The start of the Anglo-Gorkha war

View of the Gorkhali fort at Subathu. Photos: ALISHA SIJAPATI

Nepali Times reporter Alisha Sijapati spent a month retracing the Gorkha expansion beyond the Mahakali River more than 200 years ago to Garhwal, Kumaon and beyond. The Gorkha Empire was on a warpath, and the British East India Company saw it as a threat to its own expansionist ambitions. 

This five-part series looks at the bravery of the Gorkhali troops under its legendary generals to defend the newly-conquered territory, but also the historical memory among the local people of an oppressive rule.

This is the third of a five-part report. The first and second episodes are in the Nepali Times archives. The fourth part will appear on 16 October in this space. 

The road from Subathu to Jaithak in Himachal Pradesh of India will remind any Nepali of the highway from Bharatpur to Mugling. In the monsoon, there are frequent rockfalls and landslides.  

This year’s monsoon saw heavier than unusual rainfall across the Himalaya, and especially here in these rugged mountains where more than 200 years ago the invading Gorkhali army was facing an imminent threat from the East India Company.

The expansionist Gorkha Empire was headed for a headlong clash with the equally belligerent British who were extending their influence across India.

The deep valleys are lush and green this time of year, as the rain sweeps in on the monsoon winds from the east. It was also from the east that the Gorkhalis came in the early 1800s, sweeping across 1,500km of the Himalayan foothills in a blitzkrieg.

It was among these mountains that the sound of cannons must have echoed, along with the battle cries, and the rivers ran red with the blood of the dead and wounded. One of the bloodiest encounters of this offensive occurred at Christmas in 1814 at Jaithak Fort, as the British launched an offensive all along the western front, the centre and east of what was then not yet Nepal.

Unlike other forts, the Gorkhalis held on to Jaithak for five months, and was unconquered, until they had to give it up because of the loss of the nearby fort at Malaun. 

The Empires Strike

The Anglo-Gorkha war began in October 1814 when the British troops proceeded to take over Nalagarh, the present-day gateway to Himachal Pradesh. Within the next four months, the Gorkhalis had already lost Khalanga, Nalagarh, and Ramsheher passes. 

The Gorkhali general Amar Singh Thapa, devastated after the defeat by the Sikhs at Kangra and the treaty with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had moved to Arki Fort, while many Gorkhalis went on to join the Khalsa army at the Lahore camp, giving rise to the term Lahurey — which even today denotes anyone migrating abroad for work. 

Amar Singh Thapa knew about the strength of the British and their mighty cannons, and he did not want to engage with the East India Company, advising restraint against any provocation. However, back in Kathmandu, the Mukhtiyar General (prime minister) Bhimsen Thapa had ambitious plans to preserve the influence he had hitherto contrived for his family and preferred assertive action against the British.

On the other hand, the East India Company, with expansionist ambitions of its own, was swiftly moving across India and took the Gorkhali advance in the north as a threat. There was another reason at play as well: cotton export from India was dwindling because of the burgeoning textile industry back in England and the Company needed a trade route across the Himalaya to Tibet to access the valuable shatoosh wool (pashmina) which was prized in England. 

Historians say that if the British had had enough time to instigate their troops for taking over the Gorkha, they would have done it quickly and easily, considering their numerical superiority and modern weapons.

The rivalry between the Gorkhalis and the East India Company actually began much earlier. The Malla kings of Kathmandu Valley in 1767, facing an imminent Gorkha invasion, sent an SOS to Calcutta for help. The British sent an expeditionary force led by Captain Kinloch which was met by the Gorkhali defenders at Sindhuli Garhi fort. Battling malaria, wild animals and the fierce Gorkhali defence, the British and their Indian fighters retreated.  

In 1795 there was another dispute over the Tarai frontier lands. The British wanted to define the borders in Morang and Purnea districts but were deterred by thieves and fugitives in the area. 

Amar Sing Thapa's residence atArki Fort. Photo: CREATIVE COMMONS

In 1804 Sano Kaji Amar Singh Thapa (not the same general in Kangra) conquered Palpa and expected to receive rents from Butwal and Gorakhpur. However, he did not know then that the Nawab of Oudh had already ceded Gorakhpur to the Company. The negotiations around the territory took a turn for the worse when the Company flatly refused it to Kathmandu. 

That bitterness was festering when in 1813, Major Paris Bradshaw, who joined the East India Company as Chief Commissioner, produced land documents as evidence to back the Company’s claim on the villages in the Makawanpur border and Butwal. Historians say that Bradshaw’s ‘haughty’ manners did not sit well with the Gorkhalis, and this escalated the matter further. 

The Gorkhalis were given until 22 April 1814 to surrender Butwal and Siuraj. On the day, the Magistrate of Gorakhpur sent 17 Companies to take possession of the land. The Gorkhalis had withdrawn since it was the malaria season. A month later, however, they returned to attack the police posts in Butwal resulting in the death of one policeman. 

Meanwhile, Francis Rawdon Hastings joined the East India Company in Calcutta as the new Governor-General. Hastings was a sensible man and did not want to start a full-scale war with the Gorkha Empire for a small piece of land that merely got the Company Rs15,000. 

But war was inevitable. A precursor to the Kumaon-Garhwal-Himachal war was that Bradshaw had occupied 22 villages in Saran and captured a Gorkha police post. Following this, when Chandra Shekhar Upadhaya, an agent from Kathmandu was sent for diplomatic negotiations, the Company announced it did not want any more talk.  

Meanwhile, in the territory newly conquered by the Gorkhalis in Garhwal, General Amar Singh Thapa claimed Sirmaur and Hindur. British Gen David Ochterlony, who was then based in Ludhiana countered the claim. Thapa wrote to Kathmandu and was eventually successful in invalidating Ochterlony’s claims. The failure to secure Sirhind for the Empire and the Company greatly embittered Ochterlony towards Amar Singh Thapa. 

According to Jyoti Thapa Mani, the author of the book The Khukri Braves,  Ochterlony and Amar Singh Thapa were rather frenemies. To keep an eye on each other, these two opposing generals even made their sons mit friends.  

“Both Ochterlony and Thapa understood each other’s expansionist ambitions and loyalties to their respective countries,” Thapa Mani says. 

Diary of a Nepali soldier in France, Shree Bhakta Khanal

Despite his reluctance to go to war with the British, Amar Singh Thapa knew that the war with the East India Company was inescapable. The Gorkhali’s ties with the Khalsa army of Punjab was weakening after the Sikhs were subdued with the Treaty of Perpetual Friendship with the Company. Amar Singh Thapa knew that a war would come at a hefty price for the over-extended Gorkhalis.  

Thapa tried to send word to Lord Hastings in Calcutta but failed. He even tried to get support from Qing rulers of China and the Sikhs, but in vain. The Peshwas of Maratha, who were also fighting the British, were also approached.  

In a letter to General Ochterlony, Amar Singh Thapa wrote: ‘Otherwise by favour of Gods, the troops of the Gorkhas, resembling the waves of the ocean… will make necessary preparations to prevent the usurpation of any one place which has been in their possession for years past, and the flame of agitation will daily increase.’ 

On 1 November 1814 Lord Hastings formally declared war on the Gorkha kingdom, but he permitted the army to strike as they saw fit as soon as the monsoon ended. He had to his favour also the intensified infighting in the royal court in Kathmandu, and the tension between Bhimsen Thapa and Amar Singh Thapa was already at a tipping point. 

The East India Company was looking to redeem itself as the bravest warriors since Captain Kinloch defeat at Sindhuli, and the second time around, on top of more advanced artillery, Hastings was also more prepared. 

By February 1815, the East India Company had already placed four points of attack on the Gorkhas -- Khalanga, Saran, Jitgarh, and Malaun Fort. 

By the end of the first month of the war, the Gorkhali had already surrendered Nalagarh Fort to the East India Company, and by the end of November Khalanga in Dehradun too was lost. The British had overwhelming numbers and mountain cannons that could blast the Gorkhali forts.

The forts did not just have the warriors in them, but the Gorkhali troops had brought along their wives and children as well who would rain boulders down from the ramparts at the British. These families bore the brunt of the Company’s siege of the forts and the battles to conquer them.

In November Amar Singh Thapa moved to Ramshehar Fort. Then in January he again moved his base to Malaun, where winding roads isolated the fort. He then advised his son, Ranajor Singh Thapa to move his base from Nahan to Jaithak, 92km north-west of Malaun.

The Assault at Jaithak

Jaithak Fort sits atop a steep hill and even today, with one wrong move on the narrow trail, a visitor can fall into the ravine below. Historians remark at how only the nimble-footed Gorkhalis knew their way around the terrain and to imagine the British troops trying to scale this perilous hillside is truly astounding. 

The British had no option but to try and build roads to reach from the nearby mountain peaks. Due to its geographical advantage, Ranjor Singh Thapa held on to the fort even after five months of the British siege.

The fort had earlier served as a garrison for ammunition and a lookout post, and Amar Singh Thapa had seen strategic advantage in Jaithak Fort, since he was well aware that the topography would make it difficult for the British troops.

Gen Ochterlony, on the other hand, was seeking every vulnerable aspect of the Gorkhalis to strike. He called Major-General Gabriel Martindell from Kanpur to attack the Jaithak troops with all the might of his force. Martindell soon arrived and set his camp close to Nahan and was joined by Captain Ludlow who had just won a war in Khalanga. 

The battle for Jaithak Fort took place in December during a bitter Himalayan winter. It rained, it snowed, and the Gorkha soldiers were already weak from hunger and thirst. The soldiers also had to protect and care for their families inside the fort. The campaign was fierce, and eventually there were only 500 Gorkhali soldiers against thousands of British troops. Even then, the Company could not take over the fort.

Nevertheless, while Ranjore Singh Thapa still held on to Jaithak, the Gorkhalis had already lost Malaun where Ochterlony and Amar Singh Thapa signed a treaty on 15 May 1815. As per the agreement, the Jaithak Fort was surrendered to the Company – even though it had not actually been conquered.  

Jaithak today

Two centuries later, these scenic mountains of Himachal Pradesh are serene — there is little to remind us of the blood that was shed here in the clash of empires. Even though the tales of bravery from the battles survive in lore, folk songs and history textbooks in present-day Nepal, few of the descendants of the Gorkhalis who remain here in India remember that history. 

One person trying to change that is a descendant of the rulers of Sirmaur, Ajay Bahadur Singh, who along with his son, has bought a section of the Jaithak Fort. He takes pride in his connection to the Gorkhalis, some of whom had joined the British even before the war ended in 1816. 

There is a sign outside the Fort that says: ‘Jaithak Fort is a private property of Kunwar Ajay Bahadur Singh and outsiders needed permission to trespass the property.’ Ajay Bahadur Singh is a descendant of the former royal clan of Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh and takes immense pride in being a part of the Gorkha heritage. 

Sitting comfortably in his centuries-old palace in Nahan, Ajay Bahadur Singh tells us proudly that the site is called Ranjore Palace — named after the Gorkhali commander Ranjore Singh Thapa, son of Gen Amar Singh Thapa. Ajay Bahadur Singh has even named his son Balbhadra, after the great Gorkhali warrior Balbhadra Kunwar, who after the Khalanga battle, came to Jaithak. He also fought the British in Nalapani. 

Balbhadra Kunwar later joined the army of Punjab’s king Ranjit Singh and was killed in a battle against the Afghan in 1823, in present-day Pakistan. 

Although not a Gorkhali by lineage, Ajay Bahadur Singh has always been a fan of the brave fighters from the east, whose valour and loyalty has stood the test of time. Every now and then, locals dig up 200-year-old skeletons and skulls from below the ground, and some of them even have rusted khukris next to them.  

Ajay Bahadur Singh is a former legislator from the Himachal Pradesh assembly, and with his son Balbhadra has also set up a guest house in a section of the Jaithak Fort. The rest of the fort is in ruins and overgrown with trees.    

“Neither the government of India nor Nepal has taken any heed or consideration in the restitution of these buildings,” Ajay Bahadur Singh. “If forts in Rajasthan can be turned into resorts, and even Kangra Fort is preserved by the Archeological Survey of India, why are the other Gorkhali forts in such a dilapidated state?” 

The former Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Vir Bhadra Singh, who was from Rampur Busher, had started to restore the old Gorkha forts, but he died this year. 

Even more than Jaithak, the Malaun Fort six hours drive away held a greater strategic significance during the Anglo-Gorkha War. That is the fort where Amar Singh Thapa was fighting the most crucial battle against the Company while his son Ranjore was holding out in Jaithak in the winter of 1814.

In the next episode in this series, I will travel on to Malaun the Gorkhali fort that saw one of the fiercest and longest sieges by the Company. The fall of Malaun was decisive and led to the eventual signing of the Sugauli Treaty, under which the Gorkha Empire had to cede all territory to the west of the Mahakali River and east of the Mechi River.