Though the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom was Lahore, it is this fort that was at the heart of his empire
Millions travel to Amritsar each year. Home to the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, the Harmandir Sahib ( Golden Temple), there is another part of the old city that is now accessible to visitors. This year, the State government opened the historic Gobindgarh Fort to the public. Few people realise that while the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom was Lahore, it is this fort that was at the heart of his empire. It housed the largest armoury and mint in the empire, and the control of Gobindgarh gave Ranjit Singh religious sanction, as this fort of his protected the Harmandir Saheb, the holiest of shrines in Sikhism.
This fort has a fascinating history that harks back to the early days of the Sikhs, when the land was carved into small principalities controlled by powerful Sikh clans called misls. The Gobindgarh Fort originally called the Qila Bhangian, which literally means ‘the Marijuana Fort’ has an interesting story to tell.
The rise of the Sikhs coincided with the decline of the Mughal Empire. By the early 18th century CE, Punjab was divided into principalities called misls. They controlled all the land in heart of Punjab and beyond and eventually acted as the base from which Maharaja Ranjit Singh built his great Empire.
But long before Ranjit Singh’s time, Amritsar was under a misl called the Bhangi Misl controlled by its chief Sardar Gujjar Singh Bhangi. Called Bhangi, because the soldiers from the clan were known to be fond of Bhang or Marijuana, this was a powerful clan. It was Sardar Gujjar Singh who is credited for building a small fort at the site of the Gobindgarh Fort in the 1760s. Locally it was called ‘Bhangion da Qila’ or the fort of the Bhangis.
Gobindgarh under Ranjit Singh
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was born in 1780 CE in a family of the head of Sukerchakia Misl, a small kingdom in Gurjanwala district of today’s Pakistan. Ranjit Singh's rise was astounding and by the time he was in his twenties, he was charting an aggressive course of empire building. Over the next few decades, Maharaja Ranjit Singh would conquer one misl after another and establish a large empire that stretched from Multan to Kashmir. He was only 22 years old, when in 1802 CE, he conquered Amritsar from the Bhangi misl and incorporated it into his empire. The conquest of Amritsar, was crucial for Ranjit Singh as it was the second largest city in Punjab after Lahore and the spiritual base of the Sikhs.
The Gobindgarh Fort was originally called the Qila Bhangian, which literally means ‘the Marijuana Fort’
Not surprisingly, one of the first things he did on taking over, was the renovation and expansion of the old Qila, which was located just outside the walled city of Amritsar. He ordered his commander Shamir Singh Thethar to improve the fort with additions and fortifications that took around four years to complete. The result was the creation of a magnificent fort, aptly named in honor of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Maharaja Ranjit Singh keenly adapted latest European military technologies and a number of European mercenaries served in his army as well. The main defensive walls were arranged concentrically, their multiple tiers surrounded by a deep and broad moat. This was the latest European defence architecture of the time and protected the fort from cannon attacks. Inside the fort was a large armoury, treasury and also a palace.
The fort was separated from the walled city of Amritsar by an open ground. Over 12,000 soldiers were deployed in the fort to protect the city. An important armoury where weapons were manufactured was set here and the fort also functioned as the largest mint or tanksal where silver and copper coins of Maharaja Ranjit Singh were minted.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh keenly adapted latest European military technologies and a number of European mercenaries served in his army as well
During Ranjit Singh’s reign, the Gobindgarh Fort became the center for essential supplies for his army as they pushed their boundaries and the Sikh Empire expanded. The supply of cannon bags and arms for the all the campaigns around Punjab and the surrounding hills came from here. It was the site of the state treasury and surprisingly, it was also the place where the Kohinoor diamond was kept. The Emperor of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, surrendered the diamond to Ranjit Singh in 1813 CE. It was paraded around the streets of Amritsar. Later, the diamond was kept sure at the Tosakhana (Treasury) in the fort premises.
Emily Eden visits Gobindgarh
Lord Auckland was the Governor-General of British India between 1836 and 1842 CE. The British were fearful that Russia would invade India through Afghanistan and Punjab and hence wanted to be friendly with Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1838 CE, Lord Auckland along with his sister Emily Eden made a state visit to Amritsar where they were lavishly entertained by the Maharaja. He also invited them to a tour of Gobindgarh, which apparently surprised everyone as it was a restricted area. But they thought Ranjit Singh really wanted to be friendly with the British. Emily Eden (1797-1896 CE) was a noted English poet and novelist . She wrote extensively about her travels in India, which was later published as a popular book ‘Up The Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India (1867).
In her dairy dated Monday, Dec. 17, 1838 CE, Emily writes:
“The Maharajah asked G. [George Eden, Lord Auckland, her brother] to go with him on Sunday afternoon to look at his fort of Govindghur, in which he keeps all his treasures; and it is certain that whoever gets hold of Govindghur at his death will also get hold of his kingdom. He never allows anybody to enter it, and E. says, that in all the thirteen years he has been with him he has never been able to get a sight of it, and he was convinced that Runjeet would either pretend to be ill, or to make some mistake in the hour, so that he would not really show G. even the outside of it. It was rather late before Kurruck Singh came to fetch G.; however, they soon met the Maharajah, and went towards the fort. An officer came to ask his ‘hookum,' or orders, and he told him to have the gates opened, and desired G. to take in all the officers of his escort, even any engineers. Then he led him all over the fort, showed him where the treasure was kept, took him up to the roof, where there was a carpet spread, and two gold chairs, and there sat and asked questions about cannons and shells, and mines, and forts in general.
The Europeans were all amazed; but they say the surprise of Runjeet's own sirdars was past all concealment; even the common soldiers began talking about it, and said that they now saw that the Sikhs and English were to be all one family and to live in the same house.' It certainly is very odd how completely the suspicious old man seems to have conquered any feeling of jealousy, and it is entirely his own doing, against the wishes and plans of his prime ministers, and of most of his sirdars; but he has taken his own line, and says he is determined to show how complete his confidence is.”
Gobindgarh under the British
Sadly, contrary to what Maharaja Ranjit Singh had hoped, the Sikh empire and British were not ‘to be all one family and to live in the same house’. After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 CE, the relations between the British and the Sikh empire deteriorated. Fights broke out between the various factions of the Sikh court. The Sikhs and the British fought two wars - the Anglo-Sikh wars between 1845 and 1849 CE. The Sikh army was defeated and the Kingdom of Punjab became a British protectorate. The fort of Gobindgarh was occupied by the British forces in September 1848 CE. Finally, in 1849 CE, Punjab was annexed and made part of British India by Lord Dalhousie. In his private papers, Lord Dalhousie wrote in March 1850 “… the fort of Govindghur … the most important place in all of India perhaps ……”
After Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 CE, the relations between the British and the Sikh empire deteriorated
The fort was soon occupied by the British Indian army. In 1850 CE, there was a proposal to demolish all the forts of Punjab to prevent any revolt, but thankfully this plan was not carried through. The palace inside the fort was demolished sometime around 1855 CE. Over time, as the frontier of the British Empire spread to borders of Afghanistan, Gobindgarh lost all its strategic value. It was during the Partition of 1947, that large number of refugees took shelter in the fort. Later it was handed over to the Indian Army.
The Fort Today
The Gobindgarh Fort has since been restored and was thrown open to the public in February 2017. Go to the fort and you will find it is steeped in history and goes beyond the Sikhs. One of the great attractions in this fort, is a replica of the great and historic cannon ‘Zam Zama’. Made on the orders of Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali, it was used in the Third Battle of Panipat, against the Marathas in 1761 CE. The battle broke the Maratha power over North India and gave Afghans control over Punjab. In 1762 CE, the Bhangi chief had captured this cannon near Lahore, brought it to Amritsar and called it ‘Bhangion di Tope’. It was a prized possession of Maharaja Ranjit singh. However, it was damaged in battle and taken back from Amritsar to Lahore in 1818 CE, where it can still be seen today. A close reproduction of it can be seen at Gobindgarh. Also an attraction at the Gobindgarh fort are the four bastions at four cardinal points of the fort and the Toshakhana- the place where the Kohinoor was placed.
The British period structures within the fort include the Durbar Hall, said to have built in 1850 CE as a six-bed hospital, the Barrack which was originally built during Ranjit Singh’s time but re-modelled in 1850 CE and the Chloronome House which was used for the treatment of water through the process of chlorination.
So when you visit Amritsar next, don’t forget to visit the Gobindgarh fort, the most important fort of the Sikh empire, which remains in the Indian side of the state of Punjab.
LHI TRAVEL GUIDE
Gobindgarh Fort is at a distance of just 1.3 kms from the Amritsar Railway Station and about 11.8 kms from the Amritsar Airport.