Part 3: British Chunar
The most interesting building we saw in the Chunar fort campus was the house of Warren Hastings, the 1st British Governor General of Bengal. He was in India just after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when the Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud Daulah had to give away all his powers to the East India Company. Due to political problems Hastings had to go back to England but returned when Bengal was still administered by the British but through Indian officials. He oversaw the transition of the ground level power to the hands of the British from Indians and supervised the growing supremacy of the British government.
The foundation stone on the bungalow mentions the date 1781, which means the Chunar fort served as an important military base for the British in their fight against the French and one of the most formidable enemy of the British in India – Haider Ali, the king of Mysore. Warren Hastings lived in it during his second India stint.
The Warren Hastings house is on top of a small hill, with a water tank and pump installed in it to provide for ample water in spite of its location on a height. We could hear spooky sounds from within this tank house. This tank house is still functional!
The house has high ceilings, thick walls and a tiled sloping roof, there is no ornate decoration so the building must have served as a basic functional unit – but everything about the interiors and the history associated with it makes it grand. To even imagine that the 1st Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, lived here. So this is the place from where a lot of military strategies and administrative decisions must have been taken.
The ceiling has small vents that allow in light and air to keep the inner space cool during the hot summers. It overlooks the vast Ganga basin and while standing on the edge of the bungalow we can see the turning of the river. Thank goodness for the record keeping methods of the British we are at least aware of the exact date and utility of the buildings, unlike the rest of the structures inside Chunar fort. Even this house is not accessible to the public but we got permission to enter it due to a stroke of luck.
Today, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) administrative head of the region has kept the Asokan pillars with dates inscribed on them, which were found in the quarry that I had mentioned in the first post on Chunar, inside the safe keep of the compound of this house. Though even these had no information related to the inscription we were happy to create our own stories – and with a Sanskrit scholar, an art historian, a textile historian, a museum Curator such story making sessions are not always fictional and very fun.
We crossed some British tombs on the way out and were informed that the fort had served as a place for prisoners who were convalescing, so there must have been a sizeable section of the British army who would have been garrisoned in the fort to take charge of these prisoners. I had never ever heard of a special accommodation for prisoners who were unwell and needed separate attention and space! How often do we hear of such special need and care in a separate space these days, have you?
These British tombs lie hidden from the love and respect they deserve. I realise that I often keep thinking if the family members of those Britishers who lie within the Indian soil, wrapped in time, have been able to find their way through the maze of access, permissions and permits to reach their ancestors.
There are some stories that the British imprisoned Rani Jindan, the widow of the Maharaja of Punjab Ranjit Singhji at the Chunar fort so that she did not remain in Punjab and fuel rebellion against the British. She felt so humiliated by the British that one day she escaped in disguise to Nepal where she was immediately given shelter. Her son Duleep or Dalip Singh, was made the the Maharaja at the age of 7 years on the death of his father but separated from his mother. He finally got her to London where she died near him.
Everyone says that even walls have ears, wish the walls of the majestic Chunar fort could speak and tell us the actual stories trapped within. Then maybe we could hear from those who spent their entire life or parts of their entire life in the fort of their struggles, romances, thrills…more than five hundred years of the past would slowly unravel itself.
After a quick lunch at a small dhaba (eatery on Indian highways catering to the truck drivers and travellers) we drove back to Varanasi – tired but thrilled. Wishing you all a pleasant trip to Chunar J do feel free to share these stories and experiences with everyone through this blog, it would be fun to relive Chunar through your eyes.