One fascinating aspect of inter-city mobility the world over during the pre-motorised era was the use of rivers. That is why cities sprouted on river banks. In days of old the River Ravi snaked around the old city of Lahore.
For this very reason the old walled city of Lahore had a harbour at the old Khizri Gate, now known as Sheranwala Gate. Name changing in the old walled city seems to be a reflection of the times as they change. Khizri Gate was named after the saint Khawaja Khizr, the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. This was so because of the harbour that existed there before horse carriages started plying the new highways. It was Maharajah Ranjit Singh who changed the name after he tied two lions on each side of the gateway. The children of the area used to pelt them with stones, killing them in the process. The ruler took a benign view of the matter and placed two stone statues of lions there. Just last year a trader-politician knocked them down to make way for his concrete plaza.
But why were the lions placed there in the first place. This has always been on my mind. The answer came recently when I was researching documents of the Royal Geographical Society in London on the trip up the River Indus to Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s Lahore Darbar by Sir Alexander Burnes. The British had informed the Sikh ruler that the ruler of England, King William IV, wished to send to the ruler of Lahore special presents, they being five beautiful and rare English steeds and a gold-lined carriage to suit his high status.
This was music to the horse-loving Ranjit Singh, who in his lifetime had fought a war with Afghan rulers and sacrificed over 12,000 soldiers just to get possession of a well-known horse known as ‘Asp-e-Laila’. The entire Lahore city was scrubbed and water sprayed for two days, as was the route, so that his ‘Asp-e-Laila’ did not suffer the dust. The horse was housed near his restroom inside the fort, while over 1,000 other expensive horses were housed inside and in front of the Badshahi Mosque.
The offer of the English king was not a simple matter. The material available from the archives tell us that the proposal was to secretly survey the Indus for future military purposes, and proposals were sought on how to achieve it. Alexander Burnes was then posted in lower Sindh – in British-controlled Kutch – as an assistant to the political agent. He suggested that if the British monarch presented the Sikh ruler with five of the best horses and a carriage to suit his status, the Lahore Darbar would fall for it and would support the mission travelling to Lahore.
The London bureaucracy had objected to the five ‘country boats’ to be used as dangerous for, the documents tell us: “surely the horses will die”. Burnes assured them that if the rulers of Sindh did not oppose the large country boats to be used for the trip (and secret ‘surveying’), it was a reasonably safe trip.
It took two years for London’s bureaucracy to clear the proposal presented by Lord Amherst, the Governor General, and the strategic purpose was to “survey an unknown great river … and it would pave the way for an assault on Sindh, and once conditions presented themselves, for an assault on Punjab from the south, as well as would open the road to Central Asia”. So it was that Burnes and the surveyor Henry Pottinger and his team set off up the Indus towards their ultimate destination, that being Lahore’s Khizri Gate on the River Ravi.
So on the 21st of January 1831, the five-boat flotilla set off. The Amir of Sindh moved to stop the boats, but Maharajah Ranjit Singh sent troops to the border and using the offices of his Governor in Multan, Dewan Sawan Mai, he sent a polite threat of war if the horses were stopped. The Sindhi ruler relented, for he very correctly suspected that the British were using this as an excuse to one day invade Sindh on one pretext or another. His fears, ultimately, proved correct.
It took 126 days for this expedition to reach Bahawalpur, where the Nawab entertained the expedition and looked after the horses. In this long and slow-paced boat movement the surveyors had managed to get all the information they needed and updated their maps, which even today are fairly accurate.
Once the flotilla reached the territory under Maharajah Ranjit Singh, it was received by Sardar Lehna Singh Majithia, who provided a highly-decorated elephant to Burnes to proceed in comfort. Sikh guards were posted on all the boats and so from this point onwards we see the flotilla of ‘surveyors’ proceed much faster. Within 51 days with five day-long stops, the flotilla reached Khizri Gate on the 17th of July, 1831.
A grand reception awaited the British team with two live lions roaring as the party entered the city and onwards towards the fort. That is why the lions come into the picture. The team was rested for three days before they were allowed to meet the maharajah, who had called a grand ‘Darbar’ with all his courtiers dressed elegantly and decorated with the finest jewels.
On the 21st of July, 1931, Lieutenant Burnes met the Sikh ruler and presented him with the precious gifts. One account tells of the Sikh ruler so entranced with the horses and the gold-gilded carriage that for over two hours he forgot to speak to his guests. The British guests also presented a gold bag containing the letter with a Royal Seal from King William. Once the bag was opened guns were fired from the ramparts of the Lahore Fort.
For one whole week the delegation was entertained by the maharajah, who also showed them his modern troops and all his guns and equipment, as well as their newly-acquired modern military drills thanks to the French. It seems the crafty Sikh ruler wanted to impress on the visitors his military power, a soft indication to stay away. On their departure a costly bow with inlaid work and a decorated quiver, along with a beautiful horse covered in a Kashmiri shawl was presented, along with every member being given costly robes and gold jewellery with a diamond inset.
On the 21st of August, 1831, the delegation left for British-occupied India and swiftly headed to Simla to report on the geographical details of the entire route to the Governor-General, as well as a report by Burnes of the military prowess of the Sikh Army.
Burnes was to go on to become a major spy for the British, leading important spying teams into Central Asia. His reports back earned him the title of ‘Bokhara Burnes’. His travelogue ‘Travels into Bokhara’ became an instant bestseller in 1835.
Burnes was born in Scotland and at the age of 16 he joined the East India Company and learnt Persian and Urdu. He was posted in Kutch in 1826 as an assistant to the political agent. His interest in the history and geography in North-Western India and Afghanistan and beyond was the main reason he was selected for important exploratory and espionage missions. He was to head to Bokhara and into Persia. His achievements for the British earned him a knighthood, for the knowledge he had acquired played a major role in British expansion in these territories.
Viceroy Lord Auckland initially did not listen to his advice to back Dost Muhammad, for his dispatch states: “By my reckoning Dost Muhammad is more reliable than Shah Shuja”. The massacre of the British in the First Afghan War led to his advice being taken much more seriously. In 1839 he was posted in Kabul, only to be assassinated in 1841. The events that led to his killing became a House of Commons inquiry. Allegations of ‘womanising’ also came up during the proceedings.
But that amazing trip up the Indus and on to the River Ravi ending at Khizri Gate with two live lions welcoming them led to the name of the gateway becoming Sheranwala Darwaza. The crafty maharajah managed to keep the British at bay, while Sindh suffered a dissimilar fate. So it is that names were changed and history embedded itself in these changes.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2018