Ancient House Visits India

Creating the Duleep Singh gallery

Gobingarh Fort, Jallianwala Bagh and Khandas galore!

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Another exciting auto rickshaw ride to start the day again! I am beginning to get used to the traffic now and have learnt how to cross the road in relative safety. A short ride away from the bazaars is Gobingarh Fort. Built in the mid 18th century by the leader of the Bhangi Misl, Gobingarh Fort was named after Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru when Maharajah Ranjit Singh took possession from the in 1805. It is the sole remaining fort from Ranjit Singh’s reign and it’s Tosha Khana once held the Koh-i-noor diamond. Today the fort stands empty but the subject of an extensive regeneration project. If successful, this project will not only breathe new life into the buildings but will dramatically enhance the tourism offer in the area and create large scale employment opportunities. Currently the fort is closed to the public, an exception was made for our visit and Mr PK Mehta, the site manager & engineer. Generously, Mr Mehta took us on a full tour of the site, explaining what the existing building were used for and the plans for their use in the future.

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We entered the fort through the gatehouse where Maharajah Ranjit Singh would have entered on one of his majestic elephants . Inside, on each side were 6 matching arches. Mr Mehta explained that in the time of the Maharajah there would have been 3 women and 3 men on each side throwing rose petals as the most importnt visitors arrived and went past.

The site will contain museums, artisan retail units, a hotel, banqueting facilities, leisure facilities and an area for ‘glamping’. Once I had explained what glamping was, Mr Mehta decided that they were going to drop the term camping, so visitors of the future, you will be glamping in style just outside the south rampart. Fairly close to the planned spa facilities!

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The site is huge, the perimeter wall is 1.6km long. Redevelopment has been divided into 4 phases depending on the project priorities. Several areas have had extensive work completed including the eastern cells with their domed ceilings. The plan is to retail locally produced handicrafts linked to Sikh culture in each cell – today they just contained Amritsar’s resident Britisher much to the amusement of everyone else.

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The North East Bastion will be turned into an Anglo Sikh Gallery, which immediately interested me; the storyline will include Maharajah Duleep Singh. I hope this is a project that Ancient House can be involved in, possibly sharing our East Anglian story. Throughout our tour people were at work around us, including whole families who work and live on the site. It was quite strange to see a family washing themselves and their clothes right next to the lime pits where the lime mortar is ground up, and other building materials are laying around. Its something you would never see in the UK but is perfectly natural here. Some of the small children even teased Mr Mehta for sweets which he produced from his pockets and handed out.

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My two personal highlights were seeing and going in the Tosha Khana. The structure is designed around seven arches to make the roof virtually indestructible. The story of Duleep Singh and the Koh-i-noor diamond is a huge part of our Seeking the Maharajah schools session, so to go inside a place where it was originally kept was just fantastic. Eventually the room will display some of the archeology found on the site and a selection of Sikh swords.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES The other building was the Darbar Hall. This building has unique oval windows and fabulous views across the fort, standing opposite Dyer’s bungalow (which is nothing like our interpretation of a bungalow). The British occupied the fort from 1849 after the second Sikh War. Many of the buildings have a colonial feel to them because of this. The fort remained under the control of the Indian Army until 2006, with regeneration work initially beginning in 2011. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe site is being renovated sympathetically using traditional methods and materials. I feel certain that Maharajah Ranjit Singh who added the moat and outer defensive walls would approve. I really hope this project is successful and completion is sooner rather than later. If the work can be completed with integrity and to the high standard we saw today, it will set a precedent for city and the future could be bright for Amritsar’s heritage.

Feeling rather buoyant by the first visit of the day, we then headed to Jallianwala Bagh. I had very mixed feelings about this site. It really is a lovely garden and a pleasure to visit until you remember why it is there. Some things are very difficult to reconcile. We were standing in the enclosed space where the British gunned down families picnicing on Vaisakhi in 1919.  This event is now known as the Amritsar Massacre and a symbol of India’s freedom struggle. On some of the walls bullet holes are marked out. There is a large central monument to the victims in the centre of the garden and several galleries. In one area topiary soldiers are shooting across a lawn, it really does stop you in your tracks. Slightly lightening the mood was the reaction from some of our fellow visitors when we stopped to sit down for a while. Several groups just stopped and stared or tried to join our photos. One person apparently gleefully told his friend that the Britisher was in his photo when I accidently photo bombed him. This resulted in more teasing from Sukhpreet and Damandeep, in Punjabi there is a plural of British, which is why the English translation is Britishers, however it just sounds so strange!

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Next on my list was some retail therapy, something I was much keener to do than my companions, especially when they heard it was for bangles and shawls. They perked up when I said I wanted to buy a selection of Khandas for a museum trail later in the year. Bangles were quickly purchased & we headed towards one of the many markets near the Golden Temple. This one, announced Sukhpreet was the religious market and Khandas were going to be abundant. I now have what I consider is possibly the best collection (and maybe the only one) of Khandas in Thetford. If you want to see my dazzling purchases (not all of them are in the photo), come and do the trail in September, where they will be artfully hidden around Ancient House by my colleague Lynne. I also fell in love with a very kitsch Guru Nanak figurine which was set to be mine until I was reminded that it Guru Gobind Singh had decreed that idol worship is a false practice, sadly this included my spangley, brightly coloured Guru Nanak. So the Guru figure remained in the shop, but I do feel very pleased with my hoard of Khandas!  Poor Damandeep, beginning to feel unwell enlisted Mr & Mrs Singh Sandhanwalia to take me to buy some juttis and experience real haggling, the shop keeper looked extremely put out when we left but I was assured that it was all part of the selling process and the right price was paid. Hopefully Damandeep will have recovered by tomorrow, he’s at the Golden Temple when the rest of us are asleep, and has ensured that everything I need to achieve is as easy for me as possible. So to you Damandeep I say “Thank you” and I hope you survive until the end of my trip………

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