A Walk Back in India’s History

From 15th-century forts in Salem to dilapidated police stations in Assam, here’s a trail through the places that preserve India’s patriotic past.  
Freedom Trail 2
The infamous Cellular Jail, located in Port Blair, carries dark tales of torture inflicted on freedom fighters and political activists who were shipped away to its cells during the peak of the Freedom Struggle. Photo by: diy13/shutterstock

Seventy-three years seems like a long time. Yet for those who lived through the euphoria of August 15, 1947, it possibly seems like yesterday when thousands huddled close to the radio, listening in amazed disbelief as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s booming voice declared India to be independent. Dawn brought with it newspapers splashed with celebratory headlines, assuring millions that this wasn’t a dream.

Seven decades later, India looks ahead with gusto, its soul firmly rooted in an indelible past. We have curated a ‘freedom trail’ through the country—places steeped in both the glory and loss of resistance—to remind you of our journey.

 

Basu Bati, Kolkata

Tucked deep within the bylanes of Baghbazar in North Kolkata lies Basu Bati mansion, a sprawling estate that housed one of the early illustrious families of Kolkata—formerly Calcutta—that of brothers Nanda Lal and Pasupati Basu. Built in 1876, Basu Bati weaves its own history into the pages of India’s fight for Independence. In 1905, when the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon announced the infamous ‘Partition of Bengal,’ rebellion in the form of a procession led by none other than Rabindranath Tagore commenced in the Federation Hall and ended with a mass rakhi-tying ceremony in the mansion’s thakur dalan (courtyard). It is said that Surendranath Banerjee, a pioneer of the movement, had made the official call for Swadeshi in these halls. A year later, an exhibit for the display of khadi products, a direct challenge to British-made goods, was also held here.

 

Kashmere Gate, Delhi

One of the original 14 gates of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s ‘Shahjanabad,’ the Kashmere Gate in Old Delhi, other than serving as an important site for the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, is a perfect specimen of fusion of Mughal and colonial architecture. During the famous revolt, sepoys enlisted with the British Army turned rogue and took control of the gate that was positioned between a river and a ridge. In retaliation, British troops bombed the bastions from a vantage point off the ridge. Gates and walls around the Kashmere Gate still bear the marks of cannon-balls. In September of 1857, after four months of the siege holding steady, the British army finally stormed the historic gate and captured it.

 

August Kranti Maidan, Mumbai

The first session of the Indian National Congress was meant to be held in Pune. However, a sudden cholera outbreak in the city prompted a last-minute shift of the venue to neighbouring Mumbai, with the seminal event taking place on the grounds of the Tejpal Auditorium on December 28, 1885.

The venue that was decided upon used to be a water tank called Gowalia Tank in Gowalia Tank Maidan, today known as August Kranti Maidan, a spot that was immortalised years later as the birthplace of the Quit India Movement. On August 8, 1942, Gandhi made a historic speech on these grounds, ordering the British to leave India immediately, or suffer the consequences of nation-wide mass protests. Following Gandhi’s address, Aruna Asaf Ali hoisted the Indian National Flag here for the first time—sparking India’s Freedom Struggle to one of its final, victorious legs.

 

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On August 8, 1942, Aruna Asaf Ali hoisted the Indian National Flag at the August Kranti Maidan for the first time. Photo by: Dinodia Photos/Alamy

 

Salt Satyagraha Monument, Tiruchi

At the intersection leading up to Tiruchi Railway Station, the unassuming passerby may miss two blue-framed white pillars that commemorate the lesser-known Vedaranyam March. Inspired by Gandhi’s Dandi March, C. Rajagopalan, a stalwart in the Indian Independence Movement, led a group of over a 100 on a march to Vedaranyam on April 13, 1930. The agenda was no different—to extract salt from seawater in a mass protest against the controversial salt tax imposed by the British. Today, a pair of pillars stand at this spot, the first erected in 1973, and the second in 1986.

 

Cellular Jail, The Andamans

An infamous British penal colony on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Cellular Jail, located in Port Blair, carries dark tales of torture inflicted on freedom fighters and political activists who were shipped away to its cells during the peak of the Freedom Struggle. Back in India, the jail, built in 1906, was called ‘Kala Pani’ which translates to ‘black waters.’ The feared name referred to an ancient Indian taboo which implied that an Indian who crossed an ocean away from their motherland would become a social pariah. Another reason could be that the jail was surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of ocean in every direction, designed in a way that guaranteed deathly isolation to prisoners left with little hope of escape. The atrocities faced by the political prisoners in the jail were brought to light extensively in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s writings, based on his own experience being incarcerated there between 1911 and 1921. A towering three-storey structure that sprawls across seven wings and contains a watchtower, the jail was only closed down in 1937 and prisoners released due to an intervention by Gandhi and Tagore.

 

Mangal Pandey Park, Barrackpore

The Barrackpore Cantonment, one of the oldest in the country, packs an interesting history of British India’s military power. A local legend, credited with sowing the seed of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, Mangal Pandey’s story is well-known. Pandey was enrolled with the 34th Bengal Native Infantry regiment of the British East India Company. He was hanged to death on April 8, 1857, for attacking two British soldiers as an expression of his infantry’s discontentment with the introduction of the controversial Enfield Rifle. Today, a riverfront park named Shaheed Mangal Pandey Maha Udyan, which also houses the brave sepoy’s statue, commemorates his role in India’s centuries-long crusade against British imposition. Once visitors have had their fill of history, they can take a (paid) boat-ride along the Ganges, which flanks the park.

 

Gohpur Police Station, Assam

The story of Kanaklata Barua, the 17-year-old Assamese girl who was shot dead with the tricolour clenched in her hands, is often sidelined amid the more frequently-recounted stories of India’s Freedom Struggle. On September 20, 1942, at the peak of the Quit India Movement, Barua led a protest to the Gohpur Police Station, before she fell to British bullets. Despite the police station’s significance among the spots associated with the Freedom Struggle, it took over seven decades for the state government to assign the-now dilapidated building ‘heritage’ status. It gained official recognition only in 2018, when a call-to-action was initiated to preserve the building—also precious for its old-style Assamese architecture of sloping roofs and front verandahs with columns.

 

Freedom Trail

Basu Bati mansion (left) is a sprawling estate that housed one of the early illustrious families of Kolkata; The memorial outside the Old Telegraph Building (right) at Kashmere Gate was renamed ‘Ajitgarh’ to honour the martyrs of 1857. Photo Courtesy: Rajaditya Ghosh (Basu Bati), Photo by: AnilD/shutterstock (Old Telegraph Building)

 

Sankagiri Fort, Salem

Built in the 15th century during the Vijayanagar Empire, the Sankagiri Fort was once used as a watchtower by Kongu chieftains. It also served as a strong military base for first Tipu Sultan, and later, the British army. The fort, now maintained by the ASI, stands witness to the story of a Kongu chieftain named Dheeran Chinnamalai. Legend has it that the palayakarrar (feudal title for military governors) once intercepted a British troop that was on its way to Mysore, ferrying heaps of Indian tax money. In true Robin Hood-style, Chinnamalai seized the money with the aim to redistribute it among Indians. For this, he was hanged at the fort in July 1805. Making way to the fort today demands a steep uphill climb—but the chills are worth it.

 

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  • Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.

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