More than 200 skeletons discovered in Ajnala were identified as belonging to soldiers killed by the British in 1857, according to DNA evidence. What happened to them is documented in history. This is the story of how 1857 martyrs shot by British firing squad were found in a Punjab well.
The day of Eid Al-Adha, August 1, 1857, provided Frederic Cooper, then deputy commissioner of Amritsar, with the “perfect excuse” to dispatch his Muslim riders. He could now execute “Hindoostani” sepoys whenever he wanted, with no one objecting. Cooper thought the 26th Bengal Native Infantry regiment’s “mutineers” deserved it because they had just murdered their commanding officer two days prior.
“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 in readiness,” Cooper wrote in his 1858 book The Crisis in the Punjab, from the 10th of May until the Fall of Delhi (read below). It was a “spectacle” to him.
Now, historians, archaeologists, and forensic scientists have discovered the last resting site of the 1857 rebels after an almost decade-long investigation. The discovery could assist locals and historians in Ajnala realize long-held desires for a memorial to commemorate the early rebels’ sacrifice against British empire.
The Bengal Native Infantry was established by the East India Company in 1757 and was drawn from all throughout eastern India. Its troops were mostly upper-caste Bengalis, Rajputs, and Bhumihars from Bengal, Awadh, and Bihar. There were 74 regiments of Bengal Native Infantry before the start of 1857, each with 800 sepoys, 120 havildars and naiks, 20 subedars and jemadars, and two British sergeants and 26 British commissioned officers at the top.
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In 2014, locals headed by amateur archaeologist Surinder Kochhar uncovered the skeleton remnants of more than 200 long-dead men from a well under a gurudwara in Ajnala, on the outskirts of Amritsar, a century and a half after the Ajnala massacre.
They were confronted with a puzzle. While Kochhar had been on the hunt for the 1857 massacre’s ‘legend,’ various other hypotheses regarding the skeletons developed during the next few years. Some speculated that the skeletons were from the time of Partition or were the remains of British men and women who were slain.
Science, on the other hand, has laid all of the conjecture to rest. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Genetics on April 28 this year used DNA and isotopic tests to establish a relationship between the skeletal remains and the ill-fated sepoys murdered in August 1857.
The study, led by J.S. Sehrawat, an anthropologist from Panjab University, in cooperation with the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, the Birbal Sahni Institute in Lucknow, and the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), affirms that the DNA sequences of the skeletal remains are coherent with historical sources that the 26th Native Infantry regiment was made up of people from the Indo-Gangetic plains.
‘Consigned into one common pit, by hands of village sweepers’
Months before the tragedy, rumblings of unrest had reached Punjab. After word of insurrection in Meerut reached Punjab on 13 May 1857, the 26th Native Infantry was disarmed as a precaution. Despite this precaution, Major Spencer, the regiment’s commanding officer, was executed on July 30, 1857.
According to Cooper, one sepoy named Prakash Singh “came out of his hut, brandishing a sword, and bawling out to his colleagues to kill the firangees” was what sparked the sepoys’ desire to break away.
The sepoys were able to retreat underneath the cover of a dust storm, but their freedom was short-lived. The regiment was discovered on the Ravi’s banks on July 31.
According to Cooper’s story, the villagers flocked to the British’s aid. “At the left bank of river Ravi, (the mutineers) met with unexpected opposition from a tehsildar who was supported by villagers,” Cooper said, saying that 150 soldiers of the regiment perished there, by either drowning or fighting the police and villagers.
Meanwhile, 282 sepoys were apprehended, with 66 being held at a police station 10 kilometers from Ajnala and the rest being sent to a neighboring tower or bastion.
Those that surrendered hoped to avoid a court martial, but the British had other ideas, as Cooper points out with pleasure.
To begin, ropes were ordered so that the mutineers might be hanged from tree branches if necessary. Cooper then describes a nearby well as a practical option.
“The well’s presence presented itself as a convenient solution as to the one remaining difficulty which was of sanitary consideration — the disposal of the corpses of the dishonoured soldiers,” he writes.
Cooper felt safe now that the Muslim horsemen were gone: there were no Indian soldiers left to complain and revolt. Following that, British officers were summoned for a “spectacle.”
The soldiers were murdered in groups of ten, and 237 of them were killed this manner, according to Cooper’s book. Others, 45 of them, died of asphyxia after being apprehended at the Ajnala police station.
They were all thrown together in the same graveyard. “Forty five bodies. Dead from exhaustion, fatigue, heat and partial suffocation, were dragged into light and consigned into the one common pit, by the hands of the village sweepers,” Cooper recalls.
Researchers have determined that 246 bodies have been discovered based on isotopic DNA analysis of tooth remnants, which is close to the amount of 282 stated by Cooper in his book. 90 skulls, 170 jaw bones, jewelry, and medals dating from 1857 were discovered in 2014.
‘All honour to you for what you have done’
The British praised Cooper’s actions in 1857, saying that the deaths served to set an “example” for Indians considering uprising.
On August 2, 1857, John Lawrence, chief commander of Punjab, wrote to Cooper, “I trust the fate of these sepoys will work as a warning to the others.”
The effort earned even more credit for Robert Montgomery, the Punjab judicial commissioner at the time. In a letter, he said, “All honour to you for what you have done, and right well you did it.”
Cooper further established the righteousness of his deeds by possibly saving the sepoys’ women and children, and also modelled the killings as a reply to a massacre in Cawnpore (Kanpur) on 15 July 1857, where Indians slaughtered European women and children, according to Mark Condos, scholar with the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, in a 2022 research paper titled “The Ajnala Massacre.”
According to Condos, the Ajnala massacre was “a part of a much wider culture of imperial violence that emphasised the need for strong executive authority and swift, and exemplary spectacles of punishment during times of crisis.”
Although the Bengal Native Infantry’s dissident battalions were disbanded, the East India Company’s loyal forces survived. The twelve remaining Bengal Native Infantry regiments were supplemented in 1861 by newly established units such as the Allahabad Levy, which became the 33rd Bengal Native Infantry. The 19th Bengal Native Infantry was formed with soldiers from Punjab.
Soldiers who did not rebel were also permitted to join regiments such as the Lucknow Regiment and the Loyal Purbiah Regiment.
Those ‘loyal’ troops are still part of the tradition of present Indian Army divisions, which carry the war honors of their forefathers.
The Jat Regiment, for instance, may be traced back to the East India Company’s Calcutta Native Militia, which in 1861 became the 18th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry. The Jat Regiment is likewise descended from the Bengal Native Infantry’s 43rd and 65th regiments.
The Sikh Regiment is descended from the Bengal Native Infantry’s 14th, 15th, and 45th regiments after 1861. Similarly, the Punjab Unit descended from the Bengal Native Infantry’s 20th regiment.
Respect for the fallen
The discovery of the well in Ajnala gave life to the urban folklore of ‘Kaliyan Wala Kuh,’ or “the well of Blacks.”
The well wherein slain soldiers’ bodies were dumped became part of Ajnala’s military grounds, and a gurudwara was constructed over it. Surinder Kochhar located the spot and conducted an amateur dig there after negotiating with the gurudwara committee on February 28, 2014.
Condos notes in his report that locals of Ajnala have attempted but failed to have a monument built for the fallen troops at the spot so that their sacrifice can be honored.
“Since unearthing the bodies, Kochhar, the Gurdwara Committee, and other residents of Ajnala have petitioned both the state and central authorities in India to honour these ‘martyrs, through various commemorative activities, including the construction of a memorial monument and museum,” Condos writes, in an effort to “reclaim these sepoys from this commemorative neglect and integrate them into India’s national public memory.”
However, Condos notes that there were other challenges, including “a lack of interest from government authorities who are reluctant to fund this endeavour, as well as disputes between Kochhar and the Gurdwara Committee.”
The study’s anthropologist, J.S. Sehrawat of Panjab University, said the university is now attempting to locate the sepoys’ relatives.
“We are in touch with the British government and our peer research scholars there to get a list of the soldiers in the 26th Native Infantry regiment. With that, we’ll locate their families who will be able to cremate them with dignity,” he said.
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