When a well in Ajnala, a town in Punjab, was dug up, it brought alive a long-known legend — that this is where 282 Indian soldiers who rebelled against the British during the 1857 uprising were buried.
For three days, the people of Ajnala, a border town in Amritsar district, and its neighbouring villages turned up to witness what they had known all along. As the workers’ shovels struck the first few bricks of the well, a legend came alive, the legend of Kallianwala Khoo. It’s believed that it was here, in this khoo or well, that the bodies of 282 Indian soldiers who rebelled against the British during the 1857 uprising were buried.
Amar Singh of nearby Gujjarpura village stood in the crowd, craning his neck to peer into the baskets that the workers carried up the well. Covered in the freshly dug earth were skeletal remains — skulls, bones — coins and pieces of jewellery. “We have grown up with stories of the well. I was in class VI in 1971 and we would come to Ajnala with our friends,” says Singh.
By March 2, the excavators — mostly volunteers — had dug about 23 feet and claimed to have exhumed 90 skulls, 170 “intact jaws”, more than 5,000 teeth, 70 one-rupee gold coins belonging to The East India Company, gold beads, three gold amulets, six finger rings, four karas and two medals dated 1835, before they declared the digging complete.
Standing a few feet away from the well, Amritsar-based historian Surinder Kochhar, who led the group of amateur excavators, says the decision to excavate the well was based on historical research.
Kochhar says he had based his claims on then Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Frederick Cooper’s book, The Crisis in the Punjab, published in 1858, which vividly narrates the incident (see box) and on the Amritsar District Gazetteers from 1883 to 1947, all four editions of which mentioned the Kallianwala Khoo killings.
According to popular history, the 282 soldiers buried in the Ajnala well were part of a platoon of 500 soldiers of the 26th Native Infantry who had revolted at the Mian Mir Cantonment in Lahore during the 1857 uprising and had swum across Ravi to reach Ajnala town in Amritsar. Around 218 of their comrades were killed by the British at Dadian Sofian village near Ajnala. Of the remaining 282, many were captured and put in a cage-like room where several died of asphyxiation, while the rest were shot dead. Their bodies were then thrown into the well.
Experts say the Kallianwala Khoo massacre is another symbol of British repression in Amritsar, comparable to the Jallianwalla massacre, where hundreds were killed on the orders of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. Many people died while trying to flee the shooting by jumping into a well in the compound. According to a plaque at the site, 120 bodies were later removed from the well.
Kochhar says that despite this history, government officials and the ASI weren’t initially convinced about his proposal to dig up the Kallianwalla site. It was no surprise then that none of the officials turned up at the site on February 28, the day Kochhar earmarked for the excavation. He says he had careful chosen the date, 28/2, to coincide with 282, the number of soldiers believed to have been martyred and buried in the well.
Since news of the excavation and the discovery have come out, a steady stream of government officials has been visiting Ajnala, including Navjot P S Randhawa, director of the department of Punjab Cultural Affairs, Museums, Archives and Archaeology, and Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Ravi Bhagat.
Kochhar says though he couldn’t have said for certain where the well was, Cooper’s book had broad clues that helped him narrow in on the site. But more problems were to follow. There was now a gurudwara at the spot and any excavation would have been almost impossible, given the religious sentiments involved. But after a few rounds of talks, the Gurdwara Shaheed Gunj Management Committee in 2012 agreed to shift the gurdwara to an adjacent site. The new gurdwara was inaugurated in January this year and, finally, the excavation began on February 28.
Historians have largely welcomed the findings. M Rajivlochan, professor at the Department of History, Panjab University, says the recovery of skeletal remains and other artefacts from the Ajnala well corroborates the events that Cooper narrates in his book. “There is concrete evidence in the form of remains and it’s likely that they belong to the 19th Century and not to any recent past. That, and the account by a person who was there at that time (Cooper), shows the story is valid. If DNA testing is conducted, it could be another evidence,” he says.
Dr Sukhdev Singh Sohal, professor of history at the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, says there is no unanimous view on how the well got its name. The popular view, he says, is that Kallianwala khoo means the ‘well of the blacks’, referring to “dark-skinned Indians”. The other view, he says, is that the well stood on land that belonged to a landlord of the neighbouring Kale village and hence the name Kallianwala khoo or the well of the Kales.
The villagers want a memorial and a museum in Ajnala in memory of the soldiers. There have also been proposals for DNA- and carbon-dating tests on the exhumed remains. The government has decided to set up a committee of historians to examine these demands.
“We are getting suggestions from various quarters, including from INTACH, saying that the skeletons should be studied to ascertain how the soldiers could have been assassinated. Were they beheaded, shot dead or killed using some other means?” says Randhawa. Back at the site, Kochhar says, “A lot of research has gone into this. I didn’t dream of the well.” That the reference was to a seer’s dream that triggered a failed gold rush at Unnao in UP, wasn’t lost on anyone.
FROM COOPER’S BOOK
“Ten by ten the sepoys were called forth. Their names having been taken down in succession, they were pinioned, linked together, and marched to execution; a firing party being in readiness. About 150 having been thus executed, one of the executioners swooned away (he was the oldest of the firing party), and a little respite was allowed. Then proceeding, the number had arrived at two hundred and thirty seven; when the district officer was informed that the remainder refused to come out of the bastion, where they had been imprisoned temporarily a few hours before. Expecting a rush and resistance, preparations were made against escape; but little expectation was entertained of the real and awful fate which had fallen on the remainder of the mutineers… The doors were opened, and, behold! They were nearly all dead! Unconsciously, the tragedy of Holwell’s Black Hole had been re-enacted. No cries had been heard during the night, in consequence of the hubbub, tumult and shouting of the crowds of the horsemen, police, tehsil guards and excited villagers.
Forty five bodies, dead from fright, exhaustion, fatigue, heat and partial suffocation, were dragged into light, and consigned, in common with all other bodies, into one common pit, by the hands of village sweepers…The execution at Ujnalla (read Ajnala) commenced at day break, and the stern spectacle was over in a few hours. Thus, within forty-eight hours from the date of the crime, there fell by law nearly 500 men.”
— Extracted from The Crisis in the Punjab (1858)
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