Echoes from the past at Nicholson Cemetery in Delhi

Echoes from the past at Nicholson Cemetery in Delhi
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Delhi has a grave side to it as the metropolis is known as the land of cemeteries. The city reflects the history of scores of foreign invasions and mass exoduses that happened centuries ago. It also bears the scars of innumerable incursions. Delhi's soil is soaked in blood and the capital city has a huge repertoire of stories related to the great battles that had been fought from time immemorial.

As each war ends, countless corpses would lie strewn around on the streets and at the war zone and Delhi has a number of different graveyards to bury them. This journey is to one of such places – the Nicholson Cemetery.

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Though this age-old cemetery, which has stood the test of time, is situated at a prime spot in the city, many people are unaware of such a burial ground. The main entrance of the graveyard is near the four-number gate of the Kashmere Gate metro station. An entirely different world will unravel before you as you enter the cemetery.

First War of Independence

The history of Nicholson Cemetery is closely intertwined with the first freedom struggle of the country. The First War of Independence started with the mutiny of Indian soldiers in the army of the British East India Company. The uprising, which began on May 10, 1857 in Meerut, had also spread to other parts of the country. The Indian soldiers who challenged the authority of the British officers crossed the Yamuna River and reached Delhi, which was then known as ‘Shahjahanabad’. The sepoys, with the help of some local people, started killing British officers and soldiers, and their families in Delhi.

The Indian soldiers, described as rebels, threw their weight behind Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar and captured Delhi. In a bid to clamp down the rebellion, Punjab chief commissioner John Lawrence stitched together a team of army members and sent it to Delhi under John Nicholson.

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After reaching Delhi, Nicholson and his team engaged in a bitter confrontation with the sepoys at Najarfgarh on August 25, and had also led from the front in many other battles in the coming days. But in a pitched battle against the sepoys at Lahori Gate in Old Delhi, Nicholson was badly injured on September 14. The British army recaptured Delhi on the same day and Bahadur Shah Zafar surrendered before the English on September 21, 1857. The British army publicly shot dead Bahadur Shah Zafar’s two children and one grandchild before India Gate.

Mirza Mughal, the fifth son of Bahadur Shah Zafar, and two other princes were stripped naked and paraded through the streets before they were brutally murdered at Khooni Darwaza in Delhi. Bahadur Shah Zafar, who is the last Mughal emperor, was banished to Burma, and the Mughal dynasty ended with the First War of Independence.

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Brigadier General John Nicholson

Nicholson was a brilliant British army officer and the British historians hail him as a hero who successfully suppressed the Indian Rebellion of 1857. But the Indian history sees him as someone who was savagely violent and vicious. Nicholson breathed his last nine days after he was shot at during the fight against sepoys at Lahori Gate in Old Delhi. While on his deathbed, the news of the British recapturing Delhi came as a relief for Nicholson, who died at the age of 35. A cemetery was put in place at Kashmere Gate to bury the British soldiers who were killed in the war, and the final resting place of John Nicholson is also at this graveyard.

John Nicholson Cemetery

The cemetery was initially known as 'Old Delhi Military Cemetery' and was later renamed after John Nicholson. Only British military officers and their family members were buried at the cemetery during the colonial rule. But after independence, Indians were also buried in designated areas of the cemetery.

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The right side of the walled cemetery houses the tombstones of the British people and on the left side the graves of Indians. Nicholson's grave has a marble slab and is surrounded by a railing fence. There is an eerie look to the cemetery as it holds the graves of hundreds of Britishers who were killed in the war. Time had taken its toll on the tombstones as many have developed cracks and some are in a dilapidated condition.

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This burial ground is a blend of myth and imagination. Many stories of Nicholson’s ghost riding a white horse on ‘Amavasya’, the day of the new moon, are doing the rounds. The cemetery also has graves of many infants and children. Many names inscribed on the tombstones have faded away with the march of time. The nameless graves have just two words etched on them – ‘Deo Notus’ meaning known only to God.

The cemetery reflects the history of violence as many laid down their lives in war and during invasions and left the world empty handed.  

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