Thursday, July 10, 2014

Abandoned Army Cantonment, Meerut, UP

Meerut Cantonment is one of the earliest and the second largest Cantonment of India. It is a historical site which was established by the East India Company in 1803 after the Battle of Laswari. The historic Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 triggered from the Meerut Cantonment by an unit of Indian army known as Kali Paltan (Black Army). There was a temple known as Kali Paltan Mandir in close proximity to the sepoy barrack, which served as the meeting place for the freedom fighters and the officers of Kali Paltan. The temple was well surrounded by trees and had a well which was used by the soldiers to satisfy their thirst.

Kali Paltan Mandir (presently called Baba Augharnath Temple) in Meerut

Kali Paltan Memorial inside Augharnath temple in Meerut

In 1968, the old Kali Paltan Mandir was reconstructed while a hexagonal hall was constructed in 1987 for religious ceremonies and bhajans. A 4.5 kg gold plated kalasha was installed at the spire of the temple in May 2001. It is now known as the Augarnath temple. The Meerut Cantonment has a unique historical significance. It is a witness to historic events such as the Dilli Chalo Andolan, and the Revolt of 1857. Apart from Kali Paltan Mandir, there are few other structures such as the Shaheed Smarak, Meerut Museum, etc in the Cantonment which bears the memories of the bygone era.

Shaheed Smarak in Meerut

Apart from other issues, the proximate cause which initiated the mutiny was the introduction of greased cartridges (with fats of cows and pigs) of the latest Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifles by the British government in August 1856. The outer covering of the cartridges were to be which had animal fat had to be opened by mouth before the rifles could be loaded. This was unanimously refused by both the Hindu and Muslim sepoys. The Hindu sepoys saw this as an attempt to break their caste as a preliminary to making them all Christians, while the Muslim troops were also disgusted and no less insulted than the Hindus: the revolts were about to happen.
Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle - Musket

The completed process to load Enfield Pattern 1853 Percussion Rifle Musket cartridges

Enfield Pattern 1853 Percussion Rifle Musket cartridges

On March 29, 1857, Mangal Pandey, a sepoy of the Bengal Army at Barrackpore parade ground refused to bite off the end of his Enfield cartridge and opened fired on his sergeant Major James Hewson and Lt. Henry Baugh who came out to investigate the unrest later. However, some of the sepoys did not support him, and he failed to incite an active rebellion. Pandey tried to commit suicide to avoid unhonourable death at the hands of British, but only succeeded to wound himself and was later court-martialled on April 6, 1857. He was hanged on April 8, 1857.

Statue of Mangal Pandey at Martyr's Memorial in Meerut

The Mangal Pandey cenotaph on Surendranath Banerjee road at Barrackpore Cantonment, West Bengal

Meerut army Cantonment had one of the largest concentrations of British troops in India consisting of 2,357 Indian sepoys and 2,038 British soldiers with 12 British-manned guns. On April 24, 1857 Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, the commanding officer of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, ordered 90 of his men to parade and perform firing drills. 85 men were court marshaled on May 9, 1857 as they refused to use the obnoxious cartridges. Eleven younger soldiers were imprisoned for 5 years, while the others were sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment. Once imprisoned, the 11th and 20th cavalry assembled and broke rank and turned on their commanding officers. Kotwal Dhan Singh Gurjar opened the gate of the jail and all the sepoys along with 800 other prisoners escaped. After liberating the 3rd regiment, chaos ensued in Meerut, and the rebels engaged the remaining British Troops.

St. John Church, which is one of the oldest churches in India stiil bears the agony of the mutiny

Meerut Cemetry behind St. John Church

The garrison in Meerut was the first to record the event of bloody uprising on the evening of Sunday, May 10, 1857. The mutineers murdered every British they found and burnt half the houses in the station. The church was full of screams and frightened cries of ladies and children. 50 British including soldiers, women and children were killed in Meerut by the mutineers. The church, which was established by Chaplin Reverend Henry Fisher on behalf of The East India Company in 1819 still maintains a burial register with the names of all those who died here that demoniac day. On the following morning the Britishers launched a military operation only to discover that the rebels had left Meerut and marched off to Delhi under the leadership of the Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah. Three other regiments stationed in Delhi were ready for mutiny. On the conjunction of the two army units, the horrors of Meerut were repeated in the majestic city, and every European who could be found was massacred with disgusting atrocity. The agony of sudden unwarned violence added its bitterness to the overwhelming horror.

Meerut Cemetry behind St. John Church

One of the tombstones in St. John Chruch cemetry

One of the tombstones in St. John Chruch cemetry

Bravery and self-reliance might serve to turn the tide of thought for a time but not forever. On May 17, 1857, a week from the outbreak, the avenging force began to move forward. They defeated the rebels and drove them back into the city. In Cawnpore (Kanpur), 200 European men, women, and children were murdered in the mutiny. Vengeance was swift and harsh: suspected mutineers were tied to cannons and executed. The British crushed the rebellion killing more than 100,000 Indians in the uprising and its aftermath. Some British troops adopted a policy of “no prisoners”. The painful screams of women on seeing their husbands and sons butchered was unforgettable. The revolt was crushed in six months and British power was restored by the next year.

Battle damage to the Kashmere Gate in Delhi 1857

Jantar Mantar observatory damaged in the revolt of 1857

The British lost a maximum of 11,000 men (3/4th of them were killed by disease or heat-stroke). More than 100,000 Indians (sepoys and civilians) perished including more than 150 from Meerut but there are no reliable figures. Both guilty and innocent were at peril and the scars of the rebellion could be seen widely - ruined cities, burned villages, dead fields, burial register of the church, etc. India was further burdened by a debt of £30,000,000. The shadows of the past still haunt the city. You may occasionally hear patter of hooves of the horses and cries of people trapped in the mutiny. Most of the people when going through St. John's Church avoid the ancient graveyard, which consists of magnificent sculptured tombs shining in moonlight. The locals believe ghosts of the sepoys still wander abandoned cantonment. Visitors have often reported sightings of decapitated apparitions and spooky shadows. They claim sense supernatural presence and have heard mysterious sounds of dripping water. An IPS who spent a night in the abandoned cantonment says that the supernatural power can make things run around in circles and create animal-like sounds.

Remains of Indian soldiers of the mutiny of 1857 dug out from a well in Punjab

Remains of 282 Indian Soldiers from 1857 revolt dug out from a well in Punjab

Two sepoys of the 31st Native Infantry who were hanged at Lucknow in the revolt of 1857

You need to visit the abandoned Army Cantonment in the night to experience the eerie feeling.

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