The spirit of Bannu

A look at the history and defining moments of Edwardesabad or what is now known as Bannu

Church where Edwardes placed the memorial palque of Nicholson.
Church where Edwardes placed the memorial palque of Nicholson.

SS Thorburn wrote in 1876 that the city had “an evil repute as being the most out-of-the-way district and a wild, lawless, unhealthy sort of a place… in which it would be difficult to make a reputation and easy to lose one”. He added that it was difficult to find “a sufficiently senior officer who would accept this posting with good grace.” The British Raj had “to find a man with requisite qualifications, which in most cases could only be ascertained by trial” and thus the government was always looking “for a deputy commissioner of active habits and sound health...”

Almost 145 years have gone by since SS Thorburn was the deputy commissioner of this district but the situation has not changed when it comes to transfer and posting of civil servants. His seat is currently occupied by Zubair Niazi, a young officer of the Pakistan Administrative Service, who has accepted this assignment with “good grace” and contrary to Thorburn’s foreboding, wants to build his reputation.

Apart from administrative matters, Niazi has a passion for restoring the old glory of this city. But which city am I referring to? Daleepghrah, Edwardesabad, Bannu or all three?

Inside view of the church.
Inside view of the church.

This city once had a Jamun Avenue connecting the walled town with the cantonment. There was a beautiful building with sloping roofs housing Regal cinema and a grand gothic styled railway station. A narrow gauge railway line connected it with Kalabagh. Both these iconic landmarks have been pulled down in recent decades and replaced by ugly markets. The wall surrounding the city, with all the majestic nine doors, was removed in the name of beautification. The doors continue to exist, but only in name. The city was carefully planned and laid by Herbert Edwardes soon after the First Sikh War in 1848. It was named Dhuleepgarh to honour Maharaja Daleep Singh, the youngest son of Ranjit Singh who was put on the throne in Lahore by the Raj. Soon after Edwardes’s death, the town, around which the Kurram River meandered, was renamed as Edwardesabad. Sometimes in 1903 the city got its third name, Bannu, which I believe will last forever.

When I was in Bannu recently, Zubair Niazi took me on a tour of the city where he has recently removed many encroachments despite political pressures. The most impressive achievement was the restoration of 23 old wells or what was left of them that had been encroached upon in the 1970s. These wells are spread across the old city and were once the main source of fresh water supply to the citizens. Edwardes encouraged affluent Hindus to settle in the city. Most of the wells were dug up and owned by rich Hindu families, a legacy from when Bannu was Daleepgarh. The deputy commissioner wants to put water filtration plants or build public toilets on the land. A few wells, like the ones near the old gates, might be preserved as heritage sites.

Niazi next walked us through the katchery into a nondescript dilapidated building. The marvellous architecture of the English Record Room can only be appreciated once one is inside it. Built around 1870, mostly using mud bricks, the English Room has a large-domed central room and is surrounded by oval rooms with large ventilators at the top. Wooden racks line each room and curl along with the curving walls. These are stacked with old records, some of which date back to 1850. Some racks are engraved with names like Khem Chander Stamp-Farosh. Most of the files have not been touched ever since they were first placed in this room. The building is being restored and the records microfilmed, though clerks of the record room are not happy with modernisation of the records. Once the central room is restored, the DC wants to shift his office to it so that this building is never neglected again.

Nicholson House in Bannu. Commissioners official residence.
Nicholson House in Bannu. Commissioner's official residence.

Our next stop was at Nicholson’s House. The divisional commissioner currently resides in an adjoining modern structure within the compound. The house was built in 1850 as the residence of the deputy commissioner of Bannu.
Its first occupant was Maj John Nicholson, who was instrumental in the suppression of the Mutiny of 1857 – a man charismatic and controversial at the same time.

Nicholson, an Irish man, was only 17 when he arrived in India in 1839 to join the Bengal Native Infantry and immediately found action in the first Afghan War. He was taken prisoner after a battle at Ghazni where his commanding officer capitulated. He was released six months later in 1842 when the Army of Retribution captured Kabul. The same year in November he met his younger brother Alexander who had freshly arrived in India. The reunion was brief. Two days later Alexander’s unit was ambushed in Khyber Pass. Nicholson, sent with the relief column, was the first to recover the dead body of his kid brother. This traumatic incident added sternness to his character and consolidated his belief that it was his duty to spread the Christian civilisation. In 1845, while posted in Moradabad, he mastered Urdu and passed the vernacular examinations.

Nicholson was in the league of the political officers who helped shape up the Raj and were called Henry Lawrence’s Young Men. They included Edwardes, James Abbot, Patrick Van Agnew, Harry Lumsden, Reynell Taylor and William Hodson. These officers played a vital role in British victories over the Sikh army in the two Anglo-Sikh wars. After spending 10 years in India, Nicholson went on a furlough to England where he was the best man at Edwardes’ wedding. On his way back he travelled extensively through Europe. Nicholson was sent to govern the lawless tribes of Bannu as deputy commissioner. He remained there from 1852 to 1855. It was during this time that he built and lived in the house Niazi is now trying to restore.

Even during the decades of War on Terror, Bannu city retained its jovial spirit, represented by the melody of Shahnai and the beat of drums that echo at the city centre each evening.

On May 11, 1857 Nicholson was dining with his friend Edwardes in Peshawar when he received news of the Indian Mutiny. He was quick to react. He soon crushed the uprising of the 55th Bengal Native Infantry at Nowshera, executing most of the prisoners with the help of a gun. He left Peshawar for Delhi on June 14, as commander of his Moveable Column and surrounded by his personal bodyguard of frontier horsemen. In September he was mortally wounded in Delhi when he drew his sword and led a charge through a breach at the Kashmir gate. He died 11 days later on September 23, aged only 34. He lived long enough to witness the fall of Delhi to the forces of Company Bahadur.

As soon as the news of Nicholson’s death reached Bannu, his friend Edwardes, carefully etched a marble tablet in his affectionate memory and had it placed in the church. The church was our last stop in the cantonment where we saw the memorial plaque.

In his life Nikal-Seyn had a cult following among the tribesmen as a saint-like figure, who brought justice by punishing the strong oppressors. Long after Nicholson was dead, stories about him were narrated in villages around Bannu. One involved Allahdad Khan, a powerful landlord who had disinherited his orphaned nephew, usurped his property and turned him out of the village. The youth sued his uncle in Nicholson’s court, but no villager would dare stand witness against Allahdad. One morning Nicholson’s well-known white mare was found grazing in front of the village. The villagers were terror stricken that if any harm came to the mare, they would be whipped or fined. Allahdad advised them to drive the animal towards another village. While they were doing so, they were surprised to see Nicholson tied to a tree. After the initial shock, they cautiously advanced to untie him but Nicholson would not let them do so and demanded to know on whose lands he was standing. No one answered, but all pointed silently to Allahdad, who, trembling, admitted in front of the villagers that the land belonged to his minor nephew. After hearing his confession, Nicholson permitted himself to be untied. Next day the nephew was decreed his inherited land and the whole village rejoiced that justice had at last been done. Allahdad Khan went off for a pilgrimage.

Groom and friends performing Attanreh dance.
Groom and friends performing 'Attanreh' dance.

John Nicholson’s justice came at a cost that was reflective of his character. He was short tempered and resorted to harsh punishments even for minor violations. This drilled fear among the natives, but few resented his tyranny. An attempt was made in 1856 to assassinate him in Bannu. The assassin did not recognise him immediately as he was standing among peons wearing a locally made fur coat with two other officers. This gave time for a guard to step between him and the sword wielding assassin. Nicholson recounted the details when he wrote a letter to his friend Edwardes “…I snatched the musket of a sentry and told the would-be assassin that I would fire if he did not put down his sword and surrender. He replied that either he or I must die; so, I had no other alternative, and shot him through the heart.”

But no matter what happens in the surrounding area and even in the decades of War on Terror, Bannu city retained its jovial spirit represented by the melody of Shahnai and the beat of drums that echo at the city centre each evening, without fail. Dozens of merry making youthful characters, flower garlands dangling around their necks, spontaneously join in Attan, the rhythmic dance. Saeed Khan, though an Umerzai-Waziri from a neighbouring village of the same name has spent all his youthful years in this city and has imbibed with youthful Bannuchi spirit. This is Bannu, Saeed Khan’s city. The rhythmic beat leads him to a trance. His feet itch at the beat of the drum.

Earlier we crossed Preddy Gate or what remains of it and walked along Preddy Street, crossed Masala Bazaar on the left, passed Lehsan Mandi branching on the right and reached the famous Chowk Bazaar of Bannu to witness Zhan-rahey. Zhan-rhey is an age-old tradition whereby the groom, on the eve of his wedding, will visit Chowk Bazaar along with his friends around sunset, where they garland each other and perform Attan dance till they are drenched in sweat. The passersby do not need special invitation and like Saeed Khan, will also join the festivity. This group strolled into the Chae Bazaar to eat sweets, preferably from Rabbani Sweet House, the oldest and most famous sweet maker of the city. More parties will be arriving for fun at the Chowk Bazaar. After we had had our share of gulab-jamuns and burfis with steaming tea, we retraced our steps through the crowded Chowk Bazaar where the carnival was still on. Saeed Khan was happy that we had seen the true soul of Bannu. I think we felt it also – the spirit was alive.

The writer is a retired civil servant, a conservationist and animal rights activist. He can be reached at

The spirit of Bannu