The rebellion of 1857 is well known in Indian history. 1857 was the largest uprising anywhere against the British and Indians call it the first war of Independence, the Uprising or the simply the rebellion. For the other side, the British, it remains the Mutiny. After suppressing the rebellion, India was brought directly under the rule of the British Crown. Delhi was one of the biggest centers of the 1857 rebellion and our heritage walk in the northern ridge explores some of the sites where events of 1857 unfolded.
The first stop on our heritage trail is the Flagstaff tower. A look out space, it would have been one of the highest points on the ridge. This is where European men, women and children took shelter when they escaped the city of Shahjahanabad, away from the attacking rebels. They waited for help and when none came they moved further to Karnal. Now the area is surrounded by trees but photographs of 1858 show this land to be barren, with the Flagstaff tower standing lonely at this height. There was a photographer, Felice Beato who travelled around the country photographing the sites of the rebellion in the year 1858. His photos are a telling account of the situation then, and help us imagine it as we see those very sites today.
As we walk through the ridge towards the Khooni Jheel, there is a guard house on our right. Now it is mostly a rendezvous point for lovers and many a romance in Delhi University have been played out here! There are several pockets of depressions in the ridge area where rain water would collect. One such place is the Khooni Jheel or the ‘bloody lake’. The lake gets its name from the fact that its water was red with blood from bodies of Europeans and rebels dumped here. Where there is a murder, ghosts cannot be far behind. The setting too is perfect; the Khooni Jheel is almost hidden among the rocks and vegetation. The lake is believed to be haunted with sightings of a headless British soldier still sitting on his horse, among the many ghosts who wander here!
Close by is the Chauburja mosque. Originally a mosque built during the reign of Firuz Shah Tughluq, it has many late-Mughal additions. This mosque was badly damaged in 1857. Beato’s photographs show the mosque retaining 3 of the 4 turrets which gave it the name. This was also a site of the British picket.
Our walk meanders through the ridge and we enter the Hindu Rao hospital complex from its rear gate. There an inscription near the garbage dumps which looks like it was part of the entrance to this complex. However this is no longer in use. A few steps ahead is the entrance to the housing colony. The first edifice we see is the Pir Ghaib, named so after the saint who meditated here and vanished in thin air one fine day! This structure was built by Firuz Shah Tughluq as a hunting lodge and possibly also for astronomical observations. There is a column that rises from the first floor to the roof which might have held an instrument for observing the skies.� Right next to it stands a baoli or step well, which is in a ruined condition. Most rooms around it and the steps are gone. But we can still see some water seeping through the rocks and collecting at the bottom.� For a very long time, waste from the Hindu Rao hospital was dumped in the baoli. This area was constantly under attack by the rebel forces and earned the name of ‘valley of death’ by the British who were camped here. The Hindu Rao hospital which stands adjacent to the baoli was in fact the house of William Fraser, the British Resident, later bought by Hindu Rao, a Maratha nobleman. It served as a military hospital too. If we observe carefully, we can still see some older parts of the building. It is of course much modified to serve the needs of the hospital.
There stands an Ashokan pillar at the roundabout outside Hindu Rao. It owes its presence, again, to Firuz Shah Tughluq who brought it from Meerut. The pillar would have been a monolith but it was broken in an explosion, and has been re-pieced. The inscriptions on the pillar were gifted by Hindu Rao to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta for study. A little further on, was the Mutiny Memorial, our last stop on this heritage walk. Built in a gothic style, this is a memorial to the bravery of the British in 1857. There are inscription on the memorial naming people and places crucial to the fighting in Delhi. All memorials on 1857 in India are actually those built by the British. Here, at the Mutiny Memorial, an attempt has been made to remind us that the ‘mutineers’ mentioned by the British are the very people who fought against British rule.
(posted by Kanika Singh & photos by Pushpa, team members, Delhi Heritage Walks)