It all began when a group of East India Company sepoys in Meerut broke out in rebellion against their commanding officers. The immediate trigger was the usage of cartridges made from pig and cow fat that went against the religious doctrines of the Indian soldiers. But discontent had been simmering for long. Within days, the Meerut mutineers crossed the Yamuna and barged into Mughal Delhi. There was just one objective: destroy British presence in the Mughal capital and restore the powers of Emperor Bahadur Shah II. Soon the fire had spread across north and central India… the ‘first war of independence’ had begun.
In the days and months that followed, the mutiny spread across from the precincts of Delhi to several stations across northern and central India. But it was Delhi that remained the focus of both the revolt and the brilliant transformations caused by it. The city of Ghalib, Mir and Ghulam Ali Khan, Delhi, the cultural center of Mughal India, was for the last century or so, under the tight watch of the British. Mughal authority was waning and British power was on the rise. It was necessary for the rebels to unsettle the British here. However, this was not a city the British could let go of easily as the Union Jack flying in Delhi had as such symbolic as strategic importance.
The fierce battle that ensued lasted from May to September and ended with the eventual triumph of the British. But in the course of those four months, the mutiny of 1857 altered the morphology of Delhi, definitely changing the course of its history. Left to the English victors, there was an active attempt to wipe out Mughal memory from the city. “You had a conscious anglicisation of the city so in Chandni Chowk, you get a Victorian Town Hall, you get a railway through three-quarters of the city, The canal in Chandni Chowk ceases to flow and you get the renaming of Mughal places with British names. For instance, Roshanara Bagh becomes Victoria Gardens and so on,” explains historian William Dalrymple.
Delhi today is dotted with the remnants of 1857, the last battle to be fought along the banks of the Yamuna where seven cities thrived. The memories linger on in the many structures and memorials that dot across its landscape. On the anniversary month of the 1857 revolt, historian William Dalrymple takes indianexpress.com on a tour of those sites in Delhi that tell the story of 1857.
The historical landmark that gives the neighbourhood its name is the most important site commemorating the mutiny. It was from here that the British attempted to enter the city to re-conquer it. “The Kashmiri Gate was the key defensive point in the walls, where the mutineers faced the British in the months after the final assault in September 1857,” says Dalrymple. Kashmere gate was one of the 14 gates protecting the city and the British had to bomb it in order to enter. The marks of the bombing can still be seen along the walls of the monument. “The Britishers’ main defensive position was up on the ridge and through the course of September 1857 they advanced through the gutted ruins of their bungalows in the Civil Lines through Coutsiyabad till on the morning of September 11 they made an assault on Kashmiri Gate,” he says, adding that vivid descriptions exist of the assault, including those of ‘musket balls lying everywhere like hail storms’.
Located in the ridge area near Delhi University’s north campus, the Flagstaff tower was built in 1828 as a signal tower. When the rebels stormed Delhi in May 1857, it was here that the Europeans found shelter till help could arrive. “There were these pathetic scenes out there from about noon onwards of these memsahibs, who were increasingly nervous. Majority of them were women whose husbands had been massacred. And then towards about 4 in the afternoon, the mutineers sent up a bullock cart full of dead bodies of the massacred men and this created more hysteria, after which, they fled,” says Dalrymple.
The Flagstaff tower was equally significant in the closing days of the battle. “Later on in the uprising, it becomes the main British defensive point on the ridge, where the British come back having marched down the Grand Trunk road,” he says, adding that “it is the main center against which the rebel forces attack and then finally it’s the place where the flag is raised on September 11, when the East India Company takes the city.”
The fort-like structure located on Lothian road near Kashmiri Gate is what was previously the British ammunition depot. The rebels, in need of ammunition, targeted it and the British officers realising the need to keep it away from the hands of mutineers, blew it up. “And this was an extremely important action, because thereafter the rebels never had enough gunpowder, nor enough artillery, nor enough weaponry. And you see during the rest of siege, clumsy attempts of making more ammunition,” says Dalrymple. He added that “had the magazine fallen into the hands of the rebels, it is quite possible that history could have been quite different.”
The mutiny memorial
Erected in 1863, this tapering red sandstone Gothic monument commemorates the revolt of 1857 through the eyes of the British. Most significant about this structure is the detailed list of regiments that were present present and the actions that were fought at or near Delhi. “This was the place where the British commemorated their own valour. And they put this distasteful sort of like cricket statistics. Native and British, artillerymen, infantry, cavalry, wounded, killed. Its arranged in a certain statistics, in a very sort of cold-blooded way,” says Dalrymple.
The memorial continued to exist in the way constructed by the British after Independent India came into existence. The only addition made by the new government was an elegant looking plaque that said, “the men described in this description as rebels were great freedom fighters, fighting for the freedom of India.”
The Nicholson cemetery
A most significant way in which the British commemorated 1857 on the landscape of Delhi were the various burial sites of those Englishmen who lost their lives in the mutiny. One such is the Nicholson cemetery that lies right outside the Kashmiri gate metro station. This active burial ground is named after one of the most formidable characters of the revolt of 1857 and hailed as a hero by the British – John Nicholson. Nicholson is believed to have stormed into the through Kashmiri Gate with his troops and taken on the Indian rebels successfully. In the process, however, he lost his life. Legend has it that he held on to his last breath till the time he heard of the confirmed news of the British emerging victorious.
“To us, he appears like a complete imperial psychopath. He is a deeply unattractive, mad, crazy figure who performed acts of terrible violence, against not only the rebels but sometimes Indians on his own side,” says Dalrymple. He add that despite the atrocities he inflicted, the Victorians worshipped him. “And during the Victorian period, his grave became a major place of pilgrimage and today is largely forgotten except for a few historians and a few mutiny nuts,” he adds.