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.
another view of Nicholson Cemetery, photo by Vinay Kumar
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.
John Nicholson’s grave
John Nicholson’s grave, photo by Vinay Kumar
If you have ever visited the museums in Red Fort (Delhi), look out for the photograph of Nicholson, along with other artefacts such as his sword & his binoculars which are on display. For a very long time, Nicholson’s statue stood in a small park across the road from the cemetery. In 1952, it was shipped to Northern Ireland.
Artefacts in Red Fort Museum, Delhi
Another important person buried at this Cemetery is Yasudas Ramachandra, who was Professor of Mathematics at the Delhi College. To locate his grave, take the path which leads straight from the entrance gateway to the boundary wall of the cemetery. You will find his grave along the footpath on the right hand side. The head stone is now broken however the inscription in English & Urdu are still visible. Master Ramachandra was one of the leading personalities of Delhi in the first half of 19th century. He is part of what has been called the ‘Delhi Renaissance’ with the Delhi College as its centre. Delhi College was instrumental in producing a huge amount of work in Urdu, both original works as well as translations of Western texts. He was also the tutor to Maharaja of Patiala. Master Ramachandra was an extremely unhappy man in 1857. He had converted to Christianity & thus was targeted by the rebels who saw him as a traitor. In fact, he had to flee the city else he would have been killed. Upon his return to the vanquished city, the British did not treat him any better. He was attacked & insulted by a British officer in Delhi & when Ramachandra protested by saying that he was as much a good Christian as any of them, he was told that he was ‘black’, thus no better than any of the other ‘natives’. Yasudas Ramachandra also spent some time as a tutor to the Maharaja of Patiala. He died in 1882.
Yasudas Ramachandra’s grave
All round you there are graves, some marked with dates, names & laments & many unmarked. One can’t help but notice the large number of casualties of infants-from disease mostly. Many graves are inscribed ‘Deo Notus’ or ‘known to God’ signifying that the identity of the dead is not known. Some years ago, Nicholson Cemetery was restored with help from British High Commission.
Another view of Nicholson Cemetery
This one however takes the cake…
local take on the dead! Photo by Vinay Kumar
Location: Kashmiri Gate
How to reach: It is located next to gate no. 4 of Kashmiri Gate metro station
(posted by Kanika Singh, team member, Delhi Heritage Walks)