Jhansi and Gwalior

It’s impossible to write about my visits to the cities of Jhansi and Gwalior without first explaining the historical reasons why I would be interested in them. The first part of what follows is therefore a brief-ish and opinionated summary of what Wikipedia, that bastion of neutrality, calls the “Indian Rebellion of 1857“, but is traditionally known in British historiography as the Indian Mutiny. Feel free to skip it if you just want to read about me wandering around some forts.

Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, one of the leaders of the 1857 Indian Mutiny


First, a quick discussion of nomenclature. We can immediately discard the politically-loaded native term, “India’s First War of Independence”, which is ridiculous, and much-criticised by even Indian historians, as it implies a level of pan-national consciousness, intent and co-operation that simply didn’t occur. The event was restricted to north India and a minority of princely states, didn’t effect the three main areas of long-standing British control (Bombay, Calcutta and Madras) and was defeated in large part by the many Indian regiments who didn’t mutiny (including the Sikhs, whom I have a great respect for as people, and soldiers, if not as a religion). Neutral terms such as “rebellion” are all very well, but since it was a rebellion of soldiers who’d voluntarily joined the ranks of the East India Company’s armies, and then turned against them, it precisely fits the definition of “mutiny” as well, so that term can hardly be called invalid. The traditional British terms, “Indian Mutiny” or “Sepoy Mutiny”, are perfectly factual and have only gone out of use because a) no-one knows what a “Sepoy” is any more, and b) they’re not specific enough – there were other mutinies at other times. But since we’ve already established that we’re talking about 1857, that’s not a problem here. “The Indian Mutiny” it is, then.

To understand the Mutiny, you first have to discard the misconception that British colonial expansion into India was a planned policy by an imperialist government. Up until 1857, all British activity in India was carried out by the private East India Company, which had a charter from the British government to trade in India, and take the necessary steps to protect that trade – which, with the instability caused by the break-up of the Mughal Empire, meant stepping in to assume sovereignty and administer large swathes of territory – but it wasn’t controlled by the British government. Indeed, many people in Britain were deeply uncomfortable and opposed the Company’s military expansionism, and it was much debated in Parliament.

This problematic state of affairs reached crisis point in 1857, after a few years in which the Company had used its “Doctrine of Lapse” (in which it claimed the right to annex any state without a legitimate heir, and then refused to recognise perfectly good heir-selection mechanisms such as adoption) to take over a number of states, including Jhansi and Awadh (or Oudh). The grassroots spark of the rebellion came when rumours circulated among the native troops that the Company’s army was issuing them gunpowder cartridges encased in paper greased with beef and pork fat, offending the religious taboos of both Hindus and Muslims. This probably was true; the Company quickly performed a U-turn on the cartridge issue; but it was too late.

The first mutiny occurred on 29 March 1857 at Barrackpore when a Sepoy (Private) named Mangal Pandey started firing, wildly and ineffectually, at a Sergeant-Major and the Adjutant. Pandey was probably high as a kite and had little idea what he was doing, but he’s gone down in Indian history as a great nationalist hero. His most important achievement was to be hanged, thus inciting mutinies in other regiments up and down the north Indian plain throughout April and May.

The unfolding events were then commandeered by a number of disenfranchised Indian leaders. The most notable, for the purposes of this post, was the deposed Rani (Queen) of Jhansi, Lakshmibai.

Rani Lakshmibai’s memorial in Gwalior

The subsequent campaign was characterised by massacres and atrocities on both sides, and neither the Indians nor the British come out of it very well in hindsight (another reason India probably shouldn’t try to claim it as the first expression of nationalist struggle, rather than the much more dignified efforts of the Indian National Congress starting a few decades later). The British eventually defeated the mutineers, and as a result of the catastrophe, the East India Company was dissolved and all its holdings were transferred to the Crown and direct administration by the British government (after which, incidentally, further expansion pretty much ceased).

Now, when I explained some of this to Emily in Khajuraho, she was thrilled to hear about an Indian woman – Rani Lakshmibai – leading the freedom struggle, and seemed to think that any atrocities by the Indians were more forgivable since we, the British, should never have been there in the first place. I can’t agree with the second point. For a start, the reason we now have rules of conduct in war, such as the protection of non-combatants, is because we think such behaviour is never permitted, whatever the justification for the conflict: so whether the British should have been there or not is irrelevant to the misdeeds of either side. More importantly, it rests on the usual assumption of the injustice of British presence. Now, the Doctrine of Lapse was definitely a dick move, and the beef and pork grease cartridges were an idiotic blunder, though of the kind which I can easily imagine being made by a well-intentioned but clueless bureaucracy. But the practical and moral justification for British rule is a much more complicated question, which I’m not going to go into any further here. However, I completely agree with Emily that Rani Lakshmibai – who by all accounts was a fearless, and fear-inspiring, warrior and leader – was cool as hell. So that’s basically why I went to Jhansi and Gwalior, to see the locations of some of her exploits, and understand a little more about the fight she led.

Cool-ass cannon at Jhansi Fort


In Jhansi, I stayed with a CS host called Rohit, who works in marketing for Bharat Petroleum. BP is one of India’s three fuel companies, the others being Indian Oil and Hindustan Petroleum. All three are owned by the Indian government. Rohit lived in Jhansi because his employers had posted him there; his wife and baby were still in Haryana where he was originally from. Without his wife there, he was a bit domestically incompetent: when I arrived, he offered me tea, but only if I knew how to make it myself. Unfortunately, since it would have to be Indian-style chai, I didn’t.

He dropped me off at Jhansi Fort. It’s a quaint little thing, very small and unimpressive compared to the likes of Jodhpur’s Meherangarh Fort, so it’s reasonable for it to be described as a low priority in tourist guidebooks. But it’s full of interesting little features: some of them original, like the palace buildings and the two big ornamented cannons called Bhawani Shankar and Kadak Bijli; some of them signs of British occupation and modification, like a couple of early 20th century German-made machine guns, signs saying things like “GROUP B SHELL CARTRIDGE AND ARTILLERY STORE” and parts of the wall where you can see the line of the original battlements below where it’s been built up as a machine gun post, labelled with a number on the stone lintel.

“MG No 11” post, Jhansi Fort

There’s a spot on the wall where the Rani is supposed to have jumped her horse over it to the ground below, to escape from the British troops storming the fort, and escaped to Gwalior. It’s a great legend, but it’s clearly not true. Not only is it certain that a horse would break its legs from such a fall, by the time you’ve got to the “jumping spot” you’ve already seen another interesting feature of the fort, a secret tunnel which leads to the Gwalior Road, which is obviously the route she would have taken out of it.

Location of Rani Lakshmibai’s apocryphal leap from the wall of Jhansi Fort

I also visited the Government Museum, which wasn’t massively interesting. A series of dioramas telling the story of Rani Lakshmibai’s life were a nice refresher but didn’t add anything new. Otherwise it was a lot of modern pictures of her and a few old weapons. On the other side of town was the Rani Lakshmi Bai Mahal, the palace in which she lived between her dethronement and the Mutiny. It’s just a small haveli mansion, little more than a stone shell, but filled to the brim with masses of old stone sculpture – like it’s storage warehouse for a museum. It would have been a nice, peaceful place to enjoy the early evening sun and write, except that as soon as I sat down, I was surrounded by about 20 bothersome teenagers asking questions.

I went back to Rohit’s and we went out on a few errands, including a visit to a gurdwara (even though he’s not Sikh), and the purchase of a screwdriver and a shuttlecock (not for use together). We had masala dosas for dinner, and afterwards he introduced me to meetha (sweet) paan, a mixture of shredded coconut and rose petal jam, wrapped in a betel leaf. He assured me that, unlike the more popular tobacco-containing variant, the sweet version isn’t harmful; in fact, it’s good for you, and aids digestion. I’m suspicious of anything which is described as being an “aid to digestion” as it’s such a vague and untestable assertion. Digestive biscuits once did, but they’re now banned by the ASA from making any claim to health benefits. Anyway, it looks like long-term paan use is quite clearly established as having a significant carcinogenic effect, so that’s another nail in the coffin of “traditional wisdom”. Luckily I didn’t find it very pleasant: the short, initial sweet sensation, which came entirely from the rose petal jam, was replaced by a long and arduous process of chewing, like munching on a mouthful of raw carrot and straw. I won’t be making it a habit.


The next day, Rohit had to travel to Gwalior for work, so he gave me a lift, along with another colleague, Janish (though I couldn’t help hearing it as ‘Janice’). He decided that the direct road from Jhansi to Gwalior was so bad, we were better off going on better roads via Shivpuri, which meant taking two sides of an equilateral triangle and doubling the distance. It’s like driving from Reading to Bristol, via Birmingham. The first leg was fine, but when we got to Shivpuri it turned out that the Shivpuri-Gwalior road was just as bad as the one from Jhansi. It took us about 4-5 hours in the end, for what should have been a 70 mile journey.

In Gwalior, my CS host was SK, a retired Indian Army Corporal from the EME (their equivalent of the REME) who now runs a private security firm. It was great fun staying with SK: although he was too busy with work to show me around Gwalior, in the evenings we swapped Army stories, and he was delighted when I showed him online that the REME’s cap badge was almost identical to his own. SK is also the father of the 2011 Indian X Factor winner, Geet Sagar, if that means anything to anyone. SK is very proud of him, and I got to see several videos from the programme.

Gwalior Fort, towering over the town. The more elaborate bit on the left is the Man Singh Palace.

My day in Gwalior went like this. I got dropped off by a shared autorickshaw in a completely random place nowhere near where I wanted to be. I wandered around asking people until I found the Rani Jhansi memorial, where a big statue of her on horseback (see above) marks the place she was cremated after being killed in battle outside the walls of Gwalior Fort. Both the Gujari Mahal Archaeological Museum outside the Fort, and the other Archaeological Museum inside, were uninteresting – a load of old sculpture, and I’ve seen plenty of that now. On the long, winding walk up to the fort I was bothered by beggars, postcard sellers and someone who thought I should donate money to a squalid little shrine because I’d sat down to rest near it. There’s no fee to enter the Fort itself, which is quite an impressive edifice circling the steep-cliffed plateau, but you do have to pay to go into the Man Singh Palace (which looks good from the outside, but is an empty stone shell inside) and then again to visit the cluster of other palaces to its north (more stone shells). By this point I was tired, thirsty and utterly sick of forts and empty stone palaces.

I was going to walk further along the plateau to see some of the other sites inside the fort, such as the gurdwaras, temples and Jain sculptures, when I realised they weren’t important in the Mutiny and I didn’t really care about them. I headed back to SK’s, where he offered me a Kahlua – I accepted and introduced him to the idea of mixing it with milk – and told me about Gwalior Fort’s significance during the Mughal succession crises. For example, when Aurangzeb was consolidating his rule against his rival brothers, he imprisoned one of them, Murad, in a dungeon in the Man Singh Palace, and later had him executed there. Aurangzeb was a bit of a dick.

I didn’t learn much more about the Mutiny from visiting Jhansi and Gwalior, but then that wasn’t really the point. You learn facts from books. Visiting the places lets you get a bit more of an intuitive feel for those facts. I saw where Rani Lakshmibai lived and ruled Jhansi from, where she later lived in exile from the fort, the tunnel she probably rode through to escape it. I got an idea of the difficulty of the journey from Jhansi to Gwalior, though I doubt Lakshmibai took as ridiculous a route as we did. And I saw the massive fort of Gwalior, where she tried to persuade the local prince to join the Mutiny and failed (though succeeded with many of his troops), and the place she was killed and cremated. I’d call that mission achieved.

Me and SK in Gwalior

SK is a bit of a history buff. He gave me a succinct statement of his philosophy: “It wasn’t you. It wasn’t me. It’s history. It can’t be changed. We must accept it, whether it is sweet or bitter.” I think that’s a good attitude to have. Whether her cause was just or not, you have to admire the bravery and determination of Rani Lakshmibai, and, as Emily said, it’s awesome for India’s national myth to have such a strong heroine.

4 thoughts on “Jhansi and Gwalior

    • It was probably something like that, but the fact that at least one horse has survived such a drop doesn’t mean it isn’t still extremely unlikely and most wouldn’t. There’s also no reliable contemporary historical evidence to say that she escaped by jumping the wall, so on balance the tunnel is definitely the better theory.

  1. Tom,
    By not exporing Gwalior fort further you probably missed two ancient temples with a roundabout British connection. One, a Sun temple which was terribly defaced by Muslim conquerors, and restored, sort of, by the British. Another temple, Teli ka mandir, was literally eroded from the inside by the British when they set up a soda factory INSIDE the temple.

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