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Glorious Past of Dehradun’s Race Course

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

A remembered glorious past is a cultural feature of almost all societies. Its foundation is based on myths and oral traditions far before historical knowledge was adopted as an essential tool for exploring the past on the strength of facts through rational examination and accepted by those devoted to the study of history as a scientific subject.

Dehradun as an inhabited region is a fairly recent phenomenon. It was considered “terra incognita”, neither mapped nor explored till a few centuries ago. It was associated with a mythical past and legends.

However, around the fourteenth century it came to be noticed but not with significant political developments – hedged between the Himalayas on the northern side and the near parallel lesser ranges of the Siwaliks, which drew their name from Shiva stories in these verdant hills. The rivers Yamuna and Ganga defined the Valley in the west and east, respectively.

But in the not too distant past, in the second half of the nineteenth century in Dehradun, by now a jewel in the British Raj, the new feature of an emerging sporting ecosystem was getting well established. This was the fascinating fast paced entertainer: thoroughbred horse racing.

To the south central part of the Doon Valley was a vast stretch of flat land, owned as per information, by Raja Lal Singh, a high ranking minister of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh of Punjab. Even after the Maharaja passing away, Raja Lal Singh continued as a powerful personality in the Lahore Darbar. However, in 1850, he was exiled by the British to Agra and Dehradun in 1856, where he acquired immense property in Doon and the fashionable Mussoorie.

The Raja became the next most important personage in the Valley after the Sajjada Nasheen Mahant of the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai. The Raja moved well in the British upper crust and gifted them the needed land for setting up a race course for horse racing.

The Race Course that we know as of today had its brush with glory when the thoroughbred colts, fillies and  horses started thundering down the especially created dirt track indicating specified lengths in furlongs and miles for the different categories of races.

Raja Lal Singh passed away in 1866 and, in twenty years’ time, the Dehradun Race Course had become the most sought after in northern India. In the early 1880s, it was rated the greatest racing centre in North India and reported so by the reporter of the Times of India. But as the importance of other cities grew, the Race Course in Dehradun lost its prominence, if not forgotten.

It was through the determined efforts of Mr AG Rodger, the race club was revived. It once again got noticed for its spectacular Himalayan backdrop. In May 1926, it drew a crowd of over five thousand spectators and this was again reported by the Times of India as a record for race tracks in northern India. On that day, an overcast sky made the weather quite pleasant for the horses and the onlookers many of whom were betting on their favourites.

While the dust of the race tracks of Dehradun, much loved by the galloping horses, has long since settled, the names of some of the stars of these tracks are still able to faintly knock on the doors of our memory: Johore, Royal Flight, Jerry, Zamback, Sunbeam, Sardar Gul, Dark Night, Jazz Band, Grey Mist, Amber and Hushabye!

However, the early decades of the twentieth century were tumultuous years and war clouds loomed across Europe, Africa and Asia on account of the late entry of Germany, Italy, Japan and Turkey in the race to acquire colonies, which threatened entrenched imperial powers like the British, French, Dutch, etc. And sports like horse racing took a backseat and Dehradun, too, lost its charm as a racing venue.

India was on the verge of its tryst with destiny and the cataclysm of Partition in 1947.

While the Partition of India by the quitting British in 1947 destroyed millions of lives, it also erased from the memory of the affected refugees the comfortable life of their homeland. A strange but celestial prophesy got a few thousand Punjabi displaced people to Dehradun. Dehradun had a deep but lesser known fact about the Sikh Gurus’ connection with the the Valley. Guru Nanak and Guru Hargobind had passed through Doon Siwaliks to reach Haridwar and Nanakmatta and Hemkunt Sahib. In 1676, Udasi Guru Ram Rai had settled in Dehradun while he still had a Darbar in Lahore at Chuwacha Sahib in the Dharampura ward. Guru Gobind Singh, too, visited the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai, who was the Guru’s nephew. Perhaps a lot of Punjabi Khatri Sikhs came here inspired by their Gurus’ memory, while the Darbar of Ram Rai settled a number of Lahore Sikhs families on their land.

Not far from the Darbar, many Sikh Khatris got land allotted at the Race Course. The various Sikh Khatri gotras mentioned in the sacred text the “Varan Bhai Gurdas ji”  are settled here, like the Puris, Kapoors, Khannas, Wadhwas, Sabharwals, Kohlis, Nagpals, Oberois, Anands, Gulatis, Chaddhas and Wasons. And these Khatri Sikhs have in a generation built a well knit community of hardworking and prosperous people. In case of the Race Course, there is little need for a manufactured glory as theirs is verifiable beyond doubt. It is again interesting that Khatri Sikhs were encouraged to engage themselves in the lucrative horse trade which made them travel to the horse breeding centres of Central Asia and soon became, along with Multanis and Afghans, the elite horse traders on whom the great Mughal cavalry depended. Twenty-five thousand of the best quality horses were annually imported for them and Khatri Sikhs excelled at it. It’s befitting that, today, the Race Course is a relic to their connection with a trade that Guru Arjan had blessed for the prosperity of the Sikh Panth.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and author of the Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehra Dun (2011) and the Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun ( 2017). He can be approached at: chpradeepsingh@gmail.com)