In the eyes of the law, pronouncing a ‘guilty’ verdict and placing a man in chains may seem like just punishment for it gives the prisoner a chance to atone for his crime. Which makes chaining the ‘guilty gates’ of a fort the act of a madman, or so you would think. You see, it was quite the opposite.
This courtroom-like drama played out in the rugged wilds of what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in present-day Pakistan. Here, in the town of Charsadda, you will find a fort whose ‘guilty’ wooden gates have been chained to a watchtower, serving what is probably the world’s longest sentence – 181 years and still counting. And what if we told you that 70 km from these gates is a tree that has been under arrest for 123 years?
Our story begins in the first half of the 19th century. At the time, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, then the North-West Frontier Province in British-India was under the control of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (r. 1801 - 1839) of the Sikh Empire. With the region populated by tribesmen who were skilled fighters, the Sikh forces often clashed with the local Pashtun and other tribes, as well as the forces of the Afghan rulers to the west.
Ranjit Singh, therefore, entrusted the security of the region to his celebrated general, Hari Singh Nalwa, who built a series of forts here. The town of Charsadda, just 29 km north-east of the provincial capital of Peshawar, was strategically placed at the intersection of important routes, and, in 1837, Nalwa constructed a fort here to repel possible attacks from Afghan forces.
The fortress was one of the gateways to the Sikh Empire and it had to be impregnable.
– Its planning was therefore entrusted to a noted architect called Tota Ram, who had designed the royal monuments like Hazuri Bagh in Lahore, and Ram Bagh in Amritsar, etc. for the Sikh Empire.
Tota Ram named the fortress ‘Shankargarh’ after his son, Shankar Das, a blessing as he believed he could have no children.
Given its pivotal importance, there were 700 soldiers stationed in the fort, along with canons and guns. It wasn’t enough.
By the winter of 1840, Ranjit Singh had died and his son Prince Sher Singh was stationed in Shankargarh when local Mohmand tribesmen attacked the fortress. They forced open its massive wooden gates, barged in and what followed was a brutal and bloody attack that lasted all night. Eventually, the Sikhs led by Sher Singh triumphed but at a great cost to human life.
Sher Singh was furious. Wasn’t the fort meant to be impenetrable?
Quite by chance, Sikh General Rubino (later called ‘Jean-Baptiste’) Ventura, who had served French Emperor Napoleon before joining the Lahore Durbar, was travelling through the region. Sher Singh had ordered an investigation into the breach at Shankargarh and General Ventura was co-opted as a member of the two-man jury to investigate the incident.
The verdict: No human was guilty. The culprits were the 12-foot-high wooden gates of the fort, which had been charged with treason and found guilty. They were sentenced to 100 years of ‘chained imprisonment’. It was a symbolic verdict, that everyone was equal in the eyes of justice, whether soldiers or wooden gates! A scapegoat was needed, and the ‘guilty gates’ were removed from their posts, hauled away and chained to a watchtower in the fortress.
Winston Churchill Was Here
The Sikh Empire came to an end in 1849, after two Anglo-Sikh Wars won decisively by the British East India Company, which then ruled the subcontinent. Shankargarh (the fort of Lord Shiva) was renamed Shabqadar (the night the Quran is believed to have been first revealed) to honour the religious sentiments of the local tribes, who were largely Muslim. Perhaps amused by the ‘chained legacy’ of the fort, the British took no steps to end to free to hapless prisoners.
The fortress gained a measure of fame as it was here that Winston Churchill, future Prime Minister of England, stayed during the British First Mohmand campaign against the local tribe by the same name. During the campaign, when tribal leader Mullah Hudda led an uprising in 1897, Churchill was a part of the expedition as a Second Lieutenant and a war correspondent. He wrote about the campaign in his book The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898).
Not far from the tower to which the notorious gates are chained is a dilapidated room referred to as ‘Churchill Hut’. It is said that Churchill stayed here when he camped at Shabqadar.
A ‘Guilty’ Tree
Maybe the ever-present threat of war played tricks on the minds of men, because not far from the ‘guilty gates’ is a ‘guilty tree’, which has been in chains for 123 years!
The backdrop to this unfortunate incident was the constant threat from the Afridi tribe in Landi Kotal, which too was protected by a fortress as were other areas close to the Khyber Pass.
Due to the nature of this rugged and strategic frontier region, the British had permanently stationed a sizable garrison in the area. It is said that in 1898, a British army officer named James Squid was seated on his lawn in cantonment near the fort of Landi Kotal close to the Afghanistan border. Squid was apparently drunk for he suspected that a huge banyan tree nearby was lurching towards him. The officer screamed and soldiers rushed to his aid!
Rather than being terribly embarrassed by this drunken hallucination, the Englishman levied imaginary charges against the tree and ‘ordered’ its arrest. The tree’s branches were covered in chains and a plaque inscribed with "I am under arrest" was nailed to its trunk. It lies in chains, blameless but fettered, even today.
The tree is probably a metaphor for draconian laws called the ‘Frontier Crimes Regulations’ imposed by the British to keep tribal communities in check. It was a visible warning to the Pashtun and other tribals of what could happen to those who challenged British rule.
The story goes that when former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was visiting the Shabqadar fort in the 1970s, he was asked whether the chained gates could be freed as they had long since served their 100-year sentence. It seems that Bhutto jokingly turned down the suggestion, insisting that the doors be kept chained in perpetuity so that nobody dared falter in their duties!
Today, the sites of the ‘guilty gates’ and the ‘guilty tree’ are cantonment areas and the memorials are open to tourists, totems to how brutal and unforgiving human nature can be.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.