The forgotten reverse of the Raj

By Omar Mukhtar Khan
Chillianwala is not a new name for any serious student of colonial history in India. Taking the westward road from Kharian, one crosses the small town of Dinga to reach the obscure village of Chillianwala in about half an hour. Just on the road side on a small mound is a large stone cross and an obelisk erected in the memory of British men who lost their lives in the famous Battle of Chillianwala.

The Battle of Chillianwala was fought in January 1849, between the Sikhs and the British before the Crown finally overwhelmed the Sikh rule and annexed Punjab. But this battle had a different story. In this battle Lord Gough commanded the British troops and Raja Sher Singh Attariwala led the Sikhs. While the British forces comprised of well-equipped cavalry regiments, the Sikh force mainly comprised of local Sikh and Jat tribes. The battle was one of the worst disasters British faced in India. As it was, six British regiments lost their standards at the battle — the focus of regimental pride and symbol of allegiance to the Queen. And if that was not enough, the battle saw the renowned Royal Army regiment of Cavalry HM 14th Light Dragoons running away from the battle field in utter panic. Their flight was only checked after they were profanely abused by their chaplain at pistol point. In all the British lost 28 officers, including the Brigadier along with some two thousand troop casualties.

The significance of the Battle of Chillianwala lies in the fact that it was probably one of those very few occasions when Punjab gave a stiff resistance to a foreign aggressor, otherwise the history of colonial Punjab is full of Sirs and Khan Bahadurs, all feudals ready to subdue to colonial power. Almost 39 days later, Punjab was finally lost to the sons of John’s company in the Battle of Gujrat and within a few years Punjab passed into the rule of the imperial crown.

The Battle of Chillianwala (1849) is probably one of the last military disasters before the War of Independence (1857), the British faced in India. Others included Battle of Pollilore (1780), Battle of Bharatpure (1804), Monsoon’s Retreat (1804) and Kabul Brigade retreat (1842). Colonial historians have always tried to rewrite or in fact mutilate history by terming these retreats as strategies or citing exceptional numerical or other odds and have put forward rhetoric of white race superiority with the assumption that no native force could stand a determined bayonet charge by the Red Coats. Interestingly our present day military historians seem to follow the lines set by those colonial historians by not accepting the ground realities. The Battle of Chillianwala thus stands out as an occasion which changed Indian perception about British military effectiveness and has a definite link with the ‘Great Sepoy Rebellion’ or ‘The War of Independence’ of 1857.

The British buried their dead at Chillianwala, but soon after Gough’s army marched from Chillianwala, most of the dead were torn out of their shallow graves by wild animals. Later the British reburied their dead and built a beautiful cemetery.

Today the cross and the obelisk stand in a sad country environment with few visitors coming to see the place and remind us of the bloody colonial rule. The site is basically the mass grave of British soldiers erected by no less than Earl of Mayo in 1871 and shows convincingly the importance great nations give to their martyrs.

But the small village of Chillianwala has much more to its credit as far as history is concerned. It is said that Alexander the Great, on his expedition to India, advanced from Taxila and crossed the Salt Range near Nandana. The great warrior positioned his forces near the present day village of Haranpur on the northern banks of Jhelum, only to find Porus waiting for him with a small but elephant mounted force. Alexander, the stout military strategist, shifted his forces eastward and crossed Jhelum near the village of Jalalpur Sharif. The battle between the two forces was finally fought near the village of Chillianwala in which the Macedonians were victorious. Alexander impressed by the valiance of Porus left his kingdom intact.

According to some historians it was in this battle that Alexander lost his favorite horse called Bucephalus. Alexander founded two cities in the area in memory of his victory and named one of them after his horse. It is said that Alexander personally led the funeral procession of his horse and was buried in the town.

Today it is difficult to locate any of these towns definitively but it can be a good topic for some research work and excavation.

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