In Bengaluru, at the corner of SJP Road and NR Road, amid the chaos of KR Market, stands a small dargah. While both Hindus and Muslims worship here, few realise that Hazrat Meer Bahadur Shah Al-Maroof Syed Pacha Shaheed was not a saint but a soldier – the commander of Bangalore Fort – who died fighting the forces of the East India Company.
The fortress of Bangalore, not far from this dargah, was originally a mud fort constructed in the 16th century by Kempegowda, a feudatory to the Vijaynagar Empire and founder of Bengaluru. The fort was of great strategic importance as it controlled the trade route from the Deccan down to Mangalore and the Malabar coast. Around 1637-38, it came under the control of Maratha chieftain Shahajiraje Bhonsle, the father of Chhatrapati Shivaji. In 1686 CE, the Mughals captured the fort from the Marathas and sold it to Wodeyars of Mysore for Rs 3 lakh.
In the 1760s, an adventurer in named Hyder Ali (1720-1782) had risen to power in the Wodeyar court. He was the de facto ruler of Mysore, with Wodeyars as mere figureheads. Hyder Ali strengthened the Bangalore Fort and maintained a military garrison there. In 1782, he was succeeded by his son Tipu Sultan, who desposed the Wodeyars and proclaimed himself ‘Badshah’ of Mysore. Tipu fought a series of wars against the British and the Marathas. Tipu also built a summer palace in the fort (it now lies outside the fort’s remains) and maintained an armoury there. This led to its popular nickname the ‘Tipu’s Fort’.
By 1787, there was a lull in the conflict in the Deccan. The Treaty of Mangalore (1784) and the Treaty of Gajendragad (1787) had ended Mysore’s conflict with the East India Company and the Marathas. But in December of 1789, Tipu Sultan with the help of the French, launched an unprovoked invasion of the kingdom of Travancore. Lord Cornwallis, then the Governor General of India, had for some time realised that hostilities with Tipu were inevitable and declared war. This was the Third Anglo-British War.
After Tipu launched a successful attack on Nedumkotta in the Travancore kingdom, operations against Mysore were taken over by General Sir William Medows, then the Governor of Madras. Based on his previous experiences with the British, Tipu wrote to them, asking if matters could be settled through discussion. The reply was stern, stating that since Travancore was an ally of the East India Company, an attack on the princely state was tantamount to an attack on the Company itself.
Due to heavy monsoon, Tipu withdrew the majority of his forces to the Mysore highlands, allowing Medows to take over Coimbatore unopposed. But Tipu soon counter-attacked and turned the tide against the British. Tipu Sultan’s armies pillaged through towns and cities of Carnatic. Things were looking good for Mysore, until Cornwallis personally took charge of the East India Company’s forces.
Cornwallis’s plan was to first take the stronghold of Bangalore, which would then serve as the base for his assault on Srirangapatna. Taking command of the troops in Vellore, Cornwallis marched on Bangalore in January 1791. Through a series of maneuvers designed to confuse Tipu’s forces holding the mountain passes, he reached the gates of Bangalore virtually unopposed on the 5th of March.
We find an account of how the Bangalore Fort looked like at the time, from the book the book ‘The Military Engineer in India’ (1933) by British military historian Lt. Col. E. W. C. Sandes –
‘Bangalore, like Madras, had a fort, with a pettah, or fortified town, outside it. This lay-out was a feature of almost all the cities or settlements in India, the fort providing a place of refuge for most of the inhabitants if the pettah was in danger of capture. The fort at Bangalore had a perimeter of about one mile; it was of solid masonry, surrounded by a wide ditch which was commanded from 26 towers placed at intervals along the ramparts. To its north lay the pettah, several miles in circumference and protected by an indifferent rampart, a deep belt of thorn and cactus, and a small ditch. Altogether Bangalore was not a place which invited attack.’
Under Tipu’s father, Hyder Ali, Bangalore Fort had been expanded and strengthened, and now had stone walls, ramparts and bastions. It was surrounded by a deep ditch. To its north was the city of Bangalore, also surrounded by a ditch and a thick hedge of thorns, which was so effective that it had managed to keep Maratha cavalry out of the city. After an initial skirmish with Tipu’s troops, Cornwallis ordered an assault on the town on the 7th of March.
But this was easier said than done. The thorn hedge concealed the true defences behind it, and the main gate to the town was made of very thick masonry. But in spite of the obstinate defence of the Mysoreans and an incessant cannonade from the fort, Company troops took the town. Tipu had ordered all supplies in the town to be burnt but his orders had not been carried out, allowing the EIC’s troops to not just get the booty but critical food supplies and bales of cloth from the town. With Tipu’s counter-attack having been repulsed, preparations for assaulting the fort now began.
The Madras Pioneers dug a trench right up to the fort’s ditch. From here, mortars placed by Captain Kyd of the Bengal Engineers managed to create a breach in the fort wall. At 11 pm on the night of the 21st March, 1791, East India Company troops attacked the fort through this breach. The defenders of the fort were desperate and gallant but, among them, the British noted the presence of an almost saint-like figure. Tall, fair, and exceedingly handsome, the man had a white beard almost down to his waist. He was more than 70 years old but fought with the vigour of someone half his age. This was none other than Bahadur Khan, the ‘killedar’ or commandant of Bangalore Fort.
A lieutenant in the East India Company’s army, Roderick Mackenzie, writes, “Wherever gallantry is recorded, Bahadur Khan will hold a conspicuous place among the heroes of our times.” The gallant commandant, he writes, only breathed his last after “receiving almost as many wounds as Caesar on the capitol”.
Deeply impressed by his bravery, the British offered to return his body to Tipu. Upon hearing of the death of his commandant, whom he had only recently transferred from Krishnagiri to Bangalore, Tipu is said to have wept, and then replied that “the Khan could be buried nowhere with greater propriety than in the neighbourhood of the place at the defence of which he had fallen”. And, so, the East India Company buried him with full honours, and Mackenzie records that Muslim soldiers of the Company army all attended the killedar’s funeral.
Bahadur Khan’s grave is a 3-minute walk from Bangalore Fort. He is revered as a saint but forgotten as a soldier. Of the fort that he died defending, one small corner is all that remains. As for the pettah or town to its north, that has changed beyond recognition. The protective ramparts around the town were torn down and the ditch filled with earth in 1861.
Little remains to remind people of the fierce battle that raged for this town more than 200 years ago. The Fort Cemetery, which held the remains of British soldiers who had been killed in this battle, had vanished by 1912. A 35-foot-tall cenotaph recording the names of the dead British soldiers was built by the Mysore government in front of what is now the municipal corporation building. However, protests by Kannada activists led by Vatal Nagaraj forced the government to demolish the cenotaph on 28th October 1964 and change the name of the road, from ‘Cenotaph Road’ to ‘Nrupathunga Road’.
The massive influx of people into Bengaluru in the last two decades, including the flood of youngsters working in the IT sector, are not even aware of the existence of the Bangalore Fort. All that remains of the once grand fort is the Delhi Gate and remnants of two bastions. Most of the fort was dismantled as a part of a conscious policy pursued by the British, to ensure it would not remain a military threat. Roads , schools, hospitals and houses were built on fort lands, right till 1930s.
Of what little remains, a portion has been partitioned and sections of it are not accessible to the public. The tiny but accessible part can be covered in no more than 2 minutes. The remnants are in reasonably good shape and are well maintained but with precious little left to tell its stories, the experience, from a visitor’s perspective, is underwhelming.
Bahadur Khan’s tomb has been modernised and modified so much over time that there is nothing that betrays its age. Neither is there a sign board or plaque to explain who he was or share details of his life. Even the locals are largely unaware of who he really was.
And thus lies Bahadur Khan, at once remembered and forgotten, near one of the last surviving relics of a city that has long since disappeared.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about history since 2013.