14 August 2008

Remembering the Revolt

On its 150th anniversary, I map the trajectory of the Revolt of 1857 in Delhi. (A piece written for Time Out Delhi, in May 2007)

Mosque Picket, Delhi. Felice Beato, albumen print, photographer’s ref D3, 1858-59, 253 x 304 mm. This Mosque was strategically at a vital position, approximately the centre of the Ridge, thereby covering the most vulnerable segment of the British camp. The complete absence of human life suggests that the photograph was taken after September 14th 1857, when the Mosque was abandoned.
If you know where to look, it’s easy to find the Chauburja Mosque. Hemmed in by a veritable forest of greenery, just inside an iron fence that sets that section of the northern Ridge apart from the Delhi University Campus, it’s like a surprise present that declares itself by being gift-wrapped. What’s harder to do is to recognise it as the same place as the one in the picture above. The Chauburja dates back to either 1354 or 1373, the reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq. Lucy Peck, an expert on Delhi’s monuments, suggests that it was originally a square tomb and was only later converted into a mosque with “plain late-Mughal decorations”. But for any viewer in the know, the real impact of this image is inseparable from its status as a “Mutiny photograph”.

Felice Beato’s photograph of the Chauburja was taken during the photographer’s now-legendary visit to India in 1858 to document “the Mutiny”. It now lives out a quiet afterlife, along with several such remarkable images, in the archive of the Alkazi Foundation. The caption for this picture (as provided by the Foundation) reads, “Mosque Picket: This Mosque was strategically at a vital position, approximately the centre of the Ridge, thereby covering the most vulnerable segment of the British camp. The complete absence of human life suggests that the photograph was taken after September 14th 1857, when the Mosque was abandoned.”

In Beato’s image, the mosque still has three of its four burjes (domes), though a few cannon holes seem to bear witness to its role in the recent violent events. But what gives the image its sense of utter desolation is not so much the cannon holes, or even the plaster and stone facing that has fallen away in patches, throwing open to the elements the structure’s inner core of rubble – though these are part of it. It is the total isolation of the structure; the way it emerges, solitary and clearly unused, out of a largely barren rocky landscape.

Beato arrived in India straight from the Crimean War, where he had been engaged, along with Roger Fenton, in the creation of some of the first photographic images of an ongoing war. Images that were something like a precursor to the “live footage” that, at the beginning of the twenty first century, we have come to both greedily expect and cynically disregard. As far as the 1857 uprising was concerned, however, Beato arrived too late to be able to actually capture the events as they took place. Not easily dissuaded, he went from Lucknow to Delhi to Kanpur, in each place assiduously “setting the scene” so that he could recreate something of the immediacy of history as it happened. Beato’s most famous image, ‘Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2000 Rebels” is a stunning instance of this procedure – he actually ordered the exhumation of half-buried corpses so that he could pose the skeletal remains in the courtyard of Sikanderbagh. The photograph that resulted clearly achieved something of Beato’s desired effect – it was later wrongly captioned in London, suggesting that it had been taken on the very day of the assault in Sikanderbagh.

But the four human figures in the foreground of the mosque look anything but spontaneous. They appear, in fact, laboriously positioned (and how long they must have had to remain still, in those days of long exposure photography) – deliberately inserted into the picture to provide human scale as well as to depict some of the natives, now suitably subdued. The two turbaned men in the front look up at the mosque with what? Admiration? Awe? Or simply indifference? We cannot see their expressions. Beato’s carefully composed image successfully incorporates the now-docile natives – but it cannot so easily determine what the natives see.


It is impossible, today, to view the mosque from the position of the two men in Beato’s picture. For one thing, if you get that distance away from the structure, you will probably be standing outside the fence that separates the now park-like Ridge area from the road. For another, it is surrounded by shady trees, whose branches hang low over the single remaining dome and occasionally swing dangerously close to your head as a large female monkey swoops down to gather up her unprotected infant. Monkeys, in fact, own the masjid. There is a whole colony of them that seems to live here, whooping and chattering and clambering all over it. And there are many more, all along the path that leads from the Chauburja to the Flagstaff Tower, picking the lice from each other’s heads with an uncannily human look of concentration. The atmosphere is simultaneously junglee and domestic.

It is hard to believe that this fenced-in park, with its odd combination of leafy greenery and tarred pathways, families of monkeys and families of evening walkers – many of whom carry stout sticks to ward off the unwanted attentions of said simians – is the same stretch of the Delhi Ridge which historian Percival Spear described as “bare, a stony furnace in the hot weather, and a mirror of heat for civilians and soldiers on either side.” It becomes a little easier to imagine if you read Lucy Peck, who points out that the Ridge in the nineteenth century was covered in nothing more than low scrub – afforestation began only in the twentieth century.

Flagstaff Tower, Delhi. Felice Beato, albumen print, 1858-9, 254 x 304 mm. The Delhi Ridge lies between Flagstaff Tower and Hindu Rao’s House. European survivors of the Delhi massacres assembled in the Tower in May 1857. The building still exists, and has not altered in appearance since this photograph was taken. It is now within the campus of Delhi University, close to the Vice-Chancellor’s residence.
The low-level, sparse vegetation was also the reason why this high point of the Ridge was a perfect site to locate a signal tower, which is what the Flagstaff originally was. High visibility apart, Spear argues that the Flagstaff, firmly planted at the top of the most difficult terrain in the region, was a concrete symbol of British determination to remain in possession of Delhi. The reason why the tower was one of Beato’s chosen sites, however, was the fact that during the course of the fateful day of May 11, 1857, it had become the gathering point for all the British families that had managed to escape with their lives from the cantonment and Civil Lines.

“The single interior room of the tower was only 18 feet in diameter, windowless and stuffy at the best of times; at the height of the hot season it was like an oven,” writes William Dalrymple in his detailed account of the day’s events. Many of the women massed inside were sent up a suffocating interior staircase, and several fainted, partly from lack of air and partly from the shock of the news that their husbands, brothers or sons had been killed. The young Florence Wagentrieber, one of those present, later described the scene, “There was not a tree near the tower to shelter it from the hot sun… the heat was unbearable, and the children were stripped of every garment.” Eventually, realizing (as Dalrymple puts it) that “this isolated tower was quite indefensible, and that to mass the women and children in such a spot was to invite a further and much larger massacre than that which had already taken place within the walls of the city,” and shocked by the appearance of a creaking bullock cart filled with the bodies of British officers who had been killed earlier that morning, the gathered crowd piled into whatever carriages they had and set off on the Grand Trunk Road towards or Panipat, Karnal and Ambala.

The British returned to the Ridge a month later, after defeating the rebel troops at the battle of Badli on June 8. The troops started to march from their camp at Alipore, 8 miles north of Delhi, at 1am. According to Zahir Dehalvi, an attendant to Bahadur Shah Zafar who was watching from the city walls, “When the English reached the cantonments, they saw that all the entrenchments were completely quiet. So they went up and occupied these posts, burnt the rebel camps and turned the abandoned cannon towards the city.” By 5pm that evening, the Ridge was in British hands. But they soon realized that though their intention was to besiege the city (and they had partly succeeded), they were now themselves besieged.

Not having the numbers to actually capture the city, the British had no option but to remain where they were and “somehow to cling on and endure whatever the rebels threw at them until such time as relief came.” Apart from the daily bombardment from the city, conditions on the Ridge were terrible – water was scarce, sewage arrangements minimal, and the rotting corpses of men and animals led to an epidemic of flies. Charles John Griffiths wrote of the lack of shelter from the unrelenting heat, so that many of the troops “died from apoplexy and sunstroke, their faces turning quite black in a couple of minutes.”

As you look around Flagstaff Tower today, at the neatly-planted rows of trees in every direction, it seems only natural to wonder whether the 1912 Town Planning Committee’s decision to thus domesticate the Ridge had something to do with the traumatic four months the British spent camped in the inhospitable, treeless expanse that it then was.

                                                       * * *

Within the city, too, the months of June, July and August 1857 were a miserable time. Unlike the British, who at least had an unceasing supply of food and provisions, and were in a position to pay good prices for them, the citizens of Delhi suffered greatly from shortages. The large numbers of troops now massed in the city greatly increased the demand for foodstuffs and other goods, but their salaries were irregular and insufficient. As a result, there were constant complaints of civilians being looted by bands of soldiers, often based on the convenient belief that the citizen concerned, who had supplies of money or food, was a British sympathizer. For the mercantile class, both Muslim and Hindu, wrote Percival Spear, “the whole period was a long nightmare of forced loans, extortions and domiciliary visits, of insult and indignity… (while) the clerical class, mainly Hindu, tinctured with the new learning and British sympathies, lived in fear of denunciation as ‘friends of the English’.”

On the morning of September 11, the British marched down from the Ridge and advanced on the city in four separate columns. The Kashmiri Gate was the site of the first successful breach in the city walls, and thus became the emblem of the British takeover of Delhi. In November 1857, Governor-General Canning offered “a tribute of admiration and thanks to the brave soldiers… who accomplished the desperate task”. But the commemorative plaque that currently stands outside the gate was placed there by Lord Napier, the then Commander in Chief of the forces, a full twenty years afterwards, in 1876. It is not clear why the inscription took so long to come up, or why it was set up in 1876. Historian Nayanjot Lahiri has recently suggested that it may have been occasioned by the visit of the Prince of Wales to Delhi in January 1876, or more likely, as part of the preparations for the first Imperial Assemblage, which was also held in the city in 1877.

The Kashmiri Gate, Delhi. Samuel Bourne. Albumen print, photographer’s ref 1357, 1865, 231 x 292 mm. The Kashmiri Gate was built in 1835 by Major Robert Smith. In early 1857, it was made into a double gateway. The epic assault on Delhi began from this quarter in September 1857, and the Gateway became an iconic image of British victory over the ‘rebel’ forces.

The Imperial Assemblage of 1877 – a grand gathering of British officers and Indian princes to celebrate the fact of Queen Victoria having taken the title Empress of India in 1876 – marked some important shifts in British policy towards the city. The beautiful Zinat-ul-Masjid and the Fatehpuri Masjid at the western end of Chandni Chowk, which the British had turned into barracks and a bakery, respectively, in the immediate aftermath of 1856 as a way of punishing the citizenry (especially the Muslim citizenry who were seen as being predominantly responsible for the Revolt) were re-opened for public worship during the Assemblage. Together with the Jama Masjid, which had been re-opened for worship in 1862, however, the mosques were only handed back to the Muslim community on the condition that they would be maintained “in good repair”.

The irony of the British stipulating conditions for the upkeep of mosques that they had, only two decades ago, nearly destroyed and then used to house Sikh soldiers or rented to Hindu and Jain merchants as shop premises, was surely not lost upon the locals. But the British policy on the mosques needs to be seen not as merely outrageous, but as symbolic of a much wider shift, from destruction to conservation. The very fact that the Jama Masjid, or any of the other symbols of past Mughal grandeur, was not entirely demolished after the Revolt; that it remained to be photographed by someone like Samuel Bourne, came to be, for colonial viewers of these photographs, a sign of British generosity, of the colonisers’ inherent “civilisedness”.

Samuel Bourne, albumen print, 1865, 210 x 294 mm.
This view shows the desolate surroundings of the Jama Masjid. In the immediate aftermath of the Uprising, the Jama Masjid was almost destroyed as a mark of Imperial supremacy. The building was eventually desecrated by the British soldiers billeted there, and the prayer halls were used as stables for cavalry horses.
We are not an inherently memorializing people. We do not have a plaque at Kashmiri Gate declaring that it was, after the Revolt, the route through which thousands of Delhi’s citizens – “women who had never seen the outside of their zenana walls” – were stripped of all their money and jewels as they sought to flee the city. We have no signs that might tell you that the Jama Masjid was once, in that summer of 1857, the site for the massing of freelance jihadi fighters from places like Hissar and Tonk, or that the standard of jihad set up in the Masjid by one Maulvi Muhammad Sayyid was ordered to be taken down by Zafar that same day, to put an end to “such a display of fanaticism.” Or that in the immediate aftermath of 1857, there was a full-fledged campaign calling for its destruction. “There are several mosques in the city most beautiful to look at. But I should like to see them all destroyed,” wrote the soldier Hugh Chichester to his father. “The rascally brutes desecrated our churches and graveyards and I do not think we should have any regard for their stinking religion.” Some of the city’s loveliest mosques, like the Akbarabadi Masjid, and several grand palaces were actually levelled. The destruction of the others, and indeed of much of the city, was only prevented by the intervention of John Lawrence.

Looking at the Jama Masjid today, you’re unlikely to think about British “generosity”. Perhaps that amnesia is only natural, a measure of how happily distant that time is for us. But Bourne’s image, with the desolation of the open space forcibly cleared for 70 yards around the mosque, should at least serve to remind us of how close we came to not having it at all.

Published in Time Out Delhi, Vol 1 Issue 4, May 2007

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