On a 1857 Mutiny Trail in Old Delhi
That’s when I found Sikander sahib – a handsome mercenary who puntered on his horse, made his troop wear yellow uniform and lent his might to anyone who loosened the purse-strings. Well, this half-British, half-Rajput dare-devil was not really Sikander; he was Colonel James Skinner. I had seen the Skinner house in Meerut and that afternoon that beefy Skinner and his Yellow Boys seemed such a delightful distraction. With him came my curiosity about the 1857 Mutiny vignettes in Delhi. I hired a cab, raked my brain for some old history lessons and headed to old Delhi.
On a hot, humid afternoon when the air-conditioner whirred in exasperation and the breeze stayed arrogantly aloof, I was looking for distractions. Even a temptation. But that callous afternoon I was in no Garden of Eden, so instead of temptations I looked for the nearest distraction. That’s when I found Sikander sahib – a handsome mercenary who puntered on his horse, made his troop wear yellow uniform and lent his might to anyone who loosened the purse-strings. Well, this half-British, half-Rajput dare-devil was not really Sikander; he was Colonel James Skinner. I had seen the Skinner house in Meerut and that afternoon that beefy Skinner and his Yellow Boys seemed such a delightful distraction. With him came my curiosity about the 1857 Mutiny vignettes in Delhi. I hired a cab, raked my brain for some old history lessons and headed to old Delhi.
Willoughy’s plaque. Skinner’s Church. Khooni darwaza. They all seemed like scratches on the map; old Delhi seems like another planet for me - its chaos is familiar; its streets so mysterious and stoic about the filth and the clamour. All I knew was the Red Fort and the Delhi Gate. I thought of exploring the known first. Dharma Singh manoeuvres the kali-pili cab with dexterity but I close my eyes – the honking buses and unending sea of people baffle me. I would have missed the Delhi Gate, if not for the cabbie who suddenly seemed to share my snoopiness for Sikander sahib and all things Mutiny.
Well, Delhi Gate seemed like a country-cousin of Red Fort. The same arch, the bricks unclothed without cement and paint and like everything else in Old Delhi, a little unkempt. Thankfully, there is an iron fence that guards the bricks from being defaced and thankfully there is a tree that generously lends shade. As I stand in the shade and look at the Gate, I think of the night of May 10, 1857, when hundreds of sepoys from the Indian Army shed the shackles, tore darkness and headed to Delhi through the gates, their hands soiled with the bloods of the Britishers killed in Meerut and their hearts brimming with hope of ‘independence’ under the 72-year-old, opium-addicted, poetic Bahadur Shah Zafar. Exactly 150 years ago, it was also a bustling shopping hub and amidst the incessant honk of monstrous buses and petite cars, I almost heard the war cry….
Much before the Indian sepoys traversed the dirt stretch between Meerut and Delhi, there was a ticker in the Telegraph Office that still stands in Lothian Road. The two-storied building seems so ordinary that you wonder if history would ever inhabit such a non-descript structure. On May 10, 1857, this Telegraph Office had received a terse ticker from Meerut informing that the sepoys of the 3rd Cavalry were being cashiered for their refusal to fall in line. The ticker ominously mentioned that further details would be sent at 4 that afternoon. That telegram never came. Bothered, the Delhi signaller blamed it on broken wires, but before he could fix those, the rampaging army had already arrived and the signaller was dead.
You do not see blood in the macadamized pathway. In a corner there is a shivlinga and a lone man sits inside the premises with a tired portmanteau, few scarps of paper and a Bhagwad Gita. He is the ‘writer’, he helps people write telegrams, or so I am told. He looks at my list of Mutiny specials and rattles off “right-then-left-then-mainroad-then ask anyone” directions. I stood there flummoxed, hoping some messiah would walk my way and show me the way, literally.
Someone actually walked in. Dayanand, his lips stained with too much betel-chewing, his hair orange with too much henna, his white shirt soiled with too much dirt… He perused through the list and nodded knowingly. “Come along,” he instructed. The heat was so killing that I sure did not want to walk another step. “Can I take the car? Is it too far?” I politely asked, hoping he would say yes. “No,” he boomed. “You walk. Only here. 500 metres. No more.” Even that seemed daunting but I was so wary of losing this one messiah that I walked timidly behind him.
Well, he was wrong. It was not 500 metres. It was just across the street. I could see what looked like another country-cousin of another gate. Then I saw the park and a tall cemented memorial in the middle… There was no entrance to the park, there was a broken boundary wall that lent it some grace. Dayanand was sauntering ahead, he jumped over the boundary wall. And I? Would I have to jump too? It looked daunting but I really had no choice. I looked at the slits of my skirt, hung the mules in hands and jumped. I nearly fell – thankfully, nearly. The park is so dirty that I wished I could borrow blinkers from someone but that moment I was laden with gratitude for my guide. I was harried that I would never find the Mutiny Memorial and the topkhana, but there they were in the middle of a filthy park. The grey pillar was erected on April19, 1902 by the members of the Telegraph Department. Some names and history is etched on the pillar but nothing much can be deciphered now – the vagaries of the weather seem to have erased the etchings. Not too far from the pillar is what looks from this angle an arched huge room which now has iron rails that has been turned into clothesline by the street sleepers.
Think of it, it was here that the British stacked their ammunition; it was the famous British Magazine which was then under Lieutenant George Dobson Willoughby of the Bengal Artillery. On May 11, 1857, Delhi magistrate Theophilus Metcalf had exhorted Willoughby to shield the Magazine from falling into the hands of the mutineers. If you read the marble plaque at head of the main entrance of the Magazine you would know that for four hours Willoughby and his men defended it “against the rebels and the mutineers.” Of course, when Willoughby knew that time was ticking away and the mutineers were not too far, at 4 pm he set the pile of explosives on fire. They say that the bang was so long that it was heard 50 kms away. Willoughby and his men escaped. The Magazine fell. And as an afterthought, there is another plaque that seems almost like a corrigendum to the first one. The second plaque reads, “The persons described as rebels and mutineers were members of the Indian army in the service of East India Company…..”
Dayanand proved to be a great guide but amidst the tale of Willoughby and his exploits I had not forgotten my original distraction – Sikander sahib. I had heard so much about St James Church which Skinner had built in perpetuation of a vow he had taken as he lay like dead for three days in Unniara village. He had vowed that if he survived he would build a church. And he did just that - built St James Church (1836). When Skinner must have ordered the copper ball and the cross as an ornate conclusion to the dome, he might have not imagined that in 1857 sepoys would use it for their target practice. But they did and the Church was heavily shelled during the Mutiny. When I reached, the large black gates had closed; I held on to the gate and knelt. No, not seeking anything from the Lord who seemed so distant beyond gates, but just to catch my breath and charge my camera.
I knew I still had to go to the Flagstaff Tower where women and children who has survived the massacre were huddled on May 11, 1857, before fleeing to Karnal. Yes, there was the Red Fort where Bahadur Shah Zafar was held like a prisoner before being sent to Myanmar… I could empathise with his poignant fate – his sons and grandsons were killed, his splendour and kingdom gone… But that afternoon as I crossed Red Fort and thought of walking the steps that once were ornate and tinkled with the bells of the nautch girls and the boomed with the fire of the cannon, the cops threatened to tow away the cab if it was parked anywhere near the Fort. That hot, humid afternoon I might have been looking for distractions but I definitely had no punch left to get into a scrap with the cops…
As I stood outside the Fort with hawkers hardselling photo albums, fake gold necklaces, plastic sunglasses and sepia postcards, a little kid walked up and fluttered a brochure right under my nose. “Which country you? This Fort king lived, 150 years before mutiny happened….” I listened. “You speak good English, you from England… Mutiny, many angrez killed…” I listened. I smiled and then broke into Hindi…. “Oh….you from India. Sister, sister, mutiny nahin, first independence war 150 years ago…”
That hot, humid afternoon it was not about being politically correct, it was not about Sikander sahib, it was about a day in the life of a country, it was about a page that history wrote…
in Discover India, 2007