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History in The Hills

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History in The Hills

Shimla’s rich history offers rare tales — ranging from the journey of iconic freedom fighters, to the sad fate of guilt-stricken Royal officials who are still remembered by locals, writes MADAN LALL MANCHANDA

A former bureaucrat, who rubbed shoulders with kings of hill kingdoms, extended us an invitation to visit him and his wife, who taught in a charitable school and devoted her spare time to orphans and disabled children. The duo monitored our journey when we left in a taxi from Panchkula to their home in Shimla. It was not a smooth journey as the road was choked with traffic at some places, thanks to the heavy rush of tourists to Shimla in summer months. To escape all that, the driver took an alternative route, which was narrow and dangerous. Naturally, we were scared. But soon, we could spot a specially designed cottage.

I could see semi-circular rooms that reminded me of  RK Narayan’s Memorial in Mysore. A well-laid-out garden with rows of potted green shrubs and painted pots of colourful flowers hanging from the railing, awaited us. A dark green creeper with thick foliage formed an arch at the main entrance. This cottage looked like an English villa.

When our taxi came to a halt, a tall person with a sky-blue turban emerged from the cottage. He shook our hands warmly and led us inside. Inside, we found madam waiting for us. She welcomed us and then took us straight to the circular dining table as we were already quite late for lunch. We could see three cooks working on our royal meal, in the kitchen. And when we sank into the sofa after the meal, a tray full of khumani (apricot), cherry, alu bukhara, litchi, and peaches was put before us. Peaches in particular revived old memories. Bara-bangla, a variety of peaches from the western belt of NWFP, was known for its taste and rich nutritional value. And the very thought of that region, mixed with the taste of the peaches, made me think of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as the Frontier Gandhi, who founded the ‘Red Shirts Party’ or Khudai  Khidmatgars (servants of God).

A follower of Mahatma Gandhi, he had started a non-violent movement for the independence of India in NWFP. Under his leadership, the Pathans  had gone from swearing by the motto of ‘Blood for blood’ to bearing lathicharge by the British Raj Police, without retaliation. He also opposed the Two-Nations Theory. When he ceased to be, he was buried in Jalalabad (Afghanistan), as per his will. Bachha Khan University, founded in his memory in Pakistan, came under a terrorist attack recently.

To our joy, the host had a story of another tribal Pathan leader up his sleeves. This leader was a friend of our host’s father. In the midst of the Partition-related communal violence, he had gifted his own air tickets to them and risked his own life as he had got women’s burqas for himself, his father, and his uncle, and driven to the airport in a tonga.

Later, over tea in the front garden, we talked about the toy train that would chug up and down the narrow, 100-km-long Kalka-Shimla track. It was opened to passengers on  November 9, 1903, by the then British Viceroy, Lord Curzon. One should think of it as a success story because it was built in the short period of 1901-1903. It must have required both — perseverance and huge finances.

Soon, we found ourselves talking about the Barog Tunnel, which is the longest of the 103 operational tunnels on the Shimla-Kalka Railway route. It’s been named after Barog, the name of both — a conscientious British Royal Engineer and a small township that he lived in. And that took us to Barog’s sad tale. Barog was in-charge of this long tunnel and was naturally under great pressure because of it. He must have meant well when he committed to undertake digging up the tunnel from both the ends to speed up the work. But to his horror, the efforts came to a tame end when the ends did not meet due to ‘wrong alignment’.

This infuriated the strict British authorities who were hard pressed for time, and they fined Barog just Rs 1 for wasting the Government’s time and money in the tunnel. But Barog could not digest the humiliation and during a dog walk, shot himself in utter desperation.

The tone of the evening, however, soon changed as the younger son of our host arrived with a couple of his friends, on an unscheduled visit as usual. It was a pleasure meeting him. His hobby was to photograph rare forest birds; he shared some of the shots with us. We also had a brief talk about the launch of his new documentaries. After dinner with him and his friends, we were taken to two preferential bedrooms on the first floor. They had been readied for our night rest.

Next day, we were taken to the Jail Museum. The only other jail museum in India is the Cellular Jail in the Andaman which has exhibits from some of the colonial Army Regiments Association, the Anglo Boer War Museum, South Africa, and the Kamagata Maru Museum Vancouver Canada. It includes photographs of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling, and Lord Robert  Napier. 

The  neighboring  town was one  of  the  oldest cantonment towns. The sleepy cantonment still displays an old Artillery Gun. We were told that in the enclosed parade ground, victory parade of World War II was held there.

Dagshai Museum, district Solan (Himachal Pradesh), is a major tourist attraction of the region at the foot of the parallel hill. It is replete with sorrowful stories of our national struggle for Independence. The word Dagshai originated from “Dagh-e-Shahi” which means branding by the ‘ruling royalty’. It is reminiscent of the Mughal Era. According to the practice perhaps prevalent during the Mughal rule in India, the criminals were branded on the forehead by the ruler and were to wear this symbol as mark of identity for the rest of their lives.

In the British Era, construction of the Dagshai Heritage Jail Museum (Kala Pani) began in 1849 and included 54 maximum cellular cells (8’ x 12’, ceiling 20 ft.) These cells have two doors that are three feet apart. There is one cell for those who were to be meted out exceptionally harsh punishment. There is no source of ventilation or light in the cells. History bears evidence that Gorkha rebels of the Nasir Regiment who had rebelled during 1857 were brought to Dagshai.

Another incident of Komagata Maru occupies an important position in India’s struggle for Independence. The Ghadar Party was an organisation founded by Indian residents of the United States and Canada, with the aim of liberating India from British Rule by launching massive uprising. It consisted of 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 13 Hindus. Prominent Ghadarist included Barkatullah, Tarak Nath Das, Sohan Singh. Komagata Maru arrived in Calcutta on September 27, Ghadar Party leader Baba Gurdit Singh Sandhu resisted arrest, a friend of his assaulted a police man and a general riot ensued. Shots were fired and 19 passengers were killed. Some were arrested and imprisoned until the end of the First World War. Baba Gurdit Singh Sandhu, the leader managed to escape and lived in hiding unto 1922. Mahatma Gandhi urged him to give himself up as “true patriot”. When he did so, he was imprisoned for five years.

Four revolutionaries of Komagata Maru incident were executed in Dagshai. A large-scale mutiny of Irish soldiers in British Service “Connaught Rangers” during 1920, in support of the Independence struggle was then unfolding in their homeland. Dozen of Irish mutineers were incarcerated at Dagshai prison. A group of Irish Freedom Fighters were executed in Dagshai.

On November 2, 1920, a 21-year-old Private James Daly was the last man of British forces to be executed for mutiny. He was buried in Dagshai graveyard until 1970, when his remains were repatriated to Ireland and given a funeral with ‘full Military homage’. Execution of a number of Irish freedom fighters prompted Mahatma Gandhi to rush to an on-the-spot assessment of the situation and to provide moral support to Irish people. Mahatma Gandhi reportedly remained in this jail for one year.

German and Italian war prisoners of World War II in 1944 too were imprisoned there. While we couldn’t help but be fascinated by the rich history of the hills and still ask for more, our host, after viewing the cell intended for torturing the criminals, turned about to come back. While he was about to exit, I pleaded to click his photograph, he politely refused. Then, exhibiting his great sense of humour, he pleasantly recited a popular verse: “Bazar se nikla hoon, kharidar nahi hoon” (I have passed by the bazar, not necessarily a buyer).

We left the hills with sweet and sour memories. The tall pine trees, bewitching greenery, fresh air, and hush silence beckon us to revisit.





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