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Day Six in Amritsar:
Gobingarh Fort And Khandas Galore





Another exciting auto rickshaw ride to start the day!

I am beginning to get used to the traffic now and have learnt how to cross the road in relative safety.

A short ride away from the bazaars is Gobingarh Fort. Built in the mid-18th century by the Chief of the Bhangi Misl, Gobingarh Fort was named after Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Master, when Maharajah Ranjit Singh took it over in 1805.

It is the sole remaining fort from Ranjit Singh’s reign in the area. It’s Tosha-khana (Royal Treasury) once held the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Today, the fort stands empty, but the subject of an extensive regeneration project.

If successful, this project will not only breathe new life into the buildings but will dramatically enhance the tourism offer in the area and create large-scale employment opportunities.

Currently the fort is closed to the public. However, an exception was made for our visit by Mr PK Mehta, the site manager and engineer. Generously, he took us on a full tour of the site, explaining what the existing buildings were used for and the plans for their use in the future.

We entered the fort through the gatehouse where Maharajah Ranjit Singh would have entered on one of his majestic elephants. Inside, on each side were six matching arches. Mr Mehta explained that in the time of the Maharajah, there would have been three women and three men on each side throwing rose petals as the important visitors arrived and went past.

The site will contain museums, artisan retail units, a hotel, banqueting facilities, leisure facilities and an area for ‘glamping’ (glamorous / luxury camping). Once I had explained what glamping was, Mr Mehta decided that they were going to drop the term ‘camping‘, so visitors of the future, you will be ‘glamping’ in style just outside the south rampart … fairly close to the planned spa facilities!
The site is huge, the perimeter wall is 1.6 km (1 mile) long. Redevelopment has been divided into four phases, depending on the project priorities. Several areas have had extensive work completed, including the eastern cells with their domed ceilings. The plan is to retail locally produced handicrafts linked to Sikh culture in each cell – today, however, they just contained Amritsar’s resident ‘Britisher’, much to the amusement of everyone else.

The North East Bastion will be turned into an Anglo Sikh Gallery, which immediately interested me since the storyline will include Maharajah Duleep Singh. I hope this is a project that the Ancient House Museum can be involved in, possibly sharing our East Anglian story.

Throughout our tour people were at work around us, including whole families who work and live on the site. It was quite strange to see a family washing themselves and their clothes right next to the lime-pits where the lime mortar is ground up, and other building materials are laying around. Its something you would never see in the UK but is perfectly natural here.

Some of the small children even teased Mr Mehta for sweets which he produced from his pockets and handed out.

I had two personal highlights:

The first was being able to visit the Tosha-khana. The structure is designed around seven arches to make the roof virtually indestructible. The story of Duleep Singh and the Koh-i-Noor diamond is a huge part of our ‘Seeking the Maharajah’ schools session back in England, so to go inside a place where it was originally kept was just fantastic.

Eventually the room will display some of the archaeological artifacts found on the site and a selection of Sikh weaponry.

The second was the Darbar Hall. This building has unique oval windows and fabulous views across the fort, standing opposite Dyer’s bungalow (which is nothing like our interpretation of a bungalow). The British occupied the fort from 1849 after the second Anglo-Sikh War.

Many of the buildings have a colonial feel to them because of this. The fort remained under the control of the Indian Army until 2006, with regeneration work initially beginning in 2011. The site is being renovated sympathetically using traditional methods and materials.

I feel certain that Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who added the moat and outer defensive walls, would approve. I really hope this project is successful and completion is sooner rather than later. If the work can be completed with integrity and to the high standard we saw today, it will set a precedent for the city and the future could be bright for Amritsar’s heritage.

Feeling rather buoyant by the first visit of the day, we then headed to Jallianwala Bagh. I had mixed feelings about this site. It really is a lovely garden and a pleasure to visit until you remember why it is there. Some things are very difficult to reconcile.

We were standing in the enclosed space where the British gunned down peaceful citizens gathered for a political meeting and their families picnicking on the grounds on Vaisakhi Day, 1919. This horrific tragedy is now embedded in history as the Amritsar Massacre and is an iconic symbol of the subcontinent’s freedom struggle.

On some of the walls bullet holes are marked out. There is a large central monument to the victims in the centre of the garden and several galleries. In one area topiary soldiers are shooting across a lawn; it really does stop you in your tracks.

Slightly lightening the mood was the reaction from some of our fellow visitors when we stopped to sit down for a while. Several groups just stopped and stared or tried to join our photos. One person apparently gleefully told his friend that the Britisher was in his photo when I accidently photo-bombed him. This resulted in more teasing from Sukhpreet and Damandeep: in Punjabi there is a plural of ’British‘, which is why the English translation is ‘Britishers‘. However, it just sounds so strange!     

Next on my list was some retail therapy; something I was much keener to do than my companions, especially when they heard it was for bangles and shawls.

They perked up when I said I wanted to buy a selection of khandas for a museum trail later in the year. Bangles were quickly purchased and we headed towards one of the many markets near the Golden Temple.

This one, Sukhpreet announced, was the market for religious artifacts and khandas were going to be abundant. I now have what I consider is possibly the best collection (and maybe the only one) of Khandas in Thetford. If you want to see my dazzling purchases (not all of them are in the photo), come and do the trail in September, where they will be artfully hidden around the Ancient House Museum by my colleague, Lynne.

I also fell in love with a very kitsch Guru Nanak figurine which was set to be mine until I was reminded that Guru Gobind Singh had decreed that idol worship is a false practice, and idols are strictly prohibited in Sikhism. Sadly, this included my spangley, brightly coloured Guru Nanak.

So the Guru figure remained in the shop, but I do feel very pleased with my hoard of khandas! 

Next on the list was shopping for juttis and I got to experience real haggling. The shop-keeper looked extremely put out when we left but I was assured that it was all part of the selling process.

Finally, after a lot of back and forth, the right price was paid. And I’m now the proud owner of a fine collection of Punjabi juttis.

March 3, 2015

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Gobingarh Fort And Khandas Galore"

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