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Architecture

Where Sikh Queens Once Resided:
The Sheikhupura Fort

Text & Photography by AOWN ALI

 

 

 

In West Punjab (now in Pakistan), the town of Sheikhupura (about 35 km west of Lahore) is hailed a center of historically significant architecture.

The Hiran Minar (Minaret of the Antelope) and the Sheikhupura Fort make this stop a focal point of interest.

The town, now a district headquarters and one of the major industrial cities of Punjab, has grown from a village, originally called “Jahangirpura” when it was settled during the reign of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, because of its proximity to Hiran Minar, a royal hunting resort.

The primary historical importance of the city relates to its Fort. It lays no claim to grandeur. Locally known as Qila Sheikhupura, it has gave its name to the town as well.

Construction of the fort began in the second year of Jahangir’s reign (1607). The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri (autobiography of Jahangir) mentions that the emperor assigned the job of constructing a fort at that location to Sikandar Moeen during a hunting trip to Hiran Minar.

The two centuries that followed were mostly uneventful for the Fort. Neither a seat of government nor a target for invaders, it remained but a halt for imperial entourages heading on pleasure trips to Kashmir in the north, or towards Kabul in the west.

The Fort’s political importance did not emerge until the establishment of the Sikh Empire at the end of the 18th century.

A veteran historian and archeologist, Ihsan H. Nadiem, tells us that immediately before the consolidation of Punjab under the Sikhs, the Fort served as a convenient place for robbers looting the countryside.

The Durrani king, Shah Zaman, during his invasion of Lahore in 1797, briefly besieged the Fort, but only to purge it of the robbers. Soon after his departure, the Fort was once again occupied by the highwaymen.

Shortly thereafter, Lehna Singh, an ally of Ranjit Singh, invaded the fort and took occupation. After him, its ownership passed on to Bhai Singh, followed by Sahib Singh and Sahai Singh in 1808, at which point Ranjit Singh marched upon it and caused its surrender.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh bestowed this fort as a “jaageer” to his queen, Rani Datar Kaur (1801-1840), the mother of the crown prince, Kharak Singh. She was also known as Rani Raj Kaur or Mai Nakkain. She lived in the Fort till her death. 

She had a considerable role in the rehabilitation of this small, strategically unimportant and hitherto almost abandoned citadel. She built a wonderful haveli within it. The excellent frescoes in the distinctive Kangra style found in the parlour and in the two chambers on the first floor of this haveli, are attributed to Raj Kaur‘s excellent taste.

In mid-19th century, when the British invaded Punjab, they used the Fort to imprison the Sikh kingdom’s Regent, Rani Jind Kaur -- “Jindaa(n)” - after taking her son, the child Emperor Duleep Singh, prisoner.

In a letter dated August 9, 1847 Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence, the British Resident in Punjab suggested to the Governor General that the Queen be banished from Punjab, to prevent the populace from rising under banner.

The 8-year old Emperor was removed from his palace in the Lahore Fort on August 19, 1847, and taken to the Shalimar Gardens, while his mother, the Queen, was confined to the distant Sheikhupura Fort.

Historian Himadri Banerjee describes how Jindaan was forcibly removed from Lahore between 8 and 9 pm under a heavy military escort. Accompanied by Sardar Arjan Singh Rangharnanglia and Gurmukh Singh Lamma, she was lodged in Sheikhupura Fort in the early hours of Friday, August 20, 1847, under the charge of Sardar Boor Singh.

Soon after her arrival at Sheikhupura, she wrote the following letter to the Resident at Lahore, protesting the ruthless separation from her young eight-year old.

With the Grace of the Great Guru
From Bibi Sahib to Lawrence Sahib

We have arrived safely at Sheikhupura, You should send our luggage with care, As I was sitting in the Samman (Burj - Palace in Lahore Fort), in the same way I am in Sheikhupura. Both the places are same to me; you have been very cruel to me. You have snatched my son from me … In the name of the God you worship and in the name of the king whose salt you eat, restore my son to me. I cannot bear the pain of this separation … I shall reside in Sheikhupura. I shall not go to Lahore. Send my son to me. I will come to you at Lahore only during the days when you hold darbar. On that day I will send him. A great deal (of injustice) has been done to me. A great deal (of injustice) has been done to my son also. You have accepted what other people have said. Put an end to it now. Too much has been done.

The Queen resided in the Sheikhupura Fort for nine months. On the afternoon of May 15, 1848, she was taken away, to be imprisoned in Chunar Fort, near Benares (in current day Uttar Pradesh, India). She made a dramatic escape from there and fled to Nepal, where she remained until, years later, almost blind and dying, was finally allowed to visit her son, who was by then exiled in England.

The Sheikhupura Fort was thus witness to a number of crucial turning points during the half-century of the Sikh Raj.

The Empire had held played a crucial role as a bulwark against ongoing invasions through the subcontinent’s porous western borders. At its peak, it held sway from Tibet in the east to the Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north and to Sindh in the south. It also, while Ranjit Singh was alive, kept the British at bay, even though the rest of the subcontinent had collapsed under them like a row of dominoes.

After the annexation of Punjab, the Sheikhupura Fort was temporarily used as administrative headquarters of the Gujranwala district from 1849 to 1851. However, upon the transfer of the district headquarters to Gujranwala town, it was turned into a military outpost.

After a split of administration jurisdictions in 1918, a new district was created in Sheikhupura. The Fort then passed on to house the police headquarters of the newly created district.

After the partition of Punjab and India in 1947, it was briefly used by the immigrants from East Punjab (by then in the newly-created India) as shelter, and
later by encroachers, from whom it came into the possession of the Department of Archaeology of Pakistan in 1967.

Within the complex, no building from the Mughal period is left standing, except the main entrance façade. There are also some remains of sandstone columns depicting the history of the laying of the foundations of the Sheikhupura Fort.

Today, what we can see standing, although dilapidated, is a crumbling six-storey haveli, identical to the haveli of Naunihal Singh, which is situated inside Mori Gate in Lahore.

The most vibrant aspect of the beauty of the haveli in the Sheikhupura Fort is its frescoes.

Sadly, precious wooden doors, windows and parts of the roof have already been whisked away by raiders and the haveli has turned into a haunted house.

Inside the ruins and rooms occupied by bats, we can still find signs of the former lifestyle through colourful and thematic paintings and other art work in the Kangra style. Fresco art work in the haveli of Raj Kaur portrays almost all aspects of daily life -- ranging from worship to romantic love to military life. Colors are still vivid, the art work is glittering, but the haveli is now, due to institutional neglect, close to the end of its physical life.

A few months ago, I had an opportunity to visit Sheikhupura Fort again.

As it is closed to the public due to its structural condition, it is now a matter of privilege to be allowed a tour of this Fort in ruins … thanks to the Punjab Archaeology Department.

However visiting this monument each time, is progressively a matter of grief and anxiety as every time I come across evidence of new vandalism and graffiti, and more recent damage done by trespassers and squatters.

The visit was a heart-breaking experience.

A few years ago, the U.S. had offered a handsome grant for restoration and conservation work in the Sheikhupura Fort. However, the project could not be materialize due to tussle between the federal and provincial departments of archaeology. Had this project been carried out, there could have been reason to be optimistic regarding the future of the Fort, but now it looks like it is in its final chapter.



[The author is a photojournalist based in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan. He is particularly interested in documentary photography. He has photographed dozens of significant historic architecture and archaeological sites in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His photographic work is mainly displayed at www.orientalarchitecture.com. His work, including photo stories and research, is widely published. He is currently working on the architectural heritage of Punjab.]

November 20, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Harry (USA), November 20, 2012, 5:42 PM.

It's tragic to see how we have done nothing to preserve our heritage ... even though our challenges vis-a-vis our sites left in Pakistan are particularly onerous.

2: Hitpal Singh (New Zealand), November 21, 2012, 2:08 AM.

It is not only in Pakistan but also the same senario exists in India. Little has been done to restore our historical sites. Governments of both Punjabs don't want any relics to exhibit Sikh history to the new generations.

3: Karamjeet Singh (Chicago, Illinois, USA), December 21, 2012, 7:03 AM.

India and Pakistan are both responsible for ignoring the Sikh edifices and monuments. It is the Sikhs themselves that have done some efforts by way of preserving the sites but not the monuments. Havelis (residences) of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Maharaja Sher Singh and even the home of artist Sobha Singh, etc., etc., are lying in dilapidated conditions. Amrinder Singh is not taking interest in preserving Quila Mubarak Patiala which is a significant Sikh fort. Kaar seva babas simply pillage the originality of the sites. In a nutshell, we seem to have no sense of preservation of history in a scientific way.

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The Sheikhupura Fort"









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