Down Memory Lane Metroplus

An English raja of Garhwal

In 1857 did the British win back Delhi with the help of an English raja perched up in Garhwal who issued his own brass rupees? The incredible ruler was aiding the firangis with secret messages and articles in Delhi Gazette, while Bahadur Shah Zafar was finding it difficult to break the siege of his Capital. Sounds incredible but not untrue. He had even roped in Jiwan Lal, the Last Emperor’s private secretary, who had worked for Sir Thomas Metcalfe, to help him in espionage. But after the rebel sepoys cut down the bells of St James’s Church in Kashmere Gate, 82-year old Jiwan Lal too couldn’t do much as the whole of Delhi was now in revolt. But that didn’t deter the Raja of Harsil, a village on the mouth of the Ganga, Frederick “Pahari” Wilson, born in Yorkshire in 1817 and somewhat older than Queen Victoria, Sir Syed AhmadKhan and Zeenat Mahal. A deserter of the First Afghan War of 1839-42, he used his wits to carve out a “kingdom” of his own. He was earlier befriended by Brig. Frederick Young (a legend in his lifetime, like his namesake who accounted for the notorious Sultana Daku). Then there was another famous Young — Desmond Young, editor of the Pioneer, while in Delhi lived a Young family which lived up to the 1960s. The eldest son in the family worked as agent of a Connaught Place firm of decorators, overawed by his mother — tall, lean and hawk-nosed, a veritable Lady Sherlock Holmes and a mine of information on the events of 1857.

“Pahari” Wilson, as he came to be known, was described in 1987 by Sunderlal Bahuguna, the Chipko leader, as the scourge who had devastated the eco-system of Garhwal. It was this that spurred Canadian journalist Robert Hutchison to write his treatise. “The Raja of Harsil” (Roli Books). “Pahari” Wilson, besides being a botanist, a hunter, writer and timber merchant, was also involved in the Great Game played between Britain and Russia on the Afghan frontier, with Bahadur Shah Zafar as a helpless observer. The players also included the dowager Rani (Jindan) of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Rani Jindan's brother Jawahar Singh and the Commander-in-Chief Lal Singh, known to the British as the Red Lion. He turned traitor during the Anglo-Sikh war of 1845, was sent to Delhi by the British and then to Agra under house arrest on a yearly pension of Rs.12,000 (a big amount then). Lal Singh was finally moved to Dehradun where he died in 1866.

“Pahari” Wilson, however, continued to supply the Indian Railways, the sal sleeper tracks for Delhi and Punjab while living with his hill wives (childless Raimatta and Gulabi, mother of three sons) and occasionally indulging in extra-marital affairs, including one with the Rani of Tehri. The Battle of Delhi excited “Pahari” as the British commander, Archdale Wilson had become a friend while convalescing in Mussoorie earlier. Before that he had reported a meeting the Nawab of Najibabad (near Meerut), Muzaffar Jung, the Maulvi of Faizabad, Ahmadullah Shah and Tantia Tope had with the Raja of Tehri, Sudarshan Shah, to unsuccessfully persuade him to join the war of liberation. The Maulvi, tall, gaunt with hypnotic eyes and shoulder-length hair, later visited Meerut, Agra and Delhi to drum up support with his slogan, “Sab Lal ho ga” and the subsequent uprising in Meerut, from where the sepoys marched to Delhi.

Paradoxically enough among “Pahari” Wilson’s friends were A.O. Hume and the Australian barrister John Lang who had fought the Rani of Jhansi’s succession suit and then won a sensational case for Jyoti Prasad, an Agra banker who had lent half a million sterling to the East India Company for the Afghan war but had not been repaid. Lang died in August 1864, four years after the Rani was killed. “Pahari” Wilson died in 1883 and was buried in the same Camel’s Back Cemetery in Mussoorie as John Lang. The Himalaya Chronicle and the Pioneer, carried glowing obituaries on the one who was known as the “Golden Bird” in Delhi and Huselyn Sahib to the natives. It was on him that Kipling based his story. “The Man Who Would be King”. One of his palatial houses was West Lynne and thereby hangs a tale too. Agra has an East Lynne and there’s a West Lynne, built in Alwar by the Rajput Raja’s aide Major Plough, whose wife Helen Plough was an elderly friend of one’s grandmother. Sadly West Lynne in Mussoorie is no more.

Of “Pahari’s” three sons, Charlie Sahib died last of all in 1932. The latter’s only daughter Dora Jane’s son Ian went away to an unknown fate in England in 1946 and the younger one Geoffrey joined the IAF but was killed in a flying accident in 1951, giving credence to the curse that the family was doomed. Author Hutchison wove his fanciful tale with inputs from Ruskin Bond and fellow- writer Ganesh Saili, for whom the saga of “Pahari” Wilson survives even 132 years after his death. And as if to bear this out, Pahari atmospheric disturbances still influence the weather pattern of Delhi if not its politics.

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Printable version | Aug 16, 2020 2:26:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/an-english-raja-of-garhwal/article7018866.ece

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