Kashmiri Gate

The Gates that changed the course of India’s history
Kashmiri Gate is another of Delhi’s old landmarks made famous by the 1857 uprising. This was one of the fourteen original gates to the city of Shahjahanabad (old Delhi), and it was through Kashmiri Gate that the charging British forces, led by their hero John Nicholson, had battled their way back in to the city by quelling the rebellious sepoys. The re-taking of Delhi by the British changed the tide of the 1857 uprising and had broken the back of the revolt. Along with that, it had also changed the course of India’s history.

The historic double arches of Kashmiri Gate, the scene of a momentous and bloody battle in 1857
In the summer of 1857, Indian sepoys in Meerut had revolted against their British superiors, bringing to a head long simmering tensions and kick-starting the Sepoy uprising or the first war of Independence. Within a day, the sepoys had marched to Delhi and massed around the Red Fort, demanding that the aged Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar become their leader. The city was plunged into turmoil, and in the chaos many British residents of Delhi were killed. Those that survived fled the massacre by escaping to the ridge in the north of the city where they set up camp, both soldiers and civilians together, keeping an uneasy eye on the city and waiting anxiously for reinforcements to arrive.
This stalemate remained for four months between May and September, through the onset of the heavy monsoon rains. The sepoys would regularly attack the British camp on the northern ridge, trying to dislodge them. But somehow the British held on and resisted.
Then in early September there was a change in British fortunes. Brigadier General John Nicholson, Britain’s “Hero of Delhi”, marched in to their camp on the ridge with desperately needed reinforcements from Punjab. The tall and much-feared Nicholson was a fierce leader with a powerful presence and he made an immediate impact, displacing the veteran General Wilson as boss. Nicholson seemed brutally impatient of the older Wilson, writing that…“I have seen lots of useless Generals in my day; but such an ignorant, croaking, obstructive one as he is, I have never hitherto met with”.
On his part, Nicholson quickly decided that the time was right to attack Delhi and retake the city. “The game is completely in our hands”, he wrote, “we only want a player to move the pieces”. The elderly Wilson was persuaded to come around to his view, and a date was set for September 14th 1857, with Nicholson appointed the leader for the assault.
The British plan of attack hinged on invading the city through Kashmiri Gate, one of Shajahanabad (old Delhi’s) fourteen entry gates, that guarded the route to the North. It is from here that the road to Kashmir started.

John Nicholson charged through these gates to re-take Delhi, but lost his life in doing so
Early on the morning of September 14th 1857, the British attacked Kashmiri Gate with Nicholson personally leading the assault. The fighting was fierce, starting in the morning mist and lasting several bloody hours in to the hot afternoon. In the brutal, often hand-to-hand combat, casualties were high on both sides. Ultimately the British prevailed, taking control of Kashmiri Gate and re-entering Delhi. With this, the tide and fortunes of the 1857 revolt tilted decisively towards the British and over the next few days the back of the sepoy resistance in Delhi was unsparingly crushed, forcing them to flee the city in defeat.
In his hour of glory, fate was not kind to John Nicholson. The “Hero of Delhi”, the man centrally responsible for the British re-asserting control over the narrative of the 1857 uprising, was himself shot and mortally wounded in the fighting over Kashmiri Gate. Nicholson was hastily carried back up to the ridge for his wounds to be treated, but he never recovered and died a few days later. John Nicholson is buried in Nicholson’s Cemetery; a stone’s throw from Kashmiri Gate, the gateway he died fighting over.
Today, this huge historical significance of Kashmiri Gate has faded from the city’s conscious. Life hurtles past and around Kashmiri Gate, with streams of busy traffic passing by without a nod in its direction. I used the Delhi Metro to get me to Kashmiri Gate from South Delhi in an easy thirty minutes. As I came out of the Kashmiri Gate station, I was greeted by the bright hoardings of Ritz Cinema in front and Kashmiri Gate itself was just a couple of minutes walk from the station that bears its name.
A protective iron railing and a short expanse of well kept grass surrounds Kashmiri Gate and sets it back from the traffic, giving it a quiet and contemplative air even in the midst of all the hurly-burly that surrounds it. I entered the fenced compound and walked up to Kashmiri Gate, standing under its still-imposing archways. The gate has two wide arches, one for entry and another for exit, and high enough for royal processions to pass through. Much of the original structure was destroyed in the fighting of 1857, so a lot of the masonry that I could see today was not original.
As I stood beside these powerful gates, I could imagine the violent scenes that took place here a century and a half ago. But, it was only when i passed through the double arches and out the back, that the full force of the violence and bloodshed of that fateful day truly hit home. The battle scars and signs of war are still fully visible. Big chunks of wall were damaged and pock-marked with the heavy cannon ball fire of 1857, and remain in that condition today.

The battle scarred rear walls of Kashmiri Gate, with damage from cannon balls still visible.


Against the wall was a simple stone-carved plaque that commemorates the day September 14th 1857, and listed those killed and mortally wounded. The original letters have faded over time, prompting the ASI to erect a steel replica on the side, lest these poignant words are lost forever. It’s a moving reminder of the day the British force stormed Delhi and decisively tilted the fortunes of the 1857 Uprising. The plaque reads ‘…it was after sunrise on that day that the under mentioned party advancing from Ludlow Castle in the face of a heavy fire…lodged power bags against and blew in the right leaf of this gate thus opening a way for the assaulting column.’ The names of the eleven mortally wounded or killed included Lieutenants, Sergeants, Corporals as well as “Soobedar”, “Jemadar”, “Havildar” ; both British names and Indian.

A poignant plaque with a moving message, listing the dead from 1857

Attached to Kashmiri Gate was a small section of the original city walls which are still intact. This is not generally open to the public, so I approached the small ASI office (Archaeological Society of India) tucked to the right of the complex for approval to climb to the top of Kashmiri Gate. I met a young and pleasant ASI officer, who readily agreed to my request and also volunteered to accompany me for the short climb to the roof. We together ascended a narrow winding staircase one behind the other to emerge on the top of Kashmiri Gate, with sections of the walled ramparts stretching to our left and right. As I stood above these historic arches, looking down on to the busy thoroughfare below, I could sense what the sepoys must have felt on that misty September morning in 1857, peering in to the morning haze for signs of the fearsome John Nicholson and his invading British forces…

The Legend of Nikal Seyn

John Nicholson was born in Lisburn, Ireland in 1822, the eldest son of “earnest, upright, bible reading protestants”. He came to India when he was just a young boy aged sixteen to join the East India Company, and he died here at the still-young age of thirty five, mortally wounded in the battle at Kashmiri Gate. During the twenty-odd years that Nicholson spent in India, he truly established himself as the legendary “Hero of Delhi”, one of the most celebrated British East India Company officers with numerous tales and folklore surrounding his many exploits.
William Dalrymple, the historian, describes Nicholson as…“6 feet 2 inches in height with a long black beard, dark grey eyes with black pupils which under excitement would dilate like a tigers…a color-less face upon which no smile passed”. He had a commanding personality with a strong take-charge style of leadership, and was quick to violence, abhorring any form of what he perceived as weakness even from his superiors, which made him a difficult person to work with.
Nicholson served most of his military duties in India’s unruly North West. He fought in the Anglo-Afghan and Anglo-Sikh wars and served as District Commissioner in Punjab. Without a doubt, Nicholson’s vicious experiences in the North West colored his feelings for India. He was taken prisoner in the ill-fated 1842 Afghan war, and lost his brother in a horrific manner. L.J. Trotter, in his book “The Life of John Nicholson” describes the terrible scene of Nicholson being released as prisoner in Afghanistan, only to find his younger brother’s dead body with his genitals cut off and stuffed in his mouth.
“…the shock to John Nicholson must have been all the greater for the manner in which he first became aware of his brothers death. They were riding on rear-guard down the pass when they espied what seemed to be the naked body of a European gleaming to the right, some way off the line of march. Cantering to the spot, heedless of danger and of their chief’s orders against leaving the line of march, they found the corpse of a white man stripped of everything save a mere fragment of the shirt, and fearfully mutilated in true Afghan fashion about the base of the trunk. Nicholson gazed at the dead man and for the moment he could not speak. He had recognized the features of his own brother”.
One of Nicholson’s defining styles was his mastery of symbolic acts, and his perfect understanding of the power and impact of symbolism on local populations. There are many examples of him using symbolism to drive home the point of who was boss. Once, as Deputy Commissioner for Bannu (in todays north west Pakistan) “…he was riding through a Bannuchi village with his escort of mounted police and a few of the local maliks. As he passed along every villager saluted him except one, a mullah, who sat in front of the village mosque. Instead of salaaming him, he sat looking at the hakim with a scowl of open hatred (Nicholson was called hakim by the locals). As soon as the cavalcade had passed out of the village, Nicholson asked one of his orderlies if he had noticed the mullah’s behavior. Yes he had noticed it. “then go and bring him to my camp”. The village barber was sent for at the same time…”. Nicholson ordered the barber to shave the mullah’s beard before allowing him to return to the village, “…where the sight of a beardless mullah made a lasting impression, and became the talk of the whole district”.
Though Nicholson was feared for his violent and cruel streak, he also earned himself respect with the restless Afghan and North Punjab tribes for a sense of honor and for establishing much needed law and order in that territory. He had even inspired a cult, The Nikal Seyni, who literally worshipped him. On his part, Nicholson seems to have formed a mixed opinion of the Afghan character. He wrote “ …I must, however, mention some traits in the Afghan character, which I had full leisure to study during my imprisonment. They are, without exception, the most bloodthirsty and treacherous race in existence, more so than any one who had not experience of them could conceive; with all that, they have more natural, innate politeness than any people I have ever seen. Men of our guard used to ask us of our friends at home: ‘have you a mother? – have you brothers and sisters? – and how many?”. It was often been said to me by a man who (to use an expression of their own) would have cut another’s throat for an onion, “alas! alas! What a state of mind your poor mother must be in about you now; how I pity both you and her”, and although insincere he did not mean this as a jest…”.
With the onset of the 1857 revolt, John Nicholson was asked to march from Punjab to Delhi at the head of the Punjab Moveable Column and relieve the Delhi siege. On the way to Delhi he stopped at Jalandhar, ruled by the Maharaja of Kapurthala, where the local Province Commissioner Major Lake had organized a darbar. At this time, due to the revolt, British authority was vulnerable and nobody understood this better than Nicholson. There is an incident that took place at the Jalandhar darbar which aptly sums up Nicholson’s fearsome style of leadership and his innate grasp of symbolism. This is narrated by L.J Trotter in his book :
“…General Mehtab Singh, a near relative of the Rajah, took his leave, and as the senior in rank at the darbar was walking out of the room first, when I observed Nicholson stalk to the door, put himself in from of Mehtab Singh, and waving him back with an authoritative air, prevented him from leaving the room. The rest of the company then passed out.; and when they had gone Nicholson said to Lake “do you see that general Mehtab Singh has his shoes on?” Lake replied that he had noticed the fact, but tried to excuse it. Nicholson, however, speaking in Hindustani, said “there is no possible excuse for such an act of gross impertinence. Mehtab Singh knows perfectly well that he would not venture to step on his own father’s carpet, save barefooted; and he has only committed this breach of etiquette today because he thinks we are not in a position to resent the insult, and that he can treat us as he would not have dared to a month ago.” Mehtab Singh looked extremely foolish, and stammered out some kind of apology; but Nicholson was not to be appeased, and continued “if I were the last Englishman left in Jalandhar, you (addressing Mehtab Singh) should not come into my room with your shoes on”. Then politely turning to Lake, he added “I hope the commissioner will now allow me to order you to take your shoes off and carry them out in your own hands so that your followers may witness your discomfiture.” Mehtab Singh, completely cowed, meekly did as he was told. Indeed, Nicholson’s uncompromising bearing on the occasion proved a great help to Lake, for it had the best possible effect on the Kapurthalla people; their manner at once changed, all disrespect vanished, there was no more swaggering about as if they considered themselves masters of the situation”
It was incidents and tales such as these that created the lore around Nicholson’s personality.

How to get here:

Kashmiri Gate is just outside the Kashmiri Gate Metro Station, opposite the Ritz Cinema.

Information:

  • Closest metro: Kashmiri Gate
  • Open from sunrise to sunset.
  • Toilet facilities available.
  • Parking is available at the metro station car park.


Sources:

  1. L.J Trotter, “The Life of John Nicholson” (London; John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1897)
  2. William Dalrymple, “The Last Mughal, The fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857” (New Delhi; Penguin Books India 2006)
  3. Sir J.W. Kaye, “Lives of Indian Officers Vol II” (published by JJ Keliher & Co Ltd, 1904)
  4. Archaeological Survey of India, “Monuments of Delhi” (Delhi, ASI, 2010)
India Heritage
Adil Ahmad
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Adil Ahmad has worked with Multinational companies across India, England, Mideast, East Asia….but his passion has always been in history and culture! Adil is deeply curious and about India’s heritage and its many stories, and being widely travelled and a voracious researcher of all things historical, loves discovering ‘hidden gems” that he knows will interest other readers. Adil is a history graduate from Delhi University (where the seeds of his heritage-passion were sown…) and an MBA. Having finished with his corporate career, he is now a full-time heritage nerd.