I will tell you about the life and times of my prophetically named great grandfather, Amar Singhji, the third Thakur Sahab of Kanota. I find it is often that my generation is unfairly labelled as being too modern or too fascinated with western culture. After my marriage here in 2016, to my amazement I found that the person I related to the most was someone who lived and died a lifetime before me.
Amar Singhji lived on the border land of seemingly contradicting cultures. Born and bred a Rajput, the vanguards of tradition, were often at odds and regarded with suspicion by the hand -shaking and English-speaking Europeans. Rajputs virtues are said to be martial and not literary. It was said a Rajput who reads will never ride, but here he was, a self-created scholar and intellectual who loved books and good conversation.
A proud Tazimi Sardar of the Jaipur court, he had the bearing of an Edwardian gentleman. His life is a beautiful example of the symbiosis of modernity and tradition. The common thread between the two worlds was his relentless pursuit of knowledge, which led to a collection of over 2300 books. He clicked and developed photos in 18 photo albums but to me the most precious things he left us are his diaries, written over 44 years from 1898 to 1942, which allow me to tell you his story in his own words tonight.
I would be remiss in my duty of telling the story of the incredible life of Amar Singh ji, without mentioning two personalities, who set him on his trajectory- his beloved tutor Bharat Ram Nathji Ratnoo and Sir Pratap Singh, the regent of Jodhpur.
In 1888, at the age of 10, Amar Singhji was adopted as ward of Sir Pratap, who took him to Jodhpur to be educated at the Powlett Nobles School. Further opportunities of self-development were provided when Amar Singhji became an officer in the Jodhpur Lancers also known as the Jodhpur Sardar Rissala, raised by Sir Pratap in 1889. He served as an ADC and private secretary to Sir Pratap, who commanded the Jodhpur Lancer’s two regiments. Sir Pratap, fondly known as Sarkar to his men, trained Amar Singhji as a soldier, but the scholar in him was honed by Ram Nathji.
Of Ram Nath ji he said, ‘I consider myself the luckiest fellow for having earned the confidence of such a man as can very rarely be found. He has been on some subjects more than a father to me. It is through him only that all my family members have begun to regard me a promising youth’.
Ram Nath ji belonged to a family of Charans, who were bards of the Jodhpur Royal family, so in a sense ideal that a man of such lineage would encourage Amar Singhji to keep a diary. Ram Nathji had kept a diary himself while travelling in Europe in 1894. He followed the English School practice of assigning diaries as a means of cultivating discipline, self-awareness and developing moral fibre.
He told his young pupil, if you want to think like the British, think in English and to do that you must keep a dairy.
When the 21 year old Amar Singhji handed the completed version of the 1899 diary to Ram Nathji, on reading it, called it “a record of butchery, with very few exceptions here and there the diary contains nothing in it worth reading”, as the diary mostly contained detailed accounts of shikaar (hunting wild animals). Ram Nath ji guided his mind to higher intellectual pursuits, particularly to Plutarch’s Lives of the Romans and works of the 19th Century English writer Samuel Smiles.
Plutarch’s work had a continuing impact on him and , providing a vision of nobility and history and served, in part as a model for the diary. Samuel Smiles emphasized the concepts of duty, character and morality that reinforced Amar Singhji’s Rajput traditions.
Although his diaries remained private documents throughout his life, the theme of his writing suggested that he took to heart his tutors words – ‘a writer must always bear in mind that it is his duty to give something very profitable to his readers for the time they spend in reading his works… thus making the diary not only very amusing but very useful to mankind’
In 1900 Amar Singhji got his first opportunity for an active tour of duty, in China. By June 1900 European colonial ambitions had turned China into a powder keg. Anti-Christian and anti-foreign Chinese Militia known as the Boxer Rebels entered Beijing.
At 8 am on June 20th the German Chancellor Baron von Ketteler along with his interpreter and associates headed for the Ministry of Foreign affairs, accompanied by an armed escort. One block away from the ministry building they were intercepted by the Boxer rebels and the Chancellor was shot. The powder keg was now blown up and a storm of telegrams were sent across Europe and the Colonies with a call to Arms.
On the 11th August, 22- year old Rissaldar Amar Singh received his call to arms. The empire commanded its Indian Army and the Imperial Service forces including the Jodhpur Lancers to cope with the boxer rebellion and struggle for Influence in a vanquished China.
Jodhpur, Saturday, 11th August 1900,
In the morning Sarkar called for me. I hastily put on my clothes and wenwe, he showed me the telegram which he had received about 2 in the morning, it contained the joyful news of the sanction for Sarkar to go to China in full command of his own regiment the Jodhpur Lancers. Sarkar told me to get ready…
Sunday, 12th August
I had my horses saddled in full marching order and saw that everything was complete. I also bought a watch for forty rupees. After breakfast I put my things right and mended all that wanted repairs, by night train eighty horses started for Calcutta among whom Ghatotgutch, my favourite horse also went.
The Jodhpur Lancers arrive in September and were stationed 65 kms north of the epicentre of the Boxer rebellion at Shan Hai Kuan, an ancient fortified city, where the great wall meets the sea.
Shan Hai Kuan, Monday 15th October, 1900
In the morning Sarkar ordered that the first squadron was to get ready in full marching order. I was also ordered to accompany Sarkar to the city of Shan Hai Kuan, there was some fighting in the city and some men of the Chinese were killed. We saw their corpses lying in one of the city gates. We went all around and through the city to awe the enemy and establish confidence…
To civilians the idea of a soldier at war seems to be that of a long cavalry charge, but very often it is young men who have to battle the elements of nature as well as fellow man.
4th July, 1901
The winter was no doubt a very severe one…the record was 42 degrees below freezing point… The fruits bread and everything used to freeze. The ink also froze twice in our rooms, the men’s moustache used to freeze with their breathing… Even sometimes the perspiration used to freeze on the bodies of the horses while they were still hot and working round the course…there was no limit to the clothes we wore…bathing had become scarce.
The young Risaldar’s account of China reflects the Izzat (honour) he carried of his regiment and Rathore clan with a desire to serve with distinction and at the same time there was a sensitivity to the plight of the enemy and an interest in their culture.
Friday 19th October, 1900
We went out for the same business as yesterday, that is, of searching villages for arms and to burn them if any were found. The most pitiful sight of all was of scores of women hiding or rather trying to hide in the fields with their infant babes clinging to their bosom… It is quite a shame to bring so many troops to fight or rather to frighten such poor and helpless women.
Wednesday, 25th October, 1900
The people of China are as all know, very industrious and clean, their villages are most beautifully built, their houses are also clean and well-built but contain one storey only. I have not seen a single city belonging to the Chinese people that has two storeys…The most extraordinary thing is that they don’t milk their cows. They don’t know what milk is, all their things are cooked by fat.
About the Great Wall of China he wrote –
The Great Wall of China which is considered among the Seven Wonders of the World was our daily view, I had walked for weeks continually on it and was wondering what sort of man he must have been who started this enormous work. It is the end here, where the wall runs into the sea.
The young soldier finished his China Campaign in July 1901 and shortly thereafter began his second military career as a Cadet at the Imperial Cadet Corps at Dehradun. The Imperial Cadet Corps project was set up by the Viceroy Lord Curzon to provide for the military ambitions of the noble martial clans of India.
Curzon managed to get approval for a scheme that would allow those who passed examinations at the end of a three and a half year course modelled on the Sandhurst Military Academy to hold a special kind of commission, presumably signed by the King Edward.
Lord Curzon was convinced of the promising future of the academy and proudly displayed them to the world as the Royal Horse Guard to the viceroy during the Delhi darbar of 1902 and then again in 1911. The 1911 Darbar was organised on such a massive scale that it caused a spike in the global price of Silver.
Of the 21 cadets invited to join the first batch, only 4 graduated in 1905. However, it was the vexed question of native officers commanding white troops that prevented Captain Amar Singh and his course mates from getting full commissions for another 12 years. Their date of rank August 25th, 1917 precedes by four years General Carriappa’s, the senior most officer at independence and our first commander in chief.
Life went on peacefully for Captain Amar Singh, regardless of the political schemes of Lutyens and 10 Downing Street. On graduating the ICC, he spent 9 quiet years at Mhow as ADC to the GOC of the 5th Division, western army.
First World War and General Kanota
A telegram arrived at Kanota on the 17th of August 1914, that said Amar Singhji was detailed for active service and gave him 4 days to put his affairs in order and to report himself to General Brunker, commanding the 9th Infantry Brigade at Karachi.
Departure from Kanota was on August 18 and the auspicious hour for leaving was decided between seven and nine so at nine minutes past seven he left these gates to fight in the First World War.
In 1916 Captain Amar Singh was a part of the British-Indian forces that were sent from Western European front to the Persian Gulf to secure the British Oil interests for the Royal Navy and secure Egypt in the process.
The British-Indian forces advanced from Basra up the River Tigris undefeated, battle after battle until the Battle for Ctesiphon. Ctesiphon, an ancient city 35 kms southeast of Baghdad was won but it was a pyric victory. The casualties had destroyed their fighting capabilities and there were no reserves, Ctesiphon could not be held for long.
The Army retreated back down the Tigris to Kut El Amara, where they garrisoned their forces to wait for reinforcements.
Kut El Amara was located on a loop of the river Tigris, the soldiers were surrounded on three sides by the river and one side by the Turks and of course the Turks were on the river all around. At Kut were 14,500 troops and about 6000 civilians. They had full rations for 60 days while waiting for relief forces.
Captain Amar Singh’s brigade took part in the Battle of Hanna which was the third attempt to relieve the besieged forces at Kut.
On the 21st of February 1916 he writes:
I spent the morning of the 21st in sorting and packing up my things and at half past 4 in the afternoon our brigade marched out to Senna position 4 miles out… The composition of our brigade is a little changed. We have now the 1st and the 9th Gurkha Rifles, the 93rd Burma Infantry and the Highland Light Infantry.
23rd February 1916
As was expected the Turks had dug trenches in the most favourable spots along the riverbank and the next morning the started shooting against us…They did hit a few people all the same it was a great source of amusement to us. We soon discovered their loopholes and shot at them. General Gorringe got hit on the bottom just as he was mounting his horse.
The British Indian troops failed to open the way to Kut and the coming of the floods made the situation more desperate. The troops who were ready for a siege with rations for 60 days. After 135 days, they were now dying of starvation with no relief in sight. The rations finally came down to 80 grams of bread and 350 grams of mule meat, with no salt or vegetables, simply boiled in river water.
Shortly before the fall of Kut, Captain Amar Singh wrote, ‘The troops have done all that was possible and are now dead beat … They seldom get their full rations and no man can fight for any length of time on an empty stomach. I hope God will see us successfully through this show.’
On the 29th Of April Kut was surrendered.
Boats loaded with the sick and wounded made their way down river, among them were 1500 incapacitated men from Kut, were exchanged for Turkish POW’s. Captain Amar Singh considered them fortunate for the Turkish treatment of prisoners was not good.
From Aug 25th 1917 Amar Singh ji was on active duty as a squadron commander in the 16th Cavalry and he ended his Indian Army career fighting in Waziristan during the Third Afghan War. As an acting major he is probably the first Indian to command a regiment. In his diary he reports on three occasions between September 28, 1920 and March 15, 1921 he assumed officiating command of the regiment.
Colonel Amar Singhji retired from the Indian Army in 1923 to begin his third military career in the Jaipur State Forces where he was tasked with raising a cavalry regiment. He went on to create a professional military force, the Jaipur Lancers including the headquarters for the Indian Army’s 61st Cavalry. He stayed with the regiment until his retirement as Major General in 1936.
The General had three military careers of experiences to reflect on in his diaries. He wondered if we would ever gain independence, if the Indian soldier would ever be considered equal to fighting with Europeans. What Amar Singhji explained to the British was the essence of the fighting spirit of the Indian Soldier – Vijay Ya Veergati (victory or death). The 1971, the victory that we commemorate tonight is a culmination of the aspirations of many generations of Indian soldiers.
The stories I have shared with you this evening would not have been possible without the without the efforts of the late Thakur Sahab Mohan Singhji Kanota and his wife the late Maaji Sahab Kanota who painstakingly preserved and catalogued the thousands of fragile items in the Kanota Collection.
A renowned Rajput historian himself, Thakur Sahab Mohan Singhji worked tirelessly to publish academic papers, articles and books on the diaries and the Kanota Collection with Chicago University Professors Lloyd and Sussane Rudolph. Such was the richness of Rajput and Indian history that they gathered and published from the Kanota collection that they were awarded the Padma Bhushan for their work.
It was Thakur Sahab Mohan Singhji’s dying wish that the collection be turned into a museum, a wish that was realised by his son Thakur Man Singhji and his wife. Thakur Man Singhji worked with an eclectic crew of experts from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Imperial War Museum in London, the Intach Library at Mehrangarh Jodhpur and Eka Archiving services in Delhi to create the General Amar Singh Library and Museum at Kanota.
Amar Singhji’s diaries serve almost as an index for the use and sentimental value of nearly every object displayed in the museum, so a visit to our museum is like stepping into his memories. As I end the tale of Amar Singhji’s life I leave you with the words of Jack London which aptly describe his life’s intent.
‘The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them, I shall use my time.’