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Bangalore's forgotten soldier

Meera Iyer 17:55 IST

History

oasis of calm The dargah of Bahadur Khan in Bangalore. Photos by the author

Meera Iyer goes in search of the dargah of Bahadur Khan, the brave soldier who died defending the Bangalore fort one moonlit night two centuries ago. She finds it near the corner where the City’s SJP and Avenue roads meet.

One moonlit night 221 years ago, an old soldier died fighting while defending his fort against an enemy. He was one of thousands killed that night.

Yet something about the venerable old fighter moved even enemy hearts, so much so they buried him with full honours and wrote paeans about his bravery.

The soldier was the commandant or killedar of the fort during the Battle of Bangalore, which culminated on March 21, 1791. And interestingly, he is still remembered today, though in a slightly different role than earlier.

In the late 1700s, the Mysore kingdom was the greatest enemy the British had in India. The British had already fought and lost two wars against Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, when in 1789, they declared war on Tipu, launching the Third Anglo-Mysore War.

At that time, Bangalore was the second most important city in Mysore. It was a commercial hub for silks and textiles, an important centre for the manufacture of arms and ammunition, and was well-protected and fortified.

A mud fort, a deep ditch and a hedge of bamboo, aloe and other thorny bushes protected the populous commercial and residential part of the City, or pettah. Adjacent to it, a strong stone fort with a deep, wide moat protected the royal establishments along with foundries, magazines and barracks. Some British army officers referred to this as the most important fortress in Mysore.

The Third Anglo-Mysore war reached Bangalore in 1791, when Charles Cornwallis led his Grand Army here. They captured the pettah fort on March 7, 1791. Their next target was the stone fort.

A siege followed, during which there were many skirmishes between Cornwallis’s troops and Tipu’s army, which was camped nearby. Three weeks later, the British batteries trained on the stone fort succeeded in breaching its massive walls. And at 11pm on March 21, the British stormed the Bangalore fort.

The Mysoreans in the fort were caught unawares by the attack – perhaps because of traitors as some suggest, or because, as S K Aruni of the Indian Council of Historical Research points out, it was against the rules of war to attack at night.

Nevertheless, they put up a stiff fight. Rockets, cannon and a constant stream of gunfire assailed the British as they entered the fort. But within an hour, all was lost and Cornwallis had captured the fort. Estimates for Mysoreans killed in the fighting that night range from 300 to 2000.

Bahadur Khan, the brave one


One man in particular stood out – the killedar or commandant of the fort, Bahadur Khan. Tipu had only recently had him transferred from Krishnagiri to Bangalore.

Tall, fair and striking, with a white beard that reached almost to his waist, the seventy-something veteran looked more like a prophet than a fighter. But he fought with all the vigour of a youth.

British accounts recount how he led the fight from the front, urging his men to make a last stand against the enemy. The gallant old soldier battled on till his last breath, dying of a shot in the head and multiple stab wounds.

You can gauge the admiration the British felt for this particular enemy soldier from their encomiums on him.

Roderick Mackenzie, a lieutenant in the British infantry, writes, “Wherever gallantry is recorded, Bahadur Khan, killedar of Bangalore, will hold a conspicuous place among the heroes of our times. True to his trust, he resigned it with life, after receiving almost as many wounds as were inflicted on Caesar in the Capitol.”

After the battle, Cornwallis sent word to Tipu informing him that he could take the mortal remains of Bahadur Khan. Tipu is said to have wept with despair when he learnt of the loss of his trusted killedar.

But to Cornwallis, he responded that the spot where a soldier fell was the most honourable place where he could be interred. Accordingly, the British buried Bahadur Khan with full military honours near where he died. A few weeks ago, a friend and I went in search of Bahadur Khan’s grave. Only a small fraction of the once-great fort of Bangalore remains today, but what of the resting place of the now-forgotten man who had died defending the fort? Does it still exist?

Looking for his dargah

Knowing that he was buried somewhere near the fort, we decided to scour that vicinity. We knew that the grave, if it existed, would be a dargah. My fellow heritage enthusiast Mansoor Ali, who often visits dargahs, explained that in Islam, saints who had died or those who had been killed for a good cause were considered blessed. One could ask them to intercede on your behalf to God.

We began our search at Albert Victor Road, near Tipu’s palace. One interesting dargah followed another and we gathered stories about saints, soldiers and healers. From shrines where we were the only visitors to those like Syedani Bibi’s which had a regular stream of believers, we saw a whole gamut of dargahs, each a distinctively green oasis of calm amidst the chaos of the outside world: no traffic, no noise, no tension, no differences between religious communities.

In each, we asked about the grave of the brave commandant who had died fighting against the British, but though a few dargahs housed graves of people who had lost their lives fighting during Tipu’s times, none was named Bahadur Khan…until we reached the corner of SJP and Avenue Road. There, in the middle of the hubbub of the market and bus stand nearby, stands the Dargah Hazrath Mir Bahadur Shah Al-Maroof Syed Pacha Shaheed.

The dargah is a small one-roomed structure with granite cladding, a dome and four small turrets. In the centre is a grave draped with a red embroidered shawl and festooned with several garlands. As we watch, several men and women come in, touch the grave and fervently but silently pray to the martyr.

The faithful believe that a wish made at this dargah will come true. I learnt later that about 100 people worship at the dargah everyday. The karaga procession, too, makes a stop here.

Bahadur Shah died years ago, but here, near where he died, he is still very much a part of people’s lives.

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