The weeping willows of Shabqadar and other marvels at this magnificent fort

Shabqadar fort is definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in the region's Sikh history and colonial rule.
Updated 10 Aug, 2020 02:34pm

After the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, the Sikh rule in Punjab was in doldrums due to palace intrigues and infighting. However, it continued to expand from Amritsar to Peshawar on account of a strong and professional army that it had at its command. One feature of this army was the many European Generals whom Ranjit Singh had acquired after the 1815 battle of Waterloo, following which, these Generals had migrated to Iran and further east. These Generals trained Ranjit Singh's army on modern warfare, especially his 'Fauj i Khaas' brigade, which can be compared to some sort of a special services group. General Jean-Baptiste Ventura was among those European Generals, and for those who do not know, he used to reside in what is now the Chief Secretary's office in Civil Secretariat Lahore.

Peshawar was also under the control of Sikhs, with Italian General Paolo Avitabile (known as Abu Tabela) residing at the site of Gor Khatri. He ruled the city by throwing people off the minarets of Masjid Mahabat Khan as a mark of terror. At that time, communities of various tribes were settled around Peshawar and Sikh forces were stationed some 30 or so kilometres from it at the Shabqadar fort in Mohmand agency. They were also tasked with controlling the tribal factions and communities. One night, in the year 1840, tribesmen from Mohmand attacked the fort and were able to break the huge wooden gates at its main entrance. This was followed by a slaughter of Sikh forces that were stationed at the fort after which the tribesmen withdrew from the battleground.

The 1837 Shabqadar Fort is a witness history spanning almost 200 years — from being ruled by the Sikhs to the British and now Muslims.
The 1837 Shabqadar Fort is a witness history spanning almost 200 years — from being ruled by the Sikhs to the British and now Muslims.

Lahore Darbar was infuriated, so a court was established under the leadership of General Maan Singh and General Ventura to fix responsibility for the disastrous breach. The two conducted an investigation for two days and concluded that it was the criminal negligence of the wooden gates that led to the disaster.

The Sikh General assisted by General Ventura decreed a hundred-year imprisonment to the huge willow gates for dereliction of duty. The gates were plank-cuffed with heavy chains to the main observation tower at the fort. The gates' punishment legally ended in 1940 but no one relieved them and they remain chained to this date.

The fort's observation tower.
The fort's observation tower.

It is rumored that when Bhutto visited the fort in the 1970s, he tried to prevail as prime minister for the release of the condemned gates but to no avail.

Shabqadar is a small town an hour out of Peshawar and on the borders of Mohmand. It is regarded as a region that has always held strategic value when it comes to keeping peace in Peshawar. Along with it come the various tribes who have historically been independent-minded and governments have had to maintain peace through a policy of continuous negotiations with them. And as the Sikhs and later the British ruled the area, they established many forts in the region in order to gain some space to prepare at the time of attacks.

This board received gun shots from a British soldier who was infuriated upon being told after many days of trek in the blistering sun that a post he had to reach was still a few hours away. This story was told to me by a staff member at the Shabqadar fort and is about one of the FC units that was deployed in South Waziristan for counter insurgency back in the colonial days.
This board received gun shots from a British soldier who was infuriated upon being told after many days of trek in the blistering sun that a post he had to reach was still a few hours away. This story was told to me by a staff member at the Shabqadar fort and is about one of the FC units that was deployed in South Waziristan for counter insurgency back in the colonial days.

Shabqadar fort was one such fort established by the Sikhs in Mohmand in 1837. The fort today works as a training centre for the Frontier Constabulary and is maintained well by the forces deployed there. It is an efficient location from an operational point of view and the FC has also been able to preserve its historic character.

As we entered the fort, the friendly hosts took as to 'Churchill's room', where Winston Churchill spent few days as a war correspondent in 1897 during the great tribal uprising. The room features Churchill's bed and room chairs. There is also an old manual sheet fan. And the walls adorn photographs from the time and some artefacts.

Churchill's Hut.
Churchill's Hut.

Churchill stayed here in 1897.
Churchill stayed here in 1897.

The fort also boasts a small museum with artefacts from the last two hundred years. These are mainly military equipment, including gazails (ancient rifles), binoculars, mortar guns etc. Such museums and places have the unique capacity to transport you into those bygone eras and make you wonder how tough life must have been at the time for all parties.

The museum at the fort.
The museum at the fort.

Next we found ourselves standing before the good old condemned willow gate under arrest since 1840. The three-metre-high black door leans against the observation tower in the middle of the fort, telling a story of 200 years, of the rule of Sikhs, British and now of Muslims. Nothing much has changed for the condemned gates. The tablet next to the gates reads: "The weeping willows: In the winter of 1840, a Mohmand Lashkar (war party) succeeded in breaking down these gates. The then Sikh Maharaja Sher Singh (Ranjit Singh son) had them court martialed for treason. The French General Jean Ventura headed the proceedings which lasted two days, having found them guilty as charged, the gates were sentenced to 100 years' imprisonment. They are languishing enchained ever since."

The condemned gates tied to the tower. The gates are also known as the weeping willows.
The condemned gates tied to the tower. The gates are also known as the weeping willows.

At the time, the tall observation tower was used to monitor the surroundings and perhaps functioned as a great source of information for impending attacks from the tribesmen. The tower adorns many commemorative plaques from colonial times, celebrating fallen comrades, mostly the ones who died from cholera or sunstroke.

We walked from the observation tower to FC's officers' mess. The messes of these historic units are always a treat to explore as they give you a history lesson of the establishment in 10 minutes. The walls of the mess displayed antique guns and other memorabilia but the most fascinating part was the pictures of leaders and celebrities who visited the fort at some point. These include Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, General Ayub Khan, General Zia, and many others.

FC officers' mess.
FC officers' mess.

The visitors book at the fort made for an interesting read, although, I could only see the one kept since 1950s. It showed that Iskandar Mirza visited the fort on October 3, 1957, along with Akhtar Hussain and Sardar Abdur Rashid Khan. Mirza was the country's president at the time, Hussain was governor of then West Pakistan and Khan was West Pakistan's chief minister.

President Iskandar Mirza visited the fort in 1957.
President Iskandar Mirza visited the fort in 1957.

However, for me, the most interesting entry was that from famous Parsi journalist and businessman Ardsher Cowasjee and his wife Nancy Cowasjee. They visited the fort on February 6, 1960, some 60 years ago.

Nancy and Ardsher Cowasjee visited the fort in 1960.
Nancy and Ardsher Cowasjee visited the fort in 1960.

Shabqadar fort is definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in the region's Sikh history and colonial rule. In order to make the most out of its historic value, the government should devise a plan in collaboration with law enforcement agencies to allow a limited number of visitors to be able to explore these gems spread all across our northwestern border. Other similar places include the Balahisar fort, and the Shabqadar, Jamrud, Kharlachi and Alexandra forts, to name a few. The government should also consider opening up other historical places tied to the region's martial history so the public is able to learn more about the stories of our northwestern frontier.


All photos by author.

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Omar Mukhtar Khan is a development professional with passion for travel and heritage. He blogs at www.travelpangs.com and can be reached at omarmukhtar16@gmail.com


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (12) Closed

reader
Aug 10, 2020 11:11am
No comments reflect our disinterest towards our heritage and history of this great land of historical migrations and events.
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M. Ahmed
Aug 10, 2020 12:19pm
Very informative article, never knew about this famous historical site.
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Mirchi
Aug 10, 2020 02:09pm
This is no fort. There other brilliant monuments in same neighborhood countries that can blow away any competition.
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Fazal Rehman
Aug 10, 2020 02:30pm
well done Umar. keep up the excellent work you are doing
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M. Emad
Aug 10, 2020 02:37pm
'Sher-e-Punjab' Maharaja Ranjit Singh reign is the Golden period of Pakistan/ Punjab history.
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C M Naim
Aug 10, 2020 05:22pm
Where are the weeping willows?
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Omar Khan
Aug 10, 2020 06:46pm
Thanks guys for your kind comments.
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Blue Knight
Aug 10, 2020 07:50pm
Omar Pl Keep up the good work of enlightening the Dark Corners of the History...
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Mandeep Sihota
Aug 11, 2020 12:59am
Great insight, thanks for sharing
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Luqman Shah
Aug 11, 2020 08:25am
Very informative. Good effort by the author. Firmer name of shabqadar qilla was Shankar Garth fomus by sikhano dheray. Still locals used the name -Dheray-...
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Ali Mehdi
Aug 11, 2020 08:39am
The narration was is brilliant you feel you are also there seeing the Fort with your own eyes. I agree with suggestion the Fort be opened for visitors to know our history.
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Dr Vikas Jamwal
Aug 11, 2020 09:30am
Magnificent piece of writing. Thank you for reminding us of the common heritage of our Great 'Bharata'.
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