VADDA GHALLUGHARA, lit. major holocaust or carnage, so called to distinguish it from another similar disaster, Chhota (minor) Ghallughara that took place in 1746, is how a one day battle between the Dal Khalsa and Ahmad Shah Durrani fought on 5 February 1762 with a heavy toll of life is remembered in Sikh and Jat history. As Ahmad Shah was returning home after his historic victory over the Marathas in the third battle of Panipat in 1761, the Sikhs had harassed him all the way from the Sutlej right up to the Indus.
Returning to the Central Punjab, they ravaged the country all around, annihilated the Afghan force in Char Mahal, drove away the faujdar of Jalandhar, plundered Sirhind and Malerkotla, defeated a force, 12,000 strong, sent by Ahmad Shah from Afghanistan to punish them and another led personally by the Afghan governor of Lahore, and even captured Lahore, all within a short period, June September 1761. At a general assembly (Sarbatt Khalsa) of the Dal at Amritsar convened on the occasion of Diwali, 27 October 1761, it was resolved to punish the agents, informers and collaborators of the Afghans, beginning with Aqil Das of Jandiala, head of the heretical Niranjania sect and an inveterate enemy of the Sikhs.
Aqil Das despatched messengers post haste to Ahmad Shah Durrani, who had in fact already entered India at the head of a large army. Meanwhile, the Sikhs had besieged Jandiala, 18 km east of Amritsar. Aqil Das` messengers met the Shah at Rohtas. The latter advanced at quick pace but before he reached Jandiala, the Sikhs had lifted the siege and retired beyond the Sutlej with the object of sending their families to the safety of the wastelands of Malva before confronting the invader.
Ahmad Shah, on the other hand, determined to teach the Sikhs a lesson, sent messages to Zain Khan, faujdar of Sirhind, and Bhikhan Khan, chief of Malerkotla, directing them immediately to check the Sikhs` advance, while he himself taking a light cavalry force set out at once and, covering a distance of 200 km including two river crossings in fewer than forty-eight hours, caught up with the Sikhs who were encamped at Kup Rahira, 12 km north of Malerkotla, at dawn on the 5th of February 1762. The Dal Khalsa, comprising all of the eleven misls and representatives of the Sikh Jat chiefs of Malwa, was taken by surprise.
The attacks of Zain Khan and Bhikhan Khan were easily repulsed, but the main body of Ahmad Shah, much larger and better equipped, soon overtook them. Having to protect the slow moving vahir or baggage train including women, children, old men and other noncombatants, the Sikhs could not resort to their usual hit and run tactics, and a stationary battle against such superior numbers was inadvisable.
Nawab Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, the commander in chief of the Dal, therefore, turning down a suggestion by Sardar Charat Singh Of Sukerchakia to form a solid square of four misls to face the enemy with two misls each protecting either flank of the vahir and balance in reserve, decided that all the misls combining to form a single force should make a cordon round the vahir and start moving towards Barnala, 40 km to the southwest, with the agents of the Malva chiefs acting as guides.
Thus “Fighting while moving and moving while fighting,” says Ratan Singh Bhangu, Prachin Panth Prakash, on the authority of his father and an uncle who had taken part in this battle, “they kept the vahir marching, covering it as a hen covers its chickens under its wings.” On several occasions, the Shah`s troops broke the cordon and butchered the helpless non-combatants, but every time the Sikh warriors reformed and pushed back the attackers. By early afternoon they reached a big pond, the first they had come across since the morning. The fighting stopped automatically as the two forces fell pell-mell, man and animal, upon the water to quench their thirst and relax their tired limbs.
The battle was not resumed. The Sikhs marched off towards Barnala and Ahmad Shah thought it prudent not to pursue them in the little known semi desert with an army that had had no rest during the past two days, and had suffered considerable loss of life in the daylong battle. Estimates of the Sikhs` loss of life vary from 20,000 to 50,000. The more credible figures are those of Misl in, a contemporary Muslim chronicler, 25,000, and Ratan Singh Bhangu, 30,000. This could have been a crippling blow to the Sikhs, but such was the state of their morale that, to quote the Prachin Panth Prakash again, as the Sikhs gathered in the evening that day, a Nihang stood up and proclaimed aloud”… the fake has been shed. The true Khalsa remains intact.”
The Sikhs rose again within three months to attack Zain Khan of Sirhind, who bought peace by paying them Rs 50,000 in May, and they were ravaging the neighbourhood of Lahore during July-August 1762, Ahmad Shah, who was still in the Punjab, watching helplessly the devastation of the Jalandhar Doab at their hands.