This is the main resting place of the British community of Delhi after the disaster of the Mutiny in 1857. It was originally a Mughal garden. It is named after its most illustrious resident, Brigadier-General John Nicholson, “Lion of the Punjab”. He began his career as an ensign in the East India Company Native Infantry. He had a reputation of being courageous, fearless and a brilliant swordsman. Although he was considered just and fair, he also had a furious temper and showed little mercy to his enemies.*
During the Mutiny, Nicholson led a mobile column from the Punjab to relieve the besieging British troops on the Ridge north of Delhi. Some considered his presence equivalent to a thousand additional troops. He bitterly criticised the incompetence of his superiors and was glad to be given the task of leading his troops through the breached walls at Kashmiri Gate. Inside the city, his troops were exhausted and stopped to rest. Nicholson didn’t. Wielding a sword and a pistol, he charged a gang of mutinous sepoys down a street, but was shot in the back by a sniper. He died nine days later from his wounds.
It is a forgotten wonderland of dilapidated tombs, toppled headstones choked with spiny vines, tangled weeds, and outrageously draped with a riot of red bougainvillea.
There are some graves prior to the Mutiny, with marble headstones set into the red wall of the gatehouse. One plaque was by the 8th, The King’s Regiment, commemorating three lieutenants, 41 non commissioned officers and men, who lost their lives during the siege of Delhi. (The Mutiny Monument on the Ridge (which looks like the Albert Memorial) contains the names of all the British troops who lost their lives during the siege.)
Lots of young British soldiers are buried here, their rank and regiment displayed on their headstones. It is interesting to read the inscriptions: “Erected by his colleagues and friends,” and explaining the cause of death – enteric fever (typhoid) or pleurisy. Sadly the commonest religious message is the fatalistic, “Thy will be done.” I was touched by the gravestone of Herbert Jackson, C Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, whose age was given as “23 and 11/12”.
Elizabeth Badley Read, of the American Methodist Mission in Lucknow, lies beneath a stone slab which reads, “She loved India”.
The western half of the cemetery is modern, orderly and well kept. There are rows of marble slabs, beneath which Anglo-Indians are buried along with those who “stayed on”.
The Moghul Emperors left behind magnificent mausoleums, some of which have been restored to something resembling their original grandeur, others have been allowed to crumble to dust.
The Hindus, Buddhists and Jains believe in reincarnation of the soul, so their dead are cremated to leave nothing behind.
The entropic Nicholson Christian Cemetery is a poignant reminder of the fragile tenure of a century of British Raj. But the legend of Nicholson lives on. There is a tiny cult of tribesmen on the North West Frontier who still revere “Nikal Seyn – the Lion of the Punjab”.#
Et in Arcadia, ego
* During the Mutiny, one evening Nicholson appeared in the officers’ mess at Jullunder and said, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting for your supper, but I have been busy hanging your cooks.” He had received word that there was a plot to poison the officers’ food with aconite, so he asked the regimental chefs to taste what they had prepared. They refused. He fed the food to a monkey, which promptly expired, so he immediately had the cooks hanged. He then ate dinner.
# For an amusing, account of Nicholson’s life, if you can stand the profanity, look at the website “Badass of the Week”.