On retracing Mughal emperor Jehangir's trail through Jammu and Kashmir
This is one such tale, based on a mix of folklore and actual events.
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Though I have a military background, I am enthused by ancient history and architecture. Over the years I've tried to elicit as much as I can from books, chronicles, and written and electronic media, and (if I can) follow up with a ground visit.
Recently, a friend sent me a short video clipping with the advice, "you must see this; it is a fabulous stage enactment of the original". I was intrigued. He was referring to the stage adaptation of Mughal-e-Azam.
I couldn't help but hark back to the early 1990s when I was commanding a brigade in Kashmir. Though life is difficult in the far-flung places we are often posted to, military officers also get to see, travel, and explore some phenomenal places of historical and geographical significance — if they so desire.
Indeed, were it not for adventurous military officers perhaps the Ajanta-Ellora caves, Khajuraho temples, Lhasa, the Kashmir Valley's Hindu roots, and so many other architectural and cultural delights would have never have come to light. This is one such tale, based on a mix of folklore and actual events.
Nostalgia swept over me.
I recalled my connection, in a way, with the iconic Mughal emperor, artist, poet and lover of music — Jehangir.
Years ago, in 1994, while commanding the Nowshera infantry brigade on the Line of Control (LoC), I saw an old photo in my office. It was captioned, "Stone elephants in the Hathi Gap" carved during the time of emperor Jehangir.
I couldn't help but wonder who would have thought of carving stone elephants in a godforsaken place like the Kalidhar Ranges! For those unfamiliar with the context: the Kalidhar Ranges are part of the lower Shivalik range; while Nowshera is an important town between present day Jammu and Rajouri.
Unlike all other Mughal emperors who travelled each year to the Kashmir Valley, via Rawalpindi and Muzaffarabad, Jehangir was the only one who chose a different route. He followed the regular route from Delhi to Lahore, but from there on, he took the direct route via Sialkot-Bhimber (all in present day Pakistan) — Samani, Nowshera, Narian, Rajouri, Poonch — eventually skipping over to the Valley along the Mughal route.
I've never shied away from adventure and this opportunity seemed just too fortuitous to pass up; a chance to see art commissioned by a great Mughal emperor in my own operational area where I had the freedom to travel while conducting a military reconnaissance — this journey was pre-destined.
The historical significance of Nowshera-Jhnagar, the many Dogra fortresses, old temples and historical lore it's home to treasures of India's history; unfortunately, they've been resigned to footnotes or forgotten altogether. This when they were intrinsic to the mighty Jehnagir and his sojourns to the Valley.
Jehangir was born after much supplication by his father, the great emperor Akbar. In fact, Akbar was considered quite advanced in age by prevailing standards when Jehangir was born. He was 27 years old - around the time today's crop begin to display early signs of adulthood. But I digress, the trials and tribulations to bring about Jehangir's birth accorded him a cherished status in his parents' eyes. He was given to excesses, enjoyed the perks of being a prince and appearing faultless to those who loved him.
Life first changed for Jehangir in his mid-30s when he became Emperor. And then again less than a decade later when he married the beautiful, witty and intelligent Mehr-un-Nisa; who came to be known universally as Nur Jehan.
Like his father and emperors before him, Jehangir travelled during the summer to Kashmir to escape the heat, as also (whenever he could) to take time off from military campaigns. The regular route went something like this: from Lahore to Rawalpindi, crossing the Jhelum river at Muzaffarabad, on to Chakoti (in present day PoK), crossing over to India at Baramulla and then to Srinagar.
But, unlike his predecessors or successors, Jehangir used a different more direct route. He travelled from Lahore to Sialkot (in Pakistan), thence to Bhimber and Sarai Sadabad-Samani (in present day PoK and close to the LoC), before crossing over to India near Nowshera. From there to Narian, Rajouri, Thanamandi, Poonch, and crossing Pir Panjal near Shopian.
This route is now tarmacked and called the "Mughal route", and is an alternative to the Jammu-Srinagar highway.
It is this 40km long stretch from Sarai Samani-Sadabad to Nowshera, Narian and Rajouri, that this narrative relates to. Placed at the Himalayan foothills, the area was rugged, and the ascent along Jehangir's route was fairly steep, through rough terrain and narrow valleys — all naturally difficult for his elephant caravan. It is believed that both Jehangir and Nur Jehan travelled atop highly caparisoned tuskers, taking daily halts at evenly spaced resting areas called sarais.
On one such occasion while climbing up from Sadabad (PoK) through a narrow valley called Hathi Gala (India), the elephants got spooked and threw off the lead jumbo's howdah, and refused to budge. Jehangir was puzzled over what caused the panic. An investigation found that two massive, life-like elephants carved out of stone, standing dead centre of the path had brought the emperor's living, breathing pachyderms to a halt.
Further inquiry revealed that this beautiful sculpture was the handiwork of a local artisan who had been fascinated by the elephant caravan during their earlier sojourns. The sculptor was found and rewarded generously for his artistry and, as the legend goes, had his hands amputated so that such beauty could not be replicated!
Nowshera (nine lion gates), where my headquarters was located, was one of the sarais, along Jehangir's route. Members of his entourage routinely rested here, before continuing on their arduous trek up to the valley. I persisted with research within the precincts of my brigade headquarters.
Here, to my disbelief and joy, we chanced upon a beautiful deep "baoli" (step well), no doubt the bathing spot for empress Nur Jehan and others of the harem. I had the 30-metre-deep structure thoroughly cleaned and restored, and exhorted my officers and their families to indulge like the empress.
It was on this stretch of Rajouri-Nowshera that Jehangir died while returning from the valley to Delhi. The emperor had taken ill (possibly dysentery and related complications) on his return and breathed his last just 20kms south of Rajouri at a place called Chingus (intestines in Persian), close to the sarai of Narian.
Even now the sarai with its quarters and horse stables can be seen on the road side. As the legend goes, Nur Jehan, aware of the pandemonium the news of her husband's death would cause and fearful that it could spark a war of succession among his children, had the emperor's intestines removed to prevent his body from decaying. She then had it embalmed and positioned atop the howdah.
Local lore says that while no one else barring the chief physician and Nur Jehan were aware of the tragedy, a fellow traveller on foot accidentally discovered the truth. He noticed that a fly sat on the emperors' face but the latter made no attempt to swat it away.
That observation was enough and the trader was quickly disposed of; Nur Jehan managed to keep the news secret till the caravan reached Lahore and the rest is history. Sarai Narian, where this momentous incident occurred, was properly restored during my tenure in 1995-96, and its historical record displayed to remind people of its history.
Nowshera has been witness to other great historical events and local lore, besides the passage of emperor Jehangir's caravan of elephants. There are other tales too — that of the Pandava's hiding in this area, the existence of the Laksha Griha in the Kalsian village, Bhim's search for water for Kunti which led to a well being created inside the Khamba Fort and Draupadi's bathing pool near Jhangar.
There is also the famous temple of Pir Badesar where it is said that Lord Ganesha prayed and atoned for killing his grandsire. As also the famous Dogra and Sikh fortresses, which came into prominence during Maharaja Ranjit's time, and later as sanctuaries for Hindus and Sikhs fleeing the Kabaili raiders in 1947.
Nowshera is also the hallowed ground for the two Param Vir Chakras awarded to Naik Jadunath Singh (received a PVC at Tain Top) and second lieutenant RR Rane (received a PVC near Nowshera), and the Maha Vir Chakra to brigadier Muhammad Usman (received an MVC at Jhangar) during the J&K operations 1947-48.
Great memories, countless stories indeed, but those for another time.