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The Secrets of the Gobindgarh Fort

Akshay Chavan
July 10th 2017

Though the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom was


Lahore, it is this fort that was at the heart of his empire

Millions travel to Amritsar each year. Home to the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs,
the Harmandir Sahib ( Golden Temple), there is another part of the old city that is
now accessible to visitors. This year, the State government opened the historic
Gobindgarh Fort to the public. Few people realise that while the capital of
Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom was Lahore, it is this fort that was at the heart of
his empire. It housed the largest armoury and mint in the empire, and the
control of Gobindgarh gave Ranjit Singh religious sanction, as this fort of his
protected the Harmandir Saheb, the holiest of shrines in Sikhism.

This fort has a fascinating history that harks back to the early days of the Sikhs,
when the land was carved into small principalities controlled by powerful Sikh
clans called misls. The Gobindgarh Fort originally called the Qila Bhangian, which
literally means ‘the Marijuana Fort’ has an interesting story to tell.
‘Bhangion da Qila’ or the fort of the Bhangis.| Wikimedia Commons

Bhangi Misl

The rise of the Sikhs coincided with the decline of the Mughal Empire. By the
early 18th century CE, Punjab was divided into principalities called misls. They
controlled all the land in heart of Punjab and beyond and eventually acted as the
base from which Maharaja Ranjit Singh built his great Empire.

But long before Ranjit Singh’s time, Amritsar was under a misl called the Bhangi
Misl controlled by its chief Sardar Gujjar Singh Bhangi. Called Bhangi, because
the soldiers from the clan were known to be fond of Bhang or Marijuana, this was
a powerful clan. It was Sardar Gujjar Singh who is credited for building a small
fort at the site of the Gobindgarh Fort in the 1760s. Locally it was called ‘Bhangion
da Qila’ or the fort of the Bhangis.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh| Wikimedia Commons

Gobindgarh under Ranjit Singh

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was born in 1780 CE in a family of the head of Sukerchakia
Misl, a small kingdom in Gurjanwala district of today’s Pakistan. Ranjit Singh's rise
was astounding and by the time he was in his twenties, he was charting an
aggressive course of empire building. Over the next few decades, Maharaja Ranjit
Singh would conquer one misl after another and establish a large empire that
stretched from Multan to Kashmir. He was only 22 years old, when in 1802 CE, he
conquered Amritsar from the Bhangi misl and incorporated it into his empire.
The conquest of Amritsar, was crucial for Ranjit Singh as it was the second largest
city in Punjab after Lahore and the spiritual base of the Sikhs.

The Gobindgarh Fort was originally called the Qila Bhangian,


which literally means ‘the Marijuana Fort’

Not surprisingly, one of the first things he did on taking over, was the renovation
and expansion of the old Qila, which was located just outside the walled city of
Amritsar. He ordered his commander Shamir Singh Thethar to improve the fort
with additions and fortifications that took around four years to complete. The
result was the creation of a magnificent fort, aptly named in honor of the tenth
Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Maharaja Ranjit Singh keenly adapted latest
European military technologies and a number of European mercenaries served
in his army as well. The main defensive walls were arranged concentrically, their
multiple tiers surrounded by a deep and broad moat. This was the latest
European defence architecture of the time and protected the fort from cannon
attacks. Inside the fort was a large armoury, treasury and also a palace.

Inside the Fort| Wikimedia Commons

The fort was separated from the walled city of Amritsar by an open ground. Over
12,000 soldiers were deployed in the fort to protect the city. An important
armoury where weapons were manufactured was set here and the fort also
functioned as the largest mint or tanksal where silver and copper coins of
Maharaja Ranjit Singh were minted.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh keenly adapted latest European military


technologies and a number of European mercenaries served in
his army as well

During Ranjit Singh’s reign, the Gobindgarh Fort became the center for essential
supplies for his army as they pushed their boundaries and the Sikh Empire
expanded. The supply of cannon bags and arms for the all the campaigns around
Punjab and the surrounding hills came from here. It was the site of the state
treasury and surprisingly, it was also the place where the Kohinoor diamond was
kept. The Emperor of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, surrendered the diamond to
Ranjit Singh in 1813 CE. It was paraded around the streets of Amritsar. Later, the
diamond was kept sure at the Tosakhana (Treasury) in the fort premises.

Emily Eden visits Gobindgarh

Lord Auckland was the Governor-General of British India between 1836 and 1842
CE. The British were fearful that Russia would invade India through Afghanistan
and Punjab and hence wanted to be friendly with Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1838
CE, Lord Auckland along with his sister Emily Eden made a state visit to Amritsar
where they were lavishly entertained by the Maharaja. He also invited them to a
tour of Gobindgarh, which apparently surprised everyone as it was a restricted
area. But they thought Ranjit Singh really wanted to be friendly with the British.
Emily Eden (1797-1896 CE) was a noted English poet and novelist . She wrote
extensively about her travels in India, which was later published as a popular
book ‘Up The Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of
India (1867).

In her dairy dated Monday, Dec. 17, 1838 CE, Emily writes:

“The Maharajah asked G. [George Eden, Lord Auckland, her brother] to go with him on Sunday
afternoon to look at his fort of Govindghur, in which he keeps all his treasures; and it is certain
that whoever gets hold of Govindghur at his death will also get hold of his kingdom.
He never allows anybody to enter it, and E. says, that in all the thirteen years he has been with
him he has never been able to get a sight of it, and he was convinced that Runjeet would either
pretend to be ill, or to make some mistake in the hour, so that he would not really show G. even
the outside of it. It was rather late before Kurruck Singh came to fetch G.; however, they soon
met the Maharajah, and went towards the fort. An o cer came to ask his ‘hookum,' or orders,
and he told him to have the gates opened, and desired G. to take in all the o cers of his escort,
even any engineers. Then he led him all over the fort, showed him where the treasure was kept,
took him up to the roof, where there was a carpet spread, and two gold chairs, and there sat and
asked questions about cannons and shells, and mines, and forts in general.
The Europeans were all amazed; but they say the surprise of Runjeet's own sirdars was past all
concealment; even the common soldiers began talking about it, and said that they now saw that
the Sikhs and English were to be all one family and to live in the same house.' It certainly is very
odd how completely the suspicious old man seems to have conquered any feeling of jealousy,
and it is entirely his own doing, against the wishes and plans of his prime ministers, and of most
of his sirdars; but he has taken his own line, and says he is determined to show how complete
his con dence is.”
The fort in present day|Wikimedia Commons

Gobindgarh under the British

Sadly, contrary to what Maharaja Ranjit Singh had hoped, the Sikh empire and
British were not ‘to be all one family and to live in the same house’. After the
death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 CE, the relations between the British and
the Sikh empire deteriorated. Fights broke out between the various factions of
the Sikh court. The Sikhs and the British fought two wars - the Anglo-Sikh wars
between 1845 and 1849 CE. The Sikh army was defeated and the Kingdom of
Punjab became a British protectorate. The fort of Gobindgarh was occupied by
the British forces in September 1848 CE. Finally, in 1849 CE, Punjab was annexed
and made part of British India by Lord Dalhousie. In his private papers, Lord
Dalhousie wrote in March 1850 “… the fort of Govindghur … the most important
place in all of India perhaps ……”

After Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 CE, the relations


between the British and the Sikh empire deteriorated

The fort was soon occupied by the British Indian army. In 1850 CE, there was a
proposal to demolish all the forts of Punjab to prevent any revolt, but thankfully
this plan was not carried through. The palace inside the fort was demolished
sometime around 1855 CE. Over time, as the frontier of the British Empire spread
to borders of Afghanistan, Gobindgarh lost all its strategic value. It was during the
Partition of 1947, that large number of refugees took shelter in the fort. Later it
was handed over to the Indian Army.

Zam Zama canoon|Wikimedia Commons

The Fort Today

The Gobindgarh Fort has since been restored and was thrown open to the public
in February 2017. Go to the fort and you will find it is steeped in history and goes
beyond the Sikhs. One of the great attractions in this fort, is a replica of the great
and historic cannon ‘Zam Zama’. Made on the orders of Afghan ruler Ahmad
Shah Abdali, it was used in the Third Battle of Panipat, against the Marathas in
1761 CE. The battle broke the Maratha power over North India and gave Afghans
control over Punjab. In 1762 CE, the Bhangi chief had captured this cannon near
Lahore, brought it to Amritsar and called it ‘Bhangion di Tope’. It was a prized
possession of Maharaja Ranjit singh. However, it was damaged in battle and
taken back from Amritsar to Lahore in 1818 CE, where it can still be seen today. A
close reproduction of it can be seen at Gobindgarh. Also an attraction at the
Gobindgarh fort are the four bastions at four cardinal points of the fort and the
Toshakhana- the place where the Kohinoor was placed.

The British period structures within the fort include the Durbar Hall, said to have
built in 1850 CE as a six-bed hospital, the Barrack which was originally built
during Ranjit Singh’s time but re-modelled in 1850 CE and the Chloronome
House which was used for the treatment of water through the process of
chlorination.
So when you visit Amritsar next, don’t forget to visit the Gobindgarh fort, the
most important fort of the Sikh empire, which remains in the Indian side of the
state of Punjab.

LHI TRAVEL GUIDE

Gobindgarh Fort is at a distance of just 1.3 kms from the Amritsar Railway Station
and about 11.8 kms from the Amritsar Airport.

British Punjab Fort Sikh

Sher Shah Suri’s Lasting Legacy

LHI Team
May 19th 2017

The town of Sasaram in Bihar is well known in political circles as the constituency
which Congress’s veteran Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram and later his daughter,
former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar represented for four decades. But this
little pocket borough, hides within it an often forgotten and much grander
legacy. It was the birthplace and the resting place of the only ruler who threw the
Mughals out of India, albeit briefly, in the 16th century CE.

Sher Shah Suri|Wikimedia Commons

Sher Shah Suri’s reign was a short chapter in a period dominated by the Mughals,
but the greatness of the man is in the fact, that in the 7 years that he was in
power, he left a lasting impact. He was the architect of the Grand Trunk Road ,
connecting Kabul to Chittagong in Bangladesh (he expanded the much older
Mauryan era road and it still exists today!) , it is his monetary system of rupiya that
we follow and he may have even laid the foundation of the Indian postal service!
Sher Shah Suri’s monetary system of rupiya is followed in India today|Classical Numismatics Gallery

Go to Sasaram and you will find the echoes of this great man. Sher Shah was
born here and his tomb is close to where his father is buried.

Sher Shah Suri’s reign was a short chapter in a period dominated


by the Mughals, but he left a lasting impact.

Sher Shah blazed into the history books after ousting the Mughal ruler Humayun
in 1538 CE. But unfortunately, at the zenith of his reign he met with a fatal
accident on May 13, 1545. Thus he ruled only for five short years. However, before
he died, he had commissioned a splendid tomb for himself, which was still
incomplete, at the time of his death. This tomb was completed on 16th August,
1545, 3 months after his death.

This jewel-like tomb stands in the middle of a fine square tank on a large stone
plinth with domed kiosks on all four sides. It is connected to the mainland with a
stone bridge.
Sher Shah Suri’s tomb |Wikimedia Commons

Sher Shah Suri’s tomb was completed on 16th August, 1545;


Three months after his death.

Earlier, the arches, the interior of the dome and the walls were carved with
inscriptions from the Quran and decorated with exquisite floral carvings of stone
and fitted with glazed tiles of various colours of which only a few traces remain.
The exterior is said to have been glazed and painted with a combination of
colours such as red, blue, gold and white which only remain visible in some
places today. One can only imagine how splendid it must have looked in its
prime! No wonder then, that Sir James Fergusson, the British architectural
historian, in his book Eastern Architecture (1876) aptly described the buildings
built by Sher Shah Suri as "Built like giants, finished like goldsmiths”.

This incredible monument was listed in 1998 in UNESCO’s tentative list of World
Heritage Monuments which included architectural marvels such as Taj Mahal,
Red Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and Qutub Minar. Unfortunately, it did not make it to the
final list, but nevertheless it continues to awe visitors to this day.

LHI TRAVEL GUIDE


Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb is located in Sasaram, a small town in Rohtas district of
Bihar. It is on the Grand Trunk Road and the nearest railway station is by the
same name- Sasaram railway station, 2 kms away from the tomb. The nearest
airport is Gaya Airport which is about 123 kms away.

Mughal tomb Bihar Sher Shah Suri

Bundi: Rajasthan’s Little Gem

Bundi: Rajasthan’s Little Gem


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Leheria: Colors of Tradition

Leheria: Colors of Tradition


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When Meghalaya was an Island


Aditi Shah
August 5th 2018

Do you know that the geological timescale, we live in currently, has been officially
named as the ‘Meghalayan Age’? This designation comes after studies of a
stalagmite from the Krem Mawmluh cave, in the Khasi Hills in the state, helped
geologists’ chance upon a climatic catastrophe - a mega-drought that wiped out
most of the bronze age civilizations, including the Harappan Civilization, 4,200
years ago. But the caves of Meghalaya hide a lot more secrets. Take for instance
clues to the fact that this region was actually an island about 3.5 billion years ago.
It was also once filled with large mangrove forests and the waters around it were
teeming with sharks! The story is fascinating.

One of India’s smallest states, Meghalaya the ‘ abode of clouds’ is not only blessed
with the most beautiful vistas - with its mountain ranges, lush green valleys,
cascading rivers and famed living root bridges, but it is also a geologist's paradise.
Weaving their way under the state’s main hill ranges of East Khasi Hills, South
Garo Hills and Jaintia Hills, is a network of about 1700 limestone and sandstone
caves stretching over 491 km!

These tell the story of how it all began.

The Continental Drift|Giphy

The first breath of life was taken on Earth by the single-celled bacteria 3.8 billion
years ago. There were no continents as yet, just a global ocean peppered with
small islands. Eventually, meteorite blitz resulted in erosion, sedimentation and
volcanic activity which created small proto-continents, growing until they
reached roughly their current size 2.5 billion years ago. The continents have since
repeatedly collided and been torn apart until 300 million years ago when all land
was fused together forming the super continent Pangaea.

In the next 100 million years, the continents of Australia, Africa, Antarctica which
were connected to the Indian plate started pulling apart and seas began to
invade the empty spaces, where once there had been dry land. As a result, dense
tropical forests developed along the margins of the seas. It was during this period
that the region we know as Meghalaya was a coral island rising from a tropical
ocean swarming with sharks.

About 88 million years ago, the Indian subcontinent broke up from Africa and
moved northwards towards Eurasia at breakneck speed. During this time, as
landmasses got pushed through tectonic forces, this action disrupted sea flow
and also submerged a large part of the grown forests.
Shillong Plateau |Nigel Harris via Flickr Commons

In the context of Meghalaya which had coral reefs, limestone was eroded and
deposited under water, while rivers from the inland brought sand to the coast,
building up sandstones and burying mangrove forests, which through a long
process of decaying, transformed into coal beds.

As the seas flooded the landmass, sometimes violently, Meghalaya experienced


uplifting and down-thrusting several times, accumulating over the times up to
five cycles of nummulitic limestone fossils which alternate with sandstones or
laterally pass into each other.

At several stages, certain parts of Meghalaya were uplifted to considerable


heights, today known as the Shillong plateau, and the evidence of this can be
found in the sedimentary rocks among which the caves take form. Three factors –
limestone, heavy rains and elevation – worked in unison here to make the caves
in Meghalaya.

Cave expedition in Meghalaya|Wikimedia Commons

Hidden under the undulating hills for centuries, these caves are being noticed
today. Besides tourism, excavations and scientific research are conducted to
unearth the secrets of our environment.

For example, the recently discovered Krem Puri set a world record at 24.5 km
length (almost three times the height of Mount Everest), becoming the longest
sandstone cave in the world. Located in Mawsynram (the wettest place of Earth),
the name of the cave means ‘fairy cave’ in the local Khasi language and is a
complex maze of hundreds of short passages and long corridors. Among the
treasure found here are a few shark teeth and some dinosaur fossils – especially
of a giant aquatic carnivorous reptile Mosasaurus which populated the sea more
than 70 million years ago.

Though most of the caves here do not have evidence of humans living in them,
some are believed to have been used as wartime shelters and one, even as a
burial ground.

In the environment of Meghalaya, which is nothing less than a geological


wonder, a lot remains to be explored, above the ground and thousands of feet
below the earth’s crust.

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