Archive: Feb 2017

  1. India blog 3: A trip to a hero’s village

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    As part of my research and filming trip in India, I’ve been fortunate to visit Jhorran village near Jagroan in Punjab. It’s where Havildar (or Sergeant) Ishar Singh, who lead the men at Saragarhi, was born. Today, there stands in his homestead a memorial erected by the 4 Sikh regiment, descendant of the 36th Sikhs.

    Jay Singh-Sohal standing beside the memorial

    The monument is a special one, after the memorial Gurdwara’s built in Amritsar and Ferozepur by the British (as well as the cairn and obelisk built on the Samana itself) this was unveiled in 1997 by 4 Sikh to mark the centenary anniversary of the battle. While the bust purports to show Ishar Singh, written in Punjabi on the marble are the names of the 20 soldiers who fought beside him AND ‘safai wala Dadh’ or the cleaner Dadh, the often overlooked non-combatant who was also at Saragarhi.

    Curiously, next door to the home of the soldier Ishar Singh in 1913 was born Baba Ishar Singh (Rara Sahib) a saint who dedicated himself to prayer and serving others. You can just make out the Gurdwara Sahib (place of worship) in the side of the photo of the memorial. We spoke to the head granthi or priest who informed us that every year in honour of Havildar Ishar Singh there is a regimental ceremony that take place in which prayers are said and dhadhi (war ballads) are sung.

    So what do we know about Ishar Singh*? It’s believed he was born in 1858, which would be a significant year as it was during the India Mutiny. At the age of 19, Ishar Singh is said to have joined the Punjab Frontier Force. Sikhs were being recruited into the ‘Pffiers’ quiet heavily during this period to be sent to serve on the frontier. It kept men of fighting age away from the Punjab after the fall of the Sikh Kingdom, and helped check an age old enemy in the Pathans.

    Close up of the bust – note that the cap badge is wrong, its the current 4 Sikh one and not the 36th Sikh emblem, which was simply the chakar

    It would have appealed to many young men like Ishar Singh, it was a chance to earn a stable income and do something different to farm labour.  And it was a chance for adventure, to live like past Sikh heroes who had fought the Pathans and defend India from their invasions. Albeit now in service of British Indian interests.

    With the Piffers, Ishar Singh would have spent much of his time on the frontier with Afghanistan, and this is seen in his late marriage in 1893 – at the age of 35/36. He only had a month at home with his new wife before he was back on duty in Peshawar. He would be stationed on the frontier from 1894 until his death in 1897.

    At some point in the early 1890’s Ishar Singh transferred to the 36th Sikhs, the exact timing and details I will look into, but what we do know is that the new sister regiments of the 35th and 36th were recruiting heavily and some men from other Sikh and Punjabi units were transferred across to bring up the manpower. It could be that the transfer was related to his promotion, he rose to the rank of Havildar in 1892.

    Nonetheless, Havildar Ishar Singh was both senior and seasoned enough in frontier warfare for the commander of his regiment, Lt Col John Haughton to entrust him with manning the post at Saragarhi. Exactly when Ishar Singh was tasked with the role is unknown, the 36th were on the Samana from December 1896 onwards – and so it could be from that point when all the forts and posts were strengthened. We do know that during August/early September Haughton moved sepoys around from Lockhart to Gulistan and other posts in order to best combat the thousands upon thousands of tribesmen who were attacking the positions.

    The 4 Sikh regt of the Indian Army, descendant of the 36th (Sikh) Regiment of Bengal Infantry

    There can be no doubt that the odds were stacked up against Ishar Singh and the 20 jawans at Saragarhi: they were surrounded by a force of 10,000 enemy tribesmen and with a limited number of rounds of ammunition – just 400 each. It took a resolute and strong leader in Havildar Ishar Singh to be staunch and steadfast and not scared or intimidated by the enemy.  This is reflected in the Sikh national anthem:

    Supreme Lord, grant me this boon that I may never falter in performing righteous actions.
    When I fight my enemies may I not be a bit intimidated by them, may I be victorious.
    That I may instruct my mind to continuously crave to utter Your praises.
    And when my mortal life comes to an end, may I die fighting fiercely in battle.

    Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji

    So what did Ishar Singh do? He inspired his men to fight to the bitter end. With the Guru’s words in their thoughts that a single Sikh would be empowered to fight hundreds of thousands. To live up to the expectation of the Khalsa creed and for the glory of their race the Sikhs put up a stubborn defence for nearly seven hours, repelling two attacks and countless sniper shots.


    The men died but their deeds have and will continue to inspire future generations to serve a greater cause and undertake public service.

    *Details drawn from research undertaken by Gurinderpal Singh Josan, New York.
  2. India blog 2: Amritsar’s neglected heritage

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    *** Watch “Saragarhi Live: Amritsar Memorial – click here ***

    We continued our trip in India with a visit to Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs. It is well known that the city is home to Sri Harimandir Sahib (the “Golden Temple” herein GT) and Sikhs make regular pilgrimage to it to take a dip in the holy water. It is also known that opposite the most sacred of sites for Sikhs is the Sri Akal Takht, the Sikh parliament if you like, where political edicts governing the faith and community are discussed and issued.

    But Amritsar is a special place for many many more reasons, for the city also hosts a wide variety of shrines and sites associated with Sikh history, from the recently restored Loh Garh fort built by the 6th Guru Hargobind Sahib ji in the mid 17th century to defend Amritsar, through to the locations within the GT complex in which Sikh warrior saints Baba Duleep Singh ji and Baba Gurbakhs Singh ji laid down their severed heads AFTER battling on whilst decapitated against Mughal forces!

    Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara Amritsar

    Many visitors to the holy city will not know of the significance of another memorial shrine built in the heart of Sikhdom. This is the Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara (seen to the left). It is now dwarfed by a hostel for foreign visitors built around it, a travesty as the memorial was originally placed in a nice garden (as was the one at Ferozepur which is still maintained). But there should be no excuse to not know about or visit this place – it is right opposite the main Saragarhi car park which most visitors use!

    It’s sad to see this memorial shrine in its current state and the proximity of other buildings on the new Heritage walkway which leads to the GT. My only hope is that the authorities, who are still undertaking some building around the new walkway, might use the empty land to the left of the Gurdwara to create some greenery where visitors can sit, discover and contemplate the bravery of the Sikhs on the Samana in 1897.

    The Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara has a fascinating history which deserves wider recognition. It was unveiled in April 1902, during the special time of Vaisakhi when the Khalsa brotherhood was created by Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji.  Vaisakhi is a time of gathering for Sikhs, to become like the Guru and take initiation into the Khalsa brotherhood and to abide by a code of  ethics and conduct (for more info I recommend reading Sikh Code of Conduct).

    It is not surprising that the unveiling took place at this time, it’s a simple and effective information campaign (more in a future blog post). The British were seeking to use the battle to inspire greater contribution of Sikhs in the British Indian Army, particularly on the frontier. Making the connection to the founding principles in the creation of the Khalsa by opening the memorial Gurdwara at this time created a strong sense of Sikh belief and empowerment – for the use of the British. But how useful it indeed proved, when the Great War erupted 12 years later.

    The memorial unveiling in April 1902

    With this in mind then back to the unveiling (seen left), the Commander in Chief of Punjab General Sir Arthur Power Palmer, unveiled the monument saying that it was created to show the  “spontaneous appreciation of the gallantry of a representative detachment of the Sikh nation, proving that they possess one of the finest of soldierly characteristics – namely that they prefer death to surrender.” The unveiling was attended by dignitaries and a guard of honour of the 36th Sikhs was formed.

    The General finished by saying that this memorial was: “erected at the headquarters of the Sikh religion, in order that as long as the British rule lasted the brave Sikh soldiers of the King might realise that their deeds would never be forgotten.”

    I’m pleased to say that in Britain today, through the work we’re doing with the British Army, we have put remembrance of Saragarhi and how it can inspire acts of public service back onto the agenda – read more about Saragarhi Day 2016 here.

    The memorial contains tablets on each of the four walls, and much like the Saragarhi monument at Ferozepur, they are each written in English, Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. On the Amritsar tablet, the inscription reads: “The Government of India have caused this memorial to be erected to the memory of the twenty-one non-commissioned officers and men of the 36th Sikhs whose names are engraved below as a perpetual record of the heroism shewn by these gallant soldiers who died at their posts in the defence of the frontier fort of Saragarhi on the 12th September 1897 fighting against overwhelming numbers thus proving their loyalty and devotion to their sovereign the Queen Empress of India and gloriously maintaining the reputation of the Sikhs for unflinching courage on the field of battle.”

    Jay Singh-Sohal at the Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara Amritsar: click to watch “Saragarhi Live”

    Then, much like the tablets at Ferozepur, follow the regt number, rank and names of the 21.

    Some observations on the wording on the tablets:

    1 – explicit credit given at the onset that the memorial was funded and built by the Government of India – British India
    2 – stating of ‘loyalty and devotion’ to Queen Victoria, certainly not the motivating factor behind their heroics so we can accept this statement as part of the information campaign at the time to show how brave and loyal men should behave towards the Crown. It worked, and this is seen in the ways the native Raja’s and leading Sardars worked to prove their loyalty to the government – we’ll detail more on this in a future post.  BUT this sentiment towards colonial India is now a contentious one which many Indians would not warm to
    3 – the belief that in death the 21 maintain the reputation of the Sikhs ‘for unflinching courage’ is a strong sentiment which cuts to the core of the Khalsa spirit, the belief in standing for a just cause and fighting (much like Baba Deep Singh and Baba Gurbakhs Singh, mentioned earlier) against the greatest of odds. This can and does inspire Sikhs to serve the greater good.

    I end by sharing my experience of visiting the memorial and speaking to the granthi (priest) on duty at the time. He was very warm and even made us a nice cup of tea while we worked!

    We also managed to get enough of a wifi signal to conduct our first foreign Saragarhi Live! You can view the clip of me explaining the memorial via this link here or clip on the photo to the left.



  3. India Blog 1: A visit to Ferozepur’s Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara

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    Jay Singh-Sohal with Gurdwara’s head granthi (priest) Bhai Bilumber Singh “Dastgir”

    We’re in India undertaking research and filming for our forthcoming “Saragarhi: The True Story” documentary.

    On Monday, we visited Ferozepur to see the Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara built there. The monument was funded and built through public subscription to the Pioneer newspaper, in the cantonment area that most of the 21 men that fought and died hailed from.

    It was a wonderful trip, all the more so as aside from filming I also had an opportunity to spend some time and speak to the head granthi (priest) of the Gurdwara Bhai Bilumber Singh “Dastgir” (pictured). We discussed my research and I got to share with the person in charge of performing devotional duties at the Gurdwara my insights into the bravery and heroism of our martyrs and how they can inspire now and into the future to live up to the traditions of the Khalsa. It was a pleasure to present him with a copy of my book.

    The Ferozepur Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara is a special place, the building has protective status meaning it is maintained and within a beautiful green park which cannot be built upon; its a delight to walk around, to think and contemplate. The Gurdwara is well attended, being so close to the cantonment, and I got to see various Sikh and non-Sikh Indian officers and soldiers visit to pay their respects to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib ji (Sikh holy scripture). Langar (free kitchen) is also open to all.  I took much time enjoying my settings!

    On the building are positioned four tablets, one in each direction, which denote the bravery of the 21 Sikhs in English, Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. They say: “This monument is erected to the memory of the men of the 36th regiment of the Punjab infantry who fell in the heroic defence of Fort Saragarhi on September 12 1897 and in the gallant sortie from Fort Gulistan on September 13 1897.  A spontaneous testimony – the result of voluntary subscriptions collected through the Pioneer newspaper Allahabad – from the Anglo-Indian and Indian public to the undying glory which these ever memorable feats of arms brought to the soldiers of the Khalsa and the Army of the British Empire.”

    Below the inscription are the names of the 21 Sikh soldiers alongside their regimental numbers, starting with Havildar Ishar Singh.

    Some historical observations on this:
    1 – the 36th is listed as of the Punjab infantry rather than the Bengal Army
    2 – Saragarhi mentioned as a fort rather than a post
    3 – It’s also fantastic to see special mention also made of the heroism displayed at Gulistan.

    A memorial tablet containing sacred verses

    Inside there are tablets, donated by the Raja of Faridkot H.H Balbir Singh Bahadur in honour of the men of his princely state who fought. They contain sacred verses from scripture that describe how a Sikh should behave in war, inspiring the warrior spirit in all those who read and draw strength from the Guru’s words.


    One of my favourites, as shown, describes how the Khalsa (brotherhood of the pure, Sikhs who are initiated and abide by a code) should behave:

    Khalsa is he who shuns back-biting
    Khalsa is he who fights foremost
    Khalsa is he who respects others’ rights
    Khalsa is he who loves God
    Khalsa is he who devotes himself to the Guru
    Khalsa is he who confronts arms
    Khalsa is he who helps the needy
    Khalsa is he who wages war against evil
    Khalsa is he who rides well
    Khalsa is he who is first in war

    Two Anglo-Sikh war era 9-pound canon stand guard outside the Gurdwara

    This is a powerful statement which echoes the values of the British Army today: courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment.

    Standing guard outside the memorial Gurdwara – are canon placed at each of the four entrances. On the pathway towards the Nishaan Sahib are two 9-pound wheeled carriage gun (pictured). It’s a rare sight as these were melted down for scrap metal and replaced by iron and steel artillery pieces from the 1860s. It’s an ironic twist that these guns, which saw service during the Anglo-Sikh wars are now guarding the sacred Scriptures inside.

    I’ll hold back some insights for the forthcoming documentary, but I truly hope that you’ll read this and if you should ever find yourself in Ferozepur that you will take time out to see this Gurdwara, pay homage to our Sikh heroes who fought on the frontier and enjoy the pleasant surroundings of what is a wonderful piece of heritage being cherished and preserved by Indians who appreciate it’s full value.