Lucknow was once ruled by the Nawabs of Oudh, until the British in the guise of the East India Company, removed the last ruler, Wajid Ali Shah whose profligacy outraged their sense of Victorian morality. The Province was of strategic importance to the Brits, and disregarding the fact that the Nawab was also a cultured nobleman and generous patron of the arts, his extravagant lifestyle provided a convenient excuse to take over the state. It was a measure that they would regret. The annexation of Oudh was just one of the many factors, which ignited the tinderbox of rebellion in 1857 and brought about the Great Indian Mutiny—now called The First War of Independence by Indian nationals. Insurrection had already broken out in other parts of the country, and Sir Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner, prudently moved British and Anglo-Indian civilians (my great-grandmother among them) into the 60-acre British Residency in June 1857. Today, 150 years later, I sit under a tamarind tree, on a bench bordering the lawns of the old Residency, listening to the drone of bees, and the harsh cawing of crows. The sunlight throws dancing specks of light through the leaves of my sheltering tree, dust devils whirl briefly in the warm breeze along the unpaved pathways, and the air carries the scent of marigold flowers. If I’d been here in June 1857, these sounds would have been drowned by the bursting of shells, the acrid smell of gunpowder, and the almost continuous bombardment of cannon. The surroundings would have been shrouded in the grey dust of crumbling masonry.
The Baillie Gate at the British Residency which was subjected to some of the heaviest fire.
Within the buildings surrounding me today, was a defensive army of about 850 British officers and soldiers, backed by about 700 loyal native sepoys, and around 150 civilian volunteers. But also within these grounds were several hundred women and children, all of them huddled into a warren of underground rooms in the “Tykhana” or women’s quarters.
As I walk into the cramped Tykhana today, it is as if the place still holds the shadows of women soothing the fevers of dying children, stanching bloody wounds and bandaging torn limbs—while cringing at the whine of bullets and the heavy crash of cannonballs, slamming against the walls of their embattled shelter. The searing heat of that year’s June gave way to torrential monsoon rains, and with them came renewed outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, malaria and dysentery. The rooms, even today, carry the miasma of death.
Two ant-sized visitors survey the view from the Residency tower
Emerging into the sunlight, I am glad to be free of the claustrophobic weight of so much sorrow—yet there are other reminders scattered throughout the Residency. The splendid ballroom, converted into a hospital, bears the scars of shellfire. A few residences still stand, their mildew-covered walls like rotted teeth lying open to the sky. A commemorative pillar erected by the British in heartfelt gratitude, pays tribute to the courage of Indian sepoys—many of them Sikhs—who defended the Residency alongside their British compatriots. Without their unswerving loyalty, the small English army contingent could not have held out against the rebels.
Within me there are hidden a whole bunch of people
looking through my eyes - sometimes with a blink of smile
sometimes with some sadness -
by repeating old encounters working through knotted dependencies
and still not coming together
Through the long chain of incarnations the spiral comes nearer to the center
nothing is lost, all links are present:
The Russian musician, singer, dancer, actor, - surrendering
The proud and desperate red Indian, - giving up
The wise Egyptian priest and temple builder, - piercing through limits
The buddhist tantra monk, - lost in love affairs with temple dancers