In a series of articles here, we are going to talk about the lesser known history of Delhi. Each article will cover details of a single site, with photographs. Delhi is practically littered with historic sites. Yes, we know of the world heritage sites, but what about the numerous ruins, by lanes of Delhi, each with a story of its own.
Let’s start our heritage trail with the event of 1857. We all have learnt of it from our history textbooks: the tales of Tantia Tope, Rani of Jhansi: ‘khoob ladi mardani woh of Jhansi wali rani thi’, Mangal Pandey (made even more famous by Amir Khan’s movie) & Bahadur Shah Zafar, the poet-king & reluctant leader of the Uprising.
It was the month of May in 1857 when the rebellion by troops in Meerut sparked off protests in other parts of north India. The city of Delhi saw some of the bitterest fighting in the rebellion of 1857. For the soldiers who erupted in revolt at Meerut, the natural course of action was to turn to the Mughal King at the capital of the empire, Delhi (Shahjahanabad). It was the seat of power & authority. Even though effectively the once great Mughals Emperors were reduced to being ‘Kings of Delhi’ their symbolic capital was immense. For the same reason, the British wanted to regain Delhi & reduce it to meek submission. Losing Delhi would mean losing the Indian Empire. The British won and went about writing the history of the ‘mutiny’ while acknowledging that it was the stiffest challenged ever faced by the Empire. Sites in Delhi where events of 1857 took place were converted into memorials, naturally for the victors.
An important site is Nicholson Cemetery. The easiest way to reach is by metro, the yellow line.. Exit from gate no. 4 of the Kashmiri Gate metro station & the gate to the cemetery is to your right, just a few steps ahead. Nicholson Cemetery is close to the Inter State Bus Terminus & is an active burial ground.
The Cemetery is named after one of the most celebrated heroes for the British for 1857, Brigadier General John Nicholson. As you walking in there are small rooms to the right where the caretaker & his family lives, in rather poor conditions. They are obviously not paid very much. Nicholson’s grave is located on the path to the left. John Nicholson was instrumental in breaching the defenses of rebels who were controlling the walled city of Shahjahanabad & in the process lost his life. He has a formidable reputation, a great swordsman and commander who effectively enjoyed the loyalty of his troops. He was shot while attacking the Lahore Gate. He was carried back to the British camp & remained in agony dying a slow death. He succumbed to his injuries only after he had heard the news of Delhi’s capture by the British. Such was Nicholson’s aura that a religious cult developed around him: the ‘Nikal Seyn’, its followers considering him an incarnation of Vishnu. It is said that his men who were hardened soldiers, gave up fighting after their commander’s death. They picked up flowers from his grave & went back to their homelands. At the same time, John Nicholson is known for his contempt for the ‘natives’ & being merciless in dealing with them. He had little tolerance for the superstitious & was furious at their attempts to worship him. He favoured torture over killing the captives straight away, so that they could be made an example of. He died on 23 September 1857, aged 35. The marble slab which is his cenotaph was looted from Mehtab Bagh (literally the Moonlight Garden), a Mughal Garden in Delhi.