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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
India 'neglects' its historic heritage
By Rajesh Joshi
BBC News, Barrackpore

The buildings are suffering years of neglect

As India celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first uprising against the British, the town where the first shot was fired by sepoy (soldier) Mangal Pandey is witnessing the gradual obliteration of its historical heritage.

Mangal Pandey fired the famous shot at a British officer on 29 March 1857 at the Barrackpore parade ground - now on the outskirts of Calcutta.

It was an action that stirred up a wave of rebellion in north India against the colonial power, and meant that Barrackpore would be a name always prominent in Indian history books.

But 150 years later, many of the sprawling bungalows and imposing structures from the colonial past have been completely swallowed by wild undergrowth.

Jurisdictional problems

Years of neglect and the indifferent attitude of the authorities have left historically important buildings in total ruin.

Peepal and banyan trees have broken through the roofs and walls of once beautiful houses, leaving almost no scope for restoration.

Aamir Khan in The Rising
Mangal Pandey has been glorified in films and books

"We don't have any plans for the restoration of the buildings because some of them don't come under our jurisdiction", says KV Nagi Reddy, Chief Executive Officer of the Cantonment Board which looks after the site of the old parade ground.

"Apart from the battle against the undergrowth and the jurisdictional problems some of the buildings are entangled in various court cases", Mr Nagi Reddy told the BBC.

That means that no restoration work can take place while these cases linger on, and is one reason for the poor upkeep of the buildings.

As one local history teacher put it: "Our heritage is being destroyed in front of our eyes but we are not in a position to do anything about it."

Typical of the architecture in Barrackpore is a red-pillared Victorian building with huge rooms and big courtyards. It epitomises Raj architecture, but is also a stark testimony of official neglect.

The sprawling lawns in front of the building are unkempt and the building itself is on the verge of collapse. Tree branches break through the walls and the magnificent red pillars.

Majestic grave

The Moti Jheel Bridge (literally the pearl lake bridge) is another fine example of British architecture, but today it is gradually being destroyed by foliage.

Constructed by Lord Wellesley as part of the beautification of Barrackpore, the beautiful bridge connects the garrison town to the Laat Bagan (or the Vice regal Garden) where top British officers used to relax.

Moti Jheel bridge
Many fine examples of architecture are surrounded by undergrowth

The booth adjacent to the bridge has been enveloped by a banyan tree and no effort has been made to restore the structure.

Ironically, one of the few well-maintained monuments from the past is a huge statue of the Indian Governor General, Lord Canning. It was during his watch that the mutiny took place at Barrackpore.

A few yards away from Lord Canning's statue is Lady Canning's majestic grave by the River Hoogly.

Dr Kanhaipad Rai, a professor of history in a local college, says even these monuments are part of India's history and must be properly preserved.

He says that celebrations may continue in Delhi and elsewhere, but the footprints of history are fast disappearing from the land where it all started.

The first Indian uprising led to the dethroning of the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was arrested by the British and sent in exile to Burma. India was brought under the direct rule of Queen Victoria.

Historical importance

The upheaval came to be known as "the Mutiny" in Western records but Indians call it their First War of Independence.

It is in this historical background that the architecture of Barrackpore assumes significance.

Tucked away in the outskirts of Calcutta, Barrackpore was the first cantonment established in the subcontinent by the British in 1765.

Seven years later Warren Hastings took over as India's first governor general.

Lady Canning's grave
Relics of the Raj are everywhere

The town is dotted by majestic bungalows and beautiful colonial buildings from where many military campaigns were launched and important decisions were made in the initial days of the British Empire in India.

The historical importance of these building has been forgotten as nobody can tell for sure as to when exactly the colonial officers of the East India Company used them.

Even the places associated with sepoy Mangal Pandey of the 34th Native Infantry are difficult to identify.

The military documents of his trial show that Mangal Pandey admitted to having acted "of my own will; I expected to die".


He was asked during the trial if he was under the influence of any drugs to which he replied: "Yes, I have been taking bhang (marijuana) and opium of late, but formerly never touched any drugs. I was not aware at the time of what I was doing."

He was hanged at the Barrackpore Parade Ground on 8 April 1857.

Mangal Pandey is revered as a national hero in India and has inspired many stories and even a Bollywood blockbuster Mangal Pandey: The Rising.

His actions led to a march by rebellious soldiers from the northern garrison town of Meerut to Delhi, where they stormed the walled city and attacked British officers and their families.

The Indian soldiers were reputedly aggrieved over being ordered to use rifle bullets thought to be greased with beef and pork fat - considered unclean by Hindus and Muslims.

Although their uprising was crushed, historians say it laid the seeds of a popular revolt against British occupation which culminated in full independence.

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