Articles

Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Better known as 'Belli Garad'

Navtej Sarna

The Lucknow Residency, better known as "belli garad", was the scene of hectic activity during the 1857 revolt. Today, however, the ruins are being used for another kind of activity. NAVTEJ SARNA reports.

THE Residency at Lucknow is little more than a tourist spot now. Tickets, guides, picnickers, orange peels and peanut shells compete the picture. Children play hide and seek in the ruins. A man muses silently near the graves behind the Residency. The peaceful lawns bathed in the winter sunshine, the fruit trees and the placid Gomti below scarcely seem to form the right background for the fierce tale told by the guide in chaste Urdu and a quivering voice.

But if the pages of history are to be believed it did all happen here. The summer of 1857 caught India in the flames of revolt. The flames spread to Lucknow by the end of May. Lucknow was then a city perhaps unmatched in splendour- a vision of domes, colonnades, palaces and terraced roofs.

Part of this vision was the Residency. A large, three storeyed building. Classical in design with lofty rooms, verandahs and pillared porticos, it looked over the city and the winding river. It was marked by rose gardens and fruit trees which kept at bay the surrounding buildings which housed a numberless horde of musicians, entertainers and other humble hangers on of the vanished court of Wajid Ali Shah.

As the tension of the oncoming revolt spread, Sir Henry Lawrence took over as Chief Commissioner from Coverly Jackson. Aged by grief and disappointments, Sir Henry had at Canning's request abandoned hope of home leave and hurried to help the British in Oudh. His appointment had sent a sigh of relief through British India. If anyone could tame the sulky, suspicious wild-eyed stallion that was Oudh, it was Henry Lawrence the man who had settled the conquered Punjab and won the respect and affection of the defeated Sikhs.

When news of the outbreak at Meerut reached Lucknow on 17 May 1857, the British began the fortification of the Residency. The existing walls were joined with trenches, pits were dug, stakes and iron spikes erected to stop the rebels. The lawns were levelled and cleared, grains and munitions were stored.

After a disastrous action at Chinat, the British retreated to the Residency. The garrison then comprised barely a thousand combatant. British and 700 sepoys still loyal to them along with over a thousand women children and non-combatants. Among these were 50 heroic schoolboys from La Martinere College. The besieging force was ten to twelve thousand strong. Lawrence wrote to Havelock that relief must come in ten or 15 days. Eighty-seven long bitter and terrifying days passed before Havelock arrived and It took 140 day for relief to reach the besieged Residency.

A continuous rattle of muskets and the boom of guns began to ring in the Lucknow skies as the stubborn struggle intensified. Sir Henry Lawrence was fatally wounded by a shell and died on July 4, 1857. The military command fell on Brig. Inslis.

Chaos engulfed the Residency. Sanitary conditions became impossible to maintain. Horses, bullocks, elephants and camels added to the confusion. An entire night was spent in the burial of a camel Cholera and smallpox broke out. Infection could not be kept away. And major surgeries in the banqueting hall-turned-hospital usually resulted in death.

Ever the day with its traitorous
Death from the loopholes around,
Ever the night with its coffin less
Corpse to be laid in the ground

The Lucknow Residency.

At night the firing abated: it was time to bury the dead, repair the defences and move the guns to new positions. All ranks joined in the work. The British learned to do all the work without any servants. Twenty-three-year-old Katherine Bartrum found it "almost a blessing to have no servants because it gave us so much occupation that we had less time to dwell upon our troubles...."

To begin with the rations consisted of dal, flour, meat and salt. But soon as rations dwindled, the only cheer came from the thought and talk of happier days and places.

As a mark of defiance, the Union Jack fluttered from the flagstaff and became a favourite target with the mutineers. Each night the flag was brought down, the holes patched and new cords fitted. The sepoys added to the tension and pressure by playing favourite English tunes like "The Girl I Left Behind Me," or " See the Conquering Hero comes" and often ending the day with "God Save the Quean"

Through the months the dwindling, dying, fever-racked garrison held out. Many assaults were turned back. In September, Havelock reached the Residency, fighting his way through the streets. But the regiments that fought through were so mauled that they could not relieve but only reinforce.

October came and went. The gardens were bright with flowers and the mornings sharp and chilly. The sounds of muskets and gunfire marked the passing of the days. Somehow the Empire held on.

Once again, in mid-November, the ugly, fierce, bloody tide of war swayed through the narrow streets of the city, Sir Colin Campbell's relieving army fought through. For a week Lucknow shook with the gunfire and detonations. Campbell's army retreated from Lucknow, taking along all who remained of the gallant garrison, which had held on so long through what one survivor called "a season in hell."