Spirit uprising

Once upon a time, the Old City was besieged by ghosts ♦

Read this article as part of Time Out Delhi’s “Haunted Delhi” cover story.

Illustration by Tara Sapru

“No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in a short story from 1888, “but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.” Kipling understood the distinction between the gothic Christian notion of once-living souls trapped between this plane and the next (your basic bhoot) and our more colorful native procession of djinns, yakshis, churails, vetalas and other spirits and demons.

With its concentration of defunct nineteenth-century Christian cemeteries, Mughal tombs, crumbling walls and abandoned gates, the Old City is the natural haunting ground for the ghosts of real people. And if ghosts in general are the spirits of those who died violent, untimely deaths, it’s not surprising that many of Delhi’s archetypical ghost stories – still just about in circulation – are rooted in the twilight of the Mughal empire and the bloody months surrounding the Uprising and siege of 1857.

In the years just before 1857 though, there were stories of restless white ghosts wandering the galis and gates of the Old City. The most famous is that of British Resident William Fraser, who was murdered on the orders of Shamsuddin, a young nawab of Ferozepur, on his way home from a nautch in 1835. He’s said to lurk around Hindu Rao hospital, formerly his residence in the northern Ridge.

That area, between the Ridge, Civil Lines and Kashmere Gate, was the locus of most of the action during the siege, and it has its share of apparitions too. In May of 1857, after the rebel army attacked, the enthusiastic editor of the Dehli Urdu Akhbar wrote that “Some people even swear that the day the horsemen came here, there were she-camels ahead of them, on which rode green-robed riders. Then they instantly vanished from sight; only the troopers remained, and they killed whichever Englishman they found, cutting  them up like carrots or radishes.” Some of these julienned Englishmen may not have vanished quite so quickly: Delhi chronicler RV Smith recalled that in the early 1900s, a headless horseman soldier would be seen riding on Lothian Road, and another “sar kata bhoot” in Tees Hazari.

Civilians wander the battlefield as well. Like George Beresford, the manager of the Delhi Bank on Chandni Chowk, who had written a Delhi guidebook just the year before. He passed up his chance to escape the city and was butchered, along with his wife and five daughters on a roof in the complex on May 11, and possibly left unburied until the end of 1858.

There’s the deep Khuni Jheel in the Northern Ridge, which became a mass grave for British civilians and Indian sold­iers. It’s almost gentrified and pleasant now, but in the aftermath of 1857, dead soldiers, women and children would be seen there.  The actual graveyards in the area – the Lothian, Nicholson and Mutiny (Rajpura) cemeteries – were of course haunted too. Brigadier-General John Nicholson, who was mortally injured in September 1857 while leading the crucial push to recapture of the city, is still said to haunt the hallowed ground where his remains are interred. Though no one in
the area – least of all the caretaker’s family – wants to talk about it, we have it on good authority that the warrior’s ghost appears atop a white horse, brandishing a naked sword.

When British reinforcements wrested control of Delhi, it was the turn of Mughul royals and aristocracy to suffer execution and murder most foul. Both the prison of Salimgarh Fort and the execution ground at Khooni Darwaza had histories of previous haunting, and the events following the Uprising helped entrench their reputation. Salimgarh Fort, where Bahadur Shah Zafar was incarcerated briefly after trying to escape via Humayun’s Tomb, has a haunted past thanks to Aurangzeb, who supposedly kept his ghazal-writing daughter Zebunnisa (pen-named Makhfi) here. She died single, and her ghost is said to haunt the prison. Perhaps she consorts with the ghosts of the minor princes of the late Mughal period, allegedly raised captive in jail-cells here to make sure they were incapable of revolt. Flash forward from 1857 to the next war of Independence, and Salimgarh was used to incarcerate members of the Indian National Army, some of whom died and can be heard rattling their chains.

Prisoners and royals haunt the Red Fort too. In the 1960s, the Hindustan Times sent a photographer to spend the night in the diwan-e-khas, after the caretaker heard eerie sounds and saw ghosts. And while the Uprising was long over and Bahadur Shah Zafar far away in Rangoon when he died in 1862, people who lived around the Lal Qila said they would see him, his wife Zeenat Mahal and a retinue of his dead family members, circumambulating the fort on Thursday nights. How awkward if they were to encounter the restless spirits of the British soldiers, who still prowl the tunnels below the Fort, seeking Mughal loot.

A day before Nicholson died, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons and grandson were shot at the “Bloody Gate” and are said to haunt it still. Khooni Darwaza is near the graveyards behind the Indian Express building and was used by other capital punishers, including Aurangzeb, who mounted Dara Shikoh’s head here. The Khooni Darwaza is one of the few sites that retains its ghostly notoriety, partially perhaps due to the rape of a medical student here in 2002. But in general, the commonly held belief in ghosts around the ruins south of Shahjahanabad has petered out. Writer Sohail Hashi remembered that even as recently as his father’s youth, it wasn’t considered safe to mill about around the area. “But many of these ghost stories have died with the expansion of the city,” he said.

It’s difficult to now find old Dilliwalas who believe or even know the stories about the phantoms of 1857. Mostly, they’re found just wandering down the memory lanes of people like RV Smith, who know the Old City well but have studied its history too. There are still a few haunted spots around – an abandoned house near Turkman Gate, a white lady who smokes cigarettes at Kashmere Gate – but these are just a fading part of the fabric of daily life, nothing much to talk about.  Maybe the stories of these specters will return some day. Smith certainly hopes so. “Everybody loves ghost stories,” he said. “There was a time that it was fashionable to read them. Now they’re making a comeback, especially on TV shows.” Or perhaps it’s only fair that those old ghosts of old Delhi be allowed to die, at last, a natural death.

Read more about the city’s ghosts in Time Out Delhi‘s “Haunted Delhi” cover story.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2011.