It’s surprising that an act of loot and pillage can be this clinically executed. Did it hurt their egos that a woman widow whom they decided as a non-entity turned against them? Or was it because the same widow gave a slip and bruised their egos even more? The detail with which the account was written and the innocence of the writing style makes it more gripping to read.
Early in the morning, after we had washed and performed our daily rituals, Kaka and I, along with Keshav Bhatt and his son, were about to leave for the bakhar, but just as we started to move, we heard gunfire and froze in our tracks. The messengers of death stood framed in our doorway. Our mouths were so dry that we could not even tell them that, according to custom, it is unethical to kill anyone, even during a war, before daybreak. We stood trembling and sweating and convinced that they would mow down any moment. There was no question of breaking into run. I was so shocked that I could not even feel my legs. However, Keshav Bhatt and his son somehow managed to run away and hid somewhere in the darkness around. Kaka and I could do nothing with two large gun-wielding white men facing us.
But god is great. He helped me keep my wits about me and we both prostrated ourselves before the gunmen and I spoke to them in Hindustani. I said, ‘Sahib, we are from Thane near Bombay. We are poor Brahmin pilgrims, please do not kill us. We are your loyal subjects—needy beggars, actually. We had only come to a client’s house looking for alms. Please, Sahib, have mercy on us and spare our lives.’
Even the white men could tell that my appearance, language and accent were markedly different from that of the locals. So they began asking us for money instead and started to search our belongings for any money we may have with us. We had received some two hundred fifty rupees from the Rani of Jhansi during her formal leave-taking. This we had tied up in a cloth and hidden among our bedclothes. Our lifeline must have been strong because those harbingers of death left us alive after locating and snatching that money from our belongings.
After this close encounter with death, we prayed and thanked Lord Baijnatheshwara for saving us and then left for the secret passage to the safe room. When we reached the end of the tunnel, we found the room crowded with dozens of men, women and children. We managed to push our way in somehow and waited for daybreak. After an hour, when if grew light, the sound of gunfire suddenly increased. After each barrage of firing, I wondered how many had been killed. How terrible it was to see the white soldiers punish harmless and poor citizens for the sins of others! Did none of the killers feel even a twinge of remorse?
It was summer and we were packed tightly in that windowless room. I felt suffocated and my body felt stiff as a cardboard. Around noon, I felt very thirsty and dehydrated. Others had made arrangements to quench their thirst, but I had nothing. Finally, when the gunfire died, I emerged from the bakhar and headed for a nearby well. There was a pot on the ledge, along with a stout rope to draw water with. I looked around, tied the rope to the mouth of the pot and lowered it into the well. I had barely swallowed a mouthful or so when there was a fresh burst of gunfire. The lust for life is strong in mankind; thirsty as I was, I banged down the pot and ran to save my life. In my panic, I forgot the way to the secret room and began running this way and that. Suddenly, I saw a round opening and entered it head first. There were two young women huddled there, and seeing them, I froze in my tracks. it was a tiny hole, but the women were kind and offered to hide me as well, even though it meant sitting extremely close, with our arms around each other. We were all drenched with sweat as we sat, our laces pushed close together. I was thirty years old at that time and the young women with me were in their teens. We must have sat for hours, with our bodies and faces touching, but such was the fear of death that we felt no lust.
When it got dark, I emerged from the hole and somehow found my way to the secret room. Kaka was overjoyed to see me again. He had been sure that I had died and had been mourning my loss. Thus, the day passed. Verily, once again, Hari Pant’s good deeds and god’s will had protected us. When it was dark, we came out of the dingy bakhar and went in to the house. As soon as we arrived, the wife and daughter-in-law of Karkare from the neighbouring house came crying. The poor, old Brahmin and his young son had both been shot dead by the heartless soldiers. The two widows had sat behind closed doors all day long, with the bodies of their dead husbands for company, but it was dark now and they were afraid of sitting alone with the bodies. They begged us to perform the prescribed rituals for the dead ones so their souls might find peace. We were starving, but duty came first. We collected a few people from the nearby houses and went to Karkare’s house. Since wood was scarce, we built a fire for cremating the bodies with old doors, wooden cradles and whatever else we could find within the house. Then, near some holy tulsi shrubs, we performed the last rites for the poor souls. After the cremation, we brought the two women to our house. We felt that at such a time, insisting that the dead men’s relatives be treated as unclean and untouchable would be senseless and cruel.
The next day, we headed once more to the secret room to hide, and there we chatted about the previous day’s happenings. That day, many more people were killed. By now, if people spotted white soldiers even at a distance, they would run and hide in haystacks. But the soldiers would come and set fire to the hay and many were thus burnt alive. Some others tried to escape the British by jumping into wells, but the white men would come and sit on the ledge, waiting for them to re-emerge, and then shoot them dead. Several citizens, who had escaped and hidden themselves in the fields, were also shot dead when they were found. A Brahmin next door, Agnihotri had been performing his daily fire ritual when two white men and four native soldiers forced their way into his house. They reached the holy fire room, where Agnihotri had covered the holy fire with an iron helmet. The white men thought the helmet had been put there to hide some precious objects and removed the cover. When they saw nothing but a heap of ashes, they began to dig around and, in doing so, burnt their hands on the smouldering cinders within. This enraged them so much that they shot dead all the males of the family and raided the house and carried away all the gold and silver they could find. Eleven men, including Agnihotri himself, were killed and his clan was decimated.
For three days, the white men shed blood in Jhansi while the crowd imprisoned in the garden starved. On the third day, they permitted people to go home and bring back food to eat in the garden. The people were hugely relieved and those that lived close by rushed home to fetch food. Several others also followed them into their homes and thus saved their own lives and survived those three days of carnage.
After three days, the enemy, having plundered the city, finally left, carrying all the gold, silver and precious stones they could. They left nothing behind, not even a shred of cloth. Even books were carried away. Jhansi had a rich library with many rare books and the rulers had taken very good care of this particular treasure over the years. The library had a rare collection of the four Vedas, Puranic texts, Sutras and all the major religious treatises and commentaries, along with hundreds of volumes on astrology, astronomy, traditional Ayurvedic medicine and many other kinds of rare learning. The rulers, as soon as they heard about a major text being available anywhere within a radius of five to six hundred miles from Jhansi, would send a special emissary to go and either buy it at whatever price was quoted or at least make a copy by hand and bring it back. Even learned men from Kashi visited the Jhansi library when needed. The books had all been embellished with beautiful, handcrafted bindings. The heartless British looted the library and began to throw the books down in their haste. Many priceless books were destroyed in the process. We saw pages fluttering all along the lanes in the breeze. The white men even carried away mattresses and silk cushions from the sitting rooms, destroyed the war drums and carried away the copper bugles. The wicked marauders did not even spare the temple of Goddess Mahalakshmi and carried away armloads of jewellery and silks from it. I felt perhaps the goddess was so enraged at the desecration of her city that she did not want any of those precious ornaments any more. On the last day, the British worked at great speed and killed many. All the temples and inns were filled with bodies of those killed by them and even the women were not spared in the Koshthipura area.
After the third day, it was as if a mountain had been lifted off our chests. We came out of our hiding place and had a bath and ate a good cooked meal. For three days, we had lived on soaked grains. Some clever people had hidden foodgrains and salt in drains. Some had buried it underground. Those who had not done so remained hungry. We had hidden some coarse grains in a drain in Mandavgane’s house. Poor Mandavgane had nothing, but we managed somehow.
As we relaxed a bit, I discovered that my chewing tobacco had run out, and that caused me as much discomfort as a fasting stomach. Strangely, while we were in hiding I had not missed my tobacco, but no sooner had the fear of death gone than my craving returned and I felt I would die if I did not get my regular fix. The markets were all closed, so I spent the whole night in great discomfort. Early in the morning, dressed in a loincloth, I sat on high ground and watched dark-skinned native soldiers recruited for the British army from south India carry away heavy metal utensils from homes. They were permitted by their white masters only to loot copper and brass vessels; gold and silver was reserved for the white soldiers only.
When the natives arrives at our house, I struck up a conversation with them in our common language and asked them details about their looting hierarchy. They told me that they belonged to Madras and were part of the troops sent by various princely supporters of the sahibs in Madras and Hyderabad in south India, so that the British could regain lost ground in the north. While the British soldiers were permitted to loot and carry away precious metals, the dark-skinned natives would loot brass, copper and other things. They would continue the plunder for the next four days and carry away all the brass and copper they found, but lives would be spared hereafter. The soldiers from the Hyderabadi armies would arrive at noon the next day. They would loot clothes and textiles. I asked the Madrasis if they could spare me some chewing tobacco and they happily gave me a large lump before leaving with all the pots and pans that they had found. We had prudently buried a few metal pots in the earth and they were all that were left for us to cook in.
Since wave after wave of looters followed for some time, we waited till evening to dig out our goods. When it was dark and we were sure that all the enemy soldiers had departed from the area, I offered pooja to the stone idols of the gods, which. were all they had left behind. All the metal idols and even my pooja things were gone, but I could still perform the rituals with makeshift lingams of Lord Shiva. I needed leaves of the bilva tree for this; these were still available in plenty. After that was done, Kaka and I fished out our hidden ration of coarse grains. We roasted and ground them and put the gruel to boil in a clay Pot. There was no salt, so we had a saltless meal that night and then hunted out a clay lamp and lit it. When they saw the light, a few neighbours came over to sit and chat. Finally, we left with them to see how the city looked after the terrible plunder.
Jhansi had been devastated by the battle and the looting that followed. We saw dead bodies scattered all over and stepped over them to go further. The flames were still burning and those who were wounded and still alive were groaning terribly. At several places, we saw families huddled around the lifeless bodies of their loved ones and wailing loudly. After a while, I felt sick and we hastily returned home.
The next day, the troops from Hyderabad arrived, as foretold, for their share of the loot. They had been permitted to loot textiles, so they took away everything in sight, from expensive silk garments to torn patchwork quilts. They looted garments worth lakhs from the big traders. We sat outside with only a towel around our waists, watching them pillaging the shops. I was unafraid of the dark-skinned native soldiers from the south. I asked them if they could spare me some chewing tobacco, and they did. Some more enemy troops arrived on the third day and began to loot foodgrains. They had brought several pairs of large bullocks with them, which they proceeded to tie outside houses and then piled their backs with bags of whatever they could lay their hands on: rice, wheat, coarse grains, pulses. Having emptied the clay vats the food was stored in, they broke them to smithereens. The fourth day was the day of miscellaneous looting. It was a free-for-all in which people took away whatever they could remove: the bolts from doors, turnstiles from roads, ropes and fixtures from wells, doors, wood, chairs, fruits from trees—nothing was left. We had nothing to eat that night. The bazaars had been emptied out completely.
It was the hot month of Vaishakha, so we tried to suppress our hunger by bathing with water from the well and drinking several tumblers of cold water. I remembered an old shloka which said that in a land where the ruler was a helpless woman suddenly made powerful, the regent was a child and the advisors illiterate, it would be hard to support life or earn a living. it was entirely true of the godforsaken kingdom of Jhansi, I thought, where the widowed Rani ruled with an iron hand, the adopted son was twelve years old and the prime minister, Lakshman Rao, was illiterate. We were perhaps lucky to have been able to save our lives.
The soldiers from the armies of smaller rulers who were supporting the British arrived after the British and the southern troops had looted the city and carried away everything they could get. They looked for grains stored in clay pots. Having poured the grain into sacks for easy hauling, they would break the pots. I kept watching it all quietly from my perch outside and occasionally, if I had the chance, would make small talk with the soldiers and ask them for chewing tobacco. By and by, all was gone: food, clothes, linen, pots and pans. After all the grain had been carried away, the soldiers attacked the fruit trees, carrying away clumps of unripe bananas and hemp ropes lying near wells. On the seventh day, all our foodgrains ran out. I kept thinking of my family, especially my aged parents, my brothers, my wife—I had made everyone fret unnecessarily and we had had no news of them for days now.
There were thousands who were angry and hungry like us in the plundered town. Lakhs had died. The city was in flames and its people had almost been stripped naked. No house was left untouched by tragedies. What kind of divine justice was this? The poor who had never defied the British were being punished so severely for no reason. But how could one question divine justice? The Shukraniti says that when a country is conquered by an invading army, the victors will humiliate the vanquished thus. Maybe it was the result of sins committed by the people of Jhansi.