Kids Corner

Pushpindar Singh, Chillianwala Column


Below: 1st from bottom - With Dr B. S. Ahluwalia in Windsor Castle. 2nd from bottom - Shamsheer of Ranjit Singh, with Dr Boyden. 3rd from bottom - a silver hockey trophy with Sikh in a joorrah. This and thumbnail, courtesy: National Army Museum.

Daily Fix

The Guns of Chillianwala:
A Pilgrim Through Sikh-British Heritage -
Part IV




The following is republished from our archives:   




It would be trite to state that the true mettle of any nation and its armed forces can be gauged by the manner in which it treats and honours its soldiers - particularly in peacetime, and especially when they are old, destitute or disabled.

The contrast cannot be greater between how India has fared in treating the greatest soldiery it has enjoyed in its history - the Sikhs - and how the United Kingdom has dealt with those who have either fought side-by-side with the very same Sikhs (in the two World Wars, for example), or against them (in the misnamed "Anglo-Sikh Wars", for example).

On the second day of our tour, we were given access to a most extraordinary community that lies almost hidden in the very heart of London's tony district of Chelsea, far from the eyes and feet of the tourist hordes who would find no mention of it, even if they looked, in their tour guidebooks.

The 80-acre complex is open to the public only once annually for the world famous Chelsea Flower Show.

We were invited through it because of its unique ties to Sikh history.

On its grounds are two of the Sikh artillery guns used by the Khalsa army on January 13, 1849, to play havoc with the army of the British Raj - which consisted of several hundred British officers and, oddly, tens of thousands of Indians from other parts of the subcontinent intent on helping the Brits annex Punjab.

It was a crucial battle - considered by British historians as one of the most hard-fought in the annals of world military history - which, though won by the Khalsa, ultimately ended in a defeat for the Sikhs because of the treachery of its Hindu Dogra officers, even when the British forces were poised to retreat.

[The traitors were rewarded by the British, pursuant to a written contract whereby the Dogra brothers had agreed to betray their Sikh masters, with the kingdom of Kashmir. The current politician, Karan Singh of Kashmir  -  a man often associated with the right-wing and fundamentalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad  -  is a direct descendant of the scoundrels. Earlier in the mid-20th century, it was his father, Hari Singh Dogra, who betrayed India in 1947, as a direct result of which, much of Kashmir was lost by India to Pakistan. Whatever was saved was due to the quick thinking of the Maharajah of Patiala and the bravery of his Sikh troops and the kingdom's air force. And so the saga continues ... ]

Standing amidst the very field which hosts the annual flower show is a huge stone column listing all the British officers and soldiers who fell during that eventful battle.

Historian and publisher Pushpindar Singh - author of a three-volume history of the Indian Air Force, and the Publisher/Editor of the Nishaan magazine - arrived in time this morning, all the way from New Delhi, to tell us about the battle and the wars that led to the fall of Punjab.

But it was a Sergeant in scarlet - "They call me Paddy ...!" - who took us around and explained the concept of the Royal Hospital of Chelsea.

Founded in 1682 by King Charles II, it continues to be funded by the British monarch for its original purpose: to provide "succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war".

Approximately three hundred veterans from the British wars who are in dire need and have no other support or dependants, are housed within the community. They surrender their pensions; in return, they are fully taken care of for the rest of their days. In understated but well-deserved luxury.

We met a number of them - all those we spoke to ranged from octogenarians to centenarians - and they regaled us with stories of the wars they had fought in. Almost all of them had fought alongside Sikh troops, and had interesting anecdotes to tell.

Paddy - he has the gift of the gab that only the Irish can boast of - gave us a grand tour of the massive property: the Infirmary, the Long Wards, the Church ("Mrs Thatcher is here every Sunday for the service!" ), the regal Great Hall ... all of these lined with reminders of the campaigns that the Brits have been involved in through the centuries.

Punjab figures on these walls over and over again; and so do battlefields where Sikh soldiers excelled with unprecedented and unequalled valour, but for which they have yet to be properly and fully honoured: Gallipoli, Mesopotamia,Ypres, Saragarhi, Kohima, Imphal, Singapore, Tobruk, Hong Kong, El Alamein ... the list is virtually endless.

We took a short walk from the red-bricked complex to The National Army Museum, where we were met by a gracious and learned Dr Peter Boyden.

The museum had taken the trouble of putting together a small exhibition of historical Sikh photographs, paintings, maps and artefacts - none of which I had ever seen before - from their vaults. Peter and his able staff gave us a guided tour through it and the various halls of displays in the museum.

My favourite was a shamsheer (sword) belonging to Maharajah Ranjit Singh!

All of this in the morning.

We were then bussed all the way to another kind of treat: the Royal Windsor Castle, one of the residences of Queen Elizabeth ... and the nearby Eton College, probably the most well known boys' high school in the world.

One of the great features of this tour has been the fact that one couldn't have done better if it had been planned solely as a tour of the highlights of London and vicinity.

Not only are we covering ALL the important sites, but we are in fact getting to see more than any normal tour would get to cover in the same amount of time.

Add to all of that the fact that we've been able to get into "nooks and crannies" which tourists never get to see.

And, add to that all the Sikh-centric sites and features we are being introduced to.

It's like having three tours rolled in one ... at a price less than any one of the tours would normally cost. It's because, thankfully, its host - the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Fund - is run as a non-profit community venture, and is heavily supported by British cultural agencies.

This brings us to Windsor Castle, the thousand-year-old fortress turned into palace. This is where the young Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, resided during the height of the Second World War.

Earlier, Maharajah Duleep Singh spent a lot of time here, visiting Queen Victoria and her family. Its private library and collections boast a number of watercolours of the young Maharajah, personally painted by the Queen. There are paintings, photographs (by Prince Albert and Duleep Singh himself), the Queen's personal diaries, and letters galore, recording the sojourn of the boy Emperor in this alien land.

But the treat we were brought here to see was the collection of State Rooms and Apartments, including the wing that tragically burned down a few years ago and has now been rebuilt and refurbished.

The Royal Guards - in traditional rouge et noir - occasionally march by, changing their positions periodically, and excite the tourists, glued to their cameras, as long as they remain within sight.

Animated discussions of "how I would do this room" are overheard as the queues snake through the meandering corridors, carefully making their way past extraordinary specimens of furniture, art and weaponry ... not to mention the occasional knight in armour!

A tour of nearby Eton College is the final item on the day's agenda.

It is somewhat reminiscent of my own school back in Kurji (near Patna, Bihar, India) - I kid not; and this is not an attempt at one-upmanship, because this one is undoubtedly far larger and grander. And, I must confess, at my school I never got to rub shoulders with those who were "born great".

This is where many a Sikh Maharajah has been schooled - and, I suspect, their male progeny.

But the most well-known of them are the two elder sons of Duleep Singh: Victor Duleep Singh and Frederick Duleep Singh. They were both godsons of Victoria - and that may be the reason why they got away with leaving behind their initials carved in wood: "V.D.S." and "F.D.S."


First published on July 18, 2008, republished on October 14, 2014



Conversation about this article

1: Tasawar Gujar (Gujrat, Punjab, Pakistan), September 16, 2010, 7:22 AM.

Sardar Sahib: a very good rendition of the history of my village, Chillianwala. I'm thankful to you.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 14, 2014, 4:22 PM.

What a delightful slice of history that shall ever remain preserved as long it remains in ink and oft repeated. The credit goes to Britain for recognizing dispassionately the shining contribution of the Sikhs both in history and with suitable solid memorials for all to see. Please do not let any self-serving jathedars raise hot air to bring back the bones of Maharaja Duleep Singh or the Kohinoor, etc. They are best looked after wherever they are. Sher Singh ji, thanks for republishing and renewing our history as often as possible.

3: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), October 14, 2014, 6:00 PM.

Sikh history can only be preserved by repeatedly discussing it and not leaving it in a remote museum.

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Part IV"

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