Scars of a rebellious Delhi: Kashmere Gate, Khooni Darwaza and other reminders of the Great Rebellion of 1857
Remnants of the fateful days of the Great Rebellion of 1857 remain hidden in plain sight within the city, but some of them have been wiped out completely for several reasons: the changed course of the Yamuna, political one-upmanship, apathy.
Remnants of the fateful days of the Great Rebellion of 1857 remain hidden in plain sight within the city — at places like Kashmere Gate and Khooni Darwaza.
While a cemetery near Kashmere Gate houses the remains of Brig Gen Nicholson, Khooni Darwaza was named so because three heirs of Bahadur Shah Zafar were killed there by Captain Hodson.
Some of these memories have been wiped out completely for several reasons: the changed course of the Yamuna, political one-upmanship, apathy.
Sometime soon after this time of the year over 160 years ago, the city that we now know as Delhi would come under cannonade and raking rifle-fire – for one last time. In the month of May, troops in the garrisons of Meerut mutinied and marched to Delhi. They crowned a reluctant Bahadur Shah Zafar as leader of their uprising, and then proceeded to kill every white person in sight.
The events of the weeks, months and years that followed have changed the city from how we see it today. Remnants of those fateful days remain hidden in plain sight within the city, some of which I have encountered over the past 20 years of living and working there, contributing in some way to the building of the city, as a practising architect. I have discovered some of the others while pottering about places as an extension of my work, as a novice of history and historiography, and researching material for my first novel.
After the taking of Delhi by the rebels, the British machinery scuttled for cover, coming to terms with other (largely uncoordinated) uprisings across their territories. It was only in about August of that year that they managed to divert troops from the garrisons of Ambala and Lahore, reinforce them with shiploads of other troops scrambled from far-off Crimea, and lay siege to Delhi. The city had to be won back, to bring back sunrise to the British Empire.
Delhi then was different from how we see it now. It was mostly the walled city of Shahjahanabad, with the Red Fort anchoring it, protected by the river on one side, and the ridge on the other.
The siege of Delhi commenced with gun placements by the British on the ridge, looking across the city, facing Kashmere Gate.
In September of the same year, after bitter fighting, the British managed to storm Kashmere Gate, and the city finally fell. It would be a few more days of bitter street fighting that would continue, before Delhi was retaken completely.
Scars of the aerial barrages on Kashmere Gate remain to this day. This gate, however, now remains hidden and hard to find. One side of it is Old Delhi bursting at its seams. The other is a barren field wedged by the Interstate Bus Terminus at one edge, and the architectural monstrosity of the Kashmiri Gate Metro Station on another. It is in this stretch of land that the commanding officer of the besiegers, Brig Gen Nicholson, fell during the storming of the gates. He was a flawed man and a racist b**tard, but a brave b**tard nevertheless. He was brought down from a charging horse with a musket ball. A cemetery nearby houses his remains, along with many others among the English. He probably died where he fell, with a ball in his chest and blood on his lips. Today, in a strange turn of macabre justice, this barren and untended stretch of land has the occasional stray cow and dog, and undocumented humans of the city tending to nature’s call.
On the edge of Old Delhi and its newer expansion post-Independence runs Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. It connects Darya Ganj to the ITO crossing. Nestled somewhere in there on a traffic island is the structure known as Khooni Darwaza. Its name and its historic setting lies in the events around the mutiny and the aftermath of the retaking of Delhi.
The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested from the precincts of the Humayun’s Tomb, where he had taken refuge with his entourage. This arrest was conducted by the famed Captain Hodson of the Hodson’s Horse – a military unit that still exists as an armoured cavalry regiment of the Indian Army. A few days later, he returned to Humayun’s Tomb to escort the three heirs of the deposed emperor (including Mirza Mughal, who had led the defence of Delhi). On the road back to the Red Fort – on the same path where the press district of Delhi lies – an enduring, unsolved mystery of the mutiny played out. Hodson claimed that he was mobbed by a rioting crowd, though his accompanying officers differ in their accounts.
Accounts vary across different eye-witnesses, but the end outcome was the same. The three princes were shot in cold blood and left to hang at one of the minor gates of the walled city. The mystery remains to this day as to why Hodson killed them in the first place. This gate – then called the Laal Darwaza or the Red Gates – came to be known as the Khooni Darwaza. It still stands today, hidden among trees on a road named after the father and grandfather of three young men, whose rotting corpses stained the walls of the gate.
Shahjahanabad and the Red Fort
1857 ended up rattling an empire, and eventually led to the governance of India changing hands from the British East India Company to that of the Crown. Part of the vengeance that the victors wreaked upon Delhi in the immediate aftermath of the Great Rebellion was most evident in what happened to the walled city of Shahjahanabad, and the inner precincts of the Red Fort.
A significant thrust of the retribution on the citadel of Shahjahanabad involved razing large swathes of the city and clearing them up. There were dual justifications for this in the minds of the victors. One was the bitter street fighting that had happened in the alleys and lanes after the fall of Kashmere Gate. This was one of the earliest instances of urban guerrilla warfare that has become the norm post-World War II. This bloodied the incoming troops, who were more used to massed cavalry charges, protracted sieges, and field infantry deployments. The legendary thin red lines which had enjoyed dominance over every battlefield in the past were cut to ribbons with raking enfilade fire from retreating sepoys. The deathly alleys needed clearing up.
Another reason was retribution. Most of the mohallas that were cleared up were populated by Muslim citizens of Shahjahanabad. The British laid the blame of financing the mutineers on the Muslim money-lenders of the city, and that was a twisted sort of treason that could not go unpunished.
The demolitions and rebuilding spread into the walls within the Red fort as well. Large quarters of erstwhile Mughal splendour were torn down, and military barracks built. These buildings built in black stone still stand out within the precincts of the Red fort. Their sloped roofs from the British Isles, and the chimneys and fireplaces from a different climate were possibly meant to be reminders of victory. They now house a few very forgettable and badly made museums about the freedom struggle and the exploits of the Indian Armed Forces.
Delhi after the Durbar of 1911
The events of 1857 continued to have a deep impact on the psyche of imperial Britain for decades after rebellion had died down. When the British architects and planners were working on the city of New Delhi as the new capital of India after 1911, memories of siege and hold-out were still in vivid imagination. Walter Sykes George, who ended up building some iconic works in the city, including the new St Stephens’ college in the North Campus, Lady Irwin College and Modern School at Barakhamba Road, and many other brilliant pieces of architecture perhaps had some of these memories. These memories might have broken out when he built the cantonment church in the Ridge – not far from the paths of the supply-lines to the British gun escarpments. This church which still stands today looks less of a place of communion with divinity and more of a fortress – with a tower, menacing slit windows that can return fire, and solid brick walls that can resist artillery.
A growling Greater Delhi
Many other vestiges and memories of a rebellious Delhi remain to this day. There is the spot atop the ridge where artillery pounded the walls of Delhi where the mutiny memorial stands. It was erected by the British, and appropriated by an independent India with new names and a new plaque. In the flat ground on the ridge nearby where the besieging troops were camped stands the Hindu Rao Medical College. The uninterrupted field of fire from the ridge to the walls of Delhi is blocked now by buildings and concrete of an ever-expanding Delhi.
Today, after the explosive growth of the city in the decades following Independence, most of those living there have no reference of memory of a time when the city shook empires.
Some of these memories have been wiped out deliberately. Some have disappeared behind concrete and steel, while others have fallen to a changed course of the Yamuna, and metres of rammed earth and asphalt. Some have fallen to political one-upmanship mixed with apathy. In most ways, it is difficult to know whether the scars of the city have ever healed, or have merely been cauterised on the surface. There might be other reasons; the region of Greater Delhi still growls menacingly every now and then, threatening to shake new empires.
Uttiyo Bhattacharya is the author of Ba'az of the Bengal Lancers (Juggernaut Books, 2019)
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