August 15, 1947 was really the culmination of a struggle that began nine decades earlier, on May 10, 1857. That was when the sepoys of the British East India Company’s army rose in revolt against their colonial masters in the cantonment town of Meerut.
British officials and historians might have dubbed the revolt as a mere mutiny staged by errant sepoys, but in its true essence, the revolt of 1857 was by far India’s first war of Independence, one which brought together Indians from all rungs of society – from the royals and noblemen to peasants and artisans, and even the courtesans of Lucknow.
This Independence Day let’s take a look at some hotspots of the original war of Indian independence.
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Only a few kilometres from Calcutta, the cantonment town of Barrackpore is steeped in Raj Era memoirs. It was here that the first military barracks of the British East India Company were established, in 1772, and the town is studded with colonial bungalows and churches that hark back to the Raj Era. It was also in Barrackpore that the seeds of the Great Revolt were sown, when, on March 29, 1857, Mangal Pandey, a young soldier of the Bengal Regiment, rebelled against British authorities. Mangal Pandey was hanged from a tree which still stands inside Barrackpore’s famed Lat Bagan, a must-visit when in town. The Lat Bagan gardens also houses the grave of Lady Canning, and numerous other Raj era sculptures. The beautiful riverside, the Gandhi Ghat and the nearby Gandhi Museum are also popular among visitors and history buffs.
Meerut is, perhaps, not your usual getaway destination, but it’s worth a visit if only for a lesson in the revolt’s history. It is here that the Indian sepoys officially rallied against the authorities, and the city has numerous sites that witnessed the unfolding of the events of 1857. For instance, Augarnath Temple (or Kali Paltan Ka Mandir) was allegedly one of the secret places where rebel leaders met sepoys to discuss strategic details. Meerut’s St John’s Church, apparently the oldest church in northern India, was the scene of heavy fighting between Indians and the British forces during the revolt. A marble pillar commemorating the martyrs of 1857 and the Government Freedom Struggle Museum, dedicated to the history of the uprising, are also worth a look.
Jhansi is inextricably linked to its valiant hero, Rani Laxmi Bai, whose nerve and daring in the face of the British forces is stuff of legends. One must visit The Rani Mahal, once the home of Rani Laxmi Bai, and now a museum and a striking specimen of typical Bundelkhandi architecture. The Ganesh Mandir, where Rani Laxmi Bai and Gangadhar Rao were joined in holy matrimony, has been and still is a major pilgrimage site. Another site associated with Laxmi Bai is the Gangadhar Rao ki Chhatri, a memorial built by the queen for her deceased husband. The Jhansi Fort, built in the early 17th century and situated on a hilltop with spectacular views, is also a must-see.
It was on June 27, 1857 that Caunpore witnessed one of the bloodiest spectacles in the history of Indian independence. Those who survived the event at Satti Chaura Ghatthe, lost their lives in Bibighar. Now renamed Nana Rao Ghat after Nana Sahib of Peshwa who led the bloody rebellion here, the Sati Chaura or Massacre Ghat, is a must-visit for history buffs.
Also visit the Kanpur Memorial Church on Albert Lane, in the cantonment area. Originally known as the All Soul’s Cathedral, the bright red brick structure was built in 1875 in memory of the very Britishers who lost their lives in the siege of Kanpur. It is also a fine specimen of Gothic architecture complete with ornate stained glass windows.
In the memorial garden to the east of the church stands one of sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti’s beautiful sculpture of an angel of peace, originally built on the well in which the victims of the Bibighar massacre were supposedly disposed of, and only later moved here. The remains of the well can still be seen inside the city’s Nana Rao Park.
The crumbling skeleton and bullet ridden walls of the British Residency in Lucknow stand testimony to historic siege of Lucknow. Rebel troops stormed into the erstwhile residence of the British Resident General in Lucknow, during the siege, stripping it of its colonial glory. The ruins have been painstakingly preserved since and a part of what remains of the residency buildings now houses the 1857 Memorial Museum that exhibits numerous interesting paintings, photographs and lithographs related to the uprising among other paraphernalia of the time.
Other important sites related to the revolt are Chhattar Manzil, the residence of the Nawabs of Awadh, which served as a major stronghold of the rebel troops during the rebellion, and the Constantia House that houses Lucknow’s La Martinere College, for its role in defending Lucknow against the rebel troops. You could also visit the Begum Hazrat Mahal Park built in the memory of Begum Hazrat Mahal who bravely led Awadh against the British in 1857.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of Lonely Planet India.
The article was first published in August, 2015, and has been updated since.