By Pradeep Singh
The approach to the Khalunga Fort was steep, to say the least, besides, the slopes were heavily wooded with ubiquitous Silva of Sal trees. The fort, itself, barring the southern access, was protected by precipitous cliffs to the north and the west. While the tree cover denied the British clear line of sight, nullifying to some extent the superior artillery and reconnaissance, the readily available timber made the Gorkhali task easier to put up effective forward stockades and pickets dotting the slopes right down to the Nalapani village at the foot of the Khalunga. The first reverses to the British in the early days of the battle were on these stockaded slopes and then heavier losses in men and morale were experienced outside the gates of Khalunga.
The incessant pounding of the fort by British batteries since the night of 31st October, 1814, was causing casualties to the fighting men and women and children, but it did not deter the Gorkhali from retaliation of a fearsome kind that shook the resolve of many of the seasoned veterans of the enemy. The Irish Dragoons faced the heavy but sharp khukris of the Gorkhas just outside the Khalunga and eighty-eight lay wounded and four dead.
The furious Gillespie was for avenging the massacre of the Dragoons and for teaching the “recalcitrant Gorkhas” a lesson, but a second assault was again repulsed and the limping wounded returning only angered the impetuous Gillespie further.
The regular repulse of assaults by the Gorkhas was to Gillespie loss of face for the British arms, forcing him to courageously but also recklessly personally lead his troops uphill, breathless but determined to breach the fort’s walls. Eye witness accounts credit him for his bravery and commitment as he was just thirty yards from the walls of the fort when a musket shot to his chest ended his legendary career on the blood soaked foreground of Khalunga.
To the Gorkhas under Balbhadra Kunwar must go the credit of not relenting despite incessant shelling from the artillery guns that pulverised many defenders inside their fort. Of the six hundred inside the fort, four hundred were fighting men, the rest being women and children. Less than a hundred survived but were not demoralised even as their band is said to have played: O Nepali Sar Unchali (Gorkhalis keep your heads high). Not a single British soldier was able to enter Khalunga while Balbhadra Kunwar and his braves held it. They could do so only once the Gorkhas vacated the fort not because of loss of life but because the Achilles heel of the Gorkhas was the inconvenient water supply which was finally cut off by the British based on local intelligence. Eighty-four fit men evacuated the fort at Khalunga in the last few days of November to join other Gorkha forces at Jaithak in Himachal.
As Balbhadra Kunwar moved out of the Khalunga, he is stated to have said: To capture the Fort was a thing forbidden but now I leave of my own accord. The “Gorkha Leonid” marched with dignity to lead his surviving force through the village of Duwara to Chamba and on to Jaithak in Nahan. Despite the fight to the last with fury and courage, it is to the credit of the Gorkhas that the British dead were not mutilated or disgraced but handed with dignity for last rites to the British. Lord Moira wanted to erase any memory of this pyrrhic victory and ordered the destruction of the fort and on 2nd December, 1814, Colonel Mawbey carried out the orders. Today, no traces remain of this historic fort, where now stands a memorial to the valour of the Gorkhas enshrining in memory for all time the blood that drenched the hallowed ground atop the Nalapani hill. (Concluded)
(Pradeep Singh is an Historian and author of ‘Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra Dun’)