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1857 question springs from well

- Remains in Punjab suspected to be that of sepoys

Chandigarh, March 4: An unused well in a Punjab town has thrown up the remains of at least 90 men, thought to be sepoys killed by the British during the 1857 revolt.

State government archaeologists dug up the bones and skulls between Friday and Monday from the well, located on the compound of a gurdwara in Ajnala, about 30km from Amritsar.

They said the remains could indeed be those of rebel sepoys but further investigations were needed.

Punjab government records show that the British had imprisoned and executed 282 Indian rebel troops in Ajnala, said Amarjit Singh Sarkaria, head of the local gurdwara management committee.

The men were from the 26th Native Infantry, posted at Mian Mir Cantonment in Lahore, who had rebelled and killed two British officers and escaped.

Locally, the well is known as Shaheedan Wala Kuh (martyrs’ well) because of a legend that the sepoys, some already executed and some alive, were thrown into it before the well was covered with at least 10 feet of mud.

“There were a lot of stories about this being where they were buried,” said Navjotpal Randhawa, an archaeology department official.

He said the archaeological team was examining other finds at the site, including medals, coins and belt buckles, to see if they might help identify the bodies.

Gurdwara officials said some 90 skulls, a large number of teeth, and hundreds of bones had been discovered.

“We had stumbled on a few bones in the well during an excavation in the area in 2012,” Sarkaria said, explaining what led to the latest search.

The name of the locality, Kallianwala, is eerily similar to Jallianwala Bagh, the site of another massacre of freedom-seeking Indians by the British in neighbouring Amritsar where, too, many died after jumping into a well.

The Punjab government will sanction land to cremate or rebury the remains and build a memorial to the martyred sepoys, Amritsar deputy commissioner Ravi Bhagat said.

According to British accounts, the Ajnala sepoys were surrounded on an island on the river Ravi by a force led by Frederick Cooper, then Amritsar deputy commissioner, and surrendered. Their subsequent summary execution later triggered questions in the House of Commons.

Local villagers have requested the government to introduce a chapter on the episode in history textbooks and rename Kallianwala after the martyrs.

Gurdwara committee officials said the government had been asked to conduct carbon-dating tests on the remains before the last rites can be performed.

The last rites should be conducted with full military honours, Sarkaria said. “These were our freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives.”