Lahore’s fire-breathing dragon

Asif Akhtar traces the history of the Zamzama, that enduring symbol of Lahore's central importance to all who tried to conquer the subcontinent

Lahore’s fire-breathing dragon
The majestic canon, the Zamzama — destroyer of the strongholds of the gods —  was crafted in the city of Lahore in the mid-eighteenth century. It currently stands as a historical monument and an archival object in front of the building of the Lahore Museum, built by the British in 1870 to preserve rare relics and artifacts of the area.

Moulded with the metal collected from local household items, molten and forged into a sophisticated and powerful weapon, it quickly became a source of symbolic power for local princes and warlords and went through various nomenclatural transformations from the Zamzama to Bhangian di Top to Kim’s Gun.

Famous ZamZama gun, Lahore , Pakistan in 1915
Famous ZamZama gun, Lahore , Pakistan in 1915

The massive cannon first came into being in all its grandeur in 1757, following the Afghan conquest of Lahore and its subsequent inclusion under the dynastic rule of Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of the Durrani Empire. The copper and bronze used in the gun was molten out of household utensils collected from the Hindu and Sikh residents of Lahore through jiziyah (a form of taxation levied by Muslim rulers upon non-Muslim subjects). The behemoth cannon weighed 80 lbs., was 14 feet long with a bore aperture of 9.5 inches. Two similar cannons were made at the time of casting, while the Zamzama survived the course of history, the sister gun was lost by Durrani’s army during its transport across the river. The Zamzama was easily one of the largest pieces of military hardware to be put together in the region where ballistics were the cutting-edge technique in the art of war of the period.

[quote]It went through various nomenclatural transformations from the Zamzama to Bhangian di Toap to Kim’s Gun[/quote]

The Zamzama has two inscriptions, one on the front and one on the back. The front one reads:

“By order of the Emperor Durri Dowran Shah Wali Khan, the Wazir made this gun, named Zamzama, the capturer of strongholds. The work of Shah Nazir.” (Latif, 1892, 384)

And the inscription on the back reads as an ode to the cannon and Ahmad Shah Durrani himself:

“In the reign of the king possessing dignity like Faredun,

Dispenser of justice robed in equity.

The pearl of the age, Ahmad Shah,

King, the conqueror of thrones, dignified as Jamshed.

An order was issued to the grand Wazir,

From the threshold of his Majesty,

To have cast with every possible skill,

A gun terrible as a dragon and huge as a mountain.

His heaven-enthroned Majesty’s servant,

Shah Wali Khan, the minister of affairs,

In order to accomplish that grand enterprise,

Called together a number of master workmen,

Till, with consummate toil,

Was cast, this wondrous gun Zamzama.

A destroyer even of the strongholds of heaven

Has at last appeared under the auspices of His Majesty.

I enquired of reason for the date of this gun;

Reason, struck with terror, replied:

“If thou wilt give thy life in payment,

I will disclose to the secret,”

I agreed, and he replied:

“What a gun; a weapon like a fire-raining dragon.”

Its first utilization in battle was by Ahmad Shah Durrani himself, in the famous third battle of Panipat in 1761. After the battle, due to a broken carriage, transporting the heavy, unwieldy cannon back to Kabul became a problem for Durrani and he deposited it with his governor Khawaja Ubed in Lahore. A year later, the ordnance depot of Khwaja Ubed in the outskirts of Lahore was attacked by the armies of Hari Singh Bhangi and the Zamzama cannon was claimed in the loot. The new Sikh owners of the cannon renamed it to Bhangian Di Top, literally: Cannon of the Bhangis.

British Troops posing in front of Kim's Gun in 1930s passing through Lahore on the way to North West Frontier Province
British Troops posing in front of Kim's Gun in 1930s passing through Lahore on the way to North West Frontier Province

[quote]‘Whoever holds Zamzama controls Lahore’[/quote]

For two years the cannon stayed in their possession until the Bhangis had to give it away as a share in war spoils to another regional power-broker by the name of Charat Singh Shukerchakia for his military assistance during the siege of Lahore. The Bhangi brothers assumed that Shukercharkia would be unable to haul the weighty cannon back so they made him an offer. To their surprise he was able to cart the prize piece of artillery back to his fort in the city of Gujranwala with the help of 2,000 soldiers.

Soon enough, the cannon was wrested from Shukercharkia by the Pashtun Chatha brothers of Ahmadnagar. Adding further to the mythology of the cannon, a feud sparked up between the two brothers – immediately after its repossession – over who would keep the Zamzama. In the ensuing battle, Gujar Singh Bhangi, who aided one of the Chatha brothers was able to reclaim the famous Bhangi cannon. In 1772, the Chathas recovered the cannon from its Bhangi owners and took it to the town of Rasulnagar. Less than a year later the cannon got a new owner following its capture by Jhanda Singh who took it to Amritsar.

Having undergone repairs in 1977, the cannon rests in its designated place in front of the museum on the Mall Road
Having undergone repairs in 1977, the cannon rests in its designated place in front of the museum on the Mall Road

In 1802, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Dal Khalsa Sikh Empire conquered Amritsar and became the new de facto master of the Zamzama cannon. Ranjit Singh prolifically utilized the Zamzama, employing it in five of his major military campaigns in Daska, Kasur, Sujanpur, Wazirabad, and Multan. Towards the end of this period the Zamzama had become significantly damaged and battle worn. After failing to effectively discharge during the siege of Multan, the cannon was subsequently decommissioned and placed in front of the Delhi Gate in Lahore as a war monument commemorating the Sikh victory against the Afghans. The Zamzama would remain in its historical place in front of the Delhi Gate until 1860. By 1848, the Sikh Dal Khalsa army had already lost the first Anglo-Sikh war to the forces of the East India Company. With the fall of Lahore and the annexation of Punjab to the British Raj, the mythical cannon became the object of British curiosity – to give new meaning to the folk saying: ‘Whoever holds Zamzama controls Lahore’.

By 1870, the Zamzama had come under the scrutiny of the archival gaze of the British. For the occasion of His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the newly fortified lands, the cannon was relocated to be positioned on the Mall Road, the main throughway of the city, in front of the newly constructed building of the Lahore Museum which was established as an extension of the first Punjab Exhibition held in 1864. The raised pedestal in front of the Lahore Museum’s main entrance has been the Zamzama’s home for the past 150 years from where it bears testimony to the past.

LIFE Magazine, photo of Zamzama Gun, 1946
LIFE Magazine, photo of Zamzama Gun, 1946

At the turn of the 20th century, Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim would open with the scene where the novel’s British protagonist is mounted atop the cannon:

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun ZamZammeh on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammeh, that ‘fire-breathing dragon,’ hold the Punjab; for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot. There was some justification for Kim … since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English.

It might also be pertinent to note here that Kipling’s father Mr. Lockwood Kipling was the first curator of the newly constructed Lahore Museum. Following this literary ode to its greatness, the cannon has since been dubbed “Kim’s Gun” in popular lexicon. As early as 1892  –attesting  to its transmutation into an archival object – an Indian historian, Syad Muhammad Latif, writing on the occasion of His Royal Highness’ visit to inaugurate the Lahore Museum, refers to the Zamzama as “the ancient piece of ordinance, one of the largest specimens of casting in India”.

Over the course of its socio-historical trajectory the cannon has gone from a cutting-edge piece of military hardware to a symbolic piece of ascendency repeatedly plundered in an intractable power-struggle, to a monument of military valor, and finally to an archival museum object and historical landmark.


Duggal, Kartar Singh. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Last to Lay Arms. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 2001.

Encyclopedia of the Sikhs. “Zamzama.” Accessed October, 11, 2013.

Hendley, T. Holbein, W. Boyd Dawkins and J. D. Crace. “Indian Museums: A Centenary Retrospect” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 62, No. 3193 (JANUARY 30, 1914): 207-221.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Page & Company, 1922 [1894].

Latif, Syad Muhammad. Lahore: Its History, Architectural Remains and Antiquities: With an Account of Its Modern Institutions, Inhabitants, Their Trade, Customs, etc. Lahore: New Imperial Press, 1892.

The Sikh Encyclopedia “Bhangian di Top.”  Accessed October, 11, 2013.