1857: Monuments that still bear the scars

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a post on the repercussions, in Delhi, of the revolt of 1857—not just on the people of the city, but on the monuments. Especially the mosques of Delhi. A couple of readers made a rash comment: that they would like more. So—while I couldn’t think of any other mosques which bore the brunt of British ire in the wake of 1857—I thought it might be interesting to look at another way in which Delhi’s monuments were affected by the events of this turbulent year. Yes, not by what happened after 1857, but what happened during 1857.

First up, Baadli ki Sarai. As I’ve mentioned in some of the Muzaffar Jang books (plug alert!—notably The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries, and Engraved in Stone, both of which contain a carefully-researched description of Mughal-era sarais), sarais or travellers’ inns used to often be situated just outside the city walls. Baadli ki Sarai, built by Shahjahan sometime in the 1650s, lay outside the walls surrounding the city of Shahjahanabad, near a village named Baadli.

In 1857, Baadli ki Sarai suddenly shot into prominence, because it became the site of a landmark battle: the Battle of Baadli ki Sarai, fought on June 8, 1857, between about 4,000 rebels (who had occupied the sarai and were defending it) and the besieging British forces. The British won, and Baadli ki Sarai became, over the following years, almost a sort of pilgrimage for Empire-loving British tourists who came here to gloat over the wonderful victory.

Today, Baadli ki Sarai (it’s very close to the Azadpur Sabzi Mandi, and is known as Sarai Pipalthala) is a quiet, rather secluded little monument, with a pretty garden and lawns. But quite a remarkable history.

Baadli ki Sarai, today.

Baadli ki Sarai, today.

Kashmiri Darwaaza. Like Ajmeri Darwaaza, Lahori Darwaaza, Dilli Darwaaza and Kabul Darwaaza, Kashmiri Darwaaza is one of the gates that pierced the city walls of Shahjahanabad, and was named for the direction it faced. At the peak of the freedom movement of 1857, the rebel forces, despite the Battle of Baadli ki Sarai, still held Delhi. The British, therefore, under the command of Brigadier Nicholson, scheduled a carefully-planned attack on one of the major gates of the city—Kashmiri Darwaaza. On September 14th, part of the gate was destroyed by exploding it with gunpowder charges—and the rest of the gate, whatever still remained standing, was subjected to cannon fire.

'Cashmere Gate', photographed by Samuel Bourne in 1857. (photo from Wikipedia)

‘Cashmere Gate’, photographed by Samuel Bourne in 1857. (photo from Wikipedia)

The British broke through, and won this battle too. Kashmiri Darwaaza (or Kashmiri Gate, as just about everybody knows it today) still remains pockmarked.

Kashmiri Darwaaza today, with a memorial plaque and cannon holes pitting the gate.

Kashmiri Darwaaza today, with a memorial plaque and cannon pitting the gate.

(Incidentally, among the British seriously injured in this storming of Kashmiri Darwaaza was Nicholson himself. He was buried at a cemetery near the gate—Nicholson Cemetery).

The Masjid at Qudsia Bagh. The Qudsia Bagh gardens, laid out in the mid-18th century under the aegis of Qudsia Begum (a once-dancing girl who rose to be consort to Mohammad Shah ‘Rangeela’), lie opposite Kashmiri Darwaaza. It was, therefore, ideal as a place for the British to set up a battery from which to target Kashmiri Darwaaza. The problem, of course, was that while the British blew holes in Kashmiri Darwaaza, the rebels holed up behind the city walls trained their cannons on Qudsis Bagh—and blew holes in one of the few buildings here, the masjid.

The 'Khoodsia Baug Musjeed', photographed by John Murray in 1858. (photo from Wikipedia)

The ‘Khoodsia Baug Musjeed’, photographed by John Murray in 1858. (photo from Wikipedia)

Like Kashmiri Darwaaza, the Qudsia Bagh mosque has been restored, but the damage caused by cannon fire has been left as is, a reminder of its history.

The masjid at Qudsia Bagh, today.

The masjid at Qudsia Bagh, today.

The Magazine on Lothian Road. Or, since I’m talking about what’s left, the gates of the magazine. Lothian Road is a long, curving road which leads away from Kashmiri Darwaaza—and was, in the mid-1800s, home to a major magazine. Ammunition was manufactured and stored here in bulk. In 1857, when the Rebel Army marched on Delhi and entered the city, they also reached the magazine and tried to scale its walls. The British officer in charge, preferring to destroy all the ammunition rather than have it fall into the hands of the rebels, ordered the magazine to be blown up.

The result shook up Delhi so jarringly that many thought an earthquake had struck the city. The magazine itself was blown to smithereens—but, surprisingly, its two gates remained intact. These still stand, a short distance separating them from each other, along the centre of Lothian Road.

One of the extant gates of the Magazine.

One of the extant gates of the Magazine.

Other than these, there were other buildings that suffered damage during 1857, but have since been repaired. Among them is the lovely old St James’s Church, near Kashmiri Gate. During the fury of the initial days of the rebellion, hundreds of British citizens (many of whom lived in the nearby area) took refuge in the church. However, it became a target for attacking crowds, who broke in, killed most of the British, and looted and plundered the church. (Many things, including pews, were carried off).

St James's Church.

St James’s Church.

Another historic building that suffered at the hands of the rebels was one which, even today, is very familiar to a lot of Dilliwallahs (though they may not even be able to recognize the building if they saw it): Bhagirath Palace. Yes, it’s Bhagirath Palace, not Place, as some refer to it—the electrical and hardware market in Chandni Chowk.

The Lloyd's Bank Building, once Begum Samru's Palace, today Bhagirath Palace.

The Lloyd’s Bank Building, once Begum Samru’s Palace, today Bhagirath Palace.

Bhagirath Palace, once the Lloyd’s Bank building (and also, for a while, the Delhi Bank building), was originally a colonial-style palace built by the famous Begum Samru (a Kashmiri dancing girl who married a European mercenary named Walter Reinhardt; Reinhardt’s nickname—‘Le Sombre’—was distorted into ‘Samru’; Begum Samru went on to be a very wealthy woman with excellent connections). By 1857, Begum Samru’s palace had been converted into a bank; the bank manager and his family managed to escape when a crowd attacked.

The Bank of Delhi (Lloyd's Bank Building) photographed by Major Robert and Harriet Tytler in 1857. (photo from Wikipedia)

The Bank of Delhi (Lloyd’s Bank Building) photographed by Major Robert and Harriet Tytler in 1857. (photo from Wikipedia)

The bank building was bought over by a Lala Bhagirath in 1922; later, it became home to a series of hardware shops, and the name ‘Bhagirath Palace’ came to be applied to not just the building, but even the area around. If you come here on a Sunday, when the market is closed, you can still see the building, though it’s in a shabby condition.

Inside Bhagirath Palace.

Inside Bhagirath Palace.

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23 thoughts on “1857: Monuments that still bear the scars

  1. Madhu, your descriptions of these historical monuments leaves me wanting more! And wondering why we never saw any of these when we lived in Delhi! We used to take all visitors and guests to the usual places – Raj Ghat, Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Purana Qila, Qutb Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Jantar Mantar, but never knew about these places. Well, when I next visit Delhi, I am going to hook up with you and you know what is going to happen after that!

    • Lalitha, I must admit that until I began going on heritage walks, my repertoire of historical places in Delhi was pretty limited too! (And I must admit – somewhat shamefacedly – that I’ve never been to Rajghat).

      But when you come to Delhi next, I would love to show you around. At least a bit!

  2. This kept me engrossed till I reached the last sentence and realised it had ended. Excellent information Madhu.
    St James Church looks very pretty. The doors of the magazine are very impressive. To have withstood the explosion! The buildings were really sturdy and long lasting those days.
    I think we were around Bhagirath Palace? I remember a palace clearly and I remember feeling a twinge of regret at its shabbiness.

    Talking of sarais remember reading about it in Engraved in Stone and the general goings on there. No wonder you could create such a picture. I visited a sarai in Turkey a couple of years ago where travellers along with their camels parked for the night in the same hall. It has been converted to a restaurant. And it’s nothing like the huge structure this must have been.
    Kashmiri ‘Gate’ I think once had interstate Bus Stop there. Remember reading it somewhere.
    The Wikipedia pictures are fascinating. Can’t get over the picture of Begum Samru’s palace with all that open space.
    Thanks so much for this and illustrating so well the connection with the rebellion in 1857
    You are a true Delhiite, Madhu :-)

    • “I visited a sarai in Turkey a couple of years ago where travellers along with their camels parked for the night in the same hall.

      How interesting! Certainly none of the sarais I have come across in Delhi or nearby are in any sort of use any more. Not even really as tourist attractions, which is rather sad – people seem to only consider magnificent tombs and forts and palaces worthy of visits.

      The Kashmiri Gate area is still home to the Interstate Bus Terminal: The Maharana Pratap ISBT. Smelly place, and a madhouse. I used to take a bus from there to travel to Meerut to visit my parents years ago, and it was always a bit of an ordeal. ;-)

      We didn’t go to Bhagirath Palace on our jaunt through Chandni Chowk (it’s off the main road, and down some confusing galis, plus not very attractive). But there are several very imposing colonial-era bank buildings on the main road itself, so that must have been one of those you recall.

      Incidentally, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the huge church at Sardana? Carrara marble sculpture and all. That was built by Begum Samru.

      • >Incidentally, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the huge church at Sardana? Carrara marble sculpture and all. That was built by Begum Samru.

        Oh yes, I’ve heard of Sardana. Quite a place of pilgrimage. It was built by Begum Samru? Was she a christian? How interesting. :-)

  3. This is such an interesting post – more so because I know of and have been to these places – without knowing their history in such detail…eg… The Kashmiri Gate, Bhagirath Palace and St Joseph’s Church… Your passion for Delhi and its history comes through, Madhu! :-)

    • Thank you, Harini!

      Yes, Delhi does have an interesting history, doesn’t it? And across so many periods, too. The colonial period is every bit as fascinating as the Mughal.

  4. Very informative. In the last few years, I have traveled quite a bit around the world with my husband and we have taken so much interest in historic places and others with stories and here are monuments in our own backyard that we hardly pay attention to. Next visit to Delhi, will try and visit some of these places with your descriptions printed off. So much time gets taken up with visiting relatives, it hardly leaves time to see the cities we visit on our trips to India. Thanks for giving an insight to these historic treasures.

    • Thank you!

      And yes, it’s so true that we end up invariably ignoring the history in our own backyards. I’ll confess I hadn’t – till I was about 22 or so – paid too attention to Delhi’s history. I knew, of course, that this city was very historic, and I’d been to some of its biggest historic monuments, but knew relatively little about them. Now I’m ashamed to even remember how frightfully ignorant I was once.

  5. History comes alive again, Madhu! Thanks for a very, very interesting ‘look’ at some (unexpected and) very interesting places.

    And since I’m one of the readers who made the (not rash!) request for more, I’m very glad to read this post; and very sorry that it came to an end. Your descriptions make me want to come to Delhi and drag you out with me to give me a tour of all these places! (Especially so when I’m in the middle of wedding-madness and just want to escape!)

    • You’re very welcome, Anu, and thank you for the appreciation! :-)

      “Your descriptions make me want to come to Delhi and drag you out with me to give me a tour of all these places!

      You know, nothing would give me greater pleasure! Before heading back to the US, come on over here for a day. I’ll take you around a wee bit, at least, and then give you lunch at Cafe Lota. Please!

  6. Lovely to read about all the monuments Madhu. Thank you for pointing them out. I knew about Nicholson and the destruction of the magazine but not where it was. Maybe someday I’ll be able to visit these at leisure. My trips to Delhi bar one were always work related. In retrospect one wonders whether it was fortuitous that the war of 1857 was lost by the Indians. Had they succeeded would there have been a united India? I remember reading that Delhi after it was taken over by the some of the Bengal NI had nearly 30,000 to 40,000 sepoys. But they allowed themselves to be checkmated by a numerically inferior British force of 7000 men as they stuck to defending the city which was not really of any strategic importance. They would make assaults on the British forces who were camped on a ridge outside the city but were ill-equipped to fight under artillery and rifle fire as they had only muskets whereas the British forces had the better Enfield rifle. And their artillery could not help them as the British forces were outside the operating range. Besides the lack of trained officers told as all officers in the Bengal NI had been British. By the time the British got reinforcements and more artillery and pushed to take the city most of the sepoys had melted away and the remaining native troops numbered less than 10,000. Of course there were other factors too, especially the loyalty to the British of the Punjab and Gurkha soldiers. But that war caused the destruction of some of India’s richest provinces by the British. As one English writer put it ,in the aftermath of 1857 the British behaved like “Bull elephants in heat” no doubt encouraged by propaganda and false reporting and some truth.

    • “Had they succeeded would there have been a united India?

      That’s a very interesting question, Sadu, and I am inclined to think not. Of course, I am no historian and my knowledge about such things is pretty limited, but I do agree that the Indians (did they even think of themselves as ‘Indians’, or were caste/region loyalties stronger?) were perhaps too fragmented to have resulted in a united India. I think, in retrospect, it needed those additional decades for the country to unite and decide, as a whole, that it wanted to be one. Not that it was smooth sailing even then – after all, even newly independent India wasn’t quite the same as we see it today.

  7. A very interesting article about a very signifcant event in Indian history. If all the monuments were maintained properly, Delhi would probably be as appealing to history lovers as Rome.

    • Thank you! And yes, Delhi has a lot of potential as a tourist destination for history lovers; the problem lies not only in the fact that so many monuments lie neglected (or encroached upon, or both), but also in that the city as a whole isn’t very welcoming – unlike Rome, which, despite its pickpockets, is a wonderful place.

      Hopefully, if Delhi is able to get World Heritage City status, things will change. At least to some extent.

  8. does it not occur to anybody the name samru rhymes with nehru….even today history would have been different if there had not been a Begum Samru… because David Dyce Samru created the Nehru….

  9. I’m glad to be studying at IGDTU, located strategically between St. James Church, Red Fort, and Kashmere Gate. I often cried about the Uni being away from the main posh areas but oh, am I LUCKY to have called this place home! :)

    • Oh, yes! You’re certainly lucky. This was really where history was made. I’ve mentioned only some of the major monuments, but there are plenty of other places around which breathe history. :-)

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