In the lanes of Meerut where the revolt of 1857 was born

Belvedere Complex   | Photo Credit: Ashok Ahlawat

Meerut should be a holy spot, like the Kaaba, Wailing Wall or the Golden Temple. India was not always free. We do not know the names of those two thousand Indians who rose as one against the British. Their names have been obliterated from the pages of history. They were blown away at the mouth of cannons. But when they rose and flashed their talwars, they planted the seeds of freedom. Those Indians burnt as the very first embers and the bells will forever toll for them.

The Delhi Dehradun Shatabdi reaches Meerut City Railway Station at 8 am. It rumbles over the Yamuna, then the Hindon, its tributary. After half an hour you cross the Upper Ganga Canal, an ageing engineering marvel of the mid-19th Century. On both sides are sugarcane plantations and mango groves. You cross a maze of half-finished apartments on the periphery of the town and soon you have arrived.

Where it all began

If you are a student or a budget traveller, hire an e-rickshaw or a bicycle for the day. Head straight to Mall Road in the cantonment. After two kilometres or so, onto your left rise the shikharas of the Kali Paltan temple. It is believed that the sepoys pontificated amongst themselves here after priests denied them the use of the well for having used tallow-greased cartridges.

After reaching Mall Road, look out for Bungalow Number 158. In it is located a tiny mosque, purported to have been used by the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, when he was kept imprisoned in that house. The emperor was later exiled to Rangoon.

St John's Church

St John's Church   | Photo Credit: Ranbir Singh

Along Mall Road are red sandstone markers, naming landmarks of the Revolt. Further up is the double-storeyed mansion in which Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, lived when he was serving in Meerut between 1886 and 1890. It is now occupied by Allahabad Bank. Turn left from here and move towards St John’s church in Lekha Nagar. There are huge terracotta-roofed barracks on both sides of the road — this is the old British cavalry and infantry lines. If you are lucky, you might hear a military band playing bagpipes and drums.

Close your eyes and slip into a reverie. It’s May 9, 1857. Red-coated British infantry, cavalry and horse-drawn guns are moving to the parade ground. They are equipped with loaded muskets and guns for the court martial of 85 sepoys from the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, a native unit.

The spire of St John’s, the oldest church in North India, rises against the blue of the summer sky. Right across the atrium lies the wide European infantry parade ground. All Indian sepoys in the station are ordered to assemble here, without arms, to witness the court martial of their fellow sepoys. The British hope to quell forever, the unrest among Indian troops by this heavy-handed approach. The sentences are read — 10 years jail with hard labour and dismissal from service. The Indians are stripped bare and their ankles shackled by blacksmiths. The next day, May 10, all three Indian regiments in Meerut rise in rebellion. They break the jails, armouries, magazines and free their comrades. The First War of Independence has started.

Scenes from the British cemetery

Scenes from the British cemetery   | Photo Credit: Ranbir Singh

On the wings of prayer

Ahead of the parade ground is the British cemetery with graves dating back to the 1820s. Head back to Mall Road and turn right at the Radha Soami Satsang Beas. On to the left, is a long colonnaded hall with Doric pillars called Belvedere Complex; arguably the most majestic old building in Meerut.

Further down the road is Dargah Hazrat Shahpeer, a domeless mausoleum of 1620 vintage, built for the teacher and physician of Mughal emperor Jehangir by his queen, Noor Jahan. The red sandstone has weathered at places, but all along the dado are stones showing exquisite slender-necked vases, out of which the flowers of paradise pour out luxuriantly. These are topped with intricately-sculpted geometric jaalis in red sandstone, inlaid with marble. An old cat sleeps on an ancient wooden chest inside the sanctorum. The gravestone is protected by a steel grill on which paper bits are tied with thread. A girl has written an appeal for mediation, ‘Peer baba, I dearly like Salim, but his elder sister is my arch enemy. Can you please do something? Send me a remedy. Yours prayerfully, Ayesha.’

Scenes from the British cemetery

Scenes from the British cemetery   | Photo Credit: Ranbir Singh

It is evening. In the heart of old Meerut, mud ovens fired by wood and coal are lit. Boys wearing taqiyahs on their heads are grilling kebabs on skewers. The khansamas fish out Mughlai naans and rotis from the tandoor. A delicious aroma wafts out of the panniers of korma, simmering on coal fires. It would be a wasted trip if you don’t savour a Mughlai meal here.

It is time to take the Shatabdi back to Delhi. Look out of the window at the bridge of boats over the Yamuna and think back at the sepoy infantry running towards the Red Fort. The cavalry is bringing up the rear. They are the first Indians who fought for independence. For them, the bells will always toll.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 6:12:45 AM |

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