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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Forgotten heroes: Veer Kunwar Singh, the greatest hero of the 1857 first war of Independence

Of the many well known Rajput clans in the North, one of them is the Ujjainiya found primarily in Bihar, tracing it’s origin to Ujjain. The clan claims descent from Raja Bhoj, and by the 17th century, they were recognized as Parmar Rajputs. They however arrived in Bihar, sometime in the 14th century under Hunkar Sahi, and fought with the Cheros, the traditional ruling dynasty of Bihar and Jharkhand. It was a long rivalry,with both sides inflicting casualties, before the Cheros retreated to Palmau. They later waged a long conflict with the Jaunpur Sultanate, taking on the Sultan Malik Sarwar. Though they initially had some success, under Raja Harraj, they lost in later battles and had to resort to guerilla attacks. Later they assisted Sher Shah Suri in the Battle of Surajgarh against the Muslim rulers of Bengal, who were by then a major force. Raja Gajapati led a 2000 strong unit, and helped Sher Shah rout the Bengal forces, their general Ibrahim Khan was killed in battle. Most of the Purbiya soldiers who fought for the Mughals, the Marathas and later the British, were from this clan.

What is currently regarded as the Bhojpuri region is primarily Purvanchal or Eastern UP, and the Western part of Bihar, bordering Mithila and Magadha. This region of Bihar was primarily one single district Shahabad, that was bifurcated in 1972 into Bhojpur and Rohtas( Sasaram), and later Buxar district in 1992 from Bhojpur, Kaimur( Bhabua) in 1991 from Rohtas. In ancient times this region was part of the Kashi Mahajanapada, and the Son River formed the boundary with Magadha. Most of the Indian indentured labor taken to Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius, Guyana were from here.

Jagdishpur in Bhojpur district, was one of the more prominent Zamindari estates ruled by the Ujjainiya Rajputs. Established in 1702 by Sujan Sahi, it was expanded later by his son Udwant Singh. After his death it was subdued by the Mughals, but they still had a reputation for being one of the finest warriors, especially their cavalry. And to this clan, belonged one of their greatest heroes, Veer Kunwar Singh. A man who at 80 years of age, was the oldest warrior of the 1857 revolt, in a league that included such greats like Rani of JhansiRao Tula Ram, Nana Saheb and Tantiya Tope.

Kunwar Singh was born on November 13, 1777 to Maharaja Shahabzada Singh and Maharani Panchratan Devi in Jagdishpur. An imposing physique, about 6 feet tall, he was also a keen huntsman and enjoyed horse riding. His brothers Amar Singh, Dayal Singh and Rajpathi Singh were as formidable warriors as himself. Inheriting the estate of Jagdishpur after his father’s death in 1826, he married the daughter of Raja Fateh Naraiyan Singh, a wealthy zamindar of Gaya who belonged to the Sisodia clan.

When the 1857 revolt broke out, Kunwar Singh was 80, his health was failing, yet he led the revolt in Bihar along with his brother Amar Singh. It was his commander in chief Hare Krishna Singh who convinced him to take up arms against the British. On July 25, 3 regiments of the sepoys at Danapur had revolted against the hanging of Pir Ali of Patna, one of the rebel mutineers. These regiments marched towards Jagdishpur, where they joined forces with Kunwar Singh.

The British comming to know of this invited Kunwar Singh for a feast to trap him. However being suspicious of the British intentions, he refused the invitation. He then attacked the district headquarters at Arrah, where a large number of British employees of the East India Company were present, looting the treasury, destroying the prison and their Govt offices. The Englishmen there took refuge in the Arrah House,along with 50 Sikhs. The rebels made many attempts to win the Sikhs over to their side.

The British immediately rushed a force from Danapur under Captain Dunbar with 270 Englishmen and 100 Sikhs to relieve the siege. However Kunwar Singh’s forces attacked them at night and a fierce battle ensured, in which Dunbar and many of the Company’s soldiers were killed.Only 50 managed to survive the massacre. The British sent another force under Captain Ayer, with 3 cannons. Getting wind of the information Kunwar Singh, attacked him in the forest,however the rebels fell to the cannon fire, and had to flee. After 8 days, Ayer managed to recapture Arrah and relieve the siege of Arrah House.

Kunwar Singh retreated to Jagdishpur and tried to mobilize his army, however Ayer attacked once again, forcing him to flee and take refuge in the jungles nearby. Jagdishpur was captured by Ayer on August 14, 1857 and Kunwar Singh’s palace was taken over. Knowing that he had far less strength, Kunwar Singh bided his time, till he learnt that a combined British-Nepali force was starting from Azamgarh towards Lucknow. Kunwar Singh decided to attack once again using guerilla tactics and on March 18, 1858, some other rebels too joined him.

Knowing that he was camping at Atrauli, the British under Millman attacked with a 300 strong infantry, cavalry and 2 cannons. When the British reached Atrauli on March 22, the rebels made a strategic retreat, making them believe that they had secured the place. Just as the British were relaxing, the rebels surrounded them and fired from all sides,forcing Millman to flee. Kunwar Singh kept harassing the British from Atrauli to Kausila using a series of guerilla attacks. A totally harried Millman, managed to reach Azamgarh exhausted from hunger and thirst, chased by the rebels all the way.

After Azamgarh was secured, Kunwar Singh advanced towards Varanasi, planning to secure this city as well as Allahabad.His plan was to cut off the road from Kolkata to Lucknow, denying British the movement. Lord Canning immediately ordered Lord Marker, famous for his exploits in the Crimean War, to attack. Advancing with a force of 500 and 60 cannons, he clashed with Kunwar Singh on April 6,1858 near Azamgarh. While the cannons were assaulting his forces, Kunwar Singh attacked the British from the rear, foiling Marker’s plan. The British once again had to retreat in the face of the furious assault towards Azamgarh. Sensing their intentions, he gave up his plan of capturing Varanasi and Allahabad, and instead choose to recapture Jagdishpur.

And for this he needed to evade the British well, who under Gen Luggard were comming to relieve Azamgarh. Leaving some of his very skilled soldiers on the bridge across the Tons River to stop Luggard, he left for Ghazipur. He instructed them that when the entire rebel army, would join them on the road to Ghazipur, then they could retreat from the bridge. And the rebel soldiers fiercely counter attacked Lugarde not allowing him to cross the bridge, before making a sudden retreat.

Lugarde seeing the retreating rebels, went in hot pursuit of them, for around 12 miles, before he found himself fully surrounded by Kunwar Singh’s army. They had been drawn into a trap, and another fierce battle ensured, where the British were again routed. On hearing of the defeat Col Douglas, once again advanced to attack the forces, Kunwar Singh again asked some of the rebels to block the British, while splitting up the rest into two advancing towards the Ganga. However when this group was resting at a place called Manohar, Douglas arrived at night with his cavalry,and launched an assault. The rebels lost to the British, who captured many elephants and ammunition.

Knowing that defeat was imminent now, Kunwar Singh split up his army into smaller units, and asked them to gather at another location. It was another ruse, as the British were tricked into believing the army had disbanded, when in fact they were once again advancing. He also fed false information to the British that they would be crossing the Ganga by elephants, ensuring Douglas rushed to Ballia, where he lay in wait for the rebels. However once again the British were fooled, as the rebels escaped across the Ganga by boats.

But the British attacked the rebels, and this was when Kunwar Singh was hit by a grenade in the shoulder. Badly injured and bleeding, he had to amputate his arm. Finally on April 22, 1858, Kunwar Singh attacked Jagdishpur and captured it back from the British. Furious the British commander Legrand, launched an assault on Jagdishpur on April 23. Kunwar Singh once again attacked the British in the forests, routing them, Legrand himself was killed. Just 80 of the 190 odd British forces survived the rout. The Union Jack was bought down on Jagdishpur palace. Veer Kunwar Singh passed away on April 26,1858, but not before he had given the toughest fight ever to the British in Bihar and Eastern UP. A true legend.

(The story was first published on the author’s blog on July 30, 2020 and has been reproduced here.)

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Ratnakar Sadasyula
Ratnakar Sadasyulahttps://historyunderyourfeet.wordpress.com
I am a 40 year old Blogger with a passion in movies, music,books, Quizzing and politics. A techie by profession, and a writer at heart. Seeking to write my own book one day.


  1. Great hero indeed. However, one should not use the description “greatest hero of 1857” loosely. Surely that epithet will belong to Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. Yes, there were many other heroes. That is precisely why we must use “greatest” carefully. Otherwise good article.


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