May 11, 1857, was a Monday. Bhistis (water carriers) walked around the streets, sprinkling water to settle the dust. In the telegraph office, a skeletal staff monitored incoming messages. Near the Jama Masjid, paya nahari sellers catered to the faithful. Life was stirring in the Red Fort after a late-night revelry. The banks of the Yamuna, however, were bristling with a battle-cry, “Dilli chalo”.
On Sunday, exactly 157 years after sepoys arrived from Meerut, a heritage walk titled Jung-e-Azadi revisited the events surrounding 1857.
Conducted by DelhiByFoot, it attracted students, tourists, Delhi buffs and heritage walkers. Walk leader Ramit Mitra stood under a McDonalds sign at the Kashmere Gate Metro Station, pointed around to the concrete jungle, and said, “Near here, a tributary of the Yamuna flowed and the sepoys crossed over by boat.”
Kashmere Gate of the time was a little easier to imagine. Its restored facade bears cannon ball scars — mementos of the pounding by British troops. When Mitra didn’t speak, he showed. Two
DelhiByFoot members dressed in uniforms (presumably of the Raj) enacted an argument between an Indian sepoy and a British officer of the British East Indian
Company. As they fought over greased cartridges, “the way our kings are being deposed”, taxes and general treatment, the gulf between the Indians and the British became evident.
The walk route from Kashmere Gate led to St James Church where Sunday mass was on. On the grounds is a memorial to “all Christians who were murdered by the Enemy from May till September 1857”. “We are the enemy,” said Mitra and let the irony sink in.
Past houses with British grills and glass windows — as opposed to Islamic architecture of the era — the walk wound towards a traffic island littered with plastic and dry leaves, where stands the Telegraph Memorial. It was here that three British men had sounded an alarm on May 11 to the cantonment town of Ambala. As the bloodshed outside escalated, their last message was “We are off”.
Against a backdrop of cinemas showing Mastram, red, green and orange buses, and dirty pavements, walkers imagined a Delhi that was “wide open and empty, with few houses and traffic”.
The weather too was different — Sunday was cool, breezy and cloudy — but easier to imagine. “It would have been very hot that day, more than 40 degrees because there was little to shield Delhi from the desert winds of Rajasthan,” said Mitra.
His talk of attacks and counter-attacks included facts and folklore of the people and places. The British hero Brig Gen John Nicholson, he said, was a ruthless 34-year-old, who had once kept the severed head of a criminal on his desk as a deterrent to others. Tales of boozy officers and dithering British superiors, of a poet king and fierce mutineers made up the four-hour-long walk into the past.
After a quick visit to the Mutiny Memorial at the Northern Ridge “built to commemorate English officers and native soldiers who fought for the English East India Company”, the morning ended at the unadorned grave of Nicholson, “who led the assault of Delhi but fell in the hour of victory”.