Pakistan Army carried out an extensive rehabilitation of the Mission Hospital premises, thereby saving an ancient Mughal-era structure.
Inside the compound of Mission Hospital Peshawar stands an ancient structure that was originally a Mughal-era tomb. It was later used in turn as a watchtower, then regimental headquarter, hospital and presently serves as a chapel.
With the passage of time, wide cracks had emerged in its domed ancient edifice and numerous interventions carried out over the years had marred its architectural and historic charm. Recently, Pakistan Army’s XI Corps took upon the responsibility for its conservation and carried out an extensive rehabilitation of the Mission Hospital premises, thereby saving the threatened structure. It was inaugurated on March 21, 2023 and is now open to the public.
The unique monument is not only important from military history and tourism standpoints, but is also an important architectural feature of Peshawar with a colorful history.
Built in mid-17th century during Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan's reign, this heritage monument is believed to be the tomb of Nawab Saeed Khan, a governor of Peshawar province who died in 1651. During the Sikh era, it served as a burj or watchtower. Marks on its surface thought to be from a cannonball suggested it saw intense battles fought in that era.
In 1846, Lieutenant Harry Lumsden raised a new army regiment, the Corps of Guides at Peshawar. It was to be an irregular force, whose purpose was to serve as ‘guides’ for the British army on the Indian frontier. In times to come, it became one of the most famous Indian Army regiments during the period of British rule. The Corps of Guides, which is also a part of the tightknit Piffers brotherhood, earned a legendary reputation for bravery and efficiency that was the envy of all the other units.
Lumsden chose this site as the Guides’ Headquarters (HQ). An inscription on a marble tablet inside the tomb reads: “This tablet was erected by the officers of the Queen Victoria’s own Corps of Guides to commemorate the fact that the Corps was raised on the December 14, 1846 in Peshawar by Lieutenant H. B. Lumsden, who used this burj as his headquarters, both in his military and civil capacity during the years 1849-1851.”
Peshawar is known as the birthplace of khaki (army uniform). Lumsden bought all the white cotton he could find in Peshawar’s markets and had it soaked in mud in the Bara River to give it a khaki color for better camouflage. The Guides had originally chosen this color for their uniform and the British army followed suit and adopted it, abandoning the traditional scarlet of their fighting uniform, which was considered too conspicuous and unsuited for frontier warfare. This shade of uniform is worn by armies around the world.
With the passage of time, the famed Guides shifted their base to Mardan and the military headquarter at Peshawar assumed a new role, that of a hospital. The Church Mission Society’s (C.M.S.) Afghan Medical Mission started in 1896-97 when Dr. Arthur Lankester founded a hospital in the walled city. The missionary hospital proved so popular that within a few years, it was necessary to move to new, larger premises outside the old city gate at Dabgari, the present site of the Mission Hospital Peshawar founded in 1904.
For some years, the burj structure was used as a quarantine ward for small pox. Interestingly, the site serves as a prayer chapel today, which was established in 1926. The interior consists of two levels and the congregation is held upstairs.
A visit to this heritage monument is a splendid evocation of Peshawar’s glorious past. It is highly recommended for history buffs and tourists interested in the local heritage.
The present Commander XI Corps, Lieutenant General Hassan Azhar Hayat also acts as the Colonel of the Guides. Kudos to him that as the head of the Guides' family, he has done justice to his role as the ‘Guardian of Regimental Tradition’ by helping to preserve one of the most important monuments for Peshawar's citizens.
Corps of Guides was popularised in the bestseller novel, The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. The book, and a television series by the same name, are set in Victorian times. Ashton, a dashing young officer of the elite Guides is the main hero. In the mid 1980s, M. M. Kaye visited Pakistan and was hosted by General Zia-ul-Haq who himself was a Guides Cavalry Officer. Kabul Residency (Cavagnari) Memorial arch and the Guides Chapel inside Punjab Regimental Centre (PRC) in Mardan are important places associated with the Guides. In PRC’s churchyard is the Guides’ cemetery about which Winston Churchill wrote is “perhaps the only regimental graveyard in the world.” It has among other decorated burials of the Guides, two Victoria Cross recipients namely Lieutenant Hector Stewart MacLean VC and Captain Godfrey Meynell VC as well. Moreover, a stained glass window memorial to Major General Robert Bellew Adams VC is inside the church. The 2nd Frontier Force (Guides Infantry) and 10th Cavalry (Guides Cavalry) are prestigious Piffers units of Pakistan Army that have carried on the Guides’ proud lineage.
The author is a travel writer and historian based in Peshawar. He is a tourism expert and part of Prime Minister’s National Tourism Board working group and serves on the BoG of Lok Virsa National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage.
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