Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


It seems improbable today that just 180 years ago within the precinct of the Nila Gumbad just off Anarkali Bazaar was an armament workshop, and that where today stands the railway locomotive workshop in Mughalpura was, in Sikh days, a cannon manufacturing foundry. In all honesty I am against manufacturing guns and pistols, let alone artillery pieces and massive brass undertakings like the Zamzama Cannon, known to the world as ‘Kim’s Gun’, a symbol of our city. But then Lahore has always been a cantonment city, as well as a city of gardens and poets and culture and excellent food. The gardens our illiterate rulers have covered with housing plots, while the few remaining trees seem to irritate them. But in this piece let me dwell on the tradition of cannon manufacturing that made this city famous in the Mughal and Sikh era. It is story never told before, and though I am against guns in any form the sad fact remains that my great-grandfather set up a huge arms manufacturing factory in Amritsar. He made them for the Sikhs and in his old age supplied them to the British. I refuse to carry that burden of guilt.

The very first cannons came to Lahore in the shape of a gentleman by the name of Ustad Ali Quli, a Turkish gun manufacturer. He came along with the army of Mughal invader Babar, who ransacked the city and burnt it down after ravishing it for seven days and nights, a Mughal tradition in which no house or woman was safe. But Babar consolidated his power and set about Ustad Ali Quli to manufacture cannons in Lahore. These he used for the very first time in India in the First Battle of Panipat. Most of my information on this aspect of the story I have taken from ‘Tuzak-e-Babari’, as translated by Stanley Lane-Poole.

After conquering Kabul in 1504-5, he consolidated and in 1519 set off towards India to first capture the fort of Bajaur, slitting the throats of each and every inhabitant. Then in an initial eastwards movement he suddenly turned south to take Bhera, but here he merely imposed a tax, installed his officials and returned to Kabul. He was looking far ahead. The vast sub-continent was just too much to take on in conventional warfare terms. A quantum technological leap was needed. So he planned to manufacture cannons. He came to India five times after that, in the fifth he took Lahore, burnt and ravished it and set up an armament workshop under Ustad Ali Quli, who settled in the city in what, by my research imperfect that it is, was inside Lahori Gate in a ‘mohallah’ that is still known as ‘Kucha Ali Quli’. This is near Mohallah Maullian, probably the oldest habituated locality in the old walled city. In the context of time this makes sense.

Here we must pause to understand the ‘formal’ reasons Lahore was important. The Subedar under the ruler Ibrahim Lodhi was Daulat Khan, a cruel Afghan who wanted to break away. He invited Babar to take over Lahore. As fate would have it the uncle of Ibrahim Lodhi, by name Abdullah but known as ‘Alam Khan’ also wanted assistance to overthrow the king in Delhi. So to Lahore came Babar from Kabul. I have no idea of the location of the workshop, but one account by Pavet de Courteille, who translated the memoirs of Babar’s daughter Gul Badan – the original is in the rare manuscript section of the British Museum Library, London – the location was “a kos” to the east of Lahore. This site has great significance in Lahore’s history. Just for the record the ‘betrayer’ Alam Khan again tried to betray Babar, who has ‘swifter’ methods to deal with such persons.

Now this location might well be where 280 years later Dr. Martin Honigberger and Sardar Lahina Singh Majithia, assisted by the great artillery general Mian Ghausia of Kucha Chabaksawaran inside Mochi Gate, set up a massive artillery manufacturing workshop. Greater significance is added because at this very place the British, given the existing infrastructure of the Sikh era, set up the Mughalpura Railways Workshops. Mind you Mughalpura itself came about because of the importance of the original Mughal cannon workshop.

The guns manufactured here, and also those brought from Kabul, formed the 700-strong artillery barrage line, the sight of which had never been seen before in India. As the Rajput forces supporting Lodhi attacked, backed by elephants, they were decimated. What happened then is well-known. In a few hours it was over. But this battle saw the advent of artillery as a major battle changer, as it did also see the end of ‘elephant warfare’ as a major offensive strategic weapon.

At this place much later Akbar the Great expanded the artillery workshop and introduced lighter artillery pieces, which thanks to assistance from Jesuit priests from Goa and the drawings they brought to him from Lisbon, the first horse-drawn light artillery pieces were manufactured. If you visit the Diwan-e-Khaas inside the Lahore Fort, you can see a miniature painting on the wall of a ‘zumburck’, a camel artillery piece. Also an excellent painting exists of these cannons in the house of Mian Salahuddin in Chunna Mandi, which I once had the pleasure of seeing after climbing a wall to see it located in a dark crevice in the old house, which once belonged to a Sikh general of the Khalsa Army.

Sadly, when Aurangzeb tried to use them in the hilly terrains of south India against the Marathas, they resorted to guerrilla tactics. It was a wise move. Honour does not win battles. In the Punjab the Sikh were quick to learn and their amazing hit and run tactics using fast horses effectively dislodged the Mughals and the invading Afghan rulers. It was clear that in conventional warfare they needed better quality far-reaching smaller artillery pieces with greater accuracy.

When Maharajah Ranjit Singh came to power in 1799, he was eager to build his Khalsa Army. The descendants of Ustad Ali Quli still lived inside the walled city. Among the first gestures he made, thanks to a suggestion by the famous Fakir family, was to personally visit the house of the head of the Ali Quli family. Given this honour great artillery generals like Mian Qadir Bakhsh, Ghaus Muhammad Khan (known as Mian Ghausia) and Sheikh Elahi Bakhsh came to the fore and very soon the Mughalpura workshop had new foundries.

With assistance from French generals Allard and Ventura, as well as Court, and much later help from an American colonel named Alexander Gardner, and also thanks to his immensely effective intelligence network operating behind British lines, artillery pieces better than the British were being manufactured in Lahore. By 1830 he had over 100 horse-drawn artillery pieces. In the Battle of Chillianwala, the Sikhs had over 500 artillery pieces, and the Muslim gunners of Lahore put the British to flight. It was betrayal by the top Sikh generals that lost a battle already won. Punjabi leaders had betrayed their people.

The British turned the site into a railway workshop, the largest in the sub-continent. After 1947 with the coming the military dictators this site fell into disrepair. Now I understand that the same workshop has been activated to repair and assemble railway engines and carriages. As I live near the railway track, more trains, it seems, are passing. I just hope it is not an illusion, for this place has a great past. It is time that the furnace fires started almost 500 years ago burn hotter and endlessly, but all for a peaceful purpose only.