British cantonments across India evolved as enduring symbols of the imperial power. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, they were conceived as insulated communes typified by regimented barracks, hierarchical bungalows with vast open spaces, churches, race and golf courses, and clubs.
The very location of these cantonments, some of which were virtually mini-fortresses, was often cited as a reflection of social separation of the British from the natives. Some of the luxurious palaces the British built for themselves were the places from where intrigues and conspiracies for keeping the native ruler under leash originated and successfully executed.
Secunderabad Cantonment abutting Hyderabad, the largest in India, was no different. In this largely pictorial book aptly titled, Lashkar — The story of Secunderabad, Narendra Luther, a former bureaucrat, who has to his credit a number of books on Hyderabad, lucidly narrates the captivating tale of this twin city.
The best part of this book is the collection of bold and rare photographs of the late 1800s captured by the renowned Indian photographer, Raja Deen Dayal, and the contemporary ones by Ramchander Pentuker. The amazing pictures spread across pages provide you a glimpse of the Raj and gently guide you through the evolution of a city.
From a tiny three-mile stretch of tented encampment of British army, Secunderabad grew to a burgeoning twin of Hyderabad, once divided by the beautiful Hussain Sagar lake. Luther encapsulates every bit of it in this coffee-table book right from the days Nizam Ali Khan, the second Nizam, forged a treaty of “perpetual honour, favour and attachment” with the British (1766).
The Subsidiary Alliance Treaty of 1798 between the third Nizam, Sikander Jah, and the East India Company saw the setting up of ‘Lashkar', (army camp) with six battalions on the stretch north-east of Hussain Sagar. The 1798 treaty was a significant milestone in the history of the East India Company, Luther notes, as “it made the largest Indian State of Hyderabad a vassal of the company and inaugurated an era of the latter's supremacy in India.”
Reproduced in the book is Jah's interesting letter, accepting the then Resident's request to name the cantonment, ‘Secunderabad', after him in 1806. In course of time, the camp expanded to emerge as the first cantonment to provide a settled home for the British army in the South.
The camp transformed into an English town, and then into a truly cosmopolitan city where the Anglo-Indians, who had a colony popularly called “Little England”, rubbed shoulders with the Mudaliars of Tamil Nadu, the Rajasthani trading community, the Parsis, and the Sikhs, as the author vividly captures the flavour in the chapter, “Colours of the rainbow”.
By 1870, Secunderabad had acquired some permanent features. The houses built for officers, Lurther recounts, were typified by the one called “The Retreat”, in which Winston Churchill stayed as second lieutenant in 1896. During his short stay here, he played polo and flirted with the Resident's daughter only to be rebuffed; she spurned his love as he did not earn enough!
Luther recalls Churchill's penchant for hyperbole and quotes him on how at least 12,000 troops were based at the station to keep guard on a city which contained “all the scoundrels of Asia.” The house is still in intact and accommodates a colonel.
The author finds all the vices of the typical cantonment life — heavy drinking, racing, gambling and big game hunting — in Secunderabad too. He makes a special mention of Lal Bazaar, which was so called because red-jacketed British soldiers visited the place for sexual gratification. The elite one-time “all whites” Secunderabad Club was the place for unwinding.
He records how the British were forced to turn the cantonment into a garrison because of a phase of disquiet, marked among others by an attack on Residency led by Moulvi Ala-ud-Din and Turrebaz Khan during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. The most important structure that took shape was “The Entrenchment” at Trimulgherry, a self-contained mini-fort of four kilometre circumference with a moat surrounding it.
The twin cities, Hyderabad and Secunderabad, were a study in contrast historically, culturally, and socially, and Luther brings this out in his inimitable style. If the now 419-year-old Hyderabad originated from a steamy romance between the fifth Qutub Shahi king, Mohammed Quli, and a commoner, Bhagmathi, Secunderabad, which is half its age, was an “offspring of coercive diplomacy.”
If Hyderabad was full of palaces and gardens — as its founder wanted it to be nothing short of a “replica of heaven” — Secunderabad was a functional settlement, typical of an army on the move. Hyderabad had the laidback Nawabi feudal culture, while its sibling resembled those from the disciplined English backyard. Old timers still recall this cultural divide between the people of ‘Lashkar' and ‘Patnam'(city).
Hyderabad has been much written about because of its rich history, while its 1806 cousin has been “ignored by historians,” an aspect highlighted during the bicentenary celebrations of Secunderabad in 2006, which is what that inspired Luther to wield the pen again. And he has done full justice to it.