Tales the tombstones tell

Retracing the glory of Lord Lytton’s Durbar, and the fading landmarks of Delhi’s long and tempestuous colonial past

A group of researchers from England paid a visit to the Red Fort recently to retrace the big event of the first Durbar (of three) held by the British in 1877 during the viceroyalty of Lord Lytton. Noted writer and historiographer Rakhshanda Jalil interacted with the group on a pre-noon visit to the fort which was the venue of the Durbar. Lord Lytton, who had taken over as Viceroy from Lord Northbrook in 1876 utilised the function, held on New Year’s Day, to commemorate the investment of Queen Victoria with the title of Empress. This grand Durbar was followed by smaller durbars in important cities at which “titles were bestowed on local citizens” – mostly Khan Bahadur and Rai Bahadur. Later in the year the Viceroy laid the foundation of M.A.O. College at Aligarh.

Lord Lytton’s durbar set the trend for two more durbars though the anticipated one in 1887 to mark the Queen’s Jubilee was not held at the time of Lord Dufferin. But in 1903 Lord Curzon hosted a durbar, also on New Year’s Day, to mark the coronation of Edward VII after his mother, the Queen’s death in 1901. “No Durbar has surpassed Lord Curzon’s pageant”, according to historian Ishwari Prasad. But this comment seems to overlook the magnificence of the Durbar of 1911 held in honour of George V and Queen Mary, when Delhi again became the Capital of India. The group of researchers also visited some cemeteries in Delhi which contain the graves of British nationals, officials and others. The state of these cemeteries is pitiable and no doubt an offshoot of the population explosion, resulting in encroachment. Nicholson cemetery, which was renovated a few years back when Sir Michael Arthur was the U.K. envoy, has again become over- grown with weeds and efforts are being made to spruce it up possibly in time for All Souls’ Day on November 2, according to Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Now, take the case of Rajpur Road Cemetery near Patel Chest Institute. Encroachment began in it after the Christians, who had been given some plots there, sold them to the refugees who came after Partition. Some more land in between the boundary wall and main road has been taken over by squatters and now constitutes a flourishing market where car-dent repairers, photostat shops and mobile sellers do good business.

The entrance to the cemetery is from the rear through a gateway. Arched tombs dating back to the time of the 1857 revolt still exist here. There were many other graves more than 150 years old which have been vandalised. The graveyard was reopened for burial after the cemetery near Ajmeri Gate was acquired during the expansion of New Delhi Station. People not wanting to bury their near and dear ones in the overcrowded Paharganj Cemetery opted for this place after burials were stopped in the Prithviraj Road Cemetery.

A visit to the Lothian Road Cemetery, near the Lothian Bridge, presents another sorry spectacle. Here the old graves are slowly disappearing. Obelisks, colonnades, ornamental crosses have all been vandalized with impunity. Gunners of the East India Company, merchants, clerks, clerics, Greek shopkeepers, Armenian jewellers, British women and children who had died in cholera epidemics, and a soldier who blew out his brains after a pretty Miss Brown turned down his proposal, are among those who rest here. The soldier was one of the many young men who were on the look out for eligible girls but they were so few that only the more fortunate could get married. On the Grand Trunk Road, now Sher Shah Suri Marg, is Badli-ki-Sarai where a great battle was fought. An obelisk marks the spot where some Gordon Highlanders fell to the bullets of the sepoys on June 8, 1857.

The freedom fighters “fired muskets, roundshot, shells and every other thing they possibly could”, according to Lt. Hugh Chichester of the Bengal Artillery. “Nearly every shot they fired told on us. They had no end of heavy guns in position and made some excellent long and straight shooting, the grape rattling like hailstones”. It was such excellent marksmanship that the British troops couldn’t believe their eyes and put it down to sheer good luck, for to them it was unthinkable that “natives” could acquire such superior firepower and technical knowledge of artillery.

The group of small buildings, some 10 km north of Delhi proper, known as Badli-ki-Sarai is also facing the onslaught of the advance of civilisation and unless steps are taken may well disappear. Besides the Gordon Highlander’s memorial, there is also a tomb there of the Lodhi period known as Maqbara Paik. But nobody seems to know whose it is.

Badli-ki-Sarai, with the now ruined remains of a gateway, situated on a high mound from where one can oversee Delhi, was a staging post once where travellers from the Capital proceeding to Punjab used to rest. Nadir Shah also camped there in 1739 when he invaded Delhi. But the bustling advance of Azadpur and its vegetable mandi present the biggest threat to Badli-k-Sarai.

We must preserve all these landmarks and God’s Acre too for they are all part of Delhi’s long and tempestuous history. Neglect has already resulted in decay and further neglect will mean certain obliteration. Let people in authority sit up and take notice and save for posterity such heart-wrenching epitaphs as this one at the Nicholson Cemetery put up by a young 19th Century English soldier on the grave of his equally anonymous mother:

Passing Stranger call this not

A place of dreary gloom

I love to linger near this spot

It is my beloved mother’s tomb.

The group of British researchers must have returned sadder after seeing it.

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