Ajnala in Punjab is a place 30 kms north of Amritsar, it holds a dark secret of history which I will explore.
During the ‘Indian Mutiny’ in 1857 the 26th Bengal Native Infantry was disarmed at Mian Meer Cantonment, Lahore by the British.
On July 30, 1857, a small group of the men armed with hatchets and swords savagely murdered Major Spencer, several officers and some loyal sepoys.
The entire regiment became frightened and worried about repercussions by the British rulers regarding the murders caused by only a few of them.
Hence they all decided to escape, armed only with small guns and sticks. Under the cover of a storm they managed to travel 40 miles before being spotted. On 31st July they were sighted north of Amritsar, on the banks of the Ravi River, which they were preparing to cross into the relative safety of the Jammu region.
However the local Police and villagers, knowing they were mutineers attacked the men, killing 150 of them. The rest managed to make it to a small island for safety.
Deputy Commissioner Mr Frederick Henry Cooper soon arrived from Amritsar, with back up. He was a British Civil Servant who worked for the East India Company.
Some of the soldiers fell into the river and drowned. 282 were arrested and marched to Ajnala Police station. 66 of them were confined to a small round tower. The overall situation in Punjab was critical due to the ‘Indian Mutiny’ hence the soldiers couldn’t easily be taken to Lahore for trial and certain execution.
Mr Cooper decided to kill all the soldiers under arrest. When they unlocked the tower 45 men had died from heat, exhaustion and suffocation. The rest of them were taken out in batches of 10 at a time and shot.
The remains of the 282 dead and dying men were thrown into a local well, then filled with 10 feet of earth, under the direct orders of Mr Cooper. Many of the Sepoys were buried alive.
The Ajnala well was termed ‘Kalian wala khoo’ or ‘Black people’s well’ meaning ‘rebel’s well’.
The entire 26th Bengal Native Infantry regiment was destroyed. Back in London, Mr Cooper’s actions were criticised in the House of Commons.
Mr Cooper’s ruthless acts were condemned by the Liberal MP and Quaker Charles Gilpin in the British Parliament on 14 March 1859:
‘As an Englishman he felt himself called upon to blush for the shame which had been brought upon the character of his country.’
However there was no punishment for Mr Cooper, infact in 1860 he was honoured by becoming ‘Companion of the Order of the Bath’.
Over time this horrific history became forgotten and the well disappeared. However in 2014 local historians decided to find the site of the well. This they eventually discovered underneath the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj in Ajnala.
The historians, together with the local community excavated the site, after 157 years they rediscovered the horrors of the past.
90 skulls were found together with the bones and skeletons of over a 100 men out of the 282 said to have been thrown in the well. Medals, East India Company coins, belt buckles and jewellery was also found.
The well has been remained ‘Shaheedan Wala Khoo’ or ‘Martys’ well’ now. A respectful burial was given to the deceased and plans are in place for a memorial.
I thank the Indian Military Historical Society for references used in this article.