Encased Silver AlamCaptured during the Chitral Expedition, North-West Frontier, Pakistan
Captured in 1895
length of alam: 26.3cm, width: 10.6cm; lenght of box: 32cm, height of box: 24cm, thickness of box: 7.5cm
This extraordinary relic from Chitral Expedition, one of the final chapters in The Great Game, comprises an alam of sheet silver that was captured by British forces from rebellious local tribes during the Expedition. It is contained with a late-19th century wooden box with a glass cover and is accompanied by a handwritten note across two pieces of parchment that are pinned to the inside of the box and which are contemporaneous wit the box and alam. They describe the circumstances by which the alam was captured.
alam is in the shape of the protective hand. The wrist comprises a spherical element from which the hand and two decorative elements with spherical finials emerge. These and the hollow silver tube that fits over the rod that gives the alam height are embellished with serrated or beaded bands.
The five fingers of the hand are said to symbolise Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Husain and Hasan. Husain is a key figure for the Shia branch of Islam. Shia followers consider Husein, the grandson of The Prophet, to be the rightful heir to the caliphate. Instead, Husein was martyred. Shias mark the anniversary of his death with processions and other rituals. In Afghanistan and South Asia, these processions featured the carrying aloft of religious standards or
alams of a type that included the example here. Such alams were also carried into battle as protective standards.
The handwritten inscription on the two panels that accompany the
alam here reads:‘This silver hand, which … that … of Mahommed, was on the top of a standard which I took out of a “sangar” (redoubt) [a temporary fortified position] on the Malakand Pass, which was stormed by the Chitral Relief Force under General Sir Robert Low in April 1895.
I was on his staff as a Junior Political Officer when the first shot of the action was fired, the tribesmen raised several hundred standards which disclosed their “sangar” and made them easy marks to our artillery. As the troops advanced on the pass nearly all the standards were carried off. The tribesmen in … however has been so … by our 94s that they could not get the standard away, and when I got into it, I found more tribesmen, evidently the guard of the standard, lying dead around it. I believe that this was the last time that standards were used by the Tribesmen in their wars with us on the N.W. Frontier. But they were a great feature in previous wars. We used to estimate that a standard meant 70 to 100 fighting men and the fiercest hand unto hand fighting was always around the standard, as a European war. W. (S.) Davis.’
Background to the Chitral Expedition
Attention turned to the mountainous area north of British India along the later Sino-Russian border during the last phase of the Great Game whereby the then superpowers jockeyed for influence and control over central Asia.
Chitral was considered a possible route for a Russian invasion of India, but neither side knew much about the local geography. Britain sent its agents to explore, as did Russia.
From around 1876 Chitral was under the protection of the Maharaja of Kashmir and therefore in the British sphere of influence but there was no British resident.
The Chitral ruler died in 1892 and a son, Afzal-ul-Mulk, seized the throne and murdered as many other claimants as he could. The old ruler’s brother, Sher Afzal Khan, who had been exiled in Kabul about 150 miles south-west, secretly entered Chitral with a small group of supporters and murdered Afzal-ul-Mulk.
Another of the old ruler’s sons, Nizam-ul-Mulk, advanced westward, accumulating troops as he went. Sher Afzal Khan fled back to Afghanistan and Nizam took the throne with backing from the British who then installed a local British political resident, and had established a local garrison at Chitral Fort.
Within a year Nizam was murdered by his brother, Amir-ul-Mulk. Umra Khan, a tribal leader from Bajour to the south marched north with 3,000 Pathans either to assist Amir-ul-Mulk or replace him.
There was more palace intrigue and ultimately skirmishes and intrigues saw the Fort at Chitral under siege, prompting a massive British expedition – the Chitral Expedition – involving some 15,000 troops being sent from India to re-take the fort, under Major-General Sir Robert Low. Accompanying Low was Francis Younghusband who was officially on leave and serving as a special correspondent for the London Times. On April 3 they stormed the Malakand Pass which was defended by 12,000 local warriors, and it was during this skirmish that the
alam here was captured.
Ultimately, the Fort at Chitral was reached and re-taken.
The case and the contents here are untouched since Victorian times. The case shows its age and has wear. The handwritten note is faded in places. But the authenticity of the piece and its age are obvious are very apparent. It is a relic from a past era in every sense.
Allen, C., God’s Terrorists: The Wahabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, Da Capo Press, 2006.
The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia, Atlantic Books, 2003.
Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India, Alexandria Press, 1997.
private UK collection
Inventory no.: 1953
The Malakand Pass area in 1897.