Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Rites of Passage

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Long before we wrongly attributed the Grand Trunk Road to Sher Shah Suri, the Punjab was criss-crossed by a network of land routes. One such road was perhaps the precursor of the modern day connection between Gujranwala and the riverside town of Rasulnagar. At the site of the latter, there was from ancient times a busy ford on the Chenab that handled the traffic of salt coming down from the Salt Range mines. Traders and travellers going east into the Indian heartland carried on along one arm of the royal road built by Chandragupta Maurya, of which we first hear from Megasthenes who came to the court of Pataliputra in 300 BCE. But those headed north or south had two options. To reach Jammu in the north or Multan in the south, travellers could either sail the Chenab or use the high road that ran parallel to the river. Over the years, the nameless ford on the Chenab was enriched by this passage of trade and travellers.

Consequently, when a man named Noor Mohammad Chattha of the nearby village of Munchar Chattha moved to this site and set up his family home in 1732, he too entertained vision of aggrandisement. And so the small habitation that emerged that year was named Nooray da Kot (Noor’s Castle). Chattha annals do not disclose how the business of the ford and staging post benefited Noor Mohammad, but we do hear that his son Pir Mohammad was prosperous enough to build a battlement around his father’s castle. It is also recorded that Pir Mohammad renamed his father’s stronghold and called it Rasulnagar after his religious mentor Pir Abdur Rasul.

Although the town continued to progress, it was a bad time for the Punjab. Mughal power, which had held the brigands of the Afghan highlands at bay for two hundred years, was moribund and the roads into India were wide open for any adventurer who happened to come along.

Earlier, in 1736, four years after Noor Mohammad had established himself on the banks of the Chenab, a pretender named Nadir Kuli of the Turkish tribe of Kirklu and of humble origin, had seized the throne of Persia by force of arms. Three years later, styling himself Nadir Shah, he descended on the subcontinent at the head of a large army in what was the first of a series of depredatory annual attacks that were to last until the end of the century.

This was also the time of the rise of the Sikhs, a new militant power in the Punjab. Members of various clans of the Jats, these hirsute followers of the great Guru Nanak, were then divided into twelve misls or confederacies; each confined to its own territory and headed by an independent chief. The Sikh leader who wielded the most formidable power in the Rachna Doab, the belt between the Ravi and Chenab Rivers, was a Sardar called Charrat Singh who is credited with founding the town of Gujranwala.

Taking upon themselves the tasks of chasing the Afghans out of their respective domains, the Sikhs stalked the forests by the highways. And as the Afghans, weighed down with booty, headed back for the highlands, the Sikhs fell upon them. The savagery perpetrated by the Iranian and Afghan soldiery in Delhi was appropriately recompensed with a liberal spilling of the outsiders’ blood. Many foreigners fell to Sikh swords, the rest were often relieved of whatever loot they had gathered during their raids.

It is not known with any certainty how Rasulnagar fared in this mayhem that lasted nearly half a century, but clearly the Chatthas would have had to pay a levy every time the marauders passed their way. The Muslims in this area seem to have passively abetted the Afghan looters because; save for one case from Gujranwala, we do not hear of any Muslim resistance to the wanton plunder. The only noteworthy resistance to the bandits appears to have come from the Bhungi Sikhs of Gujrat or Charrat Singh’s troopers in Gujranwala.

It was on this ford of Rasulnagar that Ahmed Shah Abdali, who had murdered and replaced the mad despot Nadir Shah in 1747, was discomfited in the winter of 1752. Encumbered by the mammoth cannon known as the Zamzama, Abdali’s horde desperately tried to effect a crossing of the river and at the same time fight off the Bhungi Sikhs. But it was a lost cause. Paying a heavy toll in life and plunder Abdali forces barely made it across the river, leaving the cannon stuck fast in the sand. The jubilant Bhungis retrieved the gun to place it outside Rasulnagar’s western gate as a trophy of a battle well fought.

Charrat Singh died in 1774 and was succeeded by his son Mahan Sigh. Given the abatement in the violence from the west, Mahan Singh set upon enhancing his own power, and from his fortified settlement in Gujranwala he sallied forth to wage war against Pir Mohammad at Rasulnagar. Chattha annals tell of a spirited defence by the Muslim chieftain until Mahan Singh, realizing that force of arms alone would never subdue the valiant man, opted for treachery. He offered a truce, and as the unsuspecting Pir Mohammad emerged from his fortress, he was seized and bound.

Another tradition relates that Ranjit Singh, who succeeded his father Mahan Singh in 1792, stormed Rasulnagar in 1799. Although Ghulam Mohammad, the man who then controlled the riverside town, put up good resistance, he failed to sustain it and Rasulnagar was lost to the Sikhs. Whether it was Mahan Singh who took Rasulnagar or his son Ranjit may never be ascertained. What is known, though, is that the Sikh takeover of Rasulnagar resulted in a change of name for the town, which came to be called Ramnagar.

History records the signal victory that the seventeen year-old Ranjit Singh achieved in January 1797 that brought an end to almost seventy years of Afghan depredations. As Shah Zaman Durrani hurried across the ford of Ramnagar, he left behind a rearguard under his able general Shahanchi Khan to tackle the pursuing Sikhs. But the Afghans had underestimated the military genius and grit of the young Ranjit Singh. Coming down in a lightening swoop, the future Maharaja tore through the Afghan cavalry like a giant scythe. Before the sun had set that cold January day, the ford of Ramnagar was sullied with so much Afghan blood that they were never to set their rapacious eyes on this country again.

With the annual raids from the west coming to an end, it was soon business as usual for the ford at Ramnagar. Revenues increased along with trade and commerce. As businessmen, keen to profit from the brisk trade of the town, shifted their attention toward Ramnagar, the pomp and grandeur of the town’s bazaars burgeoned anew. The honorific prefix of ‘shehr’ was appended to the town’s name that came to be called Shehr Ramnagar, the City of Ramnagar. Even though the city has reverted to being called Rasulnagar since independence, the prefix held fast until recently. Time was when buses carried the legend Shehr Rasulnagar on their front windshields. Now the prefix has been dropped, however.

I enter the town from the south, where once the Darwaza Subay Wala would have stood athwart of my progress. Now not even the older residents remember having seen a gate; only the name persists. Abbas Raza Mubasher, a native of Rasulnagar who accompanies me during my jaunt across town, says that the gate was given its name as it faced southward in the direction of the suba or province of Multan. Espying a brick-lined underground sewer, I stop to inspect it. The lining, of narrow tiles that were commonly in use until about 1890, suggest that the sewer was perhaps built before the sewerage systems of most other Punjabi towns were installed.

On either side of the main street, stand characterless concrete houses two storeys high. We walk along the street that leads us to a bazaar – certainly a far cry from those that gave Rasulnagar its erstwhile fame. Mubasher tells me that his father remembers a Kapur Watch House that dealt in the finest clocks and watches in pre-independence Ramnagar. Today, however, a barber’s shop, a bicycle repairman and an inordinately large number of eating-houses are all that is left.

At the main crossing, we turn left and wind our way through decrepit lanes with open gutters in the direction of Darwaza Tope Wala – Cannon Gate. While the cannon itself has not been there in living memory, the famous Zamzama that Rudyard Kipling’s urchin Kim played on in Lahore is still a part of the town’s collective memory. One man in fact even points out the exact spot where it supposedly lay for more than fifty years. This is remarkable indeed, for the cannon was removed from Ramnagar in the lifetime of Ranjit Singh.

I ask Mubasher if the gate was ever called Pattan Darwaza (Ford Gate), for it faces the river. But that is beyond current memory. Nevertheless, I am convinced that is how the gateway would have been known before the Bhungis’ triumph over the Afghans in 1752. We carry on and Mubasher points out that none of the gates – Munchar Darwaza, that overlooked Noor Mohammad Chattha’s ancestral village in the east, or Mori Darwaza, which faced north – are extant any longer. Passing through the bazaar, we arrive at a derelict Jain temple that, though long abandoned, was structurally intact until recently. But then come the madness of India’s Babri Mosque in December 1992, and Rasulnagar’s heroes settled scores with the infidels by destroying part of the temple. For some strange reason, however, they left the elegant white spire standing. Now they tell us stories of the churrail (witch) with feet turned backwards and breasts sagging to her navel that prowls around its lonely roofless rooms after the stroke of midnight.

Hardly any old structures remain now, for the town braved much damage during the riots of independence. Many lost their lives, and scores of magnificent buildings that belonged to the affluent Hindus and Sikhs were reduced to rubble. The loss in financial terms, I am told, would even then have run into tens of millions of rupees. Never again was the town to regain its lost glory. Never again were the bazaars celebrated, for the bania, that astute businessman, was gone. While the town suffered at the hands of her own sons, the advent of the railway system obviated the need for the once busy ferry on the Chenab. And Rasulnagar was reduced to the status of a small provincial town. But old habits die hard, and when speaking of their town, they still prefix its name with the word shehr.

Our search for old houses takes us to the back alleys and we pass a ruined samadhi, which consists of a narrow octagonal structure with a conical roof. I remember that in the disturbances following the death of Ranjit Singh, many of his ablest courtiers and generals gave up their lives in the bid for the throne. One of them was the dashing dandy Suchet Singh, darling of whichever lady of the Raj laid eyes on him. Elegant and charming at court, gallant in contest of arms, this handsome man was killed in Lahore in March 1844. His head was taken to Ramnagar, where it would surely have been cremated and interred, for we hear that his funeral rites in Ramnagar were marked by the sati of a hundred and fifty women. But no one knows whose remains repose under the small samadhi. Nonetheless, I am convinced that under its roof lie the ashes of the head of the dandy Suchet Singh.

Beyond Darwaza Tope Wala, amid open fields, lies Ranjit Singh’s haveli. After he had installed himself as the undisputed ruler from the Khyber to the Jamuna and from Kashmir to Multan, Ranjit Singh built this haveli as a summer residence. Standing on the site of his great victory over the Afghans in 1797, it would have afforded wonderful vistas of the sun setting beyond the Chenab. Today, however, a high flood embankment obstructs the view. It was here nine years after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that the waning Sikh empire would fight for its survival against the British juggernaut.

Withdrawing to the west of the Sutlej River after their defeat in the First Sikh war, the Punjabis under Sher Singh Atariwala gathered outside the town of Ramnagar with the Chenab behind them to face British forces under Lord Gough. The ‘Battle of Ramnagar,’ as British chroniclers called it, took place within sight of Ranjit Singh’s haveli on the twenty-second day of November 1848. Though British forces were under considerable pressure, the contest was as yet undecided when the opposing forces disengaged for the night. And as if they had lost heart, the Sikhs, taking advantage of the darkness, stealthily stole across the Chenab. Not a full three months were to pass before the decisive Battle of Chillianwala took place to make the British undisputed rulers of the whole of the Punjab.

Near the haveli, three unmarked graves and a marble obelisk remind me of the Ramnagar battle. The obelisk is dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Colonel Havelock who commanded the 14th Light Dragoons and died on this field. Until my last visit in 1991, there were two headstones kept in a locked room of the haveli. One commemorated Brigadier Cureton; the other, Ensign Henry Curry Hillier. The latter died of smallpox some days after the battle. But these have now vanished, and with them has gone a small part of the town’s history. Of course the Sikhs who died that day are not remembered for history is always written by the victor.

On my way out of Rasulnagar, I return for the last time to the haveli. The sun is about twenty degrees above the sandy flood plain of the Chenab, and the river is no more than a kilometre away. This was the way, I imagine, the Sikhs who could just as well have carried the field under Sher Singh Atariwala, must have fled that night a hundred and fifty years ago.

I spot a small river craft in the distance and walk across the sand yielding underfoot to the river’s bank. The ferrymen, one young the other old, are waiting for someone ploughing with a tractor on the far side of the river.

‘It is evening and he is almost done,’ says the old man as if only to make small talk with the stranger. ‘We’ll soon be bringing his tractor back.’

‘Is that all you haul these days?’ I ask.

‘What else can you expect?’ he asks with a mirthless smile. He shows me the laths to be used for the ramp and how they will place a couple of hefty planks across the gunwales to take the tractor’s tyres. I ask the old one if he remembers the glory days of the ferry.

‘Before Pakistan, there used to be a hundred boats here,’ he claims. ‘Do you understand? A full one hundred,’ he repeats for emphasis. ‘But now only we are left, and even then there is not enough work.’

This may be an exaggeration over the fifty or so boats that my friend Mubasher mentions. But that is how the old ferryman recalls the days when the Rasulnagar ferry operated. We chat until the man across the river hails the ferrymen. They arrange the planks over the gunwales and go out into the current. The old man takes the rudder and swings it from side to side to use it as an oar; the young one poles. I watch them receding and know that in the gloom of that fateful November night, that is how their ancestors would have ferried the army of Sher Singh across the languid Chenab.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 31 August 2013 at 18:21, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Been there. Seen that. But you make it look so special.

At 1 September 2013 at 15:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sir Ji, The eye should not just look, but see. And books should enrich and broaden your mind. Not these third-rate TV talk shows.

At 3 September 2013 at 22:46, Anonymous Tariq Malik said...

"You see things and say 'why?' But I dream things that never were, and I say, 'why not?'" ~ George Bernard Shaw

At 5 September 2013 at 15:16, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ah, Mr Shaw, ever priceless!


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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