If we had blinked, we would have missed the signage of the Cantonment Board after crossing Dharampur on the Shimla highway. Just in the nick of time, Vikas managed to swerve the Jeep onto the steep, narrow road that led to one of the oldest cantonment towns in Himachal Pradesh. On its 5,689-feet high perch, surrounded by the layered contours of the Solan hills, Dagshai basked languidly in the warm sun. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
We wandered down a winding road shaded by towering deodars, marvelling at violet bursts of jacarandas and stopping to collect fallen pine flowers. Our ears lulled by silence, every sound stood out… a chirp here, a rustle there, dull thuds from the firing range at a distance. Conversations were unnecessary.
By a stroke of luck, we stumbled upon a simple red cross, indicating directions to a St Patrick’s Church. Venturing down a slip road, we saw the forlorn stone structure standing in a small, grassy compound between thick, tall trees. There was a quiet grace in the heavy slate roofing balanced by the delicate scallops of green trim. Local architectural details blending with Gothic influences created an unusual appeal. The small brass bell dangling from the roof caught my eye… it wouldn’t be out of place in a Hindu temple.
Inside, the original wooden rafters on the ceiling gleamed as if they had been polished yesterday, the pews were bathed in light streaming in through the arched windows. The aisle was festooned with colourful ribbons, maybe for a wedding or a christening ceremony. We studied the Italian marble altar, gifted by Major George O’Weston, a doctor of the Royal Army Medical Corps, in memory of his wife, Mary Rebecca Weston, laid to rest in a cemetery nearby.
Outside the Army Public School building nearby, we pored over a board outlining the history of the little town. Beside it was a plaque inscribed with the Portuguese coat of arms, Batalhao De Cacadores Alem Douro.
Back in the Mughal era, Dagshai (originally ‘Daag-e-Shai’, meaning royal mark branded on the forehead) was earmarked as a place to mete out capital punishment for hardened criminals. Years later, the Maharaja of Patiala gifted it to the East India Company, and it was converted into a sanatorium for tuberculosis. But then life came full circle when the British built a cellular jail here. Surprisingly, the limelight has always evaded Dagshai’s ominous prison, unlike its celebrity counterpart on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was obscure then, and it continues to be off-the-grid today.
The modest stone structure could easily fool anyone into thinking it’s a school or a sleepy government office. But the small sign above the iron gate that read ‘Old Jail’ is a dead giveaway. We stepped over the threshold into the open courtyard and strolled through the empty, dimly lit corridors. The dark prison area, enclosed by a 20-foot wall, had a single small, barricaded window placed high up for ventilation. A shudder ran down my spine. The teakwood flooring (apparently anti-termite) creaked beneath me. In the silence of the night, sleepless inmates would have even heard mice scurry about.
Of the 54 cells at the prison, 16 were designed for solitary confinement. I stepped inside one and it took all my courage to shut the forbidding cast iron doors behind me. Even for a brief second, it was a nightmare. As if surviving on stale chapatis and craving fresh air was not torturous enough, prisoners were also forced to stand motionless for hours, sandwiched between two steel doors three feet apart. The horrors of those days hung about like a heavy cloud. Suddenly, the past had lost its usual endearing enchantment.
Freedom fighters of the Ghadar movement and the prisoners of the Komagatu Maru spent many helpless days here. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was also imprisoned here briefly. In fact, Gandhi himself spent a night here in a VIP cell (fitted with a fireplace and washroom) as a show of solidarity for the Irish mutineers in the British Army.
Converted into a museum in 2010, the 160-year-old prison is now maintained by the Engineering Wing of the Indian Army. Interesting artefacts lie scattered casually around the compound. There are water motors, mechanical tools, dead mortar ammunition and even a solid gun-metal fire hydrant made in 1865. A small exhibition area displays fascinating memorabilia and several vintage photographs, including one of the jail in 1917. Pictures of British and Indian soldiers, well-known locals such as Rudyard Kipling and the Kalka-Shimla train track under construction are priceless nods to the past. My favourite exhibit was a handwritten route map listing the names of all the camps dotting the distance of 960 miles and 5 furlongs from ‘Kurrachee’ (Karachi) to Dagshai.
Later, while driving down to Kumarhatti on the other side of the hillock, we crossed the small civilian town. Blissfully untouched by rampant urbanisation, it was nothing more than a huddle of houses, a couple of schools, a row of shops and narrow, cobbled, car-free streets. I contemplated over the curious duality. Here time had stood still, although the times had undoubtedly moved on.
Punita Malhotra is a self-professed dreamer and incorrigible idealist, who shifted gears from entrepreneurship and publishing to pursue her twin passions of travel and writing. Her quest for history, heritage, food and fairytales takes her to faraway lands.