Tales of the ridge monuments

The monuments marking the First War of Independence fought in 1857 are surprisingly well preserved

Published - July 29, 2012 06:25 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

The Flagstaff Tower in Kamla Park, near Delhi University, where the British put up their last stand against the rebel sepoys

The Flagstaff Tower in Kamla Park, near Delhi University, where the British put up their last stand against the rebel sepoys

It is surprising that the monuments marking the War of Independence of 1857, which, inadvertently, are also memorials to the historical event , are among the best kept in Delhi. Take the Flagstaff Tower in Kamla Park, near Delhi University, where the British put up their last stand against the rebel sepoys. Both the park and the tower are in the best state of preservation. The only detraction is the monkeys who live in hordes on the surroundings trees and snatch bananas from visitors. Among them are mainly foreign tourists, some of whose grandparents fought as members of the East India Company’s force, and old men from the nearby areas who come for morning and evening outings, armed with walking sticks. They sit on the benches and talk about what their ancestors told them about those days when the sepoys and a large number of residents of the Walled City and Old Subzi Mandi made a concerted attack on the spot where now the Flagstaff Tower stands. Among them was Budh Singh, a wrestler who fought with sword and spear and instilled terror in the hearts of his opponents. The freedom fighters were beaten back but Budh Singh, while retreating, rescued a pregnant mem. Instead of taking her to his house, as a hostage or a prized catch for his zenana, (like Shashi Kapoor, hero of the film Junoon , did) he saw her safely off on the road to Karnal, to which town most of the British fugitives were fleeing in retreat. The only recorded case of a pregnant firangi woman, who later delivered a child during the monsoon rain, however is that of Harriet Tytler, wife of Captain Peter Tytler. The unnamed woman rescued by Budh Singh does not find mention anywhere but she is still the subject of gossip.

Flagstaff Tower, which in its present form came up after the uprising had been quelled, occupies a picturesque spot which gives a bird’s eye-view of the surrounding area — and so does the Mutiny Memorial, also on the Ridge, just above the Subzi Mandi. A British doctor, Fergus Paterson, working for an Indian-owned hospital in London, who visited the Rajpura Cemetery and Badli-ki-Sarai recently, was pleasantly surprised to see their state of preservation. He thought in no other former colonial country would they have maintained monuments that commemorated the officers and men who died battling against freedom fighters. The doctor was able to trace the name of his ancestor on a commemoration tablet and photograph it so that it could find a place in the family album. As the memorial looks down on the sprawling city of Delhi, it is not difficult to imagine why the British gunners picked the spot to fire on the sepoys massed up. This place now provides a safe refuge for young lovers trying to hide from the public eye. Whatever they may do may not be known but they do scribble their initials on the tablets as a reminder of their afternoon amours.

As one drives down from this monument to Nicholson Cemetery outside Kashmere Gate, one does not see any more reminders of the revolt, except for the city wall in the distance, pockmarked with the signs of the cannonading done by the Tommies encamped on the Ridge near Hindu Rao’s mansion.

The cemetery, where quite a few of the British who fell during the uprising are buried along with their hero, Brigadier-General John Nicholson, is now so well preserved that a U.K. High Commissioner, Sir Michael Arthur, who helped in its restoration, thought that it surpassed many of the cemeteries in Britain, with its tombstones giving a glimpse of the history of 1857. Besides the big epitaph on Nicholson’s grave there are smaller ones telling us about the infants who died in those days. Had the poet Thomas Gray seen this graveyard he may have written an even more memorable elegy than he is famous for. Besides the “rude forefathers”, generals, soldiers, priests, nuns, and men, women and children from every walk of life sleep here in perpetual peace, not to mention the mom of the young British soldier — who asked the passing stranger “not to regard it as a place of dreary gloom” since it happened to contain his “beloved mother’s tomb”.

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