The karkhanas of Ranjit Singh’s Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Nov 20, 2016

One of the unexplored aspects of life in Lahore under Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s 40-year rule (1799-1839), were the factories and workshops as well as schools and clinics that he set up. “These are the four pillars of Khalsa Raj,” is how he described it to a gathering of his European military commanders.

We read this in the amazing book by Dr Johann Martin Honigberger titled ‘Thirty Five Years in the East’. He was present when the maharaja died and ascribes his death more to the ‘majoons’ of ground metals and herbs that his ‘hakeems’ fed him. “In a way he was poisoned by his suspicion of allopathic and homeopathic medicines”. But the remark was good enough for me to research the ‘karkhanas’ and ‘topkhanas’ of Lahore, as well as explore the technical expertise that led the Lahore Darbar to produce the then ‘state-of-the-art’ weapons.

For all that is said about the man, one thing is clear and that being that he skilfully used the educated Muslims of Lahore and nearby cities to help him set up cannon and gun manufacturing factories, as well as setting about a series of gunpowder and shot (the precursor of the modern bullet) ‘karkhanas’. The largest ordnance factory was located at what was called the ‘Idgah’ of Lahore, which is where today is located the Lady Willingdon Hospital and major parts of the De’Montmorency Dental College and Hospital at Taxali. The ‘karkhana’ was planned and headed by the French soldier Gen Claude Auguste Court. His deputy was Mirza Afzal Khan.

Gen Claude Court trained the Lahore Darbar’s artillerymen, he established arsenals and batteries on modern European lines and at the two Lahore ‘karkhanas’, the other being where today is the Mughalpura Workshop, his foundries cast guns and manufactured shells. He was immediately answerable to Sardar Lahina Singh Majithia. When the first shell was fired from the first Lahore-manufactured cannon, the much-pleased maharajah awarded him a prize of 30,000 rupees. For coming up with a replicable fuse he was awarded a separate 5,000 rupees and given a ‘jagir’ to ‘settle down’.


Before we list other ‘karkhanas’, a word about the skilled Muslim artillerymen of the Lahore Darbar. The maharajah decided to employ a large number of already skilled gunners from Saharanpur, as well as other ‘purbia’ Muslims. This seems like a move to keep the leading Sikh sardars from acquiring artillery skills. But there was much more to this move than meets the eye. Through these ‘purbia’ Muslims he managed to slip into British-controlled Punjab his ‘mistris’ to join British-run ordnance factories so as to acquire the skills needed for his own manufacturing facilities.

Among the skilled gunners were Gen Sheikh Basawan, Aziz Khan, Bakhtawar Khan and Ibadullah. These were men with a Mughal legacy and the maharajah knew about their skills. Of the total number of soldiers working in the artillery, over 62 per cent were Muslims. Among those who held high positions were Elahi Bakhsh, Ghaus Khan, Mazhar Ali, Sultan Mohammad and Amir Khan.

Amazingly, in the cavalry the finest units of Muslim Afghans were preferred. The Kasuri Afghans, led by Qutabuddin, had their own battalion. Other well-known Muslims in the cavalry were Sheikh Ghulam Mohyuddin, Sheikh Imamuddin and the Fakir brothers of Lahore.

But back to the ‘karkhanas’. The major gun manufacturing centres were at Idgah and Mughalpura in Lahore, Shahdara outside Lahore, Nakodar, Sheikhupura and Peshawar. These were attached to gunpowder and shot manufacturing ‘karkhanas’, with the Mughalpura one being headed by

Dr Martin Honigberger. The maharajah reasoned that as he was a ‘hakeem’ he would best know about how to mix the “barood masala”. He helped to set up major gunpowder and shot factories at Amritsar, Multan, Shujaabad and Layiah. Amazingly, a lot of ‘hakeems’ from Bazaar Hakeeman were hired to work and train other ‘mixers’ at these factories.

The raw materials for guns, the shots and gunpowder needed to propel them came from the iron and salt mines of Khewra and Chakwal. The iron and copper deposits nearby supplied everything that was needed to sustain this industry. The entire manufacturing chain was well-covered and supply never was a problem throughout the Sikh period.

Now a personal touch. My great-great grandfather worked in the Amritsar ordnance factory, and when the British took over in 1849, he set up his own rifle manufacturing ‘karkhana’ in Kucha Loharan inside Hathi Darwaza. In 1857 the British thought it best to close it down and the family took the ‘educated’ step of opting for formally learning engineering.

But besides such ‘karkhanas’, the most amazing one was located at Lahore’s Sheranwala Darwaza, where a boat manufacturing complex was set up. To support his huge army, especially when crossing rivers, he thought that the safe and speedy movement of goods and troops by river was critical. The famous ‘Khziri Darwaza’ was well-known for its trading boats in Mughal days, with landing facilities. Most of the foodstuff for Lahore reached the city by boats.

A boat repair mechanism was already in place, with Mohallah Chuppogaran (oar manufacturers lane) is still to be seen. Soon huge trading vessels were being made and the Punjab started exporting small arms and ammunition to Iran and the Arabian peninsula.

Over his entire reign, the maharajah managed to improve on the export of cotton textiles, and of Kashmiri pashmina shawls to England, France, Russia and other European countries. Amazingly the export of horses had a major share in overall exports as did the famous Sahiwal cows. His furnaces produced iron ingots for export too.

Inside the walled city of Lahore when the British took over, as the amazing research on education by Prof Lietner tells us, he found 14 schools for boys and 12 for females. The literacy rate of the Punjab has been guessed at over 60 per cent, much higher than any other part of British-controlled India.

But all this might sound an amazing thing to achieve for a man who was illiterate. The one thing which he missed out on was the building of roads and highways. His reason was simple: “I do not want to provide my enemies with an easy ride over us”. When he died in 1839 these ‘karkhanas’ slowly disappeared. His schools were closed and Punjabi as a language was deliberately frowned upon. “To kill a people kill their language first” was the common understanding among the British on how to tackle the Punjabis. Today, almost 175 years later our elite still frown on the language of their forefathers.


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