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Memories of the Mutiny of 1857

Armed with an eyewitness account from her forthcoming translation of 'Dastan-e-Ghadar', historian Rana Safvi takes a walk around Delhi's Kashmere Gate on the 160th anniversary of the 1857 uprising

An 1860s photograph of the damaged Gate. Photo: Samuel Bourne
An 1860s photograph of the damaged Gate. Photo: Samuel Bourne

Most Delhiites know Kashmere Gate for its traffic snarls, the result of it being located close to the inter-state bus terminus (ISBT) and a busy Metro station. People finish whatever chores they have, get away quickly and heave a sigh of relief. Few know the importance of Kashmere Gate in our nation’s history.

Close to it, on Lothian Road, is the General Post Office and an overgrown patch of land full of litter. A 20ft-high grey granite obelisk stands there, its fading engraving honouring two men who played a significant role in India’s history. The inscription includes the words of Robert Montgomery, the lieutenant governor of Punjab: “The electric telegraph has saved India." Alas, they’re barely decipherable.

This is the Telegraph Memorial, built on 19 April 1902 in front of the new British telegraph office by a grateful British empire “to commemorate the loyal and devoted services of Delhi telegraph office staff on the eventful 11th May 1857". That was the day the uprising of 1857 began. Messrs J.W. Pilkington and William Brendish, two young British assistant telegraph officers, sat in their wooden cabins near Flagstaff Tower, a signal tower on the Ridge nearby, watching the uprising unfold around them. They managed to send messages about the “revolt" to British military authorities in Ambala, signing off at 3pm with the words, “We’re off." This message was sent on to General George Anson in Shimla, and a force was sent from Punjab to fight the “rebels" in Delhi.

Just a few steps away from this memorial are the remnants of the British Magazine, a gunpowder storehouse, which was blown up on 11 May.

Scoundrels of Satan

The incident has been described by Zahir Dehlvi, an accomplished poet and official in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, in his book Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale Of The Mutiny (Penguin Random House) which I have translated from Urdu to English. An excerpt given below:

It was 5 pm., and even though the sun was setting, the day of reckoning was still under way.

The heat of the riot was on the rise, and for the citizens of Shahjahanabad it was every man for himself. The waves of trouble and turmoil were causing the ground to swell up. While the river of blood and carnage was boiling, loot and plunder raged. Fearless and pitiless tyrants had created pandemonium in the city, and no one knew what was happening to anyone else. Everyone was concerned with saving themselves.

Messengers were sorting out the mail, and news of complaints and petitions for mercy were pouring in from every direction. The scoundrels of Satan were inflicting violence all around.

The royal employees were sitting with Hakim Ahsanullah Khan in the khan-samaani hall, reciting Ya badee ul ajaib bilkhairi (Oh unique originator of goodness) on the rosary. A prayer for peace was on everyone’s lips when suddenly there was a tremendous noise. Even if 1,000 cannons had been fired, their noise would not have been so loud.

The khan-samaani building is from Shah Jahan’s period and its walls are 4ft wide. It is made of lime and mortar. The ceiling of the hall is very solidly constructed of red sandstone and salmon-coloured stone. After this noise, dirt and mud started falling from the walls and everyone was covered in dust. The earth shook as if there had been an earthquake.

It was almost as though the building were going to fall down on us. Everyone rushed out into the courtyard in panic. It seemed as if the Quranic verse, ‘When the earth is shaken with its (final) earthquake’ (Quran: Surah Az-Zalzalah: 1), was coming true.

When we turned our eyes to the west, we saw a column of smoke rising from the ground to the sky and corpses of men flying around in the air like crows and kites. Three minutes later, it seemed as though pieces of the mountains were raining on earth.

And the mountains will be like wool, fluffed up (Quran: Surah Al-Qari’ah: 5).

We ran back to the hall, shocked by what was happening. A pair of messengers came running and told us that the magazine and arsenal had been blown up.

George Willoughby and nine other officers of the British Ordinance Corps defended the magazine until the afternoon. They had been warned by Simon Fraser, the commissioner of Delhi, and the joint magistrate, Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, to do all they could to prevent it from falling into rebel hands. The moment they realized that rebel sepoys had stormed the city, two British officers with lit matches in their hands were put in charge of two six-pounder guns loaded with grapeshot. Their orders were to blow up the magazine should anyone try to force open the gates to it.

The gates were locked but the sepoys brought ladders to scale the walls. At 3.30pm, when Willoughby realized that the magazine was in danger of falling into the hands of Indian soldiers, with no possibility of immediate help from Meerut, he gave the pre-decided signal to blow it up.

The explosion killed many of the sepoys, as well as women and children from nearby homes who had taken shelter there. Six British officers managed to escape. One was killed on his way to Meerut. The survivors were awarded the Victoria Cross.

A single gate of the magazine is all that has survived. The British put up a plaque on it that reads: “This tablet marking the former entrance gate to the magazine is placed here by the government of India." It lists the names of the British officers who died at the hands of the “mutineers".

After Independence, the Indian government put up a second plaque: “The persons described as rebels and mutineers in the above inscription were Indian members of the army in the service of East India Company trying to overthrow the foreign government."

From the magazine, it is a 5- to 10-minute walk to Kashmere Gate, which was the entry into the walled city from Civil Lines, where the British families lived. Originally a single-arched door, so named because it stood on the road to Kashmir, it was enlarged and rebuilt in 1835 by British military engineer Robert Smith.

This area saw fierce fighting both when the sepoys captured it and later when the British retook it. On 14 September 1857, it was the scene of the final assault on Shahjahanabad led by Brigadier General John Nicholson. A plaque installed at Kashmere Gate by General Lord Robert Napier in 1876 commemorates the sacrifices of the British officers who retook the city. The gate itself has been cordoned off with an iron railing.

Courting couples

Another short 5- to 7-minute walk takes me to the Qudsia Bagh on Shamnath Road, adjacent to the ISBT. It was built by Qudsia Begum, the wife of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila and mother of emperor Ahmed Shah. Today, it’s an ordinary public park. But if you look at an old painting of it made by a Company School artist, you can see the grandeur of the buildings overhanging the Yamuna river. Today, the garden has a small and not-so-clean naala (drain). Gone are the lofty red sandstone mansions and the beautiful baradaris (12-arched pavilion). Instead, one sees people exercising, walking, doing yoga and dreaming of shedding extra calories. Manicured lawns lined with flower beds have replaced the beautiful gardens with flowering trees and bushes that were once the envy of the city. One thing remains: It is still a meeting place for courting couples.

The garden was described by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in Asar us Sanadeed: “The breeze, which blows here and touches the body, feels as if it is a breeze from heaven. The beauty of the violets in this garden embarrasses the lovely maidens who want to hide their faces as a result."

Unfortunately, its location was its undoing as the British found it a convenient spot to set up a siege battery. A ruined mosque stands testimony to the rounds fired by defenders from the walled city as well as the British forces outside. It is still a functioning mosque under the Delhi Waqf Board and an imam is posted there to lead prayers five times daily. He lives with his family in a house next to it. It seems eerily romantic to live amidst the ruins of so much history.

From Qudsia Bagh, I retraced my steps towards the Metro station. Opposite it is the Nicholson Cemetery, with its beautiful wooden gate. Though Nicholson successfully retook the city, he died of his wounds on 23 September, and is buried here. A veteran of many battles, including the Anglo-Afghan wars, he was the “Hero of Delhi" for the Victorians. After independence, a statue of him that had been erected in Delhi was taken down and sent to his native Ireland.

Scars of action

One of my last stops is the edge of the Ridge where the British forces camped. There is a memorial here—an octagonal, four-storeyed tower built by the British in 1860. Marble plaques list the names of the officers and soldiers who died during the siege. Nicholson features prominently.

One plaque reads: “On 21st September the city was evacuated of the enemy." Here too, the Indian government has put up a board clarifying that the above-mentioned “enemy" were “those who rose against colonial rule and fought bravely for national liberation in 1857". It was unveiled on 25 August 1972. The mutiny memorial is now called Ajitgarh.

This area of the Ridge was in the thick of the action during the siege of Delhi. Maratha nobleman Hindu Rao’s house, which stood here, was used by the British as their headquarters and has been completely rebuilt as Bara Hindu Rao Hospital, so one can’t see the scars of action that once marked it.

A 5-minute walk from here takes me to Pir Ghaib, Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s hunting lodge, which the British called the observatory. Behind this charming building ran the nearest road to the camp. Its vulnerability to firing from the sepoys gave it the name of Valley of Death.

A longish 15- to 20-minute walk from here, past Chauburji mosque, takes me to Flagstaff Tower. It was here that European women and children of the British cantonment sought shelter on the afternoon of 11 May 1857, while waiting for help from Meerut. When no help came, the women tried to make their way to the British camp in Karnal. Some died on the way.

Today this site is within the Delhi University campus and has become a popular spot with students. When I see the round tower and the cramped space inside it, I wonder if others too can imagine the screams of the women and children trapped in the sweltering May heat.

Rana Safvi is a historian, author and blogger.

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