The mysterious genius who was a double-agent

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 17, 2013

One mysterious character of Lahore defies classification, and that person was a Khukhrain, a clan – ‘biradari’ – that descended from a 12th century ruler of Lahore, Raja Khokhar Anand. This clan was known for their intelligence, their scholars, and their emphasis on education. They truly were, and remain, a people who live off their wits.

But before I dwell on the man that was Sohan Lal Suri, known popularly as ‘Lala’, let me describe as best as one can in a brief piece just who were the Khukhrain. Spread from the hills of Chakwal right up to the left banks of the Beas, this ‘biradari’ claims its ancestry from Raja Khokhar Anand. They have eight sub-clans -- the Anand, Sahni, Suri, Chadha, Sadarwal, Kohli, Bhasin and Sethi. The Indian prime minister and his wife are both Kohli, as is an Indian cricket batsman by the same name. Journalist Najam Sethi, as the name suggests, is from the Sethi clan. The person we are interested in was from the Suri clan. Still the majority of the original Khukhrain lives off their wits, but let us concentrates on Sohan Lal Suri.

Our interest in this piece is to determine whether he was a historiographer, a spy or a man of letters. I have explored texts from the pre-Sikh period, the Sikh period and been through the records of the East India Company, as well as looked up Maulvi Ahmed Bakhsh Yakdil’s ‘Bayaz’ (printed, Lahore 1845), Kanahiya Lal’s ‘Tarikh-i-Lahore’ (printed, Lahore 1884) and also looked up the immensely important contribution of Sohan Lal Suri titled ‘Umdattul Twarikh’ (printed, Lahore 1886), whose original is in Persian with Prof Ganda Singh translating it in 1996 for GNU, Amritsar. Just for the record this rare book’s copy lies in the Punjab Archives in the Lahore Secretariat.

The father of Sohan Lal Suri was Lala Ganpat Rai, a ‘munshi’ in the pay of the Sukkarchakkia ‘misl’ of Gujranwala, and had worked under both Charat Singh and his son Mahan Singh keeping the records of the ‘misl’ and recording the history of other clans and of events in the Punjab. It is amazing just how well informed this ‘misl’ was, and how they in a formal manner kept records. The popular perception that the Sikh ruler ruled by their swords alone, is a myth. It is no wonder that when the young Ranjit Singh captured Lahore in 1799 he brought along the Suri family, who took up a position of extreme trust in the Lahore Darbar.

Lala Ganpat Rai and his son were awarded a ‘haveli’ in Chohatta Mufti Baqir inside Mochi Gate by Maharajah Ranjit Singh. This was emerging as the cultural centre of old Lahore, for nearby the calligraphers and inside the mosque of Wazir Khan the leather book binders were producing classic books. By 1811, Sohan Lal Suri took over from his aging father and held a position of great importance in the Lahore court. He inherited the ‘daftars’ (volumes) written by his father and grandfather and those before him, covering the history of the Punjab right from the Hindushahi period before the Muslims invaded their homeland. In a way Sohan Lal picked up after Muslim rule over the Punjab had ended and the original inhabitants of the land had once again become rulers, a massive gap of over 750 years.

By his own admission, and as one can make out in his book, he was well-versed in Persian, Arabic, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Hindi. He was also very well-versed in mathematics, astronomy and numerology. Given his ‘logical mathematical’ bent of mind and his ability to communicate because of language skills, he must have been exceptionally knowledgeable. Given his numerological skills of foretelling the future, he must surely have endeared himself to the superstitious Sikh rulers. Thus being the keeper of the records and an old Sukkarchakia hand at that, his influence can well be gauged.

On the instruction of his father, as well as being inspired by Sujan Rai Bhandari’s ‘Khoo-i-Jasafut Twarikh’, which covered the period up to Aurangzeb in 1704, he took upon himself to write his ‘magnum opus’, the ‘Umdattul Twarikh’ in five volumes. This sets out in almost 7,000 pages of running Persian script (shikasta) events from the birth of Guru Nanak to the capture of the Punjab by the British East India Company in 1849.

Besides this main work, Sohan Lal Suri also produced, among other books, a poetic description of the murders of Maharajah Sher Singh, Raja Dhian Singh and of other ‘sardars’ in the Lahore Darbar. The details are stunning and of immense interest to those working on the history of the period. But then comes a strange turn in events. Maharajah Ranjit Singh asked Fakir Azizuddin to take him along for his meeting with Captain Wade in British-held Ludhiana. The trusted Fakir mentions that he did not understand this bizarre decision. Capt Wade requested that he be left behind to read to him his famous book.

The fakir, for reasons still not fathomed, immediately agreed. Thus Suri spent long hours in the company of Wade and now the record of the East India Company tells us that he was recruited as a spy. He was provided with a handsome wage, which the EIC record informs was kept in Ludhiana. But then Sohan Lala Suri came back to Lahore and, so the record tells us, spent long hours alone in the company of the maharajah. Was Suri a double agent? Did Ranjit Singh deliberately plant him on the British? At this stage we can only work our way with the help of records available.

The maharajah conferred on him a ‘jagir’ at village Manga near Amritsar. But then Sohan Lal Suri presented to Captain Wade his new treatise, which covered in great detail the working of the Lahore Darbar. By British standards this was an intelligence coup. That treatise now lies in the Royal Asiatic Society Library in London. But what did Suri provide Ranjit Singh that he was able to read the British mind and intentions so well? The records of the Sikh period that now lie in the Punjab Archives in Lahore do not provide much evidence.

What we do know for certain is that Sohan Lal Suri remained in British pay even after 1849, and that he was given the Manga ‘jagir’ again after it was taken over by the British. To this ‘Manga village he retired and was also provided a handsome pension of Rs1,000 per annum, which by present day standards can be gauged by the fact that then a ‘tola’ of gold cost Rs12 only. For them he was worth his weight in gold. Yes, he was a spy, he was an intelligence analyst, a historian, a double agent, a keeper of records, a seer, and a person who truly lived by his wits. After all he was from the Khukhrain clan.

APOLOGY: Last week I wrongfully named Hanuman when I should have named Ravan. Just to clarify that Hanuman was an honourable ‘banda’ of Rama from the ‘Erukala’ caste that still lives along the banks of the Ravi, while Ravan came from faraway East India. Much regret.




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