Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Chup Sha! Hari Singh raghle!

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In the first week of January 1836 an aristocratic Austrian visited Gujranwala: the botanist Baron Carl von Hugel. Having spent some considerable time in Kashmir, and subsequently having sojourned at Wazirabad with the Neapolitan governor of that city, the wily and cruel Paolo de Avitabile, he was now on his way to the durbar of the aging Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Gujranwala was then the domain of a man called Hari Singh Nalwa, a native of the town. A Rajput by caste and follower of the great Guru Nanak by creed, he was the ablest general that the Punjabi Maharaja could boast of. It was this man who had taken Punjabi arms across the Sindhu River and into the Pukhtun heartland. Such had been his terror that for nearly a hundred and fifty years after his death Pukhtun mothers were to restrain recalcitrant children with a whispered, ‘Chup Sha! Hari Singh raghle!’ (Be quite! Hari Singh comes!).

It was to the house of this man that the yekka provided by Avitabile bore the Austrian from Wazirabad. The Gujranwala of 1836 had a population very likely of about five to six thousand and the streets that are today teeming would have seemed reasonably wide avenues, perhaps with trees lining them. Hugel’s yekka was surely driven right up to the arch over the side-street that gave access to the house in what is today called Kasera (Coppersmith’s) Bazaar. Today one can scarce walk a yard without being jostled; to go in by yekka is simply out of the question.

The house stands to this day, now known as Anyan di Masjid (Mosque of the Blind). Long after the demise of the Sikh empire, with the birth of Pakistan, this house became the property of a certain Maulvi Yasin who had emigrated from East Punjab. He set up a seminary for the visually impaired and gave the haveli of Hari Singh Nalwa its new name.

I was returning after eight years. The narrow bazaar was even more crowded, the shops looking well-stocked as ever, the teeming shoppers unfazed by the slump in the economy. A shoddy steel fixture had replaced the beautifully carved wooden arches of the second floor windows; the simple façade was ruined by an ugly great tangle of power and telephone cables. It had been rendered photographically unattractive. The cusped arch over the side street was, thankfully, still intact. There was little else that remained unchanged.

On the first floor a tundoor busily turned out naans. To the left was a neatly swept room with a large sign on the door announcing it as the last resting place of Maulvi Yasin. Inside I could see the green satin-draped grave that, I imagine, will by and by become a busy money-making shrine. Across the central courtyard the arched woodwork was blocked by a steel and timber door and another sign said this was the seminary of a Maulvi Ghulam Rasul.

On the second floor several blind men groped their way about the sunny courtyard where the woodwork arches leading into the rooms are still intact. A group of women waited by the south windows, where ugly steel has replaced the beautiful woodwork that I had photographed in 1991. Here Maulvi Yasin once tended to their spiritual (and sometimes superstitious) needs, but now there was nobody. I asked a man sitting in the veranda on the right. He blinked his unseeing eyes and told me that a grand-nephew of the late maulvi now filled that post.

The floor above was the private residence of the successor of Maulvi Yasin and therefore out of bounds for visitors, as it surely would have been in the time of the Austrian’s visit. Then it would have been home to Nalwa’s family. Instead of the old brickwork, it now showed grey cement plaster and seemed to have been either completely rebuilt or extensively modified.

The second floor was very likely where Hari Singh Nalwa would have entertained von Hugel with, as the European tells us, twenty-five different platters of confectionery and over a dozen different fruits. This fact reflects on the efficient communication that appears to have existed at that time to make it possible for the Punjabi general to have on hand such a choice of fruit. In mid-winter Punjab, then as now, can only produce some citrus and guavas.

Carl von Hugel was impressed by Nalwa’s good taste. Here were expensive and very fine carpets from Kashmir and Kabul adorning the floors as well as the walls. Though he does not comment on the furniture and other fixtures, he does tell us that every room was well-appointed and comfortable. And when the traveller complained of the bitter cold of the previous days, a clap of the general's hands brought in glowing braziers. But today most of the rooms are derelict, the plaster peeling, the walls and the floors bare and dusty, except for the inexpensive cotton rugs spread where the seekers of solace meet Maulvi Yasin’s successor.

The present masters of the haveli of Hari Singh Nalwa were only vaguely aware of their illustrious predecessor. That also only because of the inscribed marble plaque put up by the British when they first took over Gujranwala. This plaque was removed many years ago and dumped in one of the rooms. Today it is no longer to be seen for that is our regard for history. (The plaque alternately disappears and reappears. On my last visit in 2001, three years after the visit to write this piece, when it had been found again, I requested the son of Maulvi Yasin to install it in one of the rooms on the second floor. I do not know if that was ever done.) For a people for whom history began in 1947, there is no sense of connection with Hari Singh, a son of Punjab because he was not a Muslim. I wandered about unhindered trying to conjure up the spirit of Hari Singh and wondering where he would have entertained von Hugel and in which room the Austrian would have slept the one night that he remained in ‘Gusraoli.’

With rapidly expanding population, the warren of narrow alleys and closely packed two or three-storey houses grew up to obliterate the walled-in garden that greatly impressed von Hugel. Tended by the general himself in his spare time, the Austrian said the garden was ‘the most beautiful and best kept [he] had seen in India.’ Here were plane (chinar) trees and stately cypresses imported from Kashmir to ease the heat of the Punjabi summer, here too were citrus and other fruit trees. Among them did Hari Singh lead his European guest showing off his green thumb. The flower beds, too, were rich and well arranged and von Hugel found the fragrance of the narcissus ‘almost overwhelming.’ The general was indeed no mean gardener.

But today the garden of Hari Singh does not exist. It is all but forgotten, living only in the memory of the oldest of the inhabitants of the old city of Gujranwala. Several elderly men remember the walled-in garden that existed until the early 1950s. None, however, know that the chinar trees in whose shade they had lounged as young men were the very ones planted by Hari Singh Nalwa. None even know that the garden and the haveli had once belonged to this great general, able administrator and keen gardener.

Instead of the garden there is today an ugly, unplanned maze of narrow streets and boxy houses devoid of the least architectural pretences that rise two or three floors to give a feeling of claustrophobia in the streets below. Surely in Hari Singh’s time much of the area would have not been built-up and there would have been trees also beyond the boundary of the garden. But the mad rush to build has consumed all the open space. It has devoured the garden that was once the most beautiful in the whole of India.

That is not the irony. The irony is that within fifty-two years of independence we have destroyed what could have been a beautiful green space, the lungs of the old quarter of the city of Gujranwala. The irony is that in this process we have also forgotten a part of the history of Punjab. I wonder how long the haveli where Hari Singh lived and which is now the Mosque of the Blind will escape the demolition squad.

When that happens, another man following up in the footsteps of Baron Carl von Hugel will not even have a building as a point of reference. Then one part of our history will finally and irrevocably have died.

Excerpted from Sea Monsters and the Sun God - available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

11 Comments:

At March 30, 2014 at 7:46 AM, Anonymous Amardeep said...

Simply wonderful. I wish Maulvi Yasin ji has installed the plaque in one of the rooms on the second floor. Salman Ji, How can I get your books? Sea Monster and The Sun God looks appealing. Amardeep Singh

 
At April 23, 2014 at 4:25 PM, Anonymous Harbans Khakh said...

Great write up! Just like the Great sons of the Punjab, sadly Punjabiyat seems to be going the same way. Religions should bring men together not tear them apart!

 
At April 23, 2014 at 8:33 PM, Blogger omarali50 said...

I expect that one day in the distant future, a new Hari Singh will find himself trying to rehabilitate post-apocalyptic Gujranwala. Sikhism being the organic Punjabi religion will likely survive the holocaust and may even provide the forces that re-establish order. (I am only partly kidding)

 
At April 24, 2014 at 9:35 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I hope you are not kidding and are right!

 
At April 24, 2014 at 9:43 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Harbans! It is entirely up to us Punjabis to keep Punjabiyat alive and above religion and borders!

 
At October 13, 2014 at 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

strange that you are claiming that, but mothers of pakhtunkhwa dont know the name of hari singh. Have you consulted sikh-wiki?

 
At October 14, 2014 at 4:27 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Recorded by not one but at least two or three British Raj officers. And heard in Kohat and Peshawar as late as the 1960s. You deny and you give away your extremely deep-seated insecurity.

 
At September 16, 2015 at 1:39 PM, Blogger Tariq Amir said...

Last month I visited the haveli of Ranjit Singh. That too though is not in a good condition. But luckily is not occupied by anyone. At least that haveli should be preserved.

 
At August 24, 2016 at 2:47 PM, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

I was told of the Hari Singh dare by my friend from Warsak, as late as the 80s.

 
At August 29, 2016 at 11:19 AM, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Hari Singh was a man to reckon with, Rehan.

 
At November 26, 2016 at 8:38 PM, Blogger Muhammad Shehreyar Khan said...

Thanks for the article sir. Well don't know about Hari Singh yara (fear), but our mothers were more used to Ghaljia (Ghilzai/Khilji) Lashkari yara "Ghale sha Ghaljia lashkari rawan dae" literally meaning "Keep quiet Khilji soldier is on the loose". Well the most obvious of the reasons of Afghan ultimate defeat & flight weren't the charismatic personalities of either Hari Singh or Ranjit Singh rather the formation & reorganization of the formidable Sikh Khalsa army, first indigenously raised Western modeled military force, thanks to the supervision of illustrious French & Italian soldiers turned mercenaries. The Lar Pashtuns (Pakhutnkhwa region) still put a brave show but they & even Bar Pashtun Barakzai field army were no match for professional khalsa troops. As 19th century, the era of cavalry charges was over & a new dawn of line infantry tactics their square formation, cavalry charge as last resort or auxiliary support & mobile artillery modeled on Napoleonic warfare. The Sikh empire military innovation were lessons learnt from previous encounters with British East Indian military might. The Afghans were to slow to adapt these reforms & eventually fall of once mighty empire gave rise to another great one. And when Afghans realized, it was too late, during the tenure of Aman Ullah Khan. Sikh's eventual supremacy & first time reversal of invasions from East to West of Khyber Pass, abandonment of lar Pashtuns & the humiliation bore the fruit of temporary schism between both Pashtun across Durand line which cemented permanently when eventually Amir Abdhur Rehman ceded Pakhtunkhwa to British Raj. Alas, people of Punjab don't consider Ranjit Singh's significant as their own. Regards.

 

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My Books

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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days