As part of our ongoing research into the travels of an early 19th century British explorer and artist, we set off on a short road trip the other day with the intention of visiting the scene of a battle which he painted in 1815. It was between the then occupying forces of the Nepalese on the one side and the local Indian princes with heavy logistical support from the occupying forces of the British East India Company on the other. To add to the mix, even before the ‘Anglo-Gurkha War’ of 1814-15 was over, considerable numbers of Nepalese switched over to the British as ‘deserters’ as each battle was lost, in a classic case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. The British officers obviously didn’t then employ their much-admired Gurkhas against their own compatriots but as part of the very cunning and effective ‘divide and rule’ policy (picked up from studying the Romans) used the Nepalese against, for example, their old rivals the Sikhs a few years later.
By the way, the Gurkhas are technically a powerful minority from north Nepal who took control of the whole country during the 18th century, plus large bits of what is now northern India. So although all Gurkhas are Nepalese, not all Nepalese are Gurkhas. The Nepalese migrant workers picking the apples at the orchard, for example, despite being referred to as Gurkhas, are actually from western Nepal.
The site of the battle is a small fort atop a very large hill which the British called Jytock, but these days it’s written as Jaithak or Jaitag, a couple of miles north of Nahan, the ancient capital of Sirmour, a former Princely State.
As usual we stopped off in Solan for a night en route and then the following morning we made our way along the Solan to Nahan road which more or less follows a long ridge through forests of eucalyptus and chir pine for 50 miles or so. Roughly half-way along a deserted stretch I notice the car up ahead of us has pulled over and an old man is getting in. As we pass, the driver leans out of his window and earnestly flags us down. There is no other traffic and in the spirit of lone travellers helping each other out, I pull over. The car pulls alongside and the following conversation takes place:
“Where are you going?”
(This was repeated a number of times, during which short period the will to live began to ebb)
“My father is going to Sarahan.”
At this point the driver leans over his aged father, opens the passenger door and the old man starts to get out of the car, evidently with a view to getting into mine. Fortunately, my wife, who is from these parts, was able to interpret the conversation thus far, which, fleshed out, should have read:
“I don’t suppose you could possibly give my father a lift to Sarahan, which is on the way to Nahan?”
Regrettably I had taken the back seats out of my car and so we had to decline, and off we went, another lesson learned. My wife instructed me not to stop for anyone else.
Before reaching Nahan, we met Uncle, who drove us up to the fort above the town, where we were due to meet the relatively minor member of the Royal Family of Sirmour (his great-grandfather had been the Raja), an imposing-looking gentleman in his 70s with a terrific moustache and an appreciation of decent single malt and other fine pleasures. He is also very knowledgeable about our artist and the history of the Gurkha War in general and Jytock in particular.
In the hiatus before we were introduced, we strolled up to the remains of the small fort – a classic Gurkha square fort about 20 metres across, with a round tower on each corner and a rainwater tank sunk in the centre. The walls were pierced with slots through which muskets or arrows could be fired (there must be a good word for such a thing?). We had visited a fine example of a Gurkha fort above Solan a month or so back – very solidly built, with walls eight feet thick – but Jytock was evidently thrown together in a bit of a hurry, walls only two feet thick, and was very much ‘reduced’ by British artillery in 1815.
On our arrival some kind of puja / kheen was in progress in the centre of the fort, which is now used as a temple to Kali, the demon-slaying goddess. We didn’t disturb the proceedings but noticed four pairs of shoes at the entrance, and wandered round a bit, slightly surprised to find a helicopter landing pad. Shortly a small black goat appeared and the four men followed, one of whom (HRH’s nephew) explained that they had come to offer a blood sacrifice to Kali (ie. slaughter the goat) but despite being asked several times, Kali was having nothing of it. ‘Spare the goat,’ she said (via an oracle), so they did, and named him ‘Azaad’, meaning ‘freedom’.
We then moved across to the house of HRH and were welcomed into his sitting room, the walls hung with many ancestral portraits and old photographs, and various spears and axes. Great views all around of the many green peaks, valleys and ridges below, stretching away and up towards mighty Churdhar, today hidden in the clouds in the far distance.
HRH only moved into this house 15 or so years ago, having had it built on the old foundations of a building which in 1815 housed the Gurkha commander of Jytock, Ranajor Singh Thapa. He pointed out the positions of the three Gurkha stockades that appear in our artist’s paintings and the peaks around Jytock, which the British named ‘Peacock Hill’ and ‘Blackhill’, the latter being the spot from which the sketches were made.
He also pointed out that as far as we know no archaeological dig has been carried out and given that 600 or so people died in the battle there must be a lot of material lying about not far below the surface. For example, when the helipad was being made they discovered ‘a truckload of gunpowder’ and when the private road was being cut the workmen dug up the skeleton of a Gurkha, complete with kukri placed behind his head. HRH reckons there must be a second somewhere as he has read detailed reports of the battle mentioning these two – normally the bodies of Hindus killed in battle would have been cremated but for some reason these two were buried. Before he could arrive at the scene, the road diggers had smashed the skeleton up in revenge for the cruelty inflicted on the locals by the occupying Gurkhas 200 years previously – folk memory dies hard – so he took what was left to Haridwar and put it in the Ganges.
We left, exchanging contact details and promising to be back in March for further explorations and to find the exact spots from which the sketches were made, and then made our way down to Nahan. My car, also called a Gurkha, was to have some work done at Uncle’s garage in central Nahan. Just across the road is a monument and the graves of the five British officers killed in the first assault on Jytock fort. The brother of one of those killed had a plaque installed 25 years later, in memory of his brother, who was most likely cut to pieces by a Gurkha’s sword up on the hill above, aged just 22.