Harking back: Why Abdali got such a huge Zamzama made?

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Jul 20 , 2014


In the walled city it is known as “Bhangianwalli Toap”. The new generation calls it ‘Kim’s Gun’ thanks to Kipling’s influence. Amazingly the Afghans still call it Zamzama and in Kabul it is still, jokingly, a symbol of virility.

Planted firmly at the ‘lower end’ of The Mall opposite the Lahore Museum, Punjab University old campus and the National College of Arts, there is need to understand the amazing history of this unique symbol. For the Hindu population that lived in Lahore before 1947, it was almost a deity that had to be pleased if one was to be a winner. Have you ever noticed that at its feet superstitious believers of this myth of ‘invincibility’ offer ‘bajra’ to pigeons every day? There is also a ‘pir’ of sorts who lives in Lohari Gate who makes sure that the birds are well fed and provided water to drink.

He is called ‘Sain Kabatoorwalla’. But there is much more than mere a myth. I have always wondered just why would a man like Ahmad Shah want to get two massive, almost impossible to move, cannons made in the first place. He belonged to a military tradition where speed on horseback, expert small arm firing from the saddle and ruthless killing by the sword ensured success.

The problem he faced in the subcontinent was that he confronted huge slow-moving armies with elephants as armour on the front, bows and arrows on the flanks, and smaller cavalry units as flank piercers. If the leader fell everyone scattered. Loyalty was to the ruler only. The Afghan tradition was increasingly at a disadvantage, unless he blew up the front spearhead of such formations.

In 1757 he ordered that the Hindu inhabitants of Lahore pay him ‘jazzia’. Soldiers of the ‘subedar’ of Lahore, Shah Waliullah, went door-to-door collecting the largest copper or brass utensils from every Hindu house. Once enough metal was secured, a renowned metal smith of Lahore, Shah Nazir, who had worked under Mughal emperors, set up a special furnace at Mughalpura, where today stands the Mughalpura Railway Workshop. Within three months two massive cannons were completed.

Thus began the career of one of the most famous cannons in the history of the subcontinent. They were first used on the 14th of January, 1761, against the massive Maratha army in the Third Battle of Panipat.

This battle saw the largest number of soldiers killed in a single battle on one day. One source (J.G. Duff, History of Marathas, Longman, 1826), backed by first-hand interviews with survivors, claims that over 100,000 soldiers were killed, of whom “nearly 40,000 were blown up by two huge cannons after the battle”. It was this crushing blow that gave rise to the mythical powers of the Zamzama Gun. After this massive victory Ahmad Shah made his way back to Kabul via Lahore, where two huge under-carriages were ordered to carry the two cannons back across the mountains.

One was completed on time, while the other was delayed. It was this delay that saw the massive Zamzama remain in Lahore. He left this gun in the care of the new ‘subedar’ of Lahore, Khwaja Obaid, who lived at Kot Abdul Malik, now a part of Lahore. The other huge cannon on its journey to Kabul fell in the River Chenab. The under-carriage had collapsed.

But Zamzama was to see a lot of action yet. A year later in 1762 the chief of the Bhangi tribe, Hari Singh, attacked Lahore and collected among his plunder the Zamzama. He renamed it ‘Bhangianwalli Toap’ and shifted it to the Lahore Fort, where for the next two years it remained in the Shah Burj. As Sikh power increased, Lahore was attacked by the combined forces of Lahna Singh and Gujjar Singh. They passed on the cannon to Charat Singh of the Sukerchakaria Misl as his share of the lootings. Charat Singh removed it to his fort in Gujranwala.

Such was the fame of the Zamzama that every tribal chief wanted it and a lot of fighting over it followed. The Chatha tribe attacked Charat Singh and took the cannon to Ahmadnagar. Then the Chathas fought among themselves and as Gujjar Singh had sided with one faction, the gun was restored to him. But Charat Singh again attacked and took the Zamzama from him, only to be attacked by the Pakhtuns who took the cannon away. They were further attacked by the Bhangis, who removed this huge gun to Amritsar.

Once Ranjit Singh conquered Lahore in 1799, he moved to reclaim “his family heritage”. From then onwards it was the central prestigious artillery piece of the Sikh army, seeing action in the battles of Daska, Kasur, Sujanpur and Wazirabad, Finally it went from Lahore, via boat, to Multan. In that battle its left wheel got damaged. The maharajah insisted on using the damaged gun. Seven Sikh soldiers would lift the cannon for it to fire every time. Over a hundred soldiers, as one account claims, died from the recoil, but it managed to pierce the Multan Fort.

Zamzama was brought back to Lahore and left outside Delhi Gate. When the British took over in 1849, they repaired the damaged gun and parked it in the lawns of the garden of Wazir Khan. For the Great Exhibition of Lahore on the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1870, it was placed opposite the Tollinton Market.

In 1977 it was again repaired and moved slightly to the west to its present position. The pigeons of the myth still feed every day. The gun went silent almost 175 years ago, and a silent gun serves us better as the very symbol of our city.

Published in Dawn, July 20th , 2014




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