The aircraft flew in an almost straight line, along its route passing above the cities of Lucknow, and that which until 1948 was known as Cawnpore. These were names etched into the history taught every English school boy. They were places that figured for all the wrong reasons in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, The Indian Mutiny or Rebellion. In one title is implied the casting off of the fetters of foreign humiliation and oppression, in the other impertinent thanklessness and treachery on the part of those who had been favoured by Imperial good sense and an efficient railway network.
One of the driving forces of the rebellion was a prophecy that predicted the downfall of the British East India Company exactly 100 years after the momentous Battle of Plessey, this having taken place on the 23rd June 1757. Plessey delivered to British history books the heroic character of Clive of India who, unbeknown to him at the time, was to lend his name to a brand of curry powder, a specimen of which, courtesy of my local supermarket, I have secreted away somewhere in my kitchen cupboard. Plessey was to prove the pivotal battle that led to the expansion of British rule in India; a generally unsung aftermath of the battle being Mr Clive’s plundering of large amounts of Indian belongings. The flashpoint of the rebellion was the introduction of the Enfield rifle, whose cartridges were thought to be greased with the fat of pigs and cattle. This would defile the Muslim and Hindu soldiers, sepoys, many in number, who were in the employ of the army of the East India Company. The outbreak of the rebellion, however, was further compounded by other issues that were seen increasingly to threaten and insult the customs and religion of the Company’s Indian troops.
Open conflict occurred on the 10th May, the British at Lucknow beginning to fortify their Residency there late in that month. Most of the Indian soldiers drawn from the regions of Oudh and Bengal broke into rebellion, however, the British were able to drive the rebels away form the city. The British later fell back to a defended position of around 60 acres in extent, but this was too large an area to be effectively defended by the 1600 or so British, loyal Indian, and civilian volunteer forces available. In addition to these there were nearly 1,300 non-combatant civilians, including hundreds of women and children.
The first rebel attack on the 1st July was repulsed, but the defending general, Sir Henry Lawrence, was fatally wounded the next day. About 8,000 rebel sepoys and their supporters surrounded the Residency defensive positions, but their lack of a unified command failed to bring about co-ordinated assaults. Initial attempts to relieve the besieged failed but the first successful relief occurred on the 25th September, this force loosing more than a quarter of its 2,000 men. The defending British had held the Residency for 87 days, but they did not evacuate. Consequently, they were to remain besieged and under renewed attack for a further 6 weeks.
The rebellion had involved a large portion of northern India and the British found themselves widely embattled on many fronts and besieged in many places. The strength of the enveloping rebels at Lucknow was estimated somewhere between 30,000 – 60,000 strong, and all amply equipped, but Lucknow had become a symbol of British determination.
The second relief force was just over 4,000 strong, however, it was not until the 14th November that its commander, Sir Colin Campbell, commenced his attack. Following the subsequent second relief, the British evacuated Lucknow on the 19th November. The rebels held the city through winter, the British retaking Lucknow on 21st March the following year.
The most infamous episode that unfolded during the Indian Rebellion was that of the Siege of Cawnpore, not too far distant to the southwest, and its aftermath. Cawnpore was an important garrison town of the East India Company, and was located on the Grand Trunk Road, which for centuries linked the eastern and western regions of northern India. It ran from what is now Bangladesh, to Afghanistan. Existing during the time of the Mauryan Empire in the 2nd Century BCE (before the current era) it was extended during the 16th Century.
By June 1857 the rebellion had spread to areas near Cawnpore, then to the town itself. The British defenders found themselves besieged by rebel Indian forces under Nana Sahib, a disenfranchised potential heir to the old Maratha Confederacy. Nana Sahib’s army comprised about 4,000 sepoys who had mutinied, as well as mercenaries. To oppose this force the British, under General Hugh Wheeler, were only able to muster about 300 soldiers. However, there were many women, children, merchants and other civilians taking refuge with them. Defensive positions were badly sited and the British found it difficult to dig entrenchments as it was the hot summer. The sanitation conditions were poor and there was only one well from which water could be drawn. Mistakenly, General Wheeler believed the siege would be short-lived as he anticipated the rebels would move to join fellow forces at Delhi, where these, Hindu’s among them, were driven by hopes of reviving the Mughal Empire.
Chaos had accompanied the origins and initial rebellion at Cawnpore, with some Indian regiments rebelling and loyal Indian soldiers being mistaken for mutineers. Although the British were inadequately prepared for the siege, holding out only in a makeshift fort, they repelled repeated assaults for three weeks, including a major assault by the rebels on the anniversary of the Battle of Plessey.
By this time the British had suffered heavy casualties, about a third of their forces, this resulting both from artillery bombardment and infantry attack. Disease had broken out, food supplies were dwindling, and General Wheeler’s morale was low owing to the death of his son during the attacks. Successive European prisoners were sent by Nana Sahib to induce the British to surrender. He offered guaranteed safe passage to the combatants and civilians. General Wheeler decided to surrender, and the British left on the 27th June with their arms and ammunition and accompanied by most of the rebel army. On reaching the banks of the Ganges River at the Satichaura Ghat the rebels attacked, killing or capturing those scrambling to launch the boats waiting for them on the riverbank, some of which had been set on fire. The women and children were taken prisoner and ultimately taken to Bibighar where around 200 women and children were to be gathered. Most of the men were killed either at the river or shortly after their capture. General Wheeler and some 60 others had attempted to escape by boat, the survivors later forced to surrender but were also killed. Only five men, amongst the original defenders at Cawnpore, were to survive. On the 15th July, the women and children held captive at Bibighar were either shot, or killed with meat cleavers, their dismembered bodies thrown into a water well. Of the women taken prisoner at Cawnpore only 2 survived. Wheeler’s youngest daughter Margaret was captured, taken away, and never seen again. Rumour and popular folklore assign different fates to her.
Not all the rebels agreed willingly to participate in the slaughter, the women of Nana Sahib’s household went on a hunger strike, though to no avail, and many sepoys refused at threat of death to continue to carry out their orders. British relief forces were approaching Cawnpore, and the belief and rumours that these were committing atrocities may have contributed to the massacre as an act of revenge. It really doesn’t matter.
On the 16th July troops of the East India Company reached Cawnpore. In retribution the British forced arrested rebels to clean blood from the floor of the Bibighar compound, these then were forced to eat beef and pork, considered unholy by Hindus and Muslims respectively. Muslim sepoys were tied inside pig skins before being hung and low caste sweepers were employed to execute high-caste Brahmin rebels, thus preventing any reward in the afterlife. Hearing of the massacre British troops looted and burned houses, and attacked those unconnected with the killings but deemed guilty of doing nothing to halt the slaughter. Villagers were hanged without any evidence against them, and others, protesting against the actions of the Company troops, were shot. Although the rape and murder of European civilians was widespread, Cawnpore being one of many instances, the reprisals subsequently committed by the British were no less terrible. This was the ‘collateral damage’ attendant to the rebellion, the now-styled India’s First War of Independence. It lasted until 1858.
Nana Sahib reportedly fled to Nepal, the British having set his palace on fire. His general Tantya Tope attempted to recapture Cawnpore, was defeated, and also fled. In 1860 a memorial was built by the British at the site of the well into which the bodies of the women and children had been discarded. Thirty thousand pounds was forcibly paid by the inhabitants to construct the memorial, this being in punishment for not coming to the aid of the innocents at Bibighar. After Indian Independence the memorial was relocated, and in its place a bust of Tantya Tope, the leader of the massacre, was erected.
The massacre found later note in various novels, but from my childhood I recall a movie starring Errol Flynn, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, that in true Hollywood fashion perverted the whole thing, rewriting history to meet the requirements of good marketing. In the movie Nana Sahib, if my memory serves me well, or maybe it was Tantya Tope, is transformed into the evil character Surat Khan and later meets his just desserts at Errol’s hands somewhere in the Crimea. Two bits of slaughter in the one movie. Good value, …. and the trivialisation of history’s dark moments: marketing pornography at its most creative. I can’t totally dump on Hollywood, as I am reminded that Errol was, after all, Australian-born, in Hobart, his father Theodore rising to be a professor of biology at the University of Tasmania.
My mind was obviously wandering as I sped high above Lucknow, now the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and Cawnpore, renamed Kanpur, refashioned as an industrial hub – the dead at arm’s length, and my ever diminishing bread roll still in hand. The affection that Theodore and I evidently shared for the world of the biological sciences seemed a tenuously pathetic contrivance to find association with those events that had unfolded thousands of feet below me, those many decades before.
I landed at Varanasi. The air temperature was 10o Celsius. I off-loaded down a precarious mobile stairway, and then made the long walk across the tarmac from my parked aircraft to the new airport building, the old terminal structure still standing alongside. The new terminal was as fine an example of modernism as any design elsewhere amongst the homogenous airport structures built across the planet. However, it does nothing to prepare you for the contradiction of Varanasi City. Rather, airport terminal serves as a Trojan Horse, falsely allaying your fears. It’s like saying “dive right in, the water’s fine”. But the water in Varanasi is not fine, it’s anything but.
The road to Varanasi was just a mass of honking vehicles: these presenting a thoroughly exotic and marvellous helter-skelter. The buildings either side of the highway were either in a state construction, demolition, or neglect; and dust everywhere. I did not understand how great loss of life, not to mention less fatal accidents, did not happen. I could not adequately describe the scene, I had experienced nothing like it, for no past experience prepared me for the reality. This was no illusion. Dust, dirt and vehicle noise everywhere. If it wasn’t for the fear it elicited one could almost glory in it. And we were yet to enter the city.
But I got there totally intact.
Varanasi is a tumult of chaotic life. The streets reverberate to the chaos and madness of 3-wheeled motorised autobicycles, motorbikes, human propelled wheeled contrivances of genius and necessity, cars, and the ubiquitous truck. Through this mayhem push and pace stub-nosed buses worse for the wear, smartly groomed Sikhs of confident pose and poise, school girls in immaculately crisp uniforms apparently unperturbed by their intimate nearness to the surging chaos, and miscellaneous pedestrians bereft of anything other than a mantle of appalling poverty. Occasional cows and wedding elephants intercede to redirect traffic and purpose. They are somehow thrown neatly together as they wind their way here and there, not at all perturbed by the potential for calamity that appears integral to the city’s functioning.
There is more, for such a scene does not pass by in silence. There is a cacophony of horns and bicycle bells. I thought at first the clamour was in celebration, possibly they had beaten Australia at cricket. Then I replaced this thought with one inclined to the view that it was a manifestation of impatience, then came at last to the understanding that these were sounded as a means of proclaiming safety, as a warning that there was something much bigger than you positioned perilously close to your rear, and with all dire intent, about to overtake. The sounding of the horns meant as a proximity warning, the command to ‘move over’ implicit in the call. In Australia the calling of horns also means ‘move over’, but the nuance of their application is less chivalrous in intent.
So through Varanasi’s narrow streets this throng of humanity, and the devices that conveyed it, pressed on. I was firmly imbedded within the throng, captive to the humanity of my driver.
If you want to experience culture shock at its best, and have grown stupid and really fed up with your creature comforts, then Varanasi is the place to start. It lives up to every fearful preconception that intending travellers have turned shy of. More people jammed together than I thought possible, worse even than the photos of multi-storeyed street vendors I had seen in old copies of the National Geographic. Streets at times narrower than most inner Sydney alleyways, refuse beyond description, malefactions of the body, the living sleeping at your feet, the gaily entwined dead hurried past by litter-bears within inches of your eyes, and cows dream-like as they amble at your side. As my guide brought me through the tight maze that led from vehicle to my second place of abode he ushered reassuringly “watch your step”. It was the mantra for those newly arrived and fixated on the cleanliness of their footwear.
I lie. Varanasi is a city that begs belief and wonder, and I surprised myself at just how fast I acquired the necessary skills needed for navigating manure and injury. I did it with speed, dexterity, and just a little overconfident abandon. Within 15 minutes.
I sat at the balcony of my hotel. It overlooked the Ganges, it had a functioning and spotlessly clean toilet, my room sported an enormous brass padlock, there was no suggestion of dust or grime, the management was friendly, the security man was generally asleep, there weren’t too many rampaging monkeys in its grounds, there was a tiny low-cost restaurant on the roof, and there was a courtyard fire lit each morning, its flames playing on purloined wood still proudly covered in toxic lead-based paint. The paint was blue. That was a good sign. I even met someone originating several hundred kilometres from my Hometown. That’s always comforting. The only downside was that I was forced to look upon the open doors of an adjacent centre of musical learning; ‘The Baba School of Music’. It had sitars for sale. I loved sitars, and the one I especially loved the Baba School of Music quoted me 60,000 rupees for, this not including optional shipment costs. Sitars were emblematic musical instruments from the best of my teenage years. I never did learn to play one yet the sight of them served as a constant temptation of worldy goods. But there was just no way I would be able to carry the instrument around with me, even if I did think it was going to make a great ornamental feature in the lounge room. It wouldn’t fit in the boot of the tour car and I wasn’t going to take my chance driving all over India with the thing lashed to the roof. And I seriously doubted the ability of one to find its way safely back to my doorstep by international carrier, unbroken.