On the morning of 28th February 2014, a local historian resurrected an urban legend when the skeletal remains of 282 Indian sepoys tumbled out of an old well at Ajnala on the outskirts of Amritsar in Punjab. The soldiers had been massacred while fleeing the British during the Revolt of 1857.
The sepoys were among a platoon of 500 who had revolted at the Mian Mir Cantonment in Lahore on 30th July 1857. They had reached the banks of Ravi River in the village of Dadiyan, 7 miles from Ajnala by the next morning. While many of them were shot dead on the riverbank, 282 others were captured alive and brought to Ajnala to be executed the next day, 1st August. Of these, 66 died of suffocation and fatigue the night before as they had been stuffed into a tiny enclosure while awaiting execution.
These gut-wrenching details were recorded in a book written by Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, Frederick Henry Cooper, who had ordered the mass execution. In The Crisis in the Punjab: From the Tenth of May until the Fall of Delhi (1858), Cooper says he had ordered that the bodies be disposed of in a pit, for which a dry well was chosen “a few yards away”.
Over time, the well disappeared, the field became part of the Military Ground of Ajnala and a gurdwara was built on the site. All material evidence of the massacre had been erased. It would have stayed that way had Surinder Kochhar, a local historian, not doggedly tried to locate the well, to bring closure to the horrific incident.
Finding clues in Cooper’s book, government records and the accounts of old-timers, Kochhar was convinced that the well lay on the gurdwara property. It took years to convince the gurdwara authorities but they finally shifted their shrine and allowed him to excavate.
On 28th February 2014, as spades and shovels hit the dirt, the legend of ‘Kaliyan Wala Khu’ or the ‘Well of Blacks’ moved from the realm of legend into the realm of history. As their mortal remains were exhumed, the souls of 282 Indian martyrs were laid to rest.
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
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