New Delhi: “All modes of redressing the wrong having failed, raising of sword is pious and just,” writes Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of Sikhism, in Zafarnama. It is an argument for justice written in the form of a letter to Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor, after the Battle of Chamkaur in the 18th century.
The 10th guru is predominantly known for founding the Khalsa and instituting the idea of the five articles of the Sikh faith — kesh (hair), kacchera (a specific type of undergarment), kangha (comb), kada (iron bracelet) and kirpan (small sword). But he was also a scholar and poet, well-versed in multiple languages — Sanskrit, Persian, Punjabi, Arabic, Awadhi and Braj Bhasha.
Although Guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth guru, was the one who began militarising the Sikh community, Guru Gobind Singh introduced the idea of martyrdom, having lost all four of his sons at the hands of Mughal rulers. He was the son of a martyr and eventually became one himself when he was assassinated by Wazir Khan, the Nawab of Sirhind.
On his 311th death anniversary, ThePrint examines the significance of the Battle of Chamkaur and Zafarnama.
The Battle of Chamkaur
In December 1704, Chamkaur, a district in Punjab, saw a battle between Guru Gobind Singh, with his Sikh forces, and a combined Mughal-Rajput army. Although details of the conflict differ from one source to another, it is believed that the Mughal-Rajput army was far greater in number — around 10,000 against just 40 Sikhs.
Yet, the fight went on for longer than the coalition forces thought it would between 21 and 23 December. Negotiations soon began and an agreement was reached between the two sides to allow the Guru and his family safe passage.
However, on another December night, when Guru Gobind Singh stepped out of the Anandpur Sahib Fort, he was attacked by Mughal forces. He managed to reach Dina, but in the process, lost his two oldest sons to the Mughal forces. Later, his two youngest sons were also killed. By the time the Battle of Chamkaur ended, he had lost everything.
When Aurangzeb broke his promise
It was after this breach of moral code by the Mughal emperor that Guru Gobind Singh penned Zafarnama (The Epistle of Victory) in Persian.
Of the 111 verses, Guru Gobind Singh devoted 34 to the praise of God. From verse 19 to 41, he describes how the battle unfolded. He writes:
They (the enemy) dressed in black and like flies
came suddenly with great uproar
Describing the descent of the Mughal army upon him and his people, he repeatedly asserts that Aurangzeb’s oath, taken over the Quran, had no credibility. Of all the verses in Zafarnama, 15 criticise Aurangzeb for breaking his promise of safe passage to the Guru and his family.
What manliness you have shown by extinguishing a few sparks
You have made the conflagration brighter and more furious
However, he also wrote certain verses praising Aurangzeb — which tells us how he was able to separate the emperor from his policy of oppression:
Aurangzeb is the king of kings and very prosperous
He is a good swordsman and an agile horse rider
That meaning gets lost in translation is common knowledge. Zafarnama, originally penned in Persian, has seen many translations. It was first translated into Punjabi. Repeated translations have caused the loss of a singular meaning when compared with each other.
Diplomat and writer Navtej Sarna had recently translated the text to English. In an interview, Sarna said, “There are conflicting views and conflicting interpretations. I had to get the right text of the original from among the different versions, the Sikh chronicles and commentaries on the translations. I could not stray very much but had to stay close to the text without deviating too much from the literal text for the sake of the verse.”
He added how transcriptions were often accompanied by the introduction of “material changes by scribes, sometimes to reflect a particular historical viewpoint”.
With each translation, which made the Zafarnama accessible to non-Persian speaking people, the exact meaning may be lost, but the essence of it still remains the same.