down memory lane History & Culture

The structures in Delhi that witnessed the Revolt of 1857

A view of Khooni Darwaza on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, Delhi   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Last week, the anniversary of the 1857 revolt did not get the same response as it usually does.Probably because of election fervour that has kept people on their toes with accusations and counter-accusations, and hardly any time to spare for thoughts of battles long ago that made the streets of Delhi red with blood. Yet, there was a time when writers like H. C. Fanshawe, Percival Spear, Ahmed Ali, and Christopher Hibbert spent days tracing the places where most of the action took place.

When not taking classes in St Stephen’s College, Spear, the author of Twilight of the Mughals, cycled all over pre-partition Delhi to see the state of monuments of the First War of Independence. At the time, the city was minus the many colonies that sprang up after the 1947 influx of refugees from Punjab and Sindh.

Ali had sat in houses in Kutcha Pandit to revive memories of those days with the help of old-timers. Hethen came out with his book, Twilight in Delhi, carrying carried the memories with him when he was ‘forced’ to migrate to Karachi.

Fanshawe had done his research long before, at the beginning of the 20th century, and then Christopher Hibbert wrote his famous book on the Great Sepoy Mutiny. This echoed tales first told by J. F. Fanthome, a civil servant, born during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar; and John Lang, a lawyer whose clients included the Rani of Jhansi. Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, a British scholar who studied the events of 1857 followed up their work. More recently, Dr Fergusson left his medical practice as a surgeon in a London Hospital and came all the way to India to trace the graves of his ancestors, one of whom was a magistrate in Agra at the time.

He went to the Red Fort to see the spot where the Killer Tree stood, from which the British had hanged many freedom-fighters.And then, he went to the Mutiny Memorial on the Ridge above the Old Subzimandi commemorating the British soldiers who were killed or wounded in the hot days of 1857, when people braved the heat without the luxury of electricity. After visiting the Flagstaff Tower near Delhi University he finally found some graves of his forebears in the Rajpura Road Cemetery in North Delhi. He and I once stood in twilight, trying to read the fading epitaphs on the tombs, with a caretaker helpfully flashing his torch.

The Mutiny Memorial has been closed for some time for much needed repairs. Eight years ago if you stood on top of it you could see the old city of Delhi spread out like a map, without the Metro line in the skyline. You could imagine the gunners of the East India Company bombarding the Mughal capital, with Bahadur Shah Zafar clutching his grandfather’s sword and sitting on his threatened throne in the Red Fort. All the while, his wife Zeenat Mahal, would have taken counsel with the king’s physician, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, nicknamed Ganga Ram Yahudi by his detractors. They’d suspected him of being a British informer like Maulvi Rajabi Ali, who was blamed for having disclosed Zafar’s presence in Humayun’s Tomb. Here, the notorious Major Hodson arrested him and then proceeded to slaughter two of his sons and a grandson at the Khooni Darwaza, as he led the fugitives back to the Walled City.

Besides the Khooni Darwaza or Gate of Blood, there are other landmarks to remind us of those days. Traces of the cannonading remain on Kashmere Gate’s walls. Two small structures opposite the GPO here with cannon-heads mounted on them, proclaim the site of the British Magazine blown up by nine Englishmen. Led by Lt. Willoughby, they were afraid the rebel soldiers would capture the arms store and wreak havoc on their forces. The explosion, they say, was so loud it could be heard right up to Meerut, 65 kilometres away, where many thought Doomsday had come.

In the Kutcha Mir Ashiq lane of Chawri Bazar, members of the family of Munshi Turab Ali fled to the roof, leaving the dal burning in the kitchen. The story is still retold by their descendant, the octogenarian Haji Mian.The now congested market, where once the Red Light area was located, and which had attracted the city’s nobility and literatti including Mirza Ghalib, also retains some traces of those times — old buildings from whose balconies Delhiwallahs saw British troops enter to recapture the city. In Chandni Chowk’s Parantha Gali, there used to be a milkseller in the 1960s and ’70s. who displayed the lathi (club) of his ancestor who had fought in 1857. You don’t see the lathi anymore, but milk is still sold there, along with refreshing lassi.

The author is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 8:00:06 PM |

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