HARKING BACK: Abiding mystery of the Roshnai Gate tragedy

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Jul 5, 2015

The other day in a moment of nostalgic impulse, I wandered into Mori Gate and through ‘Maidan Bahian’, where once stood a magnificent garden and headed towards Victoria School, where my grandmother, after being widowed at the age of 21 years, taught for the rest of her life.

She was a brave woman for her age, and from Kocha Chabakswaran at the edge of the Mochi Gate precinct, more near Rang Mahal, her hand-carried palanquin (daoli, or palkee) would take her to and from school. That was the luxury transport of that age. I stood there thinking about that age and how people lived. As I looked up at the exquisite balcony of what was once the Haveli of Prince Nau Nihal Singh, I imagined how his mother, Rani Chand Kaur, had her head smashed in by servants provided by Raja Dhian Singh Dogra and her body left on that balcony on a hot June afternoon in 1842.

Rani Chand Kaur had also lost her husband, Maharajah Kharrak Singh, in the same house, and I associated this massive ‘haveli’, now called the Victoria School, with the miserable life my own grandmother, then aged 21 years, must have lived after the death of her husband in an accident on his horse.

Her son, like that of the Rani, also died in her lifetime. Tragedy is a uniting factor, even though both incidents took place exactly 80 years apart. My father’s death was never a mystery, but the death of Prince Nau Nihal Singh certainly is the greatest mystery the city of Lahore has lived with since it took place in November 1840.

If you enter Hazuri Bagh opposite the Lahore Fort from the walled city side, you cannot miss Roshnai Gate. This is surely the oldest gate of the walled city and the one preserved in its original condition. Its name is derived from the fact that at night it was illuminated by oil lamps. This is where our story begins.

The murder of the trusted assistant of Maharajah Kharrak Singh, Chet Singh Bajwa, by Dhian Singh Dogra and Prince Nau Nihal Singh in the presence of the maharajah in October 1839, set off a chain of events in which the Dogra brothers managed to grip power.

Within days Nau Nihal Singh had sent his father home to live in his ‘haveli’ and had taken power. He was ‘de facto’ the maharajah for all intents, but he was the ‘kanwar’ or crown prince.

His first step was to put Dhian Singh in his place. The trouble started in June 1840 after the prince decided that the Khewra Salt Mines, then owned and run by the Dogras resulting in salt being a very expensive commodity in the Punjab, were to be taken over. Dhian Singh in a shrewd move encouraged his Jammu neighbour, the ruler of Mandi, Raja Balbir Sen, to revolt against the Lahore Darbar. The clever prince sent Sardar Ajit Singth Sandhawalia and the Italian general Ventura, both hostile to the Dogras, to crush the hill Rajputs.

The young raja was defeated and made a prisoner, with Ventura building a row of police posts along the hills to keep both the Dogras and the Mandi Rajputs in check. It was, as British records tell us now, a brilliant ‘counter-move’.

The Dogras waited and plotted, shrewd that they also were. The best way for them was for a change at the top, and being that Maharajah Kharrak Singh was alive and the ‘de jure’ ruler, he was the first victim of their machinations. They pampered him and virtually forced a new set of female servants from Jammu to serve him. Within a few months the hard-drinking and opium consuming maharajah had been poisoned and died in November 1840. The servants who served the maharajah were all killed in Jammu in mysterious circumstances. This brought Prince Nau Nihal Singh to be crowned the new maharajah.

At this stage I will use four different accounts to reach a reasonable conclusion as to what really followed. We have a vivid description of British intelligence reports, based more on despatches sent by a Col. Gardner, we have the description of Dr. Martin Honigberger, the royal physician and the last man to have seen the body of the prince in his ‘35 Years in the East’, (London 1852), we have the account of the historian Sohan Lal Suri in his ‘Umdat-ut-Twarikh’ published in Lahore dated 1885-89, and, lastly, we have a description of events of the ‘Punjab Akhbar’, a weekly release of the Lahore Darbar.

We begin our description of the day as written by Sohan Lal Suri, an official diarist. When the prince left his ‘haveli’ with the funeral procession, a pair of invisible hands allegedly grabbed him from the shoulders. The prince turned round, but there was no one there. This upset the prince immensely.

He calmed down and proceeded. When the funeral procession reached the Taxali Gate crossing a heavy blow hit him on the head and the prince fell down. Again there was no one there and the prince gathered his wits and proceeded. The British report confirms that such a thing did happen, but does not explain it in any detail.

After Maharajah Kharrak Singh was cremated, Prince Nau Nihal Singh took his ceremonial post-funeral bath in the River Ravi, which in those days flowed by the ramparts of the Lahore Fort. During the bath a mulberry tree next to the river suddenly collapsed and people sitting on it to watch the ceremony fell down. A shrill scream rang through which perturbed the prince. The rational explanation is that with so many people on it to watch proceedings, such an event is to be expected. Sohan Lal gives this an occult twist.

Lastly comes the point when the prince with the son of Dhian Singh and others were passing below Roshnai Gate. Suddenly the entire gateway collapsed just as the procession was passing under it. Sohan Lal attributes this to a conspiracy by the Dogras.

The British put it down to an accident with the opinion that with cannon firing in mourning since the morning from the fort, it could have weakened the gateway. Prince Nau Nihal Singh was fatally wounded as was also the nephew of Dhian Singh Dogra.

The wounded prince was put in a tent in the fort and Dr. Martin Honigberger was called. He examined the prince with the opinion that there was no chance of the patient surviving. The court official loudly asked a guard that the doctor recommends that ‘yakhni’ be brought in, a sign that all was well. The doctor writes: “I said that now only parsley (dhania) will be of use”. Sohan Lal says that the prince was murdered after receiving head wounds.

The British report adds mystery by stating that five Dogra servants who picked up the prince after the gateway collapse were all murdered in mysterious circumstances. What really happened is, and remains, a mystery till this day. How could a sturdy gateway suddenly collapse?

This is what has baffled historians ever since. Every time I pass under this sturdy gateway, I think of the incident, and even today it seems that this was no accident. Let the mystery live on.



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