Kids Corner


A Pilgrimage To Chillianwala





During my visit to Pakistan in March 2007,  I had not managed to visit Chillianwala, the site of a famous battle during the Second Anglo-Sikh War.

Sikh forces had given a heroic account of themselves at Chillianwala, inflicting heavy casualties on the British and their Indian cohorts. Contemporary accounts, even from British chroniclers, mention the valour displayed there by Sikh troops. Sikh gunners stayed with their guns to the last man and did not flee. They died fighting next to their artillery pieces.

What a refreshing change from what we see in contemporary Sikh society today.

I live in Switzerland where we Sikhs are a microscopic minority. This confers the role of community ambassadors on each one of us. We face increasing harassment at airports in Europe, rising xenophobia and racism in a Europe still reluctant to accept its decline in world affairs.

Being nevertheless a loyal Swiss citizen, I feel the occasional need to recharge my spiritual batteries by visiting places associated with the physical presence of my role models from Sikh history.

In 2007, I had visited Naushera where Akali Phoola Singh had fallen in battle. I had also visited Jamrud where General Hari Singh Nalwa had attained martyrdom. I had felt an intense spiritual regeneration at both these places, thinking of both these heroes and doing ardaas for our Panth.

Time constraints had prevented me from visiting Chillianwala during this visit. I was feeling an increasing need to renew my lien with my past as a Sikh by visiting it.

Waheguru Almighty has blessed me and fulfilled my wish: I was able to visit Chillianwala on 30 September, 2011.

Such visits provide me with a much needed break from what I see in modern day Sikh society: leaders motivated more by considerations of personal aggrandisement than service to the Sikh Panth; youngsters in Punjab with their brains addled by drugs and alcohol; people flocking to deras and charlatans masquerading as gurus, ignoring the sublime message of the Guru Granth Sahib; people seeking instant salvation through gimmicks and short-cuts rather than unrelenting dedication to gurbani’s message; Sikh society riddled by casteism, arrogance, crass materialism and female infanticide.

Yet, my faith in Sikhism and the Gurus’ teachings remains unshakeable.

However, it does occasionally require me to be physically present at sites associated with the lives of our Gurus and deeds of our heroes. I go to such places to bathe in the past presence of my role models.

I accompanied a close personal friend, a renowned Swiss barrister who is a former member of the Swiss Parliament, to India on 26 September, 2011. We landed in New Delhi from where we proceeded to Amritsar. My friend was fascinated by the organisation of the langar at the Darbar Sahib.

I did ishnaan there and felt sublime peace at Guru Ram Das’s abode.

My Swiss friend was quite keen to visit Lahore. He had already been several times to India but wanted to have a feel of genuine Punjabi culture. We had been discussing this over the preceding two years.

I told him that true Punjabi culture was now to be found only in the Pakistani Punjab from what I had observed there in 2007. The Indian Punjab had become Bollywood Punjab where even Sikhs were unable to speak proper Punjabi. This is why we decided that he would visit Lahore to get a taste of genuine Punjabiat and its hospitality while I would proceed to Chillianwala to fulfil my long standing desire.

However, my Swiss friend was advised by several people to avoid visiting Pakistan because of the prevailing anti-American sentiment there - the danger being that he might mistakenly be taken for an American.

With a heavy heart, we decided to abandon this plan. But my desire to visit Chillianwala was so strong that I decided to proceed there nevertheless. I crossed from India to Pakistan via the land border at Wagah on September 30, 2011 in the morning. The walk across from one gate to the other was a strong emotional experience.

Used to crossing frontiers in Europe, especially in the Schengen zone between Switzerland and its neighbouring countries (France, Germany, Italy, Austria), without any hassles, I experienced a completely different border crossing from India to Pakistan. However, privileged personal contacts on both sides of the border meant that I was able to cross over to Pakistan and return the following day to India without any administrative or other problems whatsoever. Officials on both sides were extremely helpful, kind and courteous.

I sincerely hope that the border between India and Pakistan will become like the borders of Switzerland with its neighbours where people will be able to cross freely and develop mutual relations in peace and harmony.

I was received on the Pakistani side by a retired former Secretary to the Pakistan government. Displaying unmatched hospitality, he came all the way to the border at Wagah in person instead of just sending his car and driver. We drove straight from Wagah to Gujranwala, the birth place of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and on to Gujrat, site of another famous battle during the Second Anglo-Sikh War, known as the “Battle of the Cannons”.

There is no change of landscape from one side of the Punjab to the other. Lush fields crisscrossed by irrigation channels are visible till the far horizon.

Gujranwala's main bazaar was quite crowded. All these names were quite familiar to me from my childhood when I used to listen to conversations between my parents, other relatives and friends, mostly refugees from Pakistan in 1947. In fact, I am the only member of my family born in present day India since I was born in 1951.

My elder brother who retired as Additional Chief Secretary to the Government of Karnataka after a life long career in the IAS, was born in 1944 in Nankana Sahib. So crossing each city with names familiar to me from my childhood made me remember my deceased parents and my childhood memories assailed me even as I was being driven through cities and villages in Pakistan.

My Pakistani host was a man of vast administrative experience, having served at the highest levels of the Pakistani government. He was born in Jalandhar. So, by the usual irony of sub-continental history, I, the heir to a family from what is now Pakistan was being hosted by him, hailing from what is now India. He told me that he had visited Jalandhar as well as several other places in India.

After a drive lasting around two and a half hours, we reached Gujrat, a major city in Punjab. My host had spoken to one of his friends there. This person is a practising lawyer and a notable there.

We were driven to his palatial house where I was introduced to a large number of local notables. True Punjabi hospitality was on display. There were at least ten dishes on the table for a quick meal. The lawyer has a nephew active in politics in Zürich in Switzerland. He greeted me extremely warmly. He confirmed that he had arranged our visit to Chillianwala, about 40 km from Gujrat, with a local landlord whose ancestor had fought on the side of the Sikh forces against the British.

We left Gujrat for Chillianwala in a convoy of vehicles, with the lawyer’s young son driving us in his Toyota Landcruiser. We met up with our local landlord/ guide on the way in a place called Dinga, which is mentioned in accounts of the Battle of Chillianwala.

We arrived at Chillianwala around 15.30 pm. I had a feeling of intense gratitude to Waheguru for fulfilling my wish to visit this place. There is a memorial pillar in red stone, surrounded by a boundary wall. There are several graves within the walled compound. The memorial is quite well maintained. There is no mention of who maintains the compound. Cattle were grazing peacefully some distance from the walls.

Apart from the red stone pillar, there is another pillar topped by a Celtic cross just outside the walled compound. There are two stone inscriptions around this pillar. One mentions the names of the British officers and men who fell in battle here. This list contains the names of two Brigadiers General. There is no list of any names of Sikh officers or soldiers who felkl in battle here.

However, the red stone pillar inside the compound has inscriptions in English, Gurmukhi, Farsi and Urdu, mentioning that a major battle was fought here on 12 January, 1849 in which brave soldiers of both sides were killed. The graves in the compound do not have names or details marked on them.

I requested my companions to let me have a few moments by myself, so they left me alone. I did ardaas for those who lost their lives on this battlefield. I prayed to Waheguru Almighty to give our Sikh Panth similar bravery and spirit as had motivated our ancestors in those heroic times. I expressed my gratitude for all the blessings bestowed by Him on us.

An old man saw our party in the compound and walked up to us. He mentioned that all the graves were those of British officers except one triangular in shape which was supposed to be that of Sikh general, Sher Singh. This cannot be true since I have not found confirmation of General Sher Singh having lost his life at Chillianwala in either Khushwant Singh’s “History of the Sikhs” or Captain Amrinder Singh’s “The Last Sunset: The Rise and Fall of the Lahore Durbar”, which I consulted on this point.

Be that as it may, this one particular gravestone is triangular in shape.

I tried to absorb the entire surroundings. This is how I recharge my spiritual batteries by closing my eyes and imagining how our ancestors performed heroic feats at such places. I imagined the sound of horses galloping across the small hillocks and thorny bushes that adorn the surroundings of the battlefield. I imagined the sound of artillery pieces firing round after round. I felt proud to be a Sikh, inheritor of such a long tradition of bravery and heroism.

Chillianwala washed away, at least for some time, feelings of pessimism that sometimes assail me in moments of weakness when I observe the state of present day Sikh society. I was back with my role models in time.

An account of the Battle of Chillianwala in Capt. Amrinder Singh’s book, “The Last Sunset”, mentions that the then Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie, decided to relieve the English General, Lord Gough, of his command following his inability to defeat the Sikh forces at Chillianwala. Sikh valour caused so much consternation even back in England that the Duke of Wellington - of Waterloo fame - then nearly 80 years old, appealed to Sir Charles Napier to proceed to India to take command of British troops in the Second Anglo-Sikh War, failing which he, the Duke himself, would have to do so.

This gives an idea of just how much Sikh heroism and valour on the battlefield had destabilised the British.

My host, the former Secretary to the government of Pakistan, was not very familiar with the facts about Chillianwala. I explained to him on the battlefield as much as my limited knowledge allowed. The serenity of the surroundings, with the village of Chillianwala peacefully nestling in the background, starkly contrasted with my imagination of the sounds of battle raging all around us at the place where we stood.

A local person told me that there were hardly any visitors to the site. It does not seem to be on the itinerary of Sikhs who proceed to Pakistan to mainly pay obeisance at our main gurdwaras like Punja Sahib and Nankana Sahib.

I hope that this report about my visit to Chillianwala motivates at least some readers to develop curiosity about visiting similar sites of Sikh valour and heroism.

I remembered the famous lines from Shah Mohammad's Varaa(n): “Jey hovey sarkaar taa(n) mul paavey khalsey ney jo teghaa(n) mariaa(n) nee(n); shah mohammada ik sarkaar bajho(n), faujaan jit key vi aj nu(n) haariaa(n) nee(n)” -  from his epic account of the Anglo-Sikh Wars.

We left Chillianwala after an hour or so spent on site. We visited the local farm and race horse breeding stud farm of one of our hosts, a very hospitable man, a representative of true Punjabi culture.

Hearing all my companions talking chaste Punjabi was like music to my ears. On the Indian side it is nowadays extremely rare to hear such chaste Punjabi, at least in the circles I seem to move around in. I was the only one dressed in a shirt and trousers. All my hosts, rich powerful men without an exception, were dressed in kurtas and salwars, so much more comfortable than my dress. I felt really silly at not having travelled to Pakistan in similarly comfortable clothes.

The confidence of Punjabi-speaking Pakistanis is infectious. They have no inhibitions whatsoever in speaking Punjabi. The houses that I visited were palatial. One of my companions had a house constructed on five acres of land, with several buildings in the outer walled compound. We had lavish snacks and drinks (all non-alcoholic, another major difference from the Indian/Bollywood Punjab) at this house before I continued my journey on to Lahore where I spent the night.

Accompanied by my Pakistani former-civil-servant host, we reached Lahore around 19.20 pm. At my request, we proceeded straight to Gurdwara Dera Sahib, next to the Badshahi Mosque. Dera Sahib, for those Sikhs who might not know it, is the site of our fifth Master, Guru Arjan's martyrdom. I was just in time to join the evening ardaas, followed by the subsequent procession in which Guru Granth Sahib was carried for sukh-aasan for the night. The entire sangat consisted of four persons and I was able to be the fifth.

I considered this as a sublime finale to a most remarkable day. The fact of having been able to pay my respects at Guru Arjan's martyrdom site after a day spent at Chillianwala capped a special day in my life.

I shall carry the memory all my life.

After my two visits to Pakistan, some lines in our daily evening ardaas now have a special meaning for me when, at the very end, we pray to Waheguru Almighty to bless us with “darshan deedaar” of our shrines left behind in Pakistan after the Partition of Punjab.

My visit to Chillianwala shall mark an unforgettable event in my life, one that I hope to narrate to as many Sikh youngsters as I can to make them aware of our past which could guide us in our future.


November 4, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), November 04, 2011, 9:44 AM.

Thank you for writing details about the Sikh army during the so-called Anglo-Sikh Wars and their sacrifices. But it is our shame that we as a whole have not told our stories well. I believe, based on surveys, that we do not read too much history. Our history is not discussed in gurdwaras. We seem to neglect history in all aspects of our lives.

2: Taran (London, United Kingdom), November 04, 2011, 10:27 AM.

Thanks for sharing your privileged experience. How can a common man Sikh/Punjabi who loves his culture/history go about visiting these places? Obviously the writer seems to come from a well-to-do background and seems quite influential. But ordinary people of Punjab and elsewhere find it hard even to get a tourist visa to Pakistan. And as far as the true Punjabi hospitality of Pakistani Punjab is concerned, I guess it's more to do with your personal contacts as a few years ago one of my friends told me that he went to Pakistan for a cultural trip with a Bhangra team from a college in Ludhiana and as they were performing they were abused and thrown rotten tomatoes. They were called names, etc. And no matter how much we want to educate ourselves and our coming generations about Chillianwala and other historical/religious places, we cannot do that unless there is a concerted govt./organizational/public effort on both sides.

3: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), November 04, 2011, 11:14 AM.

Taran: If you hold a passport from, say, the U.K., U.S.A., Canada, etc., you should be able to get a visa to Pakistan - as long as you don't go there with an ulterior agenda. Secondly, it has been the experience of everybody that I know, and of myself, that you are treated like a VIP in Pakistan if you are identifiable as a Sikh. The 'stories' you have heard are anecdotal and not factual; more often than not, they are what one would call "urban legends"; they are exaggerated; there may have been a few incidents during times of tension between India and Pakistan, but they are not the norm; and these are mostly fibs circulated by pro-India vested interests that are keen on discouraging Sikhs from having closer relationship with West Punjabis. In my several trips to Pakistan - and I have traveled freely, alone, all over, including as far as the Khyber! at several times - I have never encountered a single incident which has been less than incredibly warm and hospitable on the part of even total strangers. And you'll note, Dr. Jogishwar Singh hasn't mentioned a single negative experience in his detailed account! Finally, I would say - I believe it is a must for all Sikhs (or those who can) to go to West Punjab at least once and realize what we lost, what is still ours, and what is simply not to be found in India. If we can afford annual trips back to see family in India, we can turn one of those trips to a trip to West Punjab. So, you see, you don't have to be rich to make such a trip either. We just need to broaden our horizon a bit, and re-allocate our resources and priorities.

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 04, 2011, 11:53 AM.

The human brain is such a wonderful computer that stores old pictures and memories long forgotten for years and buried. Suddenly a time comes when the veil of time is pierced and the nostalgic memories come pouring out and enticingly beckon you.. Thank you, Jogishwar Singh ji, for rending the veil and taking us on time-travel. What more shall I say, I am now back in the Lyallpur (now Faizalabad) of my childhood, with the 'Ghanta Ghar', the presiding deity and the spokes of eight bazaars that I still lovingly remember the names of - both clockwise and anti-clockwise!

5: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), November 04, 2011, 4:39 PM.

Thanks for reviving the story of the Battle of Chillianvela where Sikhs won over the treacherous British. You are right, Raja Sher Singh did not die during this battle. He showed exemplary courage and leadership along with Sardar Ranjodh Singh Majithia. He won the day for the Sikhs. This was the battle which was fought in a Muslim dominated area. Muslims remained loyal to Ranjit Singh till the very end. We need to maintain this site intact somehow, since memorials of the Anglo-Sikh wars are crumbling.

6: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.), November 04, 2011, 5:19 PM.

Thanks for the lovely narration. I am inspired to go to this place now.

7: Kirpal Singh (DaytonaBeach, Florida, U.S.A.), November 04, 2011, 6:42 PM.

Sir, you have certainly inspired me to visit Pakistan and share our heritage with my grandchildren. Thank you very much!

8: Raj (Canada), November 04, 2011, 10:47 PM.

Like any Sikh born after so-called independence, I was taught to see Pakistanis with suspicion, until I came to Canada. After dealing with a few Pakistani Punjabis, I found I had more in common with them than Indians. That's when I understood the true meaning of the couplet, "jang hind punjab da hon laggaa ..." Since then, I consider myself a Punjabi, not Indian. I hope to visit the other Punjab one day.

9: Ahmed (Pakistan), November 07, 2011, 6:35 AM.

I belong to Chilliawala and let me assure all our Sikh friends they will be greeted with a red carpet and flowers if they want to visit West Punjab anytime. I lived in the United Kingdom for a few years and many of my closest friends were Sikh. They would tell me that they did not find any difference between me and them as they felt closer to me than any non-Sikh Indians. As well, my Pakistani friends who live outside the country and have had contact with Sikhs tell me how genuinely Sikhs greet you once they know you are from West Punjab. I've never found any difference between me and my Sikh brothers as we share the same culture and the same mother tongue. I hope one day East and West Punjabis will be freely able to visit each other.

10: Hardeep Kaur (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), November 08, 2011, 4:06 AM.

After 22 years in Canada, I have come back to Punjab, India. While planning this trip language never crossed my mind as a possible obstacle, as I come from a Punjabi speaking family and practice the language on a daily basis. However, to my surprise, I'm having a lot of trouble understanding my family here! I understand language is ever-changing but I was surprised by the amount of Hindi mixed into their Punjabi now. When questioned, they assured me that my Punjabi was the "old, paindu (village) Punjabi" while their's was the "educated person's Punjabi" and I was encouraged to update my vocabulary. Looks like I'm going to have to visit Pakistan to get what is now left of the Punjabi experience. Thank you for sharing the details of your trip!

11: Satpal Singh Bhatia (Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A.), June 03, 2012, 10:55 AM.

We lived at this village from 1944-1947. My father was Medical Officer in the hospital half a mile from the monument (the building now houses a girls' school). The adjacent building is a boys' school which I attended from Grade 6 to Middle school. Re Sardar Sher Singh: He did not die in this battle; he lived to fight the following battle at Gujrat where he tendered complete surrender, along with his father Chatter Singh, then Governor of Hazara. Incidentally, I was friends with S. Kirpal Singh, the artist who created the famous series of Sikh historical paintings. Inspired by him, I am doing reverse engineering: My work on the period 1598-1849, defining events relating to the rise of Sikhism is near completion and possibly could be published this year. I am 78 and not a historian; I have been an engineer and turned to history in retirement. [EDITOR: It'll be great if you will share your findings in article form with our readers. You can send your submissions to]

12: Ch. Muhammad Aasim (Chillianwala, Punjab, Pakistan), January 09, 2013, 11:54 PM.

It makes me proud to read your comments about my native place. I am very thankful to all of you but one issue is always uppermost for me. We need to join hands with the Sikh community to make the village a more visitable place for the Sikh communnity and the next generation. Locally, we do not have the resources. Punjabi hospitality will be provided to you whenever you will visit my village.

13: Nadeem Ahmed  (Chillianwala, Punjab, Pakistan), July 03, 2013, 6:46 AM.

It's an honour to read your experience visiting Chiliianwala. Till this day our elders tell us how we were all united when the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims lived here. They hold a great deal of respect for all communities, as they even did at the partition time ... how all elders helped their neighbours and friends get to India safely. We welcome anyone who wishes to visit Chillianwala ... it's a duty upon us to take care of our respected guests. Pakistan is not what it's being potrayed by the international media ... our doors are open for everyone.

14: Chaudhary Akhtar Mahmood (East Lansing, Michigan, USA), March 29, 2016, 10:02 PM.

A beautiful narrative. Being a native of Chillianwala, reading the article took me back into memory lane. I was always looking for the history of the Battle of Chillianwala. Fortunately I got hold of a book by a retired Major. It says that the British army was inflicted with heavy losses on the first day of fighting, that night it rained, and being winter, British troops had nowhere to shelter, while the Khalsa troops got food and shelter from the native tribes. Sikh troops did not hunt down the disarrayed British troops that night. Had they done so, the outcome would have been different, and the chapter of 200 years of Farangi Ghulami would never have been part of the history of the subcontinent.

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