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Rangila of the Frontier

Discovering the starting point of five water channels in Haripur and the legendary fort of Harkishan Garh — all built by Hari Singh Nalwa, the intrepid General of Ranjit Singh

Rangila of the Frontier
The trench along the fort.

Somewhere in the upper reaches of the thickly forested mountains of Dunga Gali, starts Daur, one of the fastest flowing rivers of Hazara region. After leaving the towering heights of Gali’s hills, the river meanders for some forty miles through the valleys in District Abbotabad and Haripur, before joining the Siran River to eventually drain in Tarbela Dam.

Almost 180 years ago, an intrepid General of Raja Ranjit Singh, namely Hari Singh Nalwa, came upon this brilliant idea of benefiting from the abundant waters of this fast flowing natural gift. A little above the modern day city of Haripur, Hari Singh got dug a huge water pond and diverted a part of the fast flowing Daur waters towards this pond. From this pond, he developed five meticulously aligned mini-canals (Or Katthas as these are locally known), each irrigating huge chunks of adjoining village lands, helping farmers to grow some of the fines oranges in the area.

The place where this ingenious idea was executed was given the rather unusual name of Rangila.

I came across this quaint piece of information while rummaging through the rusty record of 1872 settlement in the tehsil office record room of Haripur. These records are written in a difficult script, containing a heavy dose of Persian but, with a mix of extra effort and audacity, one can decipher the information contained in these records.

I had gone to the Haripur Tehsil office for digging information about the Sikh era legendary fort of Harkishan Garh, which was built by Governor Hari Singh Nalwa as a headquarters to wage unending wars all through his reign, before dying in action in the Jamrud War. Contrasting accounts about the existence of remnants of this fort were shared with me by many locals. However, I was confident that a definitive account about the quadrates of this fort should be available from the old settlement record.

I got my first bout of success going through the settlement record of Haripur Mouza, pertaining to year 1872. The writer of this settlement record (in the typical tongue-in-cheek manner of old Brits) frankly admitted that the fort of Harkishan Garh had been converted into a tehsil office and police station by the British after Sikhs were ultimately dethroned from this area. The record also corroborated the old Gazetteer by informing that this fort was surrounded by a wide and deep trench (khandaq). This piece of information was absolutely correct as, even today, entry to the tehsil office is made after crossing a small bridge, covering a deep and wide depression.

Having succeeded in finding the relics of old trench, our next mission was to find out if anything from the old fort of Harkishan Garh existed to this date.

The other important piece of information pertaining to Hari Singh mentioned the existence of a small garden, set by Hari Singh, close to his fort. So there had to be some remnants of this deep and wide trench, the exquisite Hari Singh Garden and, on the basis of information contained in an earlier Gazetteer, graves of two white Salt officers in this garden who were slain by the Hassanzai tribesmen in 1851 during the first Kala Dhaka campaign.

I was lucky in having the services of a retired Patwari, who had been very thoughtfully assigned to me by the kind DC Haripur. So, accompanied by the Patwari, we set about on our mission to find all three relics from a nostalgic past.

It did not take us long to find the remnants of the deep, wide trench excavated by Hari Singh as a protection for the fort. Although many portions of this trench have been filled for construction, a large part does exist towards the eastern side of the trench. I walked in awe through this imposing remnant of Sikh Raj, unfortunately being used as a garbage dumping ground in these days.

Having succeeded in finding the relics of old trench, our next mission was to find out if anything from the old fort of Harkishan Garh existed to this date. We started with the police station and, notwithstanding the sincere help of the SHO, met with a big disappointment. The sprawling police station had all engulfed any possible relic of the old fort as nothing matching the description of the old fort and its fortified wall was visible in the enormous compound over which the police station stood.

However, our disappointment was short-lived as, soon after entering the tehsil office, we knew that we could find some traces of the old structures in this locality. The structure of the tehsil office appeared much older than a police station and at least some of its rooms seemed to have been constructed using some old, dilapidated wall structures. But masonry work made it difficult to be sure about the existence of the old fort structures.

Here, I asked the accompanying Patwari if we could find some structure resembling an old wall. “Yes”, came the reply, “a crumbling wall exists towards the eastern side of tehsil office; but I did not know you were actually interested in that wall”.

As we walked towards that wall, the old Patwari gave the disturbing news that a major chunk of that “useless” mammoth structure has been recently demolished for giving space to the new Treasury Office building that is being constructed there.

Harkishan Garh Fort wall.

Harkishan Garh Fort wall.

With heart in my mouth, I went with the Patwari who led me through a maze of thorny bushes and some more garbage before we reached our destination — relics of old fort of Harkishan Garh. The wall ran for some thirty metres and must be at least ten feet thick. Inside of the wall was mud plaster while the exterior portion was made up of rounded boulders.

I walked along the gigantic structure, touching it with reverence, much to the astonishment of the accompanying Patwari. How many times, Hari Singh Nalwa, Governor of Kashmir and Hazara, Commander of Sikh Army in this region, must have crossed and re-crossed this dilapidated wall during his twenty years of power in Hazara? And here, in 2015, we had demolished a major part of this historic relic without the slightest compunction for erecting a Treasury office, which could easily have been constructed by preserving this historic wall of Harkishan Garh fort.

There was no use lamenting. So after feasting my eyes on this grandiose structure for over an hour, I embarked upon the next part of my sojourn — unearthing the “small garden” of Hari Singh Nalwa, inside which the graves of British Salt Officers also existed. The Revenue record and Gazetteer indicated that this garden existed in an easterly direction from the fort. So we set forth in that direction to find the garden. Passing through modern day Sikandarpura, we came across several gardens but none of these appeared to be 150 years old.

Once again, I was on the point of giving up when the old Patwari suddenly remembered that a government-run garden (being managed by the Agriculture Department) also existed in this area which we must also check. Although I was less excited about the possibility of a government-run garden to be my coveted Hari Singh garden, the revelation by the Patwari about the existence of some old Chir Pine trees made me change my mind. Towards the garden we moved.

British cemetery in Hari Singh Garden.

British cemetery in Hari Singh Garden.

I saw the inscription “established 1904” at the entrance of the garden. If any garden in the whole Haripur could be one pertaining to Hari Singh Nalwa, it had to be this. It was a sprawling orange garden, having thick groves of many other fruit trees alongside oranges.

The spectacle of neatly-laid orange groves, with ripe fruit touching the ground, was a heavenly sight. But what really made me dance with joy was a grove of five, towering pine trees. These pine trees stood in the midst of the orange garden and, as I reached these trees in a run, I was speechless on finding a British cemetery underneath these trees. Being a forester, I always carry a Pressler Borer — an instrument which gives precise age of conifers — and having used my borer to extract a cone, giving trees’ annual rings, I set about counting the age of these trees.

Soon, I was jumping with excitement as all these trees turned out to be around 125-140 years old. After all, this was the small garden established by Hari Singh to the east of Harkishan Garh fort and, sure enough, the seven odd graves included the graves of British Salt Officers, Carn and Tape. Most of the plaques had become disfigured but some did carry the details about the dear departed.

Graves of British officers killed in 1851.

Graves of British officers killed in 1851.

My Patwari friend — being an old wise man that he was —did not lose more time in taking me to the last of our destinations. It was nothing other than “Rangila”, the starting point of five water channels — Kathas — to which many of the beautiful fruit orchards of today’s Haripur owe their existence. I stood at the point where the speedy torrents of Daur were arrested by Hari Singh Nalwa centuries ago and which continue to spread their magnanimous waters todate under the names of Darwesh Katha, Tanokal Katha, Chor Katha, Gagal Katha and Khalabat Katha.

Patwari sahib also told me that the waters of these Kathas run every morning through Haripur city in what is termed as Nazul in local parlance — to clean the disposal from the city.

An act of great foresight and generosity by a Sikh ruler which benefits the city and villages of Haripur almost 150 years after he lost his life in Jamrud, fighting to save the Lahore Darbar from Afghans. If only we had a matching compassion to preserve last of the relics from his Khandaq, Harkishan Gargh Fort and Chota Bagh.

5 comments

  • Most gripping, candid account of a passionate researcher. Reminds me of a celebrated German psychologist who said something like that the foremost challenge for any researcher is not what people are telling you but what they are hiding from you.

  • We live in Delhi and a lady who used to teach my wife in college, the tall and regal Ms.Nalwa recounted a delightful story to us. Her house in South Delhi has a nameplate with the legend NALWA – one day her bell rang – and she saw a thickset bearded man in a suit with a very fair complexion, who asked her in a strange accent if she was the descendant of Hari Singh Nalwa – She replied she was indeed, the 7th generation down – but asked who he was and why he was asking? The man replied that he worked in the Afghan embassy – and then said ” my ancestor fought yours – and mine lost” Ms.Nalwa replied that was indeed interesting – and said ” nevertheless please do come in and have a cup of tea” :)
    Parsheau

    • Gurpreet Singh Anand

      And that lady has gone on to write a wonderful book on her famed ancestor ..do try to read it makes delightful companion

  • It is a pity that many historical sites and buildings in Pakistan are completely neglected, are in ruins or allowed to disappear altogether. Lahore is a prime example of such criminal negligence. If these places were in Europe, these will be open to public for a small price, and the money used to preserve and maintain them. The author of this article should be congratulated for his interest and keenness. May be some one high above will read it and make some efforts to save the remaining historical edifices.

  • Gurpreet Singh Anand

    I am seeking ways to cover Sikh rule roots but almost all existing forts and havelis are either occupied by the defence the police or women’s college so wherever I wish to record I am met with a wall with men looking to me from an enemy nation !
    i wonder if my quest will ever be accomplished

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