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Vahali State — a gem in the Salt Range

April 19, 2015

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Resham Bee and Haji Nazar Mohammad, the two senior citizens  of the village.
Resham Bee and Haji Nazar Mohammad, the two senior citizens of the village.

Though the entire area of the Salt Range is scenic, the nature has been more generous on Jhangar Valley. The fascinating valley is a vast hilly area located on the left side of Choa Saidan Shah. Dotted with historic sites such as Kussak, Makhialah and Nandna forts, the valley is also blessed with the highest point (Chehal Abdal) in the districts of Chakwal, Jhelum and Mianwali.

All the villages located in this belt attract visitors but the most fascinating is Vahali Zer village located on the left side of Basharat Road.

The village situated on a hilltop has fertile fields in front of it. The people of Chakwal have little knowledge about the history of Vahali. Even the villagers themselves offer scanty account about the history of their village.

In the backyard of a small house lives Resham Bee. Having a feeble body and a face riddled with pimples, this 107-year-old woman spends her life on a small cot. And there is also Haji Nazar Mohammad who is the age-fellow of Resham but can still be seen walking in the rundown streets.

The historic mosque built with the help of a Hindu trader named Ramtar.
The historic mosque built with the help of a Hindu trader named Ramtar.

A majestic house (called Chobara), which is still well-kempt, is also visible in the village due to its splendid height and construction. Though the gate of the house carries the name of a Muslim owner, the typical construction style shows it was built by a wealthy Sikh. A few yards away stands the crumbled building of a grand house (locally called Mari). The plaques of sandstone installed on the walls of wells, the historic buildings of two primary schools (one for boys and the other for girls), the imposing ceiling of the central mosque and the ruins of a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurdwara show that Vahali was not only once populated by Sikhs and Hindus but also its old natives were amongst the richest. These people were known as the Sardars of Vahali, who in 1909 were declared as the largest landowning family - 14,000 acres in Punjab. This has also been mentioned in Lepel Griffin’s famous and voluminous work, Punjab Chiefs.

Sardars of Vahali were not only the owners of salt mines of Khewrah but also held top positions in the courts of the rulers of Punjab and Kashmir - from the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to the Rajas of Kashmir and Poonch and the British government.

Once there were 128 wells in the Vahali village and sugarcanes grown in its fields were exported across India.

A view of Vahali village which is known for its eye-catching natural beauty. —Photos by the writer
A view of Vahali village which is known for its eye-catching natural beauty. —Photos by the writer

For decades, the village remained the administrative centre of Sardars of Vahali from where they used to control their landholdings and salt mines. There is no exact account of who laid the foundation of this village. But according to Neha Singh Gohil, a scholar on the Sardars of Vahali, the earliest ancestor of Vahali was Sardar Diwan Karn Mal who served as an adviser in the court of Shah Jahan. “He advised the emperor to begin building large-scale projects as it would add to his legacy and create jobs within the kingdom. Diwan Karn Mal personally supervised the building and laying out of the gardens at Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan’s greatest architectural achievement. Years later, Diwan Karn Mal was executed by Emperor Aurangzeb because he refused to adopt Islam,” she writes.

According to Neha Singh Gohil, the family’s original surname was “Jauhar” and Diwan Karn Mal’s great grandson Baba Sehaj Singh is said to be the first Sikh in the family line while prior to him the family practiced orthodox Hinduism in the Muslim Darbar. “For at least two generations after Baba Sehaj Singh, only one son in the family was made a Sikh and took on the title of Sardar and the surname ‘Singh’.” The remaining sons in each of the two successive generations were practicing Hindus who kept ‘Jauhar’ as their surnames.

The plaque installed at DHQ Hospital bearing the name of Jawala Devi.
The plaque installed at DHQ Hospital bearing the name of Jawala Devi.

Baba Sehaj Singh had four sons: Dasonwandhi Ram, Karam Chand, Bhag Singh and Dharam Chand. Dharam Chand – the youngest – died in his infancy. Bhag Singh became a soldier who raised the family’s wealth and status to a new level in the early 19th century.

Bhag Singh served as the commander in the army of Maharaja of Poonch Sardar Moti Singh. After his death, his son Sardfar Hara Singh was made a minister. It was Sardar Hara Singh who played a vital role in building the Poonch state besides organising various state departments and developing territory’s resources. In lieu of his services, Maharaja awarded him with several villages.

“In 1865, Hara Singh was given the title of Wazir Azam, Mukhtar Kul, Madarul Manani of Poonch. With this position came the hereditary title of ‘Sardar’ and the village of Kalhota, which was added to his jagir,” writes Neha Singh Gohil. In addition to these gifts, he was awarded several business contracts under which all salt sold in Poonch would only come from the mines of Khewrah and Vahali.

“The family also held monopolies on the sale of Kuth (buckwheat), Chikari wood and Chil wood in Poonch. To facilitate these trading revenues, Sardar Hara Singh also established side businesses in money lending and banking in Poonch, Wahali, Rawalpindi and Pind Dadan Khan. By the time he passed away, Sardar Hara Singh had amassed a substantial fortune.”

After the death of Sardar Hara Singh, his son Kartar Singh became a minister and also the head of Vahali family at the tender age of 14. He raised the family’s honour and wealth to a new height. After his death, his son Sardar Hari Singh followed suit. According to Resham Bee, Haji Nazar Mohammad and other villagers, it was Sardar Hari Singh who built the Mari in the village. “The Mari had more than 100 rooms and was a three-storey building,” says Resham Bee.

Among Sardar Hari Singh’s three sons born from his first wife Lakshmi Devi, the Sardarni of Chutala -granddaughter of Sardar Bishan Singh (who served as a general in the Sikh army), it was Sardar Darshan Singh who raised the Vahali state to a new height. “Darshan Singh enjoyed a lavish life. He lived between grand havelis in Rawalpindi, Jhelum and Wahali. In each, he slept on beds and received guests on sofas made of silver. He had a personal valet, Om Prakash, and a personal accountant, Buta Singh. Both men accompanied him everywhere. His family took meals prepared by a slew of servants on plates made of solid silver and engraved with his initials. Every member of the family dressed formally for dinner in suits, ties and heavy jewellery,” says Neha Singh Gohil.

There were many notable Hindus living in the village. Resham Bee and Haji Nazar Mohammad still remember the names of Ramtar and Chimman Das, both wealthy Hindu traders of gold and timber. “Ramtar Singh donated wood of cedar for the ceiling of the mosque that was built a couple of years before the partition,” says Haji Nazar Mohammad.

Jawala Devi, another rich Hindu woman, donated land for the construction of a women hospital in Chakwal city which is now known as the District Headquarters Hospital.

When the British government announced the partition of India in August 1947, Sardar Darshan Singh along with other Sikh members of the Vahali family were enjoying the summer in Shimla from where they never returned.

“We were living with peace and harmony. My best friends were Hindu women. I still remember the names of Parmeshri, Mono and Kishwar with whom I would go to the wells for fetching water,” says Resham Bee.

She adds that the Muslims of Vahali did not plan to attack Hindus but a group of rioters from the neighbouring Minhala village stormed Vahali and burnt it. According to the villagers, some 200 Hindus, including women and children, were burnt alive in Vahali.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2015

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