Saturday, 28 November 2009

Holding Fort

As the forts of Gobindgarh and Phillaur complete 200 years, G. S. Aujla traces their importance in Punjab’s history

A sketch of Gobindgarh fort Courtesy: Belveridge’s History of India, 1846

THE year 2009 marks the bicentenary of the completion of two historic and strategic forts of Punjab — the Gobindgarh fort of Amritsar and the Phillaur fort — on the western bank of River Sutlej. We have the testimony of Ben Charles Hugel, a German traveller of the early 19th century who visited the sultanate of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and left a valuable account of his impressions, testifying that both these forts were modified and redesigned from the existing ones and given their present shape and character by 1809.

The Gobindgarh fort was a modification of a Bhangi (Sandhu Jat) fortress captured earlier, which was fortified by the Maharaja between 1805 and 1809 to serve as an important artillery centre. The fort also served as a treasure house (tosha khana) for his valuable possession, including the Koh-i-noor. The commanding edifice of the fort served as a deterrent against any depredations on the prosperous and holy city of the Golden Temple.

So while the necessity of maintaining a powerful presence in the Gobindgarh fort was a law and order requirement, the upgradation of the Phillaur fort was a necessity actuated by external developments.

It was due to the conclusion of the Treaty of Tilsit between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Czar of Russia on July 7, 1807 and the " consequent danger of the Franco-Russian invasion of India" that the British thought it expedient to buy peace with Maharaja Ranjit Singh and to use him as a possible bulwark against such an attack.

The British built the Ludhiana fort on the eastern bank of the Sutlej to consolidate their hold on the cis-Sutlej chiefs and their territories. They located the headquarters of the British agent in this fort, which was competently manned by Captain (later Colonel) C.M Wade and subsequently by the famous Col David Ochterlony, who distinguished himself as a great hero of the British Empire and is commemorated by the Ochterlony Column standing in the Esplanade at Calcutta.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, on the other hand, reconstructed the Phillaur fort after substantially renovating an existing Mughal caravan sarai and gave it an imposing veneer to serve as the last outpost of his empire in the East and the first entry point for all visitors and plenipotentiaries of the British. It was both a diplomatic and military necessity to have a defensive counter measure to the Ludhiana fort at the strategic Phillaur ferry.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh renovated the Phillaur fort and gave it an imposing veneer Sketch: Illustrated London News, 1849

Both the Amritsar and the Phillaur forts were designed by Maharaja’s European (Italian and French) generals and advisers and had a distinctly European character. Both had extensive moats dug around them as last-ditch defences and the outer walls were inwardly inclined to facilitate the deflection of cannon ball.

Not surprisingly therefore, both the forts were an eye sore to the British and many European visitors passed cynical remarks about their architecture and strength out of sheer jealousy. Captain Wade, in a letter to Sir Charles Metcalfe dated August 1, 1827, dismissed the Phillaur fort as insignificant and one that "does not appear to be a place of strength".

V. Jacquomont, a French natural historian, in 1831 called the Gobindgarh fort " a badly made fort". The strength of both the forts could never be judged in any battle situation but it can be claimed to the credit of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that he gave Punjab these strategic citadels, which served as important centres of his military prowess and served their purpose well.

In the bicentenary year of these significant forts it is appropriate to have a fresh look at them and to see how they have stood the test of time and survived as important representations of Punjab’s heritage. As neither of these forts were built in stone like the Red Fort of Delhi, both forts have gone through stresses and strains in rain and sunshine in the last two centuries passing hands from the Maharaja to the British and then to a free India. The Gobindgarh fort remained the seat of the British Indian Army from 1849 to 1947 and then the Indian army from 1947 to 2008. The Phillaur fort, on the other hand, was an Artillery and Ordnance centre for the British Indian Army from 1849 to 1891. It then housed the Police Training School from 1891 to 1962, the Police Training College from 1962 to 1994 and the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Punjab Police Academy ever since.

The barbican and watchtowers on top of the western gate of this fort have stood firmly since their constructions as these were built of solid red bricks, neatly layered in lime. But the four bastions on the four corners built around mounds of mud collapsed at various points of time towards the end of 20th century. Government funds were later made available for the restoration of the collapsed bastions. Today the Phillaur fort stands out as a good example of healthy maintenance. It proudly accommodates not only the offices of the academy but also houses an imposing mansion for the Director’s residence, a pioneer fingerprint bureau and a firearm bureau displaying some of the rare firearms.

The Gobindgarh fort, on the other hand, paints a sordid picture of neglect. In the 160 years of its occupation by the Army, the maintenance has received a fair share of spit and polish but after its vacation, wild growth has mushroomed threatening its structures. A casual visit to the Gobindgarh fort reveals a distortion of history in certain areas erroneously shown as execution chambers (phansi ghar) and residence of General Dyer. The historians believe that even the tosha khana has been wrongly marked as existing at a place where it never existed.

A perusal of the events at the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1810-1817) compiled by H. L.O. Garrett, a formal Principal of Government College Lahore, and the Keeper of Records of the Punjab Government and his deputy G.L Chopra, and other court diaries of the time show how important events, which happened during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, took place in this fort.

The Viceroy of India, George Eden, Earl of Auckland, visited the fort with his sister Emily Eden, who recorded her memoirs in a book titled Up the Country. During their visit on December 17, 1838, she wrote about the fort that it is certain that "whosoever gets hold of Gobindgarh at his death will also get hold of his kingdom". She recounts how two golden chairs were placed on the roof of the deorhi, one for the Maharaja and the other one for the Viceroy, where both of them sat surrounded by the Viceroy’s entourage and the generals and advisers of the Maharaja.

She also left memorable sketches of the Maharaja and other contemporary celebrities. Before the summer residence of Ram Bagh got constructed, the Maharaja used to hold his camp durbar in the fort, where he received state guests and attended to administrative matters of the empire. It was from here that on April 15, 1812, he sent royal troops to the Golden Temple, when some followers, owing allegiance to Phoola Singh Akali, fought with the custodians of the golak and claimed 1,000 rupees out of the 1,100 rupees collected at the time of Baisakhi. The clash resulted in a few deaths on both sides.

The importance of this fort got obscured after the death of the Maharaja. After the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the British deceitfully occupied the fort and it became a readymade station for their Army from 1849 to 1947. The handing over of the fort to the civilian authorities in 2008 marked its return to the civilian control after nearly 160 years.

The repair and renovation work that was recently started under the government patronage appears woefully inadequate in the face of parsimonious allocation of funds made for the purpose. Perhaps it would be appropriate to locate a heritage hotel in the premises to generate adequate funds for its upkeep. A lot still exists inside the fort, which can still be preserved and maintained, to attract a secular tourist influx. An imaginative creation of light-and-sound programmes as well as the location of an historical gallery of art and paintings connected with the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh can be a useful complement to the revival of the Ram Bagh and other historical sites in and around Amritsar to serve as useful tourist attractions.

Since a sizeable chunk of Punjab’s history has been lost to Lahore and other parts of west Punjab, which are now in Pakistan, it becomes necessary for the inheritors of this legacy that they not only preserve these remnants of heritage but also hand them over to posterity in a healthy form so that a golden chapter of history is not lost forever along with its forgotten monuments.

Tribune India, Sunday, November 29, 2009


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