansionist empire: proud sons of a land that should learn from the brave sacrifices of these wonderful young men who gave their all fighting to live in a land free from oppression.

The Pakhtuns at Pir Sabak, Nowshera, had only been about 4,000 strong (page 137, Origins of the Sikh power in the Punjab, Prinsep, 1834) – ordinary men from villages who came down from their homes to the plains to stop the Sikh invaders. Men who came to ensure that their families would not fall prey to the jackals who beset their lands. The number of the Sikh soldiers was nearly six-fold that of the Pakhtuns at 24,000 trained soldiers. Yet these brave young Pakthun men, though they were not from disciplined units of an army but just simple farmers, held back the cream of Ranjit’s forces. Ranjit was frustrated as he threw the best of all he had at these plucky defenders. For one whole day Ranjit sweated as he watched his carefully trained soldiers turn into vulture meat. Over 1,000 of his troops would not live to boast about the supposed victory at Nowshera. Four of Ranjit’s ‘teeth’ were smashed in the form of his high-ranking officers who met their doom, amongst whom were Phoola Singh Akali, Ghurba Singh, Kurum Singh and Bulbahadar Singh Gurkhali. Gurkhali was a brave commander who had defended Nepal against the British invasion. However, the Pakhtuns destroyed the hopes of this Khukri-wielding mercenary who would not live to rue the day that he entered the land of the Pakhtuns.

Ranjit’s force of 24,000 could not quell a small band of Pakhtun Yusufzai and Khattak Muslims.

Azim Khan Barakzai had watched the battle with his Durrani cavalry from the other side of the river. He could have turned the tables on Ranjit, if he had advanced to join the fray to assist the Pakhtun force, but instead he retreated. Azim had been fooled by a rumour spread by the Sikhs that his harem and treasure was about to be captured. Azim Khan left the battlefield without engaging his cavalry against the Sikhs. He had encouraged a battle that he was not brave enough to participate in. The cause of war was forgotten, and Azim turned tail, leaving the Pakhtuns to fight bravely as lesser men made their way back to Persianate Kabul Jan. 3,000 Pakhtuns were martyred against an estimated 2,000 Sikh deaths. Those whose great, great, great grandfathers were martyred on that day remember too well the sacrifices they and their families paid to liberate the land from imperialism as their loved ones repose in graves on the ground that they refused to retreat from.

Two months later, the burden of shame would be too much for Azim Khan, who would be no more. What account of his actions could Azim possibly give to his Creator for his failure to uphold the cause of the Muslims? Azim’s son Habibullah would be deprived of ruling Kabul by his dear uncle Dost Mohammed Khan. Dost Mohammed Khan, ever the gentleman would issue orders for Habibullah’s sisters, his very own nieces to be ravished. These poor young women were unable to live with the shame and had encouraged their brother Habibullah to kill them. Dost Mohammed Khan would finish off the last child of Azim Khan, Habibullah, so that no seed of Azim Khan would live on to posterity.

With the death in 1823 of Azim Khan, the Kingdom of Kabul came to an end with the emergence of city states run by the Barakzai brothers at Kandahar and Peshawar, with Dost Mohammed holding Ghazni, Jalalabad and Kabul. The Kingdom of Kabul or the Durrani Empire no longer existed as lesser mortals held power in the land of Afghans.

After the battle of Pir Sabaq, the path was clear to Peshawar. Nowshera was destroyed by the Sikhs, who also attacked Swabi, butchering the people and destroying mosques which they set alight. Other towns and villages enroute suffered the same fate as people took to the hills and woods to save themselves from this Mongol-like merciless onslaught of barbarity. As the women who had fled to the safety of the hills returned to Swabi to find the corpses of their menfolk who had stayed to defend their homes, they covered them with their white shawls. The white shawls were stained with red spots of blood from the wounds inflicted upon the men. This gave birth to the Swabi shawl which is distinct to the region, bearing red circles against a white surface so as to pay homage to the sacrifice and loss of the men of Swabi who did not run from a tyrant’s army.

On 17 March 1823, the one eyed Ranjit Singh as an unwelcome intruder advanced into Peshawar, heralding destruction and death, symbolising the sheer ineptitude of the Barakzai Durrani ruling clan. How many brave Muslims were tortured and died on that day as the Khalsa celebrated their victory with bloodshed and fire! The gardens with beautiful cypress trees of the Shah Bagh were cut down for firewood and the fruit bushes and mulberry trees are no more. Peshawar, a civilised city of beautiful Mughal mosques and gardens nurtured by artistic hands, was scarred by this experience of barbarity swooping upon her.

The writer is the author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires