When the battle began in 1857, the revolt of a populace suppressed and exploited under the rule of the British East India Company, the guns boomed their loudest in Delhi, Jhansi and the old city of Lucknow. There are monuments like the British Residency, Dilkusha palace which are still visible.
One such monument is Sikandar Bagh, in what is now the Civil Lines area of Lucknow. Sikandar Bagh was built just 10 years before the Revolt, as a cultural retreat for Wajid Ali Shah (r. 1847 – 1856), the last Nawab of Awadh. Sikandar Bagh was a well-laid garden of Wajid Ali Shah, constructed shortly after his coronation, for his favourite queen, Umrao. Called Sikander Mahal, the garden complex took a year and about 5 lakh rupees to build, spreading across an area of 137 square metres at that time. Inside a high enclosure of Lakhauri bricks decorated with plaster mouldings sat a summer house, a mosque and a garden, with a small wooden pavilion in the centre of the garden, probably meant for cultural events like Ras-Lila and Kathak performances, music recitals and poetic mehfils, given what a patron of the arts he was.
Of the complex’s three lofty gateways, only one still stands. The others collapsed amid heavy bombardments during the Revolt of 1857. The gateway that remains, however, is beautifully preserved, and a stunning example of Lucknowi design. Inside, it is covered in frescoes bearing intricate foliage designs that closely resemble the city’s iconic chikan embroidery. These were etched by the then court painter Kashi Ram. The Nawab was so happy with the artist’s work here, in fact, that he conferred upon the latter a khillat or robe of honour after he saw the finished product.
The gateway’s exterior is testament to the cosmopolitan history of this city of art and culture. Its architecture incorporates elements of Indian, Persian, European and Chinese design in the form of arches, pediments, chhatris, pillars and pagodas. The fish motif called the Mahi Maratib, popular with the Mughals as a badge of great honour, is also visible.
Sadly, what was built as a place of rest and recreation would soon be witness to horrific bloodshed. In 1856, the Nawab was deposed by the British East India Company on grounds of alleged maladministration and lawlessness, and Awadh annexed to the British Empire. Wajid Ali Shah and his entourage were exiled to Metiabruz in Calcutta. The resentment this caused among his people, who loved him, was one of the sparks that led to Lucknow becoming such a centre of the Revolt. Leading the charge was the Nawab’s second wife, Begum Hazrat Mahal.
The local British officials and population barricaded themselves inside the Lucknow Residency, which the Indian revolutionaries quickly laid siege to. The Sikandar Bagh was used during the Indian Rebellion during their siege of the British Residency in Lucknow as one of the many fortresses of sepoy mutineers.
The Sikandar Bagh stood in the way of the Commander-in-Chief Sir Colin Campbell’s planned route to relieve the besieged Residency. On the morning of 16th November 1857, while passing on its eastern side in a sunken lane, British forces were taken by surprise amid heavy artillery fire from within Sikandar Bagh. The British troops were trapped, incapable of advancing. So rather than try and get past, they decided to try and get in.
Still under fire and with great difficulty, the British breached the walls, creating a break just wide enough for one person to pass through at a time. There followed a protracted hand-to-hand battle, and the main body of about 2,000 Indian revolutionaries was slowly pushed back, eventually seeking refuge in the two-story kothi or living quarters originally built for use by the Nawab.
The revolutionaries had expected an attack from the opposite side and had bricked up the rear door. In doing so, they had blocked their own retreat. After a long struggle, they were all slain, their bodies buried in a deep trench. Lord Roberts, a British military commander of the time who witnessed this event, later recalled: “Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion, and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. There they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead and dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight, one of those which even in the excitement of battle and the flush of victory, make one feel strongly what a horrible side there is to war.”
The British had been so enraged by the killing of their own, including women and children, during the sieges of Cawnpore and the Lucknow Residency, that elephants were later used to drag the bodies out of Sikandar Bagh, so the dead Indian revolutionaries could be tossed in a shallow ditch they had earlier dug themselves, near the north wall, to reinforce their defences.
A little-known detail here involves a fierce woman rebel called Uda Devi, who fought with great valour at Sikandar Bagh. Born in Awadh to a Dalit family, Uda was determined to contribute to the cause of nationalism, and approached Begum Hazrat Mahal to offer her help. The Begum, recognising her potential, helped Uda Devi form an all-woman battalion. Thus Uda Devi and her husband became a vital part of the armed resistance. Uda Devi’s husband was killed at Sikandar Bagh. As he died, she vowed to avenge him, and she did, losing her own life in the process.
Amid the pitched battle, Uda Devi climbed a banyan tree and shot 32 British soldiers to death.
A British officer, noticing the many dead, suspected a sniper was hiding in a tree. British officers shot into the trees and, to everyone’s surprise, a woman – Uda Devi – fell down, dead.
The horrors didn’t end here. The common grave that the rebels were tossed into was so shallow that vultures attacked the corpses. One famous photograph of that time was clicked by an italian photographer Felice Beato, who visited India during the revolt of 1857. The historic picture depicted piles of human skeletons lying around Sikandar Bagh. Historians note that British officials did not allow families to take away their dead and perform last rites.
A cannon ball, swords, shields and musket parts dug out of the garden over time are now on display at the National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow. Cannon ball marks on the garden’s old walls still bear witness to the events of that violent day. Today, one side of the Park is used as the office of National Botanical Research Institute and the other side is protected under ASI where one can still see one of the surviving gates of the Sikandar Bagh.
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh was an artistic and whimsical ruler who loved being surrounded by ‘paris’ or ‘fairies’ as they pranced and performed for his royal highness. It is to this weakness that Lucknow’s world-famous Bhatkhande Music School owes its origins, housed as it is in the Nawab’s Parikhana
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