Tryst with Destiny: Indian Freedom Trail

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As part of an Independence Day Special, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY retrace the journey of India’s freedom struggle, profiling some key and lesser known historic sites they’ve visited across the country

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Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Allegedly used as a pitstop by Lord Hanuman on his aerial flight to Lanka (hence the name), the Andamans played an important part in the Indian struggle for independence. The 1857 Sepoy Mutiny prompted the British to choose the remote Andamans as a penal settlement. Thousands of Indian revolutionaries were sentenced to ‘Saza-e-Kala Pani’ and made to toil night and day under extreme conditions for 10 years to build a seven-pronged prison. Nearly 30 million bricks, made from crushed corals sourced from Dundus Point were used. Each wing had three storeys for solitary confinement in 693 individual cells, thereby giving its name – Cellular Jail. When the siren blared from the central watchtower it indicated that three martyrs had been hanged. The photo displays, sculpted models, relics and Sound & Light show offer a vivid portrayal of the suffering and sacrifice of the patriots. Ross, at 0.8 sq km, the smallest island in the Andamans served as the British headquarters. When Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, visited Ross Island in 1872, he went to Mount Harriet, the highest point in South Andamans to enjoy the sunset. When he reached Hope town jetty for the ferry back to Ross, he was ambushed and assassinated by Sher Ali Khan, who was later hanged at Viper Island.

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During World War II, after occupying Singapore and Rangoon, Japanese troops landed at Port Blair on 23 March 1942 and captured it without firing a shot. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Supreme commander of the Provisional Govt of Azad Hind, had allied with the Japanese to oust the British. On 30th December 1943, Netaji hoisted the Indian tricolor in British-free India for the very first time. Andaman and Nicobar were renamed as Shaheed Dweep (Martyr Island) and Swaraj Dweep (Self-Rule Island). Netaji stayed in the British High commissioner’s house and a memorial near Netaji Stadium at Port Blair commemorates his visit. However, the Japanese atrocities at Cellular Jail and the island were kept hidden from him. Over 700 innocent people were taken in 3 big boats and thrown overboard near Havelock Island in the dead of the night. In a similar incident, 300 islanders were killed at Tarmugli Islands off Wandoor. Just off the road to Wandoor, lies a dark gloomy park on a small hillock at Humphreyganj. On 30th January 1944, 44 innocent people detained at Cellular Jail on false spy charges, were brought here and brutally murdered. Today, the trench where they were buried is marked by a memorial… Ironically, while India’s freedom fighters perished in prison, some of the islands were named after British heroes of the mutiny like Havelock, Neil, William Peel, Outram and John & Henry Lawrence.

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Madurai, Tamil Nadu
Madurai was an important landmark in the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Surprisingly, he made five visits to the city. On his second visit to Madurai in 1921, disturbed by the plight of poor farmers, Gandhiji shed his long coat and donned his trademark loincloth. In 1934 he refused to step inside the Madurai Meenakshi Temple when his escort was not allowed inside because he was a harijan. This triggered the ‘Temple Entry Movement’ for untouchables. Only after Vaidyanath Iyer opened the doors of the temple to everybody in 1939, did Gandhiji enter the shrine in 1946! During the renovation of the temple, a mural artist was so inspired by this event, that he painted an image of Mahatma Gandhi on the temple walls. The Gandhi Memorial Museum in Madurai, set in the beautiful Tamukkum Summer Palace of Nayaka queen Rani Mangammal is one of the seven museums in the country dedicated to the Mahatma. It showcases Gandhiji’s life through rare photos, quotes, murals and letters. The Hall of Relics and Replicas contains 14 original artefacts used by Mahatma Gandhi including a shawl, spectacles, yarn and the bloodstained cloth worn by him when he was assassinated.

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Vellore Fort, Tamil Nadu
Few people are aware that the first mass rebellion against British rule took place at Vellore Fort, 50 years before the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence! Though it lasted just for a day the 1806 Vellore Mutiny wreaked immense havoc and damage on the British. The cause of this revolt was a change in the Sepoy dress code in November 1805. Incited by the decision of the British to disallow Hindus from wearing tilaks on their foreheads and the demand for Muslims to shave their beard and trim their moustache, Indian soldiers stormed the bastion and killed nearly 200 British troopers in a day-long attack that rewrote history. Tragically, they were subdued by reinforcements from Arcot and nearly 700 Indian soldiers were gunned down. However, this wasn’t the first challenge the British faced in Tamil Nadu. Veerapandiya Kattabomman, an 18th century Poleygar chieftain fought against the British alongside the brave Marudu brothers. Treason led to his execution on 16 October 1799 at Kayatharu on NH7, near Tirunelveli. Today, a memorial has been erected at the site. The historic Vellore Fort is a 16th Century citadel that served as the erstwhile headquarters of the Late Vijayanagara Empire. The fort was built in 1566 by Chinna Bommi Nayak and Thimma Reddy Nayak, subordinates to Sadasiva Raya of Vijayanagara. As a result of the struggle for power among the squabbling Raya families, the fort suffered gradual decline and witnessed the brutal royal genocide of Vijayanagar king Sriranga Raya’s kith and kin. Soon the Deccan Sultans swept in to take control followed by the Marathas, the Nawabs of Arcot and the British.

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Pazhassi Raja’s Tomb, Wayanad
This is the story of how the tiny district of Wayanad in Kerala influenced one of the world’s most famous wars, The Battle of Waterloo. Under the treaty of Srirangapatnam, when Tipu Sultan ceded Malabar to the British, Pazhassi Raja of Kottayam (a small village 70 km from Mananthavady) was among the first to revolt against the British. Persecuted, he took refuge in the dense jungles of Wayanad and organized local tribals into an irregular army, launching a long period of guerrilla warfare against the British. In a famous incident, an entire division of 360 soldiers of the British army camping at Panamaram was slaughtered. News of his courageous exploits spread like wild fire, earning him the title Keralasimham or the Lion of Kerala and he soon garnered support from far and wide.

For nine years, he managed to elude the British by constantly moving and hiding in the caves at Pulpally. In a bid to capture him, the British launched a two pronged attack. Young Lord Wellesley camped with his contingent at Mysore while TS Baber, the Collector of the Madras Presidency called in the British army from Thalassery and studied his guerilla tactics. When they caught Pazhassi Raja’s two generals, the Britishers amputated their limbs and hanged them as a warning to locals. Eventually, someone betrayed Pazhassi Raja who chose to end his life by swallowing his diamond ring rather than being caught alive by the British; bringing the rebellion to an abrupt end. Impressed by his bravery, TS Baber carried the king’s body in his own palanquin as a mark of respect. Pazhassi Raja’s tomb is located in Mananthavady.  It is said that Lord Wellesley learnt the rules of guerilla warfare while pursuing Pazhassi Raja in the hills and jungles, which the Duke of Wellington later employed in the historic Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon.

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Phillaur Fort, Punjab 
Located on the banks of the Sutlej, Phillaur is the site of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s historic fort when Lahore used to be the capital of undivided Punjab. On account of its strategic location, it was first developed as a serai for trading and military purposes by Sher Shah Suri around 1540. Mughal Emperor Shahjahan later revived it, using it as a Dak ghar (Postal Center) and Military camp. After the Amritsar treaty of 1809 with the British East India Company, Phillaur became a border post of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Lahore Empire. With help from an Italian architect, the serai was converted into a fort. Presently called Maharaja Ranjit Singh Fort, it houses a Police Training Academy (PTA). The Fingerprint Bureau set up in 1892 is one of the oldest of its kind. The Museum retraces India’s freedom struggle in Punjab and the history of Punjab Police with panels on the Anglo-Sikh Wars, 1928 Lahore Conspiracy case and major battles. Vintage guns, artillery, swords, tools of burglary and theft are also displayed! The highlights include the sword of Lord Lytton, the pen used in Lahore Court to sign the death warrant of Bhagat Singh and the finger imprints of Udham Singh, who shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer in 1940 at Caxton Hall in London. O’Dwyer was the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Interestingly, the popular hymn ‘Om Jai Jagdish Hare’ was composed in Phillaur in the 1870s by local litterateur Shardha Ram Phillauri. 

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Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar
On the evening of April 13, 1919, the people of Amritsar gathered for a peaceful protest against the Rowlatt Act in Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden near Harmandir Sahib. It was Baisakhi festival and a Sunday, so nearly 15,000 to 20,000 people had assembled (including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, women, senior citizens and children). When news of the protest reached Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, he arrived with 65 Gurkha and 25 Baluchi soldiers, an hour after the meeting began. The British were already paranoid after the Lahore conspiracy trials, the possible influence of the Russian revolution on India and the Third Anglo-Afghan War, so Dyer was convinced that a major insurrection was on. Dyer ordered fifty riflemen to open fire on the gathering. For the next ten minutes they kept firing till the ammunition ran dry. Nearly 1,650 rounds were fired and 1,302 men, women and children were killed. The narrow lane had a single entry and exit that was blocked by huge armoured vehicles, forcing many to jump into a well in the compound and perish. The site was acquired by the nation through public subscription on 1st August, 1920 at the cost of Rs.5.65 lakh and a Flame of Liberty Memorial erected. The Martyr’s Well from where 120 bodies were recovered and the wall riddled with 36 bullet marks serve as a chilling reminder of this heinous incident.

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Khonoma, Nagaland
The British first came into contact with the fierce Nagas in 1832, when Capt. Jenkins and Pemberton ventured into Angami territory for a strategic road survey between Assam and Manipur. In the years to follow the British met with stiff resistance from the Nagas everywhere. After the British adopted a policy of non-intervention in 1851, the Nagas launched 22 raids against the British, who finally attacked the Angami stronghold of Khonoma. Captain John Butler described Semoma Fort, a stone bastion, as ‘the strongest in the North East’. Each time the fort was destroyed; it rose phoenix-like, defiantly rebuilt to endure the next attack. In 1879, the killing of British political agent GH Damant resulted in the Battle of Khonoma, the last organized Naga resistance against the British. After booby-trapping the area the Nagas escaped to the mountains. The British eventually settled for a peace treaty, ending half a century of fighting and acknowledged their autonomy. The Nagas earned profound respect from the British and their evolution from a ‘savage race of head-hunters’ to the ‘cradle of civilization’ was swift.

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Moplah Rebellion, Malabar
Malabar, the northern tract of Kerala, was the site of a bloody rebellion by the Muslim Mapila community against the British and oppressive Hindu landlords. Perinthalmanna, 3 km from Angadipuram in Malappuram, was the nerve center of the Moplah revolts of 1896 and 1921. The 1921 rebellion began as a reaction against a heavy-handed crackdown on the Khilafat Movement by the British authorities in the Eranad and Valluvanad taluks of Malabar. Even the sacred shrine of Angadipuram was not left untouched and was used as a protective abode by rioters. Open fights broke out in the courtyard during which the temple suffered extensive damages, which were duly repaired. Adjoining the Valiya (Big) Juma Masjid in Ponnani is a mausoleum of the Malappuram martyrs whose deeds have been immortalized in Moplah ballads.

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Sidho Kanhu Smarak, Jharkhand
The Sidho Kanhu Santhali Sanskritik Kendra at Massanjore perform an old Santhal ballad about their folk heroes. As the Mayurakshi flows silently behind, girls sway in their green saris, the mandhar (tribal drum) taps a primal beat and Santhal boys dance with ghungroos tied to their feet. The song recounts the tale of  the brave Sidho Kanhu, who had been imprisoned by the British for rebelling against the unjust tax imposed on tribal forest land. As their brothers Chand and Bhairon wistfully watched from afar, astride their horses, Sidho and Kanhu were hanged from a banyan tree at Bhognadih near Baghdaha More. The song goes on to say that there was so much sadness, even the horse had cried… Another enigmatic folk figure was the brave Birsa Munda, who fought for tribal rights against the British. He was captured through treachery on 3 February 1900 and died mysteriously in Ranchi Jail on 9 June 1900. He was only 25 years old. Ranchi airport is named after him while his birth anniversary, 15 November, is celebrated every year at Samadhi Sthal, Kokar in Ranchi.

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The Ridge, Delhi
The last outcrop of the Aravalli Hills rising 60 ft. above the city of Delhi, the Ridge was where the British pitched camp just 1200 yards from the city walls during the siege of Delhi from June to September 1857. Flagstaff Tower was the first rallying point for the Europeans when the mutiny reached Delhi. The Mutiny Memorial, an ornate 110 feet Gothic edifice, was erected in 1863 after the mutiny at the site of Hodgson’s battery. The red sandstone octagonal structure was built in memory of the soldiers of the Delhi Field Force, who were killed in action or died of wounds between 30th May and 20th September, 1857. The names of the British soldiers can be found etched on marble slabs around its base, which also bear a passing mention of the native soldiers who fought on behalf of the British.

Delhi is littered with sites linked to the 1857 Mutiny. At the Red Fort, mutineers had crowned Bahadur Shah Zafar as the Emperor of India. Humayun’s tomb was where Captain Hodgson arrested Bahadur Shah who was hiding with his three sons and a grandson, and they were subsequently beheaded. Badli-ki-Serai on G.T. Road was the site of a battle fought on 8th June 1857 between the sepoys and the Gordon Highlanders, to whom a memorial exists in Azadpur Sabzi Mandi. Kashmiri Gate was where the British made a final assault on Delhi on 14th September 1857. Brigadier General John Nicholson’s grave lies in the Kashmiri Gate cemetery. St James Church nearby was built by the legendary James Skinner in 1836 who once lay wounded on the battlefield and vowed that he’d build a church for the British, if he survived. The church was badly damaged during the 1857 Mutiny, its dome was pitted with holes as it served as targets for firing practice by sepoys. The structure was later repaired by the British and restored to its former glory.

Barrackpore, West Bengal
Located on the eastern bank of the Ganges about 15 miles from Calcutta, Barrackpore was the site of a military barrack set up in 1772, making it the first cantonment of the British East India Company. However, not one, but two rebellions took place against the British at Barrackpore. The 1824 rebellion was led by Sepoy Binda Tiwary of the 47th Bengal Native Infantry. Being upper caste Hindus, they refused to board boats for Burma in the First Anglo-Burmese War as crossing the seas would pollute their religious beliefs. The British decimated the rebels with an artillery barrage. Later, rumours that the British had greased the Enfield cartridges with lard (which had to be bitten off) ignited the first spark during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Muslims suspected the grease to be pork fat while Hindus assumed it originated from beef. Mangal Pandey attacked his British commander and was subsequently court-martialled and executed, while punitive measures were taken against other rebel sepoys.

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11 responses »

  1. I find your travel writings very interesting. Now that you have plenty of documentation, you may end up writing a travel book. A dvd can still be better with videos and narration. People interested in travel to India will be very much interested to buy it.

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