METRO PLUS

This way to history...

NO BUSES pass through Kashmere Gate now but it is still very much there, a relic of the old days, neglected though and almost in decay. The gate was one of the 14 built by Shah Jahan in the wall that surrounded his city of Shahjehanabad. Only a few of these gates are left, and the Kashmere Gate, through which caravans once wended their way to Kashmir, is one of them. The city in the Moghul days did not extend beyond the gate and only cameleers, mahouts and syces camped in the open space outside.

Those were palmy times with no population explosion and other problems brought about by modernisation to worry the rulers. Armed soldiers guarded the gate lest any intruder bent on mischief got in, but this was a problem which was a headache for later kings, not Shah Jahan, whose writ ran through the length and breadth of Hindustan. It was only the successors of Aurangzeb who faced the threat of invasion either by Sikhs, Rohillas or Afghans or gangs of freebooters.

When the British came they started erecting buildings outside the Kashmere Gate, Ludlow Castle was one such, then there was the Flagstaff Tower and other structures on the Ridge. The Civil Lines also came up about that time and beyond it Metcalfe House. In the Kashmere Gate itself British buildings came up after the so-called Mutiny. There were a lot of huts there before that which housed the poor, some of them fishermen who earned a living by fishing in the Yamuna that flowed close by during the Mutiny. Many of the British living in the city escaped through the Kashmere Gate to Meerut and to the Punjab. And when reinforcements came it was through this gate that the main attack on Delhi was made. Brig-Gen Nicholson headed the advance party from the side of Mori Bastion when the Kashmere Gate was blown up, though he was fatally shot soon after that. A host of water carriers - bhishtis -- helped to slake the thirst of the Indian forces headed by Bakht Khan and Prince Mirza Moghul. The battle raged furiously but it was the cannonading by the British that put an end to the resistance by the patriotic forces. Later the Kashmere Gate area became the British promenade for it was here that the English ladies paraded themselves every evening to catch they eye of officers looking for wives.

The British even had a lady to haunt the place. She was believed to sit outside the gate smoking cigarettes and waylaying those returning home late from Anglo-Indian parties. Some say she is still there but since the Kashmere Gate is closed to traffic she does not have much of a chance to scare wayfarers. Travelling towards Lothian Bridge, one comes across the site of the old British - arms -- magazine, which is badly maintained.

The reason perhaps is that it was a monument dedicated to the British soldiers who were manning the magazine when the Mutiny broke out and as such a relic of imperialism. Soon after the Chinese aggression, a Tibetan family had set up abode in the building. There were some others staying there, like Azizan, the old woman who had lost her husband during the riots in 1947, Kanhaiya, formerly an assistant to a vaid, and a mendicant called Krishan Baba. There were a pair of ducks too owned by the Tibetans, a goat two little puppies who will have to remain nameless because one hardly ever heard them being called by any name.

The story of the magazine is a well-known one. It was manned by a group of men led by Lt. Willoughby who panicked when they saw the rebels from Meerut entering Delhi on May 11, 1857. They thought that the so-called mutineers would capture the magazine which was in fact a big ammunition dump. Had those British soldiers known that most of the Capital had already been taken over by the mobs, which had risen in support of the Meerut sepoys, they would have probably not acted as they did. But that is hindsight.

Lt. Willoughby believed that he was helping the British cause by preventing the mutineers from capturing the magazine. Since it was not possible for such a small group to defend it against overwhelming odds, the young lieutenant decided to blow up the magazine. In this he was helped by a civilian clerk named Scully. Soon after Scully lighted the fuse, the magazine blew up, killing him and at least four others. The sound of the explosion was such as had perhaps never before been heard in Delhi and its surrounding areas. As a matter of fact, it was heard as far as Meerut.

Believe it or not, many thought the Day of Judgment had arrived because they equated the sound of the explosion with the blowing up of the bowels of the earth by the Angel of Death. It was, of course, crass ignorance, superstition and what not. But then who could blame them for they hardly knew what had happened! It was much later that they learnt that the magazine had been blown up.

Long after the British reoccupied Delhi, they decided to erect a memorial at the site. It was a very poor memorial at that, with water seeping into its annexe during the monsoon and not much of maintenance after Independence.

The squatters, including the Tibetans were evicted in course of time, but still the place became a shelter not only for vagabonds but also for stray dogs, cats and other animals. Once a bear that had escaped from a circus near the Red Fort took refuge in it, and another time they found an injured jackal which had come in from the Kashmere Gate.

In 1962, a night chowkidar discovered a strange scaly animal hiding in the monument. A big crowd collected in the morning and dispersed only when a college girl identified it as a harmless anteater or pangolin.

Now the memorial has developed cracks which need to be attended to at the earliest. The building should be properly maintained for it's certainly a part of history and a relic not of British rule but of our First War of Independence!

R.V. SMITH