we start with a short history of kanpur, which focuses on events such as the insurrection of 1857, which brought kanpur into prominence.

history of kanpur: a survey

kanpur today is largely a legacy of the colonial era. well before the arrival of the east india company, this area was gaining importance as the point on the grand trunk road (connecting delhi and allahabad) where the oudh road (connecting jhansi and lucknow) crossed the ganga. initially it was a boat ferry, and sometimes (in lean months) a bridge of boats over which an army could march across. it may have been located somewhere near the present day railway bridge. by the 1760s, some traders had settled at kanpur, including some portuguese. the first british troops arrived around 1770, and kanpur rapidly became a major garrison town.

but kanpur became notorious, at least in british histories, for the brutal events of 1857, during which a few hundred britishers, (half of them women and children), and about a million indians were killed in this area. many of the relics of kanpur date from this insurrection.

subsequently, kanpur emerged as a major industrial city, with textile and leather mills employing thousands of people. some of these large mills are still running and are great for historical visits; it is well worth the work in obtaining permissions.

pre-colonial history

on other cycling expeditions, we have explored the temple at bhitargaon and also the jajmau area (though not much ancient history is visible there). but predominantly, the historical artifacts around kanpur are from british times.

british presence (east india company)

background: the east india company, in need of greater revenues in bihar, defeated the forces of awadh and delhi at the battle of buxar in 1764. in 1765, the mughal emperor shah alam granted the company the diwAni or governorship of bengal (which included bihar and extended till varanasi). subsequently, they started eyeing the rich lands of awadh. small 'rebellions' would be put down, and some lands annexed each time by the company. eventually, in 1856, the nawabs were de-throned on charges of poor administration. the next year, the rebellion erupted.

the 1857 insurrection

background: the history of the 1857 insurrection has emerged as one of the most fiercely contested aspects in the postcolonial register. for over a century, a large body of serious history as well as vulgate fiction has "operated according to a dominant interpretation", a pattern enforced without "explicit censorship or any conscious plot to deceive". [from the persuasive analysis of vulgate fiction on the mutiny and its relations to the histories by Gautam Chakravarty: The Indian mutiny and the British imagination, 2005).

documents violating this dominant interpretation were ignored (e.g. Edward Leckey's close textual analysis revealing contradictions and absurdities in several "eye-witness accounts", Maude's statement that Nana may not have been guilty of Bibi-ghar).

the name of the event itself (mutiny? war of independence? sepoy war? uprising? rebellion?) is contested. while some of the initial events involved sepoys whose acts may be called a "mutiny", postcolonial historians have convincingly argued that the involvement of the landed gentry and other irregulars, and also the essentially peasant background of the sepoys speak of a broader social structure for the insurrecction. also causes for the mutiny were far deeper than the cartridges greased with beef and pork; indeed the very fact that such cartridges were introduced at all is indicative of the extent to which the officialdom was disconnected from the populace.

s.n. sen has observed that in 1857, the east india company was operating as one of the agents of the mughal emperor bahadur shah. thus, when the sepoys at meerut turned their allegiance to the emperor, whether this constituted "mutiny" is debatable since the east india company was formally a vassal to bahadur shah.

We end our look at 1857 with the words of a respected historian of the mutiny, John Kaye, A history of the Sepoy war in India, 1857-58, v.2, p.270:
An Englishman is almost suffocated with indignation when he reads that Mrs. Chambers or Miss Jennings was hacked to death by a dusky ruffian; but in Native histories, or, history being wanting, in Native legends and traditions, it may be recorded against our people, that mothers and wives and children, with less familiar names, fell miserable victims to the first swoop of English vengeance; and these stories may have as deep a pathos as any that rend our own hearts. It may be, too, that the plea of provocation, which invests the most sanguinary acts of the white man in this deadly struggle with the attributes of righteous retribution is not wholly to be rejected when urged in extenuation of the worst deeds of those who have never known Christian teaching.

historical sites at kanpur

The map below takes one full day (7AM - dusk) from iit kanpur and covers about 60 km.

historical sites at kanpur:
    1. kanpur anwarganj and kanpur central (railway history). 
    2. all soul's church, 
    3. nana rao ghat (called "massacre ghat" in british times).  also called sati
   	chaura ghat, which is technically a bit upstream, 
    4. old kanpur bridge, 
    5. kanpur museum at phool bagh, 
    6. christ church  (the church, not the college) 
    7. gora kabaristan (katchery cemetery, old portuguese cemetery), 
    8. lal imli and elgin mills (industrial era) 
    9. parmat ghat.  

Sites not on map: 
    10. old cawnpore station (off gt road),  
    11. old kanpur (near azadnagar),  
    12. cs azad agriculture university and hbti (to the West). 

sites from kanpur railway history

[this railway segment of the tour owes much to veteran railway buff joydeep dutta].

the first railway of north india opened from allahabad to kanpur in March 3 1859. this first single-platform station is lost - somewhere in the freight yard according to joydeep. the present kanpur central was built from 1928-1930.

1. kanpur anwarganj station

the kanpur farrukhabad line opened 1880, but the anwarganj station was built in 1896. these were built by the indian branch railway co, which built branch lines (kanpur-lucknow 1867), and became part of the oudh and rohilakhand railway.

the station facade. prince, sayyed, vishal and amit

at the end of the kanpur anwarganj platform. amit,sayyed, prince, sudip, vishal and anup.

during our 2011 march visit, at the control room, the station superintendent was happy to show us his lit up console. by changing plugs on the diagrammed lines, he can switch the "points" on the faraway tracks. there was a photo on the wall of the station as it was in 1900.

anwarganj station train controller explaining the system

10. old kanpur railway station

this station is on the direct line from howrah to delhi (still used by goods trains). passenger trains go on a loop to reach the present kanpur central. the station was most likely built around 1880 and remained in service till 1930. by the 1920s, at which point traffic gradually shifted to the Cawnpore Barracks station (which is why the code for kanpur is "CNB" - J. Dutta). 1928-1930, the "Kanpur Central" station was built at the Barracks location. Eventually, operations ceased at the old cawnpore station c.1930. Today it is a railway training institute.

old cawnpore station with its elegant portico (manoj amit saumyen karthik joydeep arunkb babu).
cawnpore station platform. the marble tablet on the wall declares: "from calcutta 632 miles 962 to bombay. 414 feet above sea level." a railway sleeper from the time of the East India Railway (E.I.R.).

The station was built by the East India Railway Company, one of India's largest railway firms at the time. This is the firm that opened the Kanpur-Allahabad line two years after the mutiny, in 1859. By 1864 trains were running from Howrah to Delhi, but the coaches needed to be ferried across the Jamuna at two points. With the completion of the bridges at Allahabad (1865) and Delhi (1866), one could go on rails all the way. EIR continued operating the howrah-delhi line till 1925, at which point it was taken over by the government and it was divided into six different railways (precursor to the many "zones" of today).

mutiny relics: cantonment area

to reach the cantonment area (the old military area) from the mall road, you can try crossing this gate. bicycles are permitted on both sides, but the barrier is kept to prevent motorcycles, presumably. so they told us that we should lift up the cycles and proceed...

the more i bicycle around, the more i realize that our real challenge is to prevent motorcycles from encroaching on paths meant for bicycles.

sudip and anup. then vishal being photographed...

2. all soul's church (erstwhile "kanpur memorial church")

kanpur memorial church (all soul's church). built 1875

the memorial church is in cantt, 16km from iitk. it is now called the "all soul's church", a term that does not ask who it is a "memorial" for. we met the presbyter, mr carroll - he is pleased to see that we'd come all this way by cycle.

the church was built in 1875 in the memory of the british who had died in the mutiny, and was for long known as kanpur memorial church. the presbyter told us that "today, it is no longer 'kanpur memorial church but only 'all souls church'".

the compound has an amazingly large number of aggressive street dogs. the presbyter called them his "chowkidars". unfortunately the church was closed - it would open for a service at 9 am but we couldn't wait that long. dont forget to check out the forgotten angel in the south face.

lined up before the winged angel: manoj joydeep arun karthik babu. a squirrel scuttles around where once cannonballs whizzed. meanwhile contested histories are emerging from old graves...

the memorial church was built in 1875, on the site of the famous wheeler's entrenchment, where a few hundred britishers and anglo-indians led by gen. hugh wheeler had holed up against sepoy troops, from june 6 to 26, 1857. [e.g. see G.O. Trevelyan, Cawnpore, 1865; a well-documented history of the British view.) the area that was "wheeler's entrenchment" is now gone, and the nearby racecourse is now a civil aerodrome. the present church compound was certainly part of it.

there are a number of other old british era building in the vicinity. the cawnpore club (which retains the raj spelling) has some parts (a reading room) that dates from the 1830s. several other churches in the area - st johns, etc. are much older. all soul's is the baby among the churches, said mr. carroll.

riding through the cantt

3. nana rao ghat (massacre ghat)

upon the promise of safe conduct, the garrison under wheeler surrendered on june 27 1857. they were provided coaches and elephants to proceed to the ganga, from where they would go by boat to allahabad.

the sati-chaura ghAT shortly after 1857. image from victorianweb.org

their fateful route went more or less along the roads we followed to the nana rao ghat. here the water was running low (it was late june, pre-monsoon) and at one point some indian boatmen who were helping them launch the boats suddenly jumped off and made for the shore. there was some misunderstanding, and Mowbray Thompson, one of the survivors wrote in an early report that at this point
As soon as Major Vibart had stepped into his boat, "Off" was the word; but at a signal from the shore the native boatmen, who numbered eight and a coxswain to each boat, all jumped over and waded to the shore. We fired into them immediately, but the majority of them escaped. ...
rudrangshu mukherjee quotes this statement to indicate that it is possible that the british may have been the first to start firing, leading to large-scale return of fire from the massed sepoys.

other survivor reports talk of the firing starting up, but do not discuss who started it. a very long and loud british tradition has it that it was all planned by nana rao, that the cavalry swept into the water and killed off the remaining few.

the british colonial sentiment, fueled by "mass market novels filled with lurid accounts of rape and mutilation that threatened the ‘purity’ of British womanhood" [Metcalf/Metcalf, p. 106], overwhelmingly painted a despicable picture of natives and fueled british racism for many decades. as for rape and british womenhood, over the twenty day captivity of 200 british women and children at kanpur, there was no evidence of rape.

by in any event, this is the ghat that evoked lurid fascination for several generations of englishmen. certainly, some 200 britishers and an unknown number of indians died here on june 27, 1857. looking down the ghat, i thought of how their bodies may have floated down the ganges next to each other; had there been some of this closeness earlier, all these deaths could have been avoided.

at nana rao ghat. sayyed, sudip, vishal, anup and prince. R: anup and amit. behind us are the long sati chaura ghat, beside the sati chaura village.

yellow temple at nana rao ghat. photo session: manoj clicking arun, babu and karthik.

outside the nana rao ghat we found this akhara - it has been running since the early 1900s. prince trying his hand at exercise by digging, and anup swirling the mace.

crossing the kanpur-lucknow line, there was a train coming. but it didn't prevent these kids from continuing with their cricket.
we also stopped by at giridhar kunj, a british era private property next to the nana rao ghat. the house had once belonged to one british mr. hoon, who also owned the state bank building on mall road. it had been bought up by the seth bhawani prasad girdharilal, who once owned most of fazalganj. we met his grandson, op agarwal, who told us some of its history. the large sprawling house, home to a number of uncles and cousins - has been completely renovated - the tile roofs are now modern and the interiors are all up to date.

5. kanpur museum (KEM Hall) and phool bagh (bibighar)

and then the kanpur museum in phoolbagh (started in 1880 as the king edward memorial hall, now the ganesh vidyarthi hall). like many bridges of the period, the truss structure below the main carriageway is also used as a road. today, the upper deck is what most people use - lower deck access can be closed off by two doors. as of today, there were bamboo barriers at both ends to stave off motorcycles.


posing for a photo in the underdeck. a river lapwing vanellus duvaucelii, from the sand bank below.

prince - riding on the lower-story of the bridge. here you can see the bridge structure; the trusses underneath and the road above.

i had crossed back under the bridge ahead of the group. i thought this was a good spot for a photo. so i said "idhar aao for a photo" to the others behind me. then these two passersby who had just crossed over came and stood in line. one of them remained standing throughout the shot. i wondered why having a lot of free time is associated with low self-esteem...

6. Christchurch; 12. CSA University, HBTI

we next visited christ church (1830) where there was a beautiful service that we were just in time for. the parade grounds next to this church were where a indian prisoners and rebels were often fired off from canons. one witness wrote: "perhaps six to eight seconds after the explosion, down fell the man's head among us, slightly blackened but otherwise scarcely changed." next we went to the kacheri (gorA) cemetery with graves from 1790 to 1870s (the first british settlement at kanpur started in 1770s)

the church at Christchurch; sunday mass.

domed kailash bhavan at CSAU. Statue of Chandrasekhar Azad.

At the cemetery: Amit, Sayyed, Anup Sudip. At CSA University of Agriculture: Prince, Vishal, Anup, Sudip.

after a great jalebi breakfast at bansiwala's, we visited the cs azad agriculture university - whose impressive mughalic buildings date from 1893 or so. iit was started in 1952 in the finally we cycled back along gt road; during post-mutiny reprisals by the british, an indian body was hanging from every tree on this road. the indian deaths in oudh district are estimated by amaresh mishra to be about 15-20 lakhs. got back to iitk around 11.

bumpy trail bicyclist history tours

we did our first bike tour fresh from our successful taj pedal yatra, the first exploratory kanur history tour was organized an during the holi break (march 2011). Followup tours were organized in September 2011 and Independence day 2012.

march 2011: prince, sudip, anup, sayyed, vishal and amit made the trip. we set off at 6am anticipating the heat that would build up after ten. stopped at kanpur anwarganj station, and most of the sites on the map.


march 2011: sayyed sudip anup and prince at SAC 5:55 AM. aug 15, 2012: amit joydeep (waving flag), arun kb, babu karthik

amitabha mukerjee 2011 mukerjee [at] gmail