On the anniversary of the Revolt of 1857, R. V. Smith looks back at the strange visions and premonitions that were reported from far and wide
As the anniversary of the 1857 Revolt comes around one is reminded of the omens and weird events that preceded it. In Delhi the angel of death was seen hovering over the Red Fort, an apparition also witnessed before the death of Aurangzeb in February 1707. A headless warrior riding a horse startled many a belated traveller near Kashmere Gate. He came to be known as ‘Dund’ or man with just a neck sticking out above his shoulders. The Dund was also seen in Bareilly, Agra, Lucknow and Faizabad. And wherever he went there was bloodshed. In Agra, reported The Statesman before the onset of the summer of 1857, a sheet of blood was seen on several nights in the sky, which seemed to extend right up to Delhi and beyond. The Maulvi of Faizabad, Ahmadullah Shah, who later led the heroic resistance in Lucknow, is said to have dreamt that Delhi’s streets were flowing with blood that had seeped into Payawan, the place where he was eventually killed.
Strange sightings were reported on the Ridge too by English soldiers. One of them saw a long line of kings silently trooping down to the city and then disappearing. (End of the Mughal dynasty?) Another soldier saw his dead father wagging his finger as though warning him of lurking dangers. A British woman, Harriet Tytler, wife of Capt. Robert Tytler, dreamt that the baby she was carrying in her womb would have to pass through a harrowing time until both she and her child were rescued by Punjabi or Pathan sepoys. Harriet did, in fact, give birth on the Delhi Ridge, and her baby nearly died of dysentery during the rains that followed. However, she was able to take the child safely to Karnal.
In Shahjahanpur, the daughter of a Protestant priest had a nightmare in which she saw a whole lot of people being shot in church, among them her father. She also saw a man in black walking in her house after midnight. The spectre would always disappear near the staircase. Her dream came true as, on a May morning in 1857, rebel sepoys attacked the church and killed nearly all the male members, including the girl’s father. But she and her mother escaped, only to be taken captive by a Pathan who kept pressurising her to marry him. That she narrowly managed to avert a forced wedding and returned home with her mother, after saving the Pathan and his family from the raiding firangi troops, is another story.
In Chandni Chowk, a Sikh sewadar saw a vision of men hanging from gibbets that extended from Lal Mandir to Fatehpuri Masjid. Later it turned out that the avenging British did hang from gibbets in the Chowk many sepoys and others they suspected of taking part in the revolt. The grandmother of Haji Zahur was troubled by dreams in which she saw dead bodies rotting in front of Gurdwara Sisganj, with an overwhelming stench that seemed to persist even after she woke up. As it turned out, the bodies of two sons and a grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had been killed by Lt. Hodson at the Khooni Darwaza, were thrown to rot in front of the gurdwara at the spot now marked by Northbrook Fountain.
Lala Hanwant Sahai, who was arrested in the Hardinge Bomb Case of 1912, told this scribe in the 1960s that his father’s elder sister used to see an Angrez family being massacred in the building of the Delhi Bank, just across from her house. The dream recurred for three nights, and on the last night she imagined she could even hear the screams of a woman and her daughters. The dream came true when the manager of the bank, Beresford, his wife and daughters met their end at the hands of the rebels on May 11. They put up a brave resistance, with Mrs. Beresford killing two of the attackers before being done to death herself. In Daryaganj, the nehar that flowed through it was reportedly seen to be covered with blood by a relative of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan — or this is what his dream foretold. When Sir Sayyid, then 40 years old, came to inspect his house after the disturbances were quelled, he found it in bad shape, but whether the relative escaped is not known. At the Khooni Darwaza or Lal Darwaza of Allauddin, a man walking towards the Delhi Gate one evening saw blood trickling down as though somebody had been murdered there. And at a shrine near the Yamuna, a naked faqir was heard chanting, “Mar, mar” at the beginning of May 1857. Another faqir in Shahjahanpur made his takia (abode) ring with the same chant, as recorded by J.F. Fanthome in his novel Mariam, which also gave a graphic description of the church massacre.
What does one make of these uncanny happenings? Do coming events cast their shadow, especially of macabre incidents? One doesn’t know but then all the witnesses couldn’t be lying. Incidentally, modern research has proved that the mind has infinite capacities of foresight. Maybe what are termed as gloomy pre-“Mutiny” yarns were not just balderdash.