Harking Back: How all of us have a proud place in our people’s history

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Dec 20, 2016

One of the enduring contribution of the late historian, Sir Chris Bayly, was his ability to relate common people to major events -- economic, social and political. Instead of emperors and warriors, ‘the people’ interested him more. This is ‘real history’.

The last time I visited the Lahore Museum, I stopped outside to watch the pigeons next to ‘Bhangion ke Top’, or Kim’s Gun. The ‘Sufi of the pigeons’ of Lohari Gate was there. He sprayed the birds with ‘bajra’, a ritual his family has performed every afternoon of their lives. What is his place in the history of our country? The question arose at the sub-conscious level, and to my surprise he set me off on a course of inquiry that made me feel proud of my land.

Sufi Gee is an interesting character in his own right and I wrote a column about him and his pigeon many a moon ago. But in this encounter, one of many, he asked me a strange question. “Do you know who you are?” Naturally I was a wee bit baffled and replied: “Yes”. “No, you have no idea of your connection to this ‘top’”. That baffled me, and I confess for a second I thought he was crazy. But he sounded very sane and so I promised to research the gun and how my ancestors could possibly be connected, even remotely, to it. This is the story of the gun, its origins and how my many times removed relatives could have had a small hand in the making, saving and use of this massive cannon.

For starters the cannon was one of two cast of cooper and bronze 259 years ago in Lahore in 1759 AD, This is the date inscribed on the cannon. It was made in the workshop of Shah Nazir and the exact place was where today stands the Moghalpura railway workshop. This is the place where much later Maharajah Ranjit Singh used the furnaces to build his cannons under the supervision of the French military general Court, and come the British they used this very place to build the railway workshop, a role it still has in a much diminished foundry. One source, however, claims that it was cast in Nila Gumbad, though this is a doubtful claim given the space needed for such an exercise.


The cannon was built on the orders of Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Durrani, who ordered his ‘wazir’ Shah Wali Khan to force every household in Lahore to contribute a copper or a bronze utensil from their kitchen to melt in Shah Nazir’s furnace for the cannons. When the ore fell short soldiers went again to every house to pick up more utensils. So it was that is massive 9.5-inch bore cannon, an 80-pounder, was built. For starters the gun carriage proved too weak to hold up the huge gun, so a much larger one was built, delaying delivery.

Once complete this cannon took part in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, with devastating results. However, with time as cannon metallurgy improved and munitions became much more lethal, its relative use declined. By the time the Battle of Multan took place in April 1818, its missiles were unable to even penetrate the walls of the fort. But then once Ahmed Shah returned to take the cannon to Kabul, he found it difficult to move. So he left it at Kot Khawaja Saeed – then outside Lahore - with Khawaja Ubaid, the then governor. The rise of the Sikh ‘misls’ had by then started. The ‘misl’ of Lahore was that of the Dhillon Sardars, who influenced by the success of Banda Singh Bahadar attacked Lahore and captured the gun.

The Bhangi Misl was originally called the Dhillon Misl of Amritsar and Lahore, and was led by a ‘Nilli Jaat’ sub-tribe of the Dhillon led by Sardar Chhajja Singh Dhillon, a follower of Banda Singh Bahadar, who was in turn a disciple of Guru Gobind Singh. It so happened that Chhajja Singh and his followers mostly smoked ‘bhang’ (cannabis sativa) and hence they came to be popularly known as ‘Bhangis’. It was, till then, the most powerful ‘misl’ of the rising Sikhs with several power bases in western Punjab. However, fierce clashes for dominance with the Sukerchakria ‘misl’, to whom Ranjit Singh belonged, had weakened them.

In 1764 when the three sardars became rulers of Lahore, the Sukerchakria ‘misl’ claimed the gun as a prize for helping the Bhangi Misl take Lahore. So it was that it moved to Gujranwala. There in a clash with the Muslim Chatta clan of Wazirabad, who captured it, only to lose it because of a family feud. This led it to the Bhangi Misl again claiming it for helping one brother against the other. Finally it ended in Amritsar, where in 1802 Maharajah Ranjit Singh captured it. He used it in the battles of Daska, Sujanpur, Kasur, Wazirabad and finally Multan. The cannon was taken by boat from the port of Sheranwala Gate up the River Ravi to Multan. There its wheels broke under the recoil of constant firing. By this time it had become a useless piece of artillery.

Now comes my possible connections to this massive gun. My grandmother’s grandfather, Maulvi Nur Ahmed Chisthi, in his famous book ‘Tehkikat-e-Chisthi’ tells us that the gun was parked outside Delhi Gate, only to be removed by the British and parked behind the current Lahore Museum at the ‘baradari’ of Wazir Khan.

But on my paternal grandfather’s side, who belonged to Amritsar, my great-grandfather had a gun-making factory in Kucha Loharan inside Hatti Darwaza. This was closed by the British in 1857. The end result was that all his sons were put in British institutions to become engineers, and outstanding ones at that. That side of the family were ‘Nilli Jaats’ and excellent cavalry soldiers. Family legend has it that they played a huge role in the ‘guerrilla force’ of Banda Bahadar, and when the Bhangi Misl came to power, they were prominent in that force, even though they ‘allegedly’ were Qureshi Sheikhs, so claimed the late Allama Jaffar Qasmi, who stretched the claim that we were original Syeds. My father used to laugh off this fable with the comment: “We have nothing to do with Bedouins”.

When the Bhangi Misl attacked Lahore, among the forces that captured Kot Khawaja Saeed were 30 per cent Muslims (G. Mohyuddin, Tawarikh-e-Punjab). So my great-grandfather thrice removed would have certainly been among those who took possession of the Zamzama. Later on one of his sons became an artillery gunner. So it was that this set of ‘Nilli Jaats’ surely participated in the numerous battles that the rising power of the Sikhs misls indulged in. This could explain why my great grandfather opened a gun manufacturing concern once Sikh power diminished.

But the Bhangi Misl always claimed original ownership of the cannon, and so the name – Bhangion ke Top - still persists. Now back to the ‘pigeon Sufi’ of Lahore who claims that every person in Lahore and its surroundings has some connection with Kim’s Gun. This opens the door for our readers to research their origins. You might be amazed how quickly you might find a connection to almost every significant person, place, thing or face that Lahore is known for. This is what is called ‘Peoples’ History’ and all of us are important links to it.


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