Introducing the eleventh Rejected Princess: Mai Bhago, 18th century Sikh warrior-saint and only survivor of the Battle of Khidrana.
A quick bit of background, since it may be that you, like me, do not know a ton about Sikhs. You probably know that they’re the guys who wear turbans, don’t shave, and consistently get mistaken for Muslim — usually by ignorant douchebags who are trying to start something. Frustrating as that is, douchebags attacking them for virtually no reason is something that Sikhs have had to live with for the majority of the religion’s existence. Exhibit A: the Mughal Empire.
The Mughals were badasses. Their founder, Babar, had quite the lineage to begin with: 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 continued this badass legacy. Rode elephants into battle (well, their founder was named Babar), killed deserters by strapping them to cannons and firing, that sort of thing. Best known for conquering all of India, building the Taj Mahal, and, most important to this story, persecuting the crap out of Sikhs - mostly because the Sikh weren’t down with the Mughal-instituted caste system. In fact, they were super egalitarian in general, with women considered equals to men.
Which brings us to Mai Bhago. Sorry for the long intro, I just want you to know who she was up against.
Mai lived in a peaceful rural town with her parents. She spent a lot of time with her dad, who, in 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 shit with your people. All of these came in handy just a few years later, when the leader of the Sikh, Guru Gobind Singh, founded the Khalsa — the warrior-saints.
You see, the previous Guru before Gobind Singh — and there were only ever ten of these guys to ever live, with Gobind being number ten — was executed by the Mughals when Gobind was nine years old. Rather than capitulating to the Mughals and living a quiet life, Gobind ordered his followers to eschew the caste system, forsake their family names, be baptized as warrior-saints, and kick ass for the lord.
Mai Bhago was one of the first to get down on that.
The following years were very difficult on the Sikhs, with the Mughals waging 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, with heavy hearts, forty of them forsook the religion and left the Khalsa, in order to return to their normal lives.
Mai Bhago was having none of that shit. Upon hearing about the forty deserters, she rode to every city around and got all of the women to refuse any hospitality to them. She even rounded up a group of women to take up arms in the deserters’ place — telling the forty to either stay behind and look after the children or sack up and fight. Suitably ashamed by this, the forty deserters had a change of heart and decided to rejoin Gobind Singh’s cause.
Just in time, too — because as the forty (plus Mai) were riding back to the Guru, the Mughals were making another assault on his stronghold. The size of the army is difficult to determine from historical records, with the only source I can find claiming the Mughals had ten thousand men, which seems a bit ridiculous. In any event, it is agreed that the Sikhs were massively outnumbered.
On December 29, 1705, the forty-one Sikhs rushed in to cut off the Mughals anyway. They did several clever things in and leading up to the battle:
1) Positioned themselves in front of the Khirdana reservoir, the only source of water for miles around, and defended it viciously.
2) Laid sheets across bushes everywhere, giving the appearance of tents — and then hid in nearby bushes, ambushing the Mughals when they started attacking the empty “tents”.
3) Kicked up a colossal amount of dust, attracting the attention of the retreating Guru — who proceeded to unleash an unholy hell of arrows from a nearby hill upon the Mughals.
Eventually the Mughals, battered and thirsty, withdrew. All forty 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 Guru Gobind Singh, last living guru in Sikh history. She outlived the old man and later died of old age herself. The Mughal Empire died out a bit over a century later, and the Sikh religion continues strong to this day. Her spear and gun can still be found in Sikh museums, and her house has been converted into a temple.
And lastly: although best known by the name Mai Bhago, technically her name, after converting to Khalsa, was Mai Bhag Kaur — Kaur being a surname all female Khalsa take, meaning, literally, “princess.”
Art notes: 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. She has her sword and shield on the same arm, up around her shoulder. Realistically, I should have put the shield on her other arm, but hindsight is 20/20.
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.