The ‘harkarah’ and Lahore of 1844

By Majid Sheikh

The Dawn: August 23, 2009


J UST before the British moved their military into the Punjab to fight and finish off the Lahore Darbar in 1849, they undertook a massive intelligence exercise to study Lahore and the Punjab in immense detail. Such a detailed study has since then never been undertaken.

When the British raised their flag on the Lahore Fort in 1849, they probably knew more about us than we, even today, know about ourselves. An officer of the Second Bengal Native Infantry by the name of Captain Gardner Carmichael Smyth pieced together, using a lot of material collected by the military field intelligence, an excellent compilation titled: ‘Lahore and its Ruler: a history of the reigning families of Lahore’. One managed to borrow this book from one of Lahore outstanding collectors of old and rare books, a gent by the name of Saifullah Khalid. In its days it was a secret book and was distributed among 298 different British officers of various regiments from the 62nd Queen’s Own Horse to the 21st Fusiliers and to other similar British-led regiments. The idea was for the officers to be fully aware of what they were going to face and the nature of the people of Lahore and the Punjab.

The British had an excellent idea of each and every regiment of the Lahore Darbar, its strength and even an updated figure for those on ‘furlough’. They had studied the entire Punjab and Lahore markets for what was available, and their prices. They knew of each and every factory and manufacturer, and they also knew which person was in ‘active’ collaboration with the British. The list names almost make a ‘Who’s Who’ of modern-day Punjab families and its politicians. A complete list of every caste and tribe is listed and each of the British regiments that ultimately invaded the Punjab was equipped with this book. They had come to stay.

A few examples would bring forth, very graphically, the financial picture of the Punjab as on the 1st of July, 1844. The total financial budget was Rupees 42.5 million, of which the total expense on the army was Rupees 12.8 million. Immense details of the expenditure on the army are given. This means that almost 30 per cent of total revenues went to the Lahore Darbar defence forces. Mind you the total armed forces of the Punjab came to just over 1.5 million people, of these they had 67,000 horses.

The prices of a few commodities, selected from a detailed list, makes interesting reading. One ‘tola’ of pure gold could be purchased for five rupees. Rice was available in Lahore’s Akbari Mandi for two rupees and four annas a maund (40kg), or 10 to 11 paisa a seer (kg). Desi ghee was available for seven rupees and eight annas a maund, or three annas a seer (kg). By any reckoning, Punjab was not a poor or weak country, economically or militarily, for it was the very last country to fall to the British colonial forces, much after the Baloch or Pathans had surrendered. One comment makes this fact plain. The book says: “Good in such abun dance surely cannot be found in any European capital.” The most interesting portion of the book concerns the behaviour patterns of the Sikh soldiers. For example, it describes a Sikh soldier returning home after eight years of service to find his wife had four children. When the paramour came to claim his children, the soldier refused to give up ‘his children’. The case went to the tribal chief who forced a ‘nuzzur’ of 40 rupees to purchase ‘his children’, that being the price for keeping his wife occupied in his absence. Other similar amazing cases are reported, which provides an amazing picture of rural Punjab in those days.

The one that interested me most was a description of a Lahore ‘harkarah’ who was a special messenger of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. We know there is a Mohallah Challee Koa inside Lahori Gate. May be this is named after this ‘harkarah’ for it was famed that he would walk 40 kos, almost 60 miles a day. He used to carry secret message for the maharajah to Peshawar and back within 14 days. Sounds amazing for the man has been described as lean and thin, but a very fast walker.

The maharajah forced this ‘harkarah’ to marry a very beautiful girl and told him he had selected her himself. The maharajah paid for the wedding. After five months she gave birth to a boy.The ‘harkarah’ went to the maharajah and said: “My lord, I thought I was a swift walker, but my wife has proven to be swifter than me”.The maharajah laughed and informed him that they make an excel lent couple. Then came the masterpiece: “Now that she has a child, she will slow down, do not worry”.

There is also a description of how the mother of Maharajah Ranjit Singh tackled his mother who, he claimed, led a life of “profligate indulgence”. It was rumoured that she had “more paramours than breakfasts”. The maharajah sought evidence, and when provided, so Gardner claims, she was put to death with ‘his own hands’. To cover up, an old chief, Dul Singh, was blamed and put to death. However, Gardner claims to have seen drawings of the killing being sold in the bazaars of Lahore. This seems a bit farfetched and was probably an attempt to portray the maharajah as an honourable person.

The estimate of the city of Lahore provides interesting facts. Gardner claims the walled city had 3,000 shops, 14,500 houses and a population of 72,000 persons. This is very near the estimate put forward by the British in later day intelligence report when they took over. The entire Punjab, which constituted Lahore, the whole of Kashmir including Kaghan, Multan, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan, Jammu, and other hill tracts had a population of only 5.35 million people. This means that almost one fourth of the population was under arms. Given that the percentage spending on the army was very reasonable and controlled.

A whole chapter is devoted to the ‘secret life of the Lahore darbar’, which even today makes immensely interesting reading. The book has a very accurate map of the old walled city dated 1847 from an ‘actual survey’. All the gates are given, as are the ‘battery positions’ for the defence of Lahore. The gates all have drawbridges over the moat around the city, and the Ravi flows to one side of the Badshahi Mosque. As a young boy one remembers my late father telling me that when he walked to school every day, he and his cousins would stop to play at the old drawbridge outside Lahori Gate. All that has been lost.

But the lessons to be learnt are immense. Lahore and its colourful history come forth in all its majesty. The manner in which the rulers behaved and carried out their lives provides an amazing understanding of those days. The most surprising aspect was the fact that Lahore and its manufacturing abilities were amazing, from gold thread to huge cannons to sword blades of immense tensile strength. The immense information the British had about us they made full use of, and the rest is history.