The First War of Independence in 1857 was a watershed in India’s hisrory as it marked the end of the medieval era and the beginning of a new one, the precursor of the modern age. That was also the time when legends and superstitions played a big part in guiding the destinies of both the British and Indian contestants.
The late Lala Hanwant Sahai’s grandfather had heard in Chandni Chowk that when the new moon would come right above the ramparts of the Red Fort its moat would be filled up with the blood of the Feringis, but if the blood made its way to the Yamuna and polluted the river the British would win back what they had lost.
Hanwant Sahai was one of those held for conspiracy in the Hardinge Bomb case of 1912 but by then his grandfather was dead. The Maulvi Faizabad, Ahmadullah Shah, who had made the prophecy of the new moon, had done so not in Delhi but in the main market of Meerut, where “Sab lal hoga” slogans in crimson dye were daubed on walls and stables.
To counter Sir Charles Napier’s assertion that if he became Governor General, “Christianity would become the State religion as Providence had entrusted India to England”, the Maulvi had called upon Muslims and Hindus to combine and protect the faith of their forefathers.
His deep-set eyes and fierce mien had the desired effect when he told the sepoys in Sadar Bazar, Meerut, that the Queen’s Rifles had been ordered to disarm them. With a loud shout of “Maro ferenghi ko” the sepoys ran to the cantonments and set the bungalows of the British ablaze
. Col John Finnis, a veteran of 40 years, who tried to stop them, was shot through the head, the first of many killed from Sunday, 10 May till Monday, when the sepoys left for Delhi.
On the way then saw a bluejay (neelkanth) flying towards their destination and the Hindus among them shouted, “There goes Lord Shiva’s sentinel to guide our way.” Soon after, a whitebearded fakir was sighted sitting on a mound and reciting the Kalma, which the Mussalman soldiers took as a propitious sign.
However, the fakir was disturbed in his recitation by a king cobra, with hood raised, that threatened to strike him. The Pathan sepoys picked up stones to kill it, but their Brahmin and rajput comrades forbade them,saying it too was a sign of Shivji’s blessing to the cause.
The alarmed fakir suddenly stood up, with his “chimta” tongs of bent iron and the snake, taking fright, slithered away into the thicket. Another legend is that Bahadur Shah Zafar was determined not to elad the rebel sepoys, who had proised him the wealth of India to fill up his depleted coffers, but a dream made him change his stance.
According to his private secretary, Jivan Lal, the King was told in a vision by his grandfather (Shah Alam) that the time had come to undo what had happened at the battle of Plassey 100 years ago and that he should lead the rebellion. But at 82 Bahadur Shah hardly slept at night because of a persistent cough and dreams had long ceased to be part of his sleep.
It was his queen, Zinat Mahal, who later won him over to support the freedom fighters. The Angel of Death was seen hovering over the Red Fort, an apparition also witnessed before the death of Aurangzeb in February 1707.
A headless warrior riding a horse startled many a belated traveller near the Kashmere Gate. He came to be known as the Dund or man with just a neck sticking out above his shoulders. The Dund was also seen in Bareilly, Agra, Lucknow, Jaipur and Faizabad.
And wherever he went there was bloodshed. In Agra, reported The Statesman before the onset of the summer of 1857, a sheet of blood was seen on several nights in the sky that seemed to extend right up to Delhi and beyond. Strange sightings were reported on the Ridge too by English soldiers.
One of them saw a long line of kings silently trooping down to the city and then disappearing (end of the Mughal dynasty?). Another soldier saw his dead father wagging his finger as though warning him of lurking dangers. A British woman, Hrriet Tytler, wife of Capt Robert Tytler, dreamt that the baby she was carrying in her womb would have to pass through a harrowing time until both she and her child were recued by Punjabi or Pathan sepoys.
Harriet did, in fact, give birth on the Delhi Ridge and her baby nearly died of dysentery during the rains that followed. However, she was able to take the child safely to Karnal. In Shahjahanpur the daughter of an Anglo-Indian official had a nightmare, in which she saw a whole lot of people being shot, among them her father.
She also saw a man in black walking in her house after midnight. The spectre would always disappear near the staircase. Her dream came true as on a May morning in 1857 rebel sepoys attacked and killed many Firengis, including the girl’s father. But she and her mother escaped. In Chandi Chowk, a Sikh sewadar saw a vision of men hanging from gibbets that extended from Lal Mandir to Fatehpuri Mosque.
Later, it turned out that the avenging British did hang many sepoys and others they suspected of taking part in the revolt from gibbets in the Chowk. The grandmother of Haji Zahur was troubled by dreams in which she saw dead bodies rotting in front of Gurdwara sisganj, with an overwhelming stench that seemed to persist even after she woke up.
As it turned out, the bodies of two sons and a grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had been killed by Lt Hodson at the Khooni Darwaza, were thrown to rot in front of the gurdwara at the spot now marked by Northbrook Fountain.
In Daryaganj, the “nehar”, or canal, that flowed through it was reportedly seen to be covered with blood by a relative of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan ~ or this is what his dream foretold.
When Sir Sayyid, then 40 years old, came to inspect his house after the disturbances were quelled, he found it in bad shape but whether the relative escaped is not known. At the Khooni Darwaza, or Lal Darwaza of Allauddin, a man walking towards the Delhi Gate one evening saw blood tricking down as though somebody had been murdered there.
And at a shrine near the Jamuna, a naked faqir was heard chanting, “Mar, mar” at the beginning of May 1857. Another faqir in Shahjahanpur made his takia (abode) ring with the same chant ~ as did a sadhu in Jaipur’s old cremation ground. What does one make of these uncanny happenings? Do coming events cast their shadow,especially of macabre incidents? One doesn’t know but then all the witnesses couldn’t be lying. Incidentally, modern research has proved that the mind has infinite capacities of foresight.
Maybe what are termed as gloomy pre-“Mutiny” yarns were not just balderdash! Ballimaran, the haveli of Hakim Ahsanullah Khah, can still be seen with its old ambience preserved. The hakim was not only the personal doctor of Bahadur Shah Zafar but also his closest adviser.
Some distance away, at Lal Kuan, is the Zeenat Mahal, ancestral home of the emperor’s youngest wife, now turned into a school, and not far from Mubarak Masjid built by the Bibi of Gen Ochterlony. An ex-dancing girl, she later married a Mughal soldier, Wilayat Khan, and took active part in the First War of Independence.
In Karol Bagh, Rao Tula Ram School is a reminder of the brave ruler of Rewari, whose ancestor, Rao Tej Singh sided with Scindia at the Battle of Patparganj in 1803, which Lord Lake won for the British. After Tula Ram’s defeat at the battle of Narnaul in Novermber 1857, the gallant ruler joined Tantya Tope and 1862 escaped to Russia (something that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was to emulate at the outbreak of World War II).