1857 Uprising: Northern Ridge

The wintery morning walk at the Ridge, where the 1857 rebellion was played out in a do-or-die battle deciding the fate of India..was as if re-reading the “The Last Mughal” by the ultimate authority on 1857 -William Dalrymple. Zafar’s Vatican-esque city state of Shahjanabad, in 1857 was indeed a bubble of Mughal high culture and fine tradition, when almost entire India was strongly influenced or controlled by the British. As the British were busy exercising more and more control , and devising plans to annex Delhi after Zafar by their Doctrine of Lapse – the 81 year old Zafar was busy in his poetic world to compose the most perfect Urdu couplet with the constellation of star-poets like Mirza Ghalib , Zauq, Momin and Daagh. The 1857 uprising – a war between the British teachers and their Indian students of Army – was a religious enigma: High Caste Hindu soldiers started the war to restore the glory of a Muslim Emperor by fighting against a Christian force, however the so-called Christian force were not all whites either: they were basically natives: Punjabi Muslims from Multan, and Pathans from the frontier. map(© Olivia Fraser. Reproduced with permission. ) 101 The Viceregal house, now with Delhi University, has seen,… well ,… more interesting times: It was the symbol of Britannia’s power center in India and home to five Viceroys till the Rashtrapati Bhavan was built : this is the place where Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed paving the way for Gandhiji to participate in the London Round Table Conference. Here in this building, Edwina – the beautiful English heiress – fell in love with Mountbatten becoming the last Vicereine of India . And in the basement dungeon of this house Bhagat Singh was confined till his hanging. 102 The single stuffy windowless room inside the short and isolated Flagstaff tower in the Ridge was the place of refugee for British womenfolk and children, who have been told that their sons, husbands or brothers have just been killed. 103 Amid the ongoing confusion and suffocating heat of 11th May 1857 inside the tower, the refugee’s flight from Delhi to Karnal and Ambala was triggered by an ominous event: the accidental arrival of a cart at the tower, loaded with mangled and mutilated bodies of murdered Britishers. 104 If the prolonged discontent among the sepoys was simmering just beneath the surface waiting to burst open, then the final straw was the perception that the animal fats were intentionally used in Enfield cartridges to break the religious purity of sepoys in a grand design to convert them. 105 On that fateful morning of 11 May 1857, 300 rebel sepoys rode into Delhi, killed every Christian and British they found and declared the reluctant Zafar as their leader. However significant, this would not have turned into the defining moment for the country, had it not received Zafar’s explicit blessings, which he would repent very soon. The rebels began pouring into the city with every passing day, and was the force swelled to at least 60,000 men but without a leader. As food shortage and inflation kicked in; the rebel armies soon preyed upon the citizens, force-demanding money and food .. under the helpless gaze of Zafar. After a month or so of continuously attacking the Ridge and failing to dislodge the British, the forces were starved of food and began to disperse and going back; when the British re-enforcements arrived at the Ridge. 107 In the Ridge, the British were left to defend themselves with a mere 4000 men for almost 3 months, till re-enforcements arrived in August. Cholera, flies, snakes, stench of dead bodies and a muddy Yamuna as companions; the British force was almost certain they were fighting a lost battle. The British re-enforcement was an army of hired mercenaries lured into looting Delhi and with most advanced artillery guns of those times. Notable though was the 4200 men strong “Flying Column” covering 46-miles-a-day , led by John Nicholson. A man of few words and stern nature, he was a legend among the British for his bravery, and had such a fearsome persona that he had a religious fan following calling themselves Nikal Syen and considering him as God’s re-incarnation. 106-1 These Tughlaq structures erected by Firuz Shah, known for his three great passions – Governance; Hunting & Building; were spectators to the 1857 War due to their location. 108 The Pir Ghaib mosque, possibly used for astronomy and also as a hunting lodge are deep inside the ridge. 109 110 A step well as a water source for the hunting lodge. 111 112 During July 1857, Hindu Rao House was in British Control, guarded by Edward Campbell – husband to Thomas Metcalfe’s daughter GG , and later appointed as “Prize Agent” to extract concealed treasures from the plundered city- with little more than 30 soldiers against thousands of rebels. Before joining the Delhi Field Force, Campbell army unit in Multan was the first one to induct the infamous Enfield rifles –manufactured locally in Calcutta with initial productions reported to have cartridges covered with cow and pig fats. 113 Hindu Rao Hospital was built by William Fraser –the last of the White Mughals , a massive villa standing on the summit of the Ridge, referred to as “ Fraser’s Gothic fort built at great expense on the very spot where Timur once pitched his tent during the siege of Delhi”. William Fraser, predecessor to Sir Thomas Metcalfe as the Delhi Resident of the East India Company was the very much a Scottish Nawab with his Indian harem and Mughal wardrobes, who lived a native identity- far from the disapproving gaze of proper British Calcutta. Fraser was shot dead at the very steps of his Gothic Fort – by his friend Baksh Khan’s son due to his interference in an inheritance dispute- while returning from an evening entertainment at his friend, Maharaja of Kishengarh’s house. When he was killed, Mirza Ghalib wrote, ‘I lost again a second father.. His Fraser Album, is regarded as the last great monument of Mughal..” 114 115 After the indecisive Zafar’s dis-owning of the sepoys on 16th September, the sun literally set on the 300 year Mughal rule on the land of dust and diamonds; and the scene was that of retribution : plundering and flattening of structures ; exodus of thousands of women who followed Purdah all their life and had never seen outside of their homes- forced to walk out of the city; erection of gallows in the center of Chandni Chowk for mass hangings and killings; and who to lead this barbaric destruction than Theo Metcalfe-whose father Thomas Metcalfe was poisoned to death by Zinat Mahal, the emperor’s favourite wife. The Last Mughal, Zafar caged and displayed like an animal inside his Fort by the British after showing him the severed heads of his three sons.. “Shoot every soul” was the Britishers’ retribution cry , forcing both Hindus and Muslims out of the city and barring them from returning to Delhi before 2 years…the city was littered with heaps of dead bodies , decomposed and some even dumped in eerie life-life positions as if beckoning.. 116 117 Mutiny Memorial, one of the many gothic structures put up by the Britishers after crushing the 1857 uprising shows that full 82% casualties in the Delhi Attack Force were classified natives. Out of 1,60,000 soldiers in the army; 139000 joined the rebel out of which 100000 rebels moved straight towards Delhi. 118 The 10 meter Ashokan pillar – brought from Meerut to Delhi by Feruz Shah Tughlaq in 1356 by in a 42-wheeled cart and installed near his hunting lodge –originally had a globe and a half moon on its top, as recorded by a 17th Century historian. After Ashoka’s bloody conquest of Kalinga and his adherence to Buddhism, he installed hundreds of such Brahmi inscribed pillars throughout the subcontinent that focused on social and moral teachings. 119 The Brahmi script Of Ashokan kingdom dating back to 260BC, and thought by some as a derivative of the Indus language, was first deciphered by Britisher James Prinsep of Calcutta mint in 1837. 121 This walk was led by Kanika Singh of Delhi Heritage Walks. 999 Reference: The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple

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