The Lost Empire: Gujranwala

This has been several months coming. I thought of writing this last year in April, and here we are in July 2018, when it’s finally going out. Apologies to the readers for the long delay, sometimes life takes over and comes in the way of things we love to do.


“I don’t have a story to tell”

I’ve never believed it when people tell me that they don’t have a story to tell. They may not have a funny story or sad story or an inspirational one, but everyone has a story. We’re made of thousands of stories, each one unique.

My earliest and fondest memories are of my grandmother sharing her fondest memories with me, telling me tales of her little adventures when she was a little girl. I would listen to them over and over again, day in and day out till they became my story.

And then there are THE STORIES, tales of epic proportion, where the hero sweeps in saves the townsfolk from the evil tyrannical ruler. Where did they come from? Who told the very first story? The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi’s sardonic but unique portrayal of the iconic Doctor) in Hell Bent made it easier to understand:

“Every story ever told really happened… stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.”

We won’t ever know if Robin Hood is just legend or if he existed somewhere for real. We wont ever know if all the escapades attributed to Dullah Bhatti were true or maybe some of them were glorified to the extent of exaggeration. Much loved characters from Punjabi literature such as Heer Ranjha might have once lived. They were brought to life by many Punjabi poets (even during Akbar’s rule), but Waris Shah immortalised them forever with Heer. These legends were passed down generation to generation till they became stories.

My story is one that was handed down through the generations. Bits of it have been lost over time. Have you ever noticed how the pages of a book acquire a bizarre quality as the reader goes through it. I just love how a rather flat book becomes engorged. The more it is read, the more volume it gains. I like to think it’s our souls that we leave behind, preserved forever in the book. Well this story only thinned down with each retelling. Clearly one clan of my ancestors weren’t good storytellers. This, right here, is my version. I’ve taken artistic liberties with it.

On a rainy morning in November 1780, Mahan Singh’s wife gave birth to their son. As he watched the newborn sleep, Mahan Singh knew he would be an only child. And By God, he’d be raised to be the greatest warrior amongst the misls. Today should have been a day of great celebration – the Sukerchakia Chief had been blessed with a son, an heir to carry on his legacy, perhaps even be greater than him. However, the previous night had taken a heavy toll on all of them – the birth had not been easy. The Hakeem, the Vaid, they had all given up. It was all up to Fate now. Mahan Singh was not one to give up. He’d fight to the finish. As the thunder clouds rolled in, he summoned the wise women of his beloved Gujranwala. He watched from the arches on the top floor of his haveli. The town square below, where he held court was eerily silent. He saw one of the sentries escort several women across the small square. One of them, at least, was bound to know what to do. Each of the women had some advice to offer. Some of them, they had already employed and some untried. Slowly all of the suggestions were tried but all in vain. Shehrbano Begum, who had moved to this city barely a few years ago from the highlands of Kashmir presented her Northern wisdom. Her wise counsel actually helped. Mahan Singh, keeper of the stronghold of Gujranwala bequeathed an estate to the wise woman. Shehrbano Begum thanked the Chief and left with her reward.

In time, the estate, the lady’s reward was passed down to her children, and then their children after them and then their children, until it was broken into small parcels, divided between her numerous descendents. Finally, in the 1920s (I can’t be sure of the year), Noor Jehan, a descendent of Shehrbano Begum got married to a gentleman from Gujranwala (he came from a nearby village). Her dowry included among other things, a horse and a buffalo. She may also have received her share in the various properties of her parents – we’ll not know for sure. Noor Jehan and her husband, along with their children led a comfortable life. Her husband had a karkhana – a manufacturing plant close to their home at Neyaian Wala Chowk in Gujranwala. Eventually, all this passed down to their children and grand children.

As Noor Jehan’s great-granddaughter writes this, she cannot help but wonder if the house that her father built in Gujranwala, on land that was inherited from his parents has a small fraction of what was bequeathed to the ancestor more than 200 years ago. There’s no way of knowing that for sure. But it makes a great story anyway.

Here, I’ll point out that the name of the ancestor above Shehrbano Begum is a figment of my imagination, but a lady did exist and her name has been lost to the passage of time. There has only ever been a story that is about 4 sentences long. However, Noor Jehan is not a fictitious name. She did exist and died in the mid 1980s. She also happened to be my paternal great-grandmother (the mother of my paternal grandfather), and I just happen to be named after her – my great grandfather wanted it that way, however my parents decided Noor was a good enough name.

So, what became of Mahan Singh’s newborn son? The family was no ordinary clan chief. The said child grew up to be one of the greatest rulers this region has ever seen.

The Mughal Empire started crumbling a long time before Bahadur Shah Zafar’s exile and death in Rangoon. By that time, the Punjab   was mostly divided by 12 Sikh sovereign states – misl. Each misl controlled their own area and continued to battle each other for territory and power. Two of these misls, the Bhangi Misl and the Sukerchakia Misl are noteworthy. The frail Mughal Empire was brought to its knees by the invading Afghans, who established the Durrani Empire under Ahmad Shah Durrani (also naown as Ahmad Shah Abdali). After waging several wars, the Afghans too were considerably weakened by the Third Battle of Panipat. This is when the Bhangi Misl overpowered the Afghan governor in Lahore and obtained the Zamzama – also known as “the fire reigning dragon” and by other epithets inscribed on it. In their possession, it came to be known as ‘Bhangian di top’. It was later immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in Kim and came to be known as Kim’s Gun (we’ve all seen it on display outside Lahore Museum). According to legend, whoever had the Zamzama or Bhangian di top, would come out as victor in any battle, such was its firepower. The Sukerchakia Misl’s capital was Gujranwala. While other districts fell one by one to the Afghans, Sukerchakia Leader Charat Singh defended his city (Gujranwala) against the invading Afghans during several battles that spanned over several years beginning around 1760. Charat Singh’s son Mahan Singh took over his father’s seat after the latter’s death. But the Punjab was yet to see its greatest ruler since Raja Porus. Ranjit Singh took the reins from Mahan Singh when he died. As luck would have it, a battle between the Bhangi Misl and the Sukerchakia Misl (under Ranjit Singh’s leadership) took place. The Bhangis were divested of the canon, and the Zamzama became the pride of the Sukerchakia clan (we shouldn’t be surprised, they were Bhangis after all – in my imagination, they are a very merry lot). It was after this event that Ranjit Singh, for the very first time, unified all of Punjab through a merger of the 12 misls and proclaimed himself Maharaja of the Punjab – a role he took very seriously. He was able to push back the Afghans, all the way back to Kabul and establish his supremacy. Since his death in 1839, Punjab was never as united as it was during his reign. His brief but intimidating Empire spanned all the way from Kashmir in the North, to Multan in the South, to Khyber Pass in the West, with Lahore as the capital. With that settled, he came to be known as Sher-e-Punjab. I wonder if the owners of Sher-e-Punjab Sweets in Gujranwala know this little fact.

It was April 2017, when I undertook a little journey to the old fortified city of Gujranwala. It was early morning, the shops that line streets of the old town were still closed. Only sellers of food were starting to lift the shutters. The destination was the haveli of Ranjit Singh, his birthplace followed by Hari Singh Nalwa’s residence.

The haveli of Ranjit Singh stands in a small square in the middle of the city. The red brick façade now faces a fish market that stands in a small square. The daily business hadn’t started when I went by. An elderly local unlocked the door for me to enter. All that remains of the haveli are the central courtyard, columns and a few rooms. Unbelievably, the chamber in which Ranjit Singh was born still survives. This is marked by a plaque mounted on top. The haveli has also been encroached upon and vandalized – as is the norm in this country.





The next destination was an obscure little mosque, known as Annayan di masjid. Through the narrow streets, we made our way to the hidden destination. As one walks down the labyrinthine streets, you can’t help but notice hidden gems, intricately carved doors, beautifully painted murals and great craftsmanship reflected in the architecture. Annayan di masjid, which is now a small mosque as well as houses a tomb, was once the home of Hari Singh Nalwa – the greatest military general the region ever saw. The city of Haripur in present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province is named for him. Under Hari Singh’s fierce command of Ranjit Singh’s armies, they were able to push back the invading Afghans. When they heard of Hari Singh’s arrival, the Afghans fled, such was the fear his name invoked. Hari Singh was killed in battle in 1837, as he tried to secure the fort at Jamrud. Mothers in Kabul would try to quell their crying children with “Chup sha, Hari Singh raghle!” (Keep quiet or Hari Singh will come). I think this must have been the inspiration for the immortal dialogue from the 1975 classic Sholay. Anyway, coming back to the present, I went to take a look inside the mosque. Once more, an old plaque announces this as the noble abode of Hari Singh. What remains are its intricately carved wooden doors and windows and old columns. Most of the interiors have now been painted in ghastly colours.

The journey was to pay homage to the two great sons of Gujranwala and the Punjab. Textbooks of History are a tragedy in Pakistan. Like eminent historian Ayesha Jalal points out, “Pakistan’s history textbooks amongst the best available sources for assessing the nexus between power and bigotry in creative imaginings of a national past.” I would add another crime to this: leaving out important bits in time. To give you an idea, our textbooks start with the Arab Conquest of Sindh, move on to Mughal Rule, which in my opinion is far too glorified than those extravagant folks deserve. And after that we move directly to the British Rule and Independence. But hang on a second. What about all the magnificent stuff that happened before that and in between? What about cities other than Lahore, which have rich history and thousands of stories to tell. Nope, not there! All our efforts to sweep the history under a mat where no one can see have been very successful. What reason could there be to hide stories of old, I do not understand. It’s not going to change a thing. And yet we still do. I aim to preserve what little I can.

Here’s a video of modern day Gujranwala, to entice you to foray into the Lost Empire:



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