Amritsar is one of the holiest cities in Punjab, famous for the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple. But while pilgrims and tourists flock to the more high-profile sights the city has to offer, there are so many that are forgotten and ignored.
Among these is Qila Ahluwalia, a ‘fortress’ right in the middle of the old, walled city. Located just 100 metres from the Golden Temple, this gem is passed up by a majority of visitors en route to Amritsar’s most visited site.
Qila Ahluwalia is hard to spot, not because of the warren of lanes that can confuse the first-time visitor but because this fort now masquerades as the residential quarters of local shopkeepers and is surrounded by a congested cloth market.
Yet it was once a spectacular fortress and the seat of the Ahluwalia chiefs of Kapurthala. Qila Ahluwalia was one of the five main forts in Amritsar, the other four being Lohgarh Fort (built by the 6th Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji), Ram Rauni Fort (built by the Ramgarhia chiefs), the Bhangi chief’s mud forts (which served as the base for future Sikh structures including the Rambagh Summer Palace and Qila Gobindgarh) and Gobindgarh Fort (built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh).
After the execution of Sikh warrior Banda Singh Bahadur in 1716, the Punjab region was wracked by instability and bloodshed. Thanks to the Mughals and then the Afghans, plunder and mass killings were the order of the day. Then, in 1745, to offer combined resistance to their attackers, Sikh fighters grouped themselves into 65 bands in 11 misls or divisions. Each misl was led by its own sardar or chief and bore a separate name and banner. The Ahluwalia Misl was one of these and it took its name from the Ahluwalias’ native village of ‘Ahluwal’ near Lahore. The Misl ruled an area that roughly comprises of today’s Kapurthala district.
The Ahluwalia Misl’s most prominent leader was Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia (1718-1783). In 1762, Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali attacked the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar and all but destroyed it. Jassa Singh recaptured Amritsar from the Afghans and rebuilt the damaged Harmandir Sahib.
His next target was the Mughals. Elected as the head of the Sikh Confederacy by the misls, Jassa Singh, along with Sardar Baghel Singh (chief of the Singh Krora Misl), Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, Gurdit Singh and Bagh Singh, captured Delhi and the Red Fort on 11th March 1783, and hoisted the ‘Nishan Sahib’, their holy flag, atop the seat of the Mughal Empire.
It is said that their united forces brought back the granite slab of the Takht-e-Taus or Peacock Throne (the throne itself had been taken away by Iranian conqueror, Nader Shah, during his invasions of India) and 44 pillars along with as the spoils of war. Today, they are in the Ramgarhia Bunga right behind the Harmandir Sahib.
The seat of Jassa Singh’s power was Kapurthala, which his descendants ruled till 1947, but he is believed to have built Qila Ahluwalia in Amritsar as a base to easily visit the nearby Harmandir Sahib and to take quick action in the event of a possible attack on the shrine or the city itself. He developed the katra or residential cluster/neighbourhood around the fort in 1759.
After Jassa Singh’s death in 1783, his cousin (the son of Jassa Singh’s uncle, Sardar Gurbaksh Singh), Sardar Bagh Ahluwalia, took over leadership of the Ahluwalia Misl. In fact, Bagh Singh spent most of his life in Amritsar to help the other misls there.
Bagh Singh was succeeded by his son Raja Fateh Singh Ahluwalia in 1801, and he probably enlarged Qila Ahluwalia to strengthen its defensive purpose. According to the book, Tawarikh Sri Amritsar, by 19th century Sikh scholar Giani Gian Singh, Fateh Singh also spent Rs 33,000 to build a three-storey bunga (a huge bungalow) in the parikrama or pathway of the Harmandir Sahib, as a military post to ensure the security of the shrine.
When Maharaja Ranjit Singh took control of Amritsar from the Bhangi Misl in 1802, he exchanged turbans in a permanent bond of brotherhood with Fateh Singh Ahluwalia, who wielded much political and militarily influence in the region. British diplomat and author Lepel Griffin and Charles Francis Massy in their book, The Chiefs and Families of Note in the Punjab, mention that when Ranjit Singh attacked Multan for fourth time in 1810, the administration of Lahore and Amritsar was handed over to Fateh Singh. It is possible that during this time, Fateh Singh renovated the Ahluwalias’ mansion-like fort in Amritsar, to enhance his own image.
Fateh Singh took part in almost all the early campaigns of Ranjit Singh and even acted as his emissary to sign the first Anglo-Sikh treaty with Lord Lake in 1806. However, their relationship grew strained for a brief period in 1825, although things improved by 1827.
Still, Fateh Singh never returned to Lahore or Amritsar and spent the rest of his life in Kapurthala till his death in 1836. As a result, most of the Ahluwalia possessions in Lahore and Amritsar, including Qila Ahluwalia, were abandoned by the clan.
But it wasn’t long before the fort welcomed its new occupants. To boost Amritsar’s economy, Maharaja Ranjit Singh invited Marwari businessmen from present-day Rajasthan to settle in the city and encouraged them to set up a cloth business in Katra Ahluwalia. The cloth market was a huge success and acquired a reputation across India.
In 1839, Emily Eden, sister of the then Governor-General of India George Eden, had visited Amritsar during her travels across India. While in the city, she stayed in Qila Ahluwalia and mentioned her sojourn here in her travel book, Up The Country (1866). She mentioned not only Katra Ahluwalia but the cloth merchants as well!
After this period, Qila Ahluwalia finds little mention in historical documents. While the Ahluwalias ruled the princely state of Kapurthala just 68 km from Amritsar, it doesn’t appear that Qila Ahluwalia was in their possession.In 1900, Amritsar’s municipality under its British bosses auctioned Qila Ahluwalia. According to the Amritsar District Gazetteer (1914), most of the buyers were the Marwari businessmen who were already living here. Tragically, they demolished most of the fort and built many small residential quarters and shops for themselves. The beautiful, colonial-style decorated artwork on many of the balconies suggests that some influential business families once lived there.
There are very few references to it, as in imperial maps prepared by the then municipality of the city, or a mention in books by historians such as Hari Ram Gupta, who refers to it in The History of Sikhs.
Qila Ahluwalia, which is spread across 5,000 square yards, has two gateways: the first one opens towards the Harmandir Sahib and the other faces south. As the ground around the southern gate has been resurfaced and raised over the years, the gate has pretty much sunk into the ground.
Step inside and on the left is a historical well with three handles to fetch water. There was also a set-up to let people bathe and wash clothes. A network of broad and thin pipelines made of small Nanakshahi bricks still drains the excess water from the premises. Along with the well, there is also a stable for horses.
Just like the design of any other residential fort, Qila Ahluwalia too had rooms circling a central courtyard. Today, the courtyard is used as a parking lot by locals. Features like a circular staircase and decorated balconies suggest that these were added during colonial rule.
During the Sikh Empire, there was a lake called Ahluwalia Dhaab outside the fort. According to the Amritsar District Gazetteer (1883-84), when the British took over the city, they filled the lake with mud and constructed a garden called Kaisar-i-Bagh on top of it. The Amritsar Municipal Programme Report (1868) too mentions this, saying that after the lake was covered, a garden, a cloth market and a school were built in its place.
Just a few years ago, when a 200-year-old home in Katra Ahluwalia neighborhood was being demolished a 51/2 foot-wide tunnel built of Nanakshahi bricks was excavated. The tunnel led in the direction of Qila Ahluwalia. Sadly, before the Archaeological Survey of India could conduct its own excavation, the civil contractor leading the construction filled the tunnel with cement, thus putting an end to any effort to research the structure.
There is very little left of the original Qila Ahluwalia and the administration should conserve its surviving gates and the well associated with the fort so that an important slice of history does not completely fade into oblivion.
Cover Photo: Qila Ahluwalia's south gate given a modern look by encroachers | Author
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.