SOCIETY
A peep into the history of Ambala
The Ambala Cantt with tree-lined roads and open spaces owes its origin to Capt Robert Napier, a Bengal Sappers officer
Lt Gen Ranjit Singh (retd)

The genesis of Ambala Cantonment lies in the defeat of the Marathas in the IInd Anglo-Maratha War on September 11, 1803. On that day, Lord Lake defeated Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia at the battle of Delhi. Marathas, who till then had controlled the territories North of Delhi, were forced to cede these to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Surji-Anjangaon on December 30, 1803. The Sikh chiefs, who had fought along with the Marathas, however continued their struggle against the British under the leadership of Sardar Gurdit Singh of Ladwa for their independence.

Field Marshal Robert Cornelis Napier (December 6 1810-January 1890). He planned and laid out the cantonments at Darjeeling and Ambala
Field Marshal Robert Cornelis Napier (December 6 1810-January 1890). He planned and laid out the cantonments at Darjeeling and Ambala
Maharaja Ranjit Singh started making forays south of the Satluj in order to extract tribute
Maharaja Ranjit Singh started making forays south of the Satluj in order to extract tribute
The Earl of Ellenborough Governor-General of India, came to restore peace but spent his entire tenure fighting
The Earl of Ellenborough Governor-General of India, came to restore peace but spent his entire tenure fighting!

In December 1804, this struggle came to an end as Colonel Burns defeated them. Five months later, the British proclaimed an amnesty for all those who would observe peace and abstain from violence against the British. This amnesty had one exception, Sardar Gurdit Singh. In April 1805, the British defeated Gurdit Singh and captured his fort at Karnal and placed Sir David Ochterlong there with troops at his disposal. Thus the Karnal Cantonment came into existence. Around this time Maharaja Ranjit Singh had started making forays south of Satluj in order to extract tribute.

The chieftans, in order to safeguard their estates and gaddis, appealed to the British to provide them protection. The British too were not too keen to entangle with Ranjit Singh and engaged him in talks so as to secure their northern borders.At that time, Rani Daya Kaur ruled over Ambala. Her husband, Sardar Gurbaksh Singh of Nishanaval principlaity was the ruler till 1786, when he died and his wife Rani Daya Kaur took over the reins. She was an able administrator and as per Sir Lapel Griffin, the estate was one of the best managed in the protracted territories. In one of his forays, he ejected Rani Daya Kaur and placed his own men to rule.

After concluding the treaty of Lahore on April 25, 1809, Ranjit Singh withdrew his forces to the north of Satluj. The British then restored to Daya Kaur her estates. In the meantime, Karnal developed into a large cantonment and the British had a small outpost at Ludhiana. Though the Resident at Delhi was in charge of political relations with the protected and independent states in North-West India, however it was Sir David Ochterlong who actually took all the decisions. In the District Gazetteer of Ambala it is mentioned that the decision to establish a new cantonment at Ambala, to replace Karnal, was taken when the troops moving to Sirhind found the climate good here after a stay of two days. This is far from true. The British never took decisions in such a cavalier manner. Their decisions were based on long-term considerations and not on a short-term basis.

The decision to shift the Cantonment at Karnal had been taken in 1842 due to the following reasons:-

(a) Karnal, as has been pointed out in the Gazetteer, was unhealthy (malarial) and the mortality among the troops was very high.

(b) The need for accommodating the troops returning from the Afghan War. Ambala had been incorporated into the territory directly under the EIC rule since its resumption after the death of Rani Daya Kaur in 1823 under the policy of escheats. It also was the junction from where roads led off to Lahore, Delhi and Shimla. In addition, the office of the Commissioner of Cis-Sutlej was located here since 1823. Thus it was chosen as the new cantonment

Capt Robert Napier, a Bengal Sapper Officer, who was involved in planning the Darjeeling Cantonment and building a road to connect it to the plains 7,000 ft below, was posted to Sirhind Division in 1840. He was, however, relieved in early 1842 from his assignment there. He with his young wife and child travelled from Darjeeling to Ambala, as his biographer has stated, by boat. In all probability he would have walked down the hills and then sailed in a boat on the Ganga till Allahabad. It appears so strange when one thinks of it now. Incidentally before the Railways appeared on the scene, the mode of travel was by horse or palanquins.

These were carried by men who would change at regular intervals. One Mr RB Gunt, in his memoirs wrote that when he was appointed Assistant to the Political Agent for Cis -Sutlej States (located in Ambala) in 1844, he started his journey from Calcutta on May 1, 1844 in a Palanquin and reached Allahabad on 18th. He would have halted for some time, because he reached Delhi on June 14, Karnal on Jne 23 and Ambala on June 24! He stayed in Ambala in a large empty official house in Badshahi Bagh (South of the old City and near District Courts), where the staff of the Agent stayed.

At Allahabad, there was message waiting for him from Lord Ellenborough, the then Governor-General of India, to the effect that he must move post-haste to chose the site and establish the cantonment at Ambala. When Napier was moving to Ambala he met a large number of doctors to find out as to what was the best way to keep the troops healthy. His interaction convinced him that the cantonment must be open with greenery and the barracks must be airy. On arrival, he chose the present stretch of land for the cantonment. He designed the cantonment and the barracks keeping the above in mind. As it happens in all bureaucracy, the audit authorities were stinging in their criticism of such lavish buildings to house troops. Napierís vision proved correct as this criterion was followed for other cantonments.





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