119 Years of Trust Regional vignettes THE TRIBUNE
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Saturday, February 20, 1999






A prominent market town of yesteryear
By Romesh Dutt

SABATHU, the third oldest cantonment in the country, is situated 22 km from Solan, on a narrow, 4000-foot-high ridge, overlooking a range of undulating valleys, criss-crossed by the Kuthar, Kuhni and Gumber streams.

A view of Sabathu town Local Sanskrit scholars, including highly respected octogenarian Pandit Dharni Dutt Shastri have traced the origins of the older Sabathu village to the Mahabharata days. They believe that it was the capital of King Subahu, who ruled over Kuninda Pradesh — which comprised the present Dehra Dun, Jagadhri, Ambala, Sirmour and parts of Solan district. Some others say that the name was a corrupted form of Gurkhali words Subbah Thum, meaning the residency of the Governor. Still others believe that the name was derived from Subha Thor —the place where one stopped for morning breakfast, en route Shimla from the plains.

The present Sabathu cantonment, was established by the British at the close of the Gurkha War in May, 1815. The original Nuseree Regiment, formed by defeated Nepalese Army soldiers who were taken into the British fold, was the first unit that was stationed here. The place originally belonged to the hill principality of Kenonthal. A small tract called ‘Khaltoo’ was later added to it, after having been obtained from the neighbouring Rana of Kuthar at an annual compensation of Rs 80.

In those days there was no regular road connecting Shimla to the plains. A bridle path which took off from Kalka and passed through Kasauli, Kakkarhatti, Sabathu, Haripur and Syri (None of these places fell on the present alignment of the Kalka-Shimla Highway) lead to Shimla. The principal mode of transport was the horse for the men and the ‘Jampan’ for ladies. Jampan was a "sedan chair fitted with curtains slung on poles, and borne by native bearers". Children and the invalid were sometimes carried in ‘dolis’, traditionally used to carry brides. Mules and bullock-carts were employed to transport loads.

Sabathu, opt that time, bid fair to become the summer capital of the British. Besides being strategically located near the ‘potential trouble spot in the plains for the British ‘ and endowed with a reasonably cool (as compared to the plains) climate, it had emerged as the premier market town. It’s enterprising traders attracted custom from as far as Rampur, Bilaspur, Ghumarwin (Kangra), Kulu and, Kinnaur.

The Viceregal Lodge The new cantonment had also earned fame as a leading trading centre of Kinnauri and Tibetan Pashm — a type of wool, valued for its softness and warmth- giving qualities. Also, delicately embroidered Pashmina shawls, crafted in Sabathu, had caught the fancy of the English and rich Indian women alike. These were produced by a few master weavers, from amongst the sizeable community of Kashmiri settlers. While most of them had come to Sabathu looking for odd jobs as porters, the master weavers were attracted by the town’s business potential. Till then, Kashmir had not emerged as a haven for tourists.

The arrival of the British and the consequent setting up of a chain of cantonments at Kasauli, Dagshai, Jutog and Solan helped created a new class of wealthy builders, transport contractors and suppliers who supplied items of daily need to soldiers. Thousands of tonnes of stone used in buildings raised by British in Shimla, and other parts of the hills was quarried from Dagshai hills and transported on mules by these enterprising contractors.

Lieutenant Ross, the first British political overseer, somewhat innocuously called Assistant Political Agent, to be posted in the hills, chose Sabathu as his headquarters and started functioning from a hastily constructed wooden structure in 1818. Three years later, Captain Charles Pratt Kennedy, who succeeded Lieutenant Ross at Subathu, built his ‘Durbar Hall’, which came to be called Kennedy House. Built on a raised platform, it had contemporary European architectural style and was furnished with choicest, superbly crafted Georgian mahagony furniture. It’s grandeur far surpassed the so-called palaces of hill chieftains that existed in those days.

The Viceregal Lodge, an imposing stone masonary structure, was added along with some 20 other buildings for Lord William Bentinck and his entourage in 1829. From this time onwards the post of the Assistant Political Agent was upgraded to that of a full political Agent.

The Ludhiana Mission of The American Presbyterian Church opened their branch in Sabathu in 1837, to which an orphanage and a leper asylum was added shortly afterwards. The work of these institutions was looked after by an American missionary, Dr, Carlton. This medic had been credited with the introduction of perennially flowering, thorny bush, Lantana, which of late has become the despair of farmers and scientists alike.

Brought in for the sole purpose of creating beautiful fences around the mission properties, this bush which neither provided food nor fodder and did not permit any other plant to flourish alongside, started spreading unexpectedly fast all around and has since reduced vast tracts of once fertile fields into wastelands. Farm scientists have so far not been able to evolve any technology for arresting its proliferation.

The havoc unwittingly wrought by Dr Carlton was more than compensated by a fellow American missionary, Stokes. The latter, after having spent sometime at Subathu, moved over to Kotgarh, where he married a local Hindu lady, embraced the religion of his spouse and assumed the name Satya Nand Stokes. How he introduced the cultivation of apples in Kotgarh that brought about the economic transformation of the people of the area is now history.

No account of Sabathu would be complete without mentioning the names of Munshi Mool Chand Saihgal, Ram Prashad ‘Bairagi’ Sadhu Sunder Singh and G.D. Sondhi, all of whom have helped establish the identity of this town at the national and even international levels.

Saihgal authored a unique book on Urdu language and its characteristic nuances. Entitled Hindustani Grammar in three simultaneous but separate scripts (Urdu, Nagri and Roman-Urdu), it was first published in 1917, and ran into 15 editions, the last one being in 1962 when Urdu suffered a decline.

The book was officially recommended to "the officers studying for the Urdu Elementary Examination" by the Board of Examiners, Army Headquarters. The Army Quarterly, London, and The ‘Fauji Akhbar’, Shimla, important mouthpieces of the British and British Indian Army, respectively, also spoke highly of the author and his work, describing it as indispensable guide for Englishmen preparing for various Urdu examinations.

Ram Prashad Bairagi was the lone native of Shimla hills who had been executed by the British on the charge of writing ‘seditious’ letters. It was a sad District Magistrate who learnt a bit too late that Bairagi was an illiterate person and hence could not have written the letters. Facts that came to light after Bairagi’s summary execution showed that he was, in reality, the victim of a conspiracy hatched by a person who owed a considerable sum of money to him. The event generated considerable heat in the area in those times.

Sadhu Sundar Singh was a saffron clad Christian mendicant who had dedicated his life to the service of the poor, the needy and the sick and was widely venerated in the area. His exposition of the basic tenets of Christianity attracted admirers from all parts of the country, for whom Sabathu had almost become a place of pilgrimage.

Harcharan Singh was an intrepid freedom fighter, who had been jailed twice for his nationalistic activities. Called ‘Iron Man’, he created a stir by hoisting the Tricolour on the flag mast of the locally stationed army regiment, after hauling down the Union Jack, on August 15, 1947, when no official came forward to do the needful.

G.D. Sondhi was the first Indian principal of the famed Government College, Lahore, the alma mater of a host of civil and defence officers many of whom rose to become high-ranking officials.

After Partition, Sondhi bought a charming little villa at Sabathu, called Bamboo Cottage. Indira Gandhi stayed in it a number of times.

Sanjay Gandhi, while facing the Shah Commission, set up to probe his role, if any, in the infamous demolition of buildings of a particular community at Turkman Gate, Delhi, had deposed that he was at Bamboo Cottage, Sabathu, at the time the demolition took place.

In addition to being close to the Nehru family, Sondhi was a celebrity in his own right. He was the first Indian to be elected vice-president of the International Olympic Committee. The first Asiad held at New Delhi in 1951 was also his brainchild.

Sondhi died in 1966. His widow sold out the Bamboo Cottage, and migrated to Pakistan to spend her remaining days with her daughters who lived in Lahore — the Sondhis’ ancestral home town.

Situated next to the Bamboo Cottage, is a cemetery, in which Henry Lawrence, the founder of the prestigious Lawrence School, Sanawar, his wife Honoria and their six-year-old daughter, Litishia, lay buried. The Lawrences lived in Sabathu before they shifted over to Kasauli.back


Museum that showcases heroic deeds of Gurkhas

BUT for the shifting of the 14 Gurkha Training Centre (14 G.T.C) from Clement Town, Dehra Dun in 1960, Sabathu too would have become as desolate as Dagshai is today. In addition to bringing in a permanent population of over 1000, which helped revive, to some degree, the old raunaq, of the town, the 14 G.T.C. set up a stadium and a park to commemorate one of its illustrious officers, Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria, P.V.C. (Posthumous).

An exhibit in the 14 G.T.C. MuseumThe stadium is perhaps the most spacious and well maintained facility of its kind in Himachal Pradesh. The various Gurkha Regimental teams have come up with several national and international level players, who honed their skills, practising at the Salaria Stadium. Many national championships have also been hosted at this ground.

The 14 G.T.C. has also set up a museum housing the memorabilia of the Ist and the 4th Gurkha Rifles which, besides being a show window of the numerous heroic exploits of the Sabathu Gurkhas, has also proved to be a source of inspiration to local youth.

Proud winner of dozens of bravery awards, including the highly coveted Victoria Crosses, the two Gurkha regiments have seen action in Burma, Mesopotamia, North Africa, Italy and France during the two world wars and also in Jammu, in the last 184 years.

Amongst a plethora of guns, pistols, bombs and grenades brought as souvenirs by these two regiments, and displayed in the museum, a few mementoes stand out as outstanding testimonials to the bravery, courage, conduct and unflinching sense of duty of men in arms.

One such exhibit is a bronze sculpture depicting two soldiers and a temple gong. It was presented to the 4/4 Gurkha Rifles by a Burmese Pagoda priest in Mandalay during the World War II in recognition of their good behaviour while they were stationed in that town.

Another exhibit narrates the story of the Sabathu Gurkhas’ exploits in China at the turn of the present century. The First Battalion of the 4th Gurkha Rifles was assigned to the British Expeditionary Force, that was sent to China to quell the Boxer Rebellion there.

The Boxers were a band of Chinese fundamentalists who had vowed to drive away each and every foreigner from the Chinese mainland. These Chinese marched to Peking, in 1900 and attacked and ransacked foreign legations stationed there, including that of India.

After International efforts to protect each country’s nationals living in Peking failed, the British Indian Government despatched a military mission, called the Expeditionary Force, of its own. A component of this force, chiefly consisting of Sabathu Gurkhas, entered Peking on August 14, 1900, and put down the Boxer Rebellion firmly.

As per a treaty, signed subsequent to the quelling of the rebellion, the British forced the Chinese Government to pay an indemnity of 64,000,000 sterling to all those countries who had suffered at the hands of the Boxers. Of course the greater part of the indemnity was cornered by the British as cost of their military effort. While returning, the Gurkhas removed two stones from the Great China wall, which had found pride of place in the museum.

The sword and the uniform, which was presented to General J.N. Chaudhri, the then Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, by His Majesty, the King of Nepal, in 1966 were also placed amongst the exhibits. The Indian General was conferred the title of a full General in the Royal Nepal Army at that time. To this day he remains the lone Indian to have received the singular honour.

The model of a ship named after Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria has been placed near the main door of the museum. This gallant son of India made the supreme sacrifice while leading a detachment of his 3/1 Gurkha Rifles, in the face of heavy enemy fire, at Elizabethville, Katanga, on December 5, 1961. Captain Salaria’s regiment had been handpicked to form part of the peace keeping force that had been sent to the African country by the UN. He accounted for 40 of the enemy with his bayonet before falling himself.

The bravery and sense of duty exhibited by Captain Salaria and his men saved the UN Force headquarters from being encircled by the rebel forces and also earned well earned kudos for the Indian Army from leaders of the fighting units of other nations as well.

The guns, used by the British in the famous Battle of Malaun that culminated in the defeat of the Gurkhas in 1815, had been placed at the entrance of the museum.

It would be in the fitness of things, if the 14 G.T.C. also raised a monument to Bhagtia Thapa, the Gurkha commander, who undaunted by a heavy artillery and gun fire barrage lead a valiant charge up the slopes of the Deothal peak during decisive Battle of Malaun. The British had come to occupy the peak, from where they started raining heavy artillery shells on the forces of the Gurkha General Amar Singh Thapa, trapped inside the Malaun Fort, opposite Deothal.

Even though outnumbered, one to four, General Thapa ordered Bhagtia Thapa, his most trusted lieutenant, to try and dislodge the British from the peak. The sheer ferocity of Bhagtia’s charge left the British dumbfounded. However, when success was just at hand, Bhagtia fell to an enemy bullet. The British Commander, honoured Bhagtia by personally saluting his body and later sent it back inside the Malaun Fort, wrapped in costly shawls.

— R.D.



Gateway to Shimla Hills, now a decaying town

THE town of Panipat has a locality called Sabathu Mohalla. This name was reportedly given to it after a local trading family made a fortune in the once prosperous Himachal town. An important area has also been named after Sabathu in Ambala Cantonment. The Kalka-Shimla National Highway bears signs such as "To Kasauli" or "To Nahan" at points from which roads to these places take off. No such sign had been put for Sabathu even though two roads lead to it from the National Highway—one from Solan and the other from Dharampur. An insignificant matter? Maybe. But it does reflect the attitude of the powers that be towards the fast-decaying town, once hailed as the Gateway to Shimla Hills.

A dilapidated building in the main bazaar, Sabathu. Civilians in the town cannot renovate their houses without the permission of the Cantonment BoardMany ascribed the downfall of Sabathu to ‘region-based politics’ since it belonged to Punjab prior to the reorganisation of states in 1966. Others felt that Sabathu’s decline was precipitated by the construction, in 1856, of the Hindustan-Tibet Road of which the present Kalka-Shimla National Highway formed a part and that its fate as a centre of commerce was all but sealed on the day the Kalka-Shimla Railways were commissioned in 1905.

Whatever the cause, the fact remains that the town has been neglected almost in every sphere. There is no visible sign of any significant development work having been initiated here for the past several years.

The townsmen’s demand for the opening up of a civil hospital has gone unheeded for the past several years. The nearest such institution, that has one doctor and one pharmacist, is situated in Thari village, 3 km from the town.

The so-called bus stand is without even a basic facility like a decent toilet. In the absence of a platform, the old and the disabled find it difficult to board or alight from the buses. No interstate bus originates from or passes through Subathu. The Durgapur (Shimla) Chandigarh via Sabathu service, that had recently been curtailed, now runs up to Dharampur only. Buses originating from other places often get overcrowded by the time they reach Subathu. Many a time passengers from here, have to travel on bus roofs.

Sanitation seems confined to the Army areas only. While the cantonment area looks spik and span, as every inhabited place should, the civilian areas present a diametrically opposite picture.

Cattle roam freely in important areas like the Arhat Bazaar. The few dust-bins that have been installed in the town often overflow with garbage, spreading stink. Sometimes, garbage, instead of being removed, is incinerated in the bins, filling the streets with unhealthy smoke.

Like in every other canton- ment, the civilians who have constructed houses in Sabathu have not been granted ownership rights. They can neither sell, nor make any alterations, additions without the permission of the Cantonment Board, which is seldom granted. Many buildings look as if they would fall apart any moment and could positively be termed dangerous both for the dwellers and public at large.

Mutation of the lands and buildings of the local Goswami Ganesh Dutt Sanatan Dharam College, set up with public donations in 1978, has not been done so far. This institution enables a large number of local students to receive education up to the graduation level year after year. But for this college, most of the youth, especially girls, would have been denied the benefits of higher education on account of the socio-economic factors. Many expansion plans mooted by the college management had to be put in cold storage for want of space. This college is the only institution in the state which has never witnessed a strike.

The tourism potential of the town remains unexplored for want of suitable lodging facilities. A film unit that came to Sabathu for ‘shooting’ recently had to abandon their plans for want of a decent hotel. The only such place — a Forest Rest House — has only two suites, which are often occupied by visiting VIPs and guests of the local Army personnel.

Traders have been clamouring for the setting up of a sub- treasury in the town. At present, they deposit tax dues, which run into several lakhs at times, with Government Treasury at Solan.

They feel that the local branch of the State Bank of Patiala, which is equipped with a currency chest, could easily be employed as a sub- treasury. The traders’ numerous petitions to the government for setting up an industrial estate or some big industrial unit or tourism complex have also gone unheeded.



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