A May Day spent in Red Fort
Reliving scenes from the tumultuous summer of 1857
Anyone who has been on Delhi’s M.G. Road, which runs behind the Red Fort, would have seen a yellowing marble tower set in the fort wall between the Diwan e Khas and Rang Mahal. Once upon a time it had a copper-plated dome and was called the Burj e Tilai, or Golden Tower.
I don’t know how many have given it a second glance or ever stopped to wonder at the stories these stones could tell!
There was a time when the River Yamuna flowed on the spot where you are driving today. Between the river and the wall of the fort was a sandy bank known as the ‘reti’.
I reconstruct the scene on May 11, 1857, with the help of Zahir Dehlvi , a young courtier in the court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, whose book Dastan-e-Ghadar, Tale of the Mutiny, I have translated into English:
“As the day broke the alarm sounded and the rooster crowed/ And in every garden the birds chirped away their lovely songs/ And from the mosque and the monastery sounds of the benedictions emerged/ And the Brahmins went to the temple to invoke the Lord ‘Hari, Hari!’
“Birds with sweet voices are chirping praises of God on the treetops. The parterre gardens are so full of the chirping that one can’t hear oneself speak. The birds are all swaying as if in a state of ecstasy induced by their thoughts of God — it is a strange atmosphere. The redness of dawn is spreading and the Moon is disappearing from the horizon while the colour blue unfurls itself across the sky.
“The Ganga Jamuni rays of the Sun are falling on the domes and pinnacles of the Qila-e-Moalla, showing off their bright gold. The golden burj of the baithak is gleaming in the sun. This is Saman Burj, the exclusive sitting room of the Timurid emperor. From the east, it looks like a sun itself when the sun is rising. This burj is octagonal in shape and quite spacious from inside. That’s why it is called Musamman Burj, popularly known as Saman Burj. Badshah Shah Jahan would sit in this jharokha after the dawn prayers and give darshan in this place—that tradition continues till today.”
Early every morning, devotees would come out of the walled city of Shahjahanabad to worship the river goddess and perform a ceremonial bath. Once they were done they would go for jharokha darshan.
Prof. Ali Nadeem Rezavi says, “Said to be of ‘Hindu’ origin, jharokha darshan was taken up in right earnest from at least Akbar’s reign. It suited the Mughal theory of sovereignty, which stressed on divine origins of kings. From a number of indigenous sources, one comes to know that a large number of contemporaries considered Akbar as an avatar of Vishnu.”
The subjects also had direct access to their ruler and could present petitions to him which were redressed.
This tower played a crucial role in the First War of Indian Independence.
At dawn on May 11, Bahadur Shah Zafar was sitting in the Musamman Burj, praying when he heard a noise and saw smoke. He was told that some ‘rebel cavalrymen’ (soldiers of the East India Company) from Meerut had rebelled against their officers and come to Delhi.
Soon they were under the Musamman Burj. As Dehlvi narrates:
“Huzoor Jahanpanah! May you have a long life! You are the emperor of faith and the world, and God Almighty has given you suzerainty over twenty-two provinces. The whole of India is under you and subservient to you. The people of Hindustan are counted as your subjects. This is what has been announced in proclamations till today — Khilqat Khuda ki, Mulk Badshah ka, Hukm Company ka (The Lord’s creation, the emperor’s country, the company’s command).
“But now, the British have been empowered to rule us on your orders. So we have come to you as petitioners, hopeful of justice.”
Rallying around the emperor
The sepoys described their refusal to use cartridges for the new Enfield rifle which was said to be greased with the fat of pig and cow, their subsequent arrest by the British and their breakout from jail. They called out to the emperor to lead them against the British as the Emperor of Hindustan.
Bahadur Shah Zafar called the British officers whose writ ran in Delhi in those days and asked, writes Dehlvi: “How has a religious fight reared its head? This is a case of faith and principles. Religious persecution and bigotry is a very bad thing. Many kingdoms have been destroyed by it, and innumerable people have been killed by it. It’s essential that this be sorted out immediately.”
The rest is history. The sepoys refused to listen to any amount of reason by the British and despite efforts by the latter to secure the walled city of Shahjahanabad, they swarmed in and captured it, leading to the siege of Delhi, which ended on September 14, with the British forces entering and recapturing Shahjahanabad.
In 1858, the rule of East India Company was formally transferred to the British Crown.