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British documentary wants to ensure that the epic Battle of Saragarhi is not forgotten

‘Saragarhi: The True Story’, directed by Jay Singh-Sohal, marks the 120th anniversary of the frontier encounter.

Kilometres away from the Golden Temple in Amritsar lies a lesser known site with immense significance in India’s colonial history: the Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara.

The memorial pays homage to 21 Sikh soldiers who fought against 10,000 Afghani tribesmen on September 12, 1897, in what came to be known as the Battle of Saragarhi. The soldiers, part of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry, valiantly defended the Saragarhi outpost in the hills of the North-West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan) despite being up against overwhelming numbers.

The British regime posthumously awarded the soldiers the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award at the time, equivalent to the Param Vir Chakra today. Over the decades, however, the battle became a blip in Britain’s colonial history. “Post independence, it’s always been a bit difficult for the British to look at these stories of heroism on the frontier,” writer and filmmaker Jay Singh-Sohal said. “You don’t want to be perceived as colonialist, jingoist or racist to modern audiences.”

The Birmingham resident has been attempting to correct this perception for years. In 2013, he released the book Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. His documentary Saragarhi: The True Story is being screened on September 12, the official Saragarhi Commemoration Day, at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in the United Kingdom. “I hope more Indians look upon the documentary and feel like if there’s something they’re interested in, do more research into our history and not take information for granted,” Singh-Sohal said. “It’s a shared history and heritage that we should be proud of.”

Filmed in India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, Saragarhi: The True Story includes nuggets from private archives, expert interviews, 3D mapping and re-enactments to chronicle the story behind the historic day 120 years ago.

“I was never completely satisfied with the answers I was getting about Saragarhi,” the 34-year-old writer and filmmaker said. “It’s surrounded by a lot of factual inaccuracies – like the UNESCO listing it among its epic battles, or that it received a standing ovation in the British parliament. I was miffed about these inaccuracies and lies. The more I delved into it, the more I thought it takes away from the story of the bravery and the valour to propagate these things.”

The documentary is a result of over seven years of research. It traces the back stories of two of the most important men involved in the battle – Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, the commanding officer of the 36th regiment, and Havildar Ishar Singh, who led the soldiers. Singh-Sohal tracked down Haughton’s descendants and accessed their archives. He also filmed Haughton’s grave at a British cemetery in Peshawar.

“He was born in India to a frontier hero, spent most of his life here and died on the frontier while leading Sikh soldiers during the Tirah campaign,” said Singh-Sohal, who’s also a reservist in the British Territorial Army. “His story was important as he was a strong leader and devoted to his men,”

Real-time footage from the actual site reveals overgrown grass and scattered rocks. “Interestingly, the day the team went and filmed there, the Pakistan army was conducting operations against the Islamic State 40 kilometres north, in the Rajgal valley,” Singh-Sohal said. “It’s a dangerous border area, and getting to it involves a serious element of risk.”

The film also travels to Jhorran village, Ishar Singh’s birthplace near Jagraon in Punjab. A memorial in his name was erected in the village in 1997, as part of the centenary anniversary of the battle. Randeep Hooda will play Ishar Singh in one of two upcoming Bollywood biopics on the historic battle.

Jay Singh-Sohal.
Jay Singh-Sohal.

Singh-Sohal found information on the incident even after his book’s release, such as the story of Teresa McGrath, a nurse who helped deliver Major Des Vouex’s wife’s baby when they were besieged at Fort Gulistan while also looking after wounded soldiers. Singh-Sohal also bought one of the antique rifles – the Martini Henry Mark IV – used by the defenders during the siege.

The documentary shows Singh-Sohal firing the single-shot rifle after learning its workings from members of the Victoria Military Society. “Firing it was a tremendous physical feat because it was a single cartridge-loading weapon and would heat up,” he said. “The soldiers would have to wait for it to cool it down and given their limited ammunition, consider each shot, make it count.”

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.