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The legend of Nikkal Sayn

The Nicholson Monument, on the Grand Trunk Road, is a reminder of ruthless times, and a young man who managed to place himself at the centre of it all

The legend of Nikkal Sayn
The Gothic building and fountain.

Crossing Margalla Pass on the Grand Trunk Road near Islamabad, you cannot miss a tall magnificent obelisk right at the Margalla Pass — the Nicholson Monument.

The monument reminds us of days gone by when the East India Company used to rule India on behalf of the Crown.

Born in 1822 in Lisburn near Belfast, Brigadier General John Nicholson was one of the seven siblings from a middle class rural family. One of the uncles, Uncle Hoggs, had made a fortune in law practice in Calcutta and, through his connections, Nicholson got recruited by the East India Company, arriving in Calcutta in 1839.

The next 18 years, up to 1857, would establish Nicholson as one of the finest generals of the Company and a favourite among the ‘young men’ of Henry Lawrence, a British soldier and statesman, ‘young men’. Over the next few decades, Nicholson, along with other ‘young men’, tamed the Indian frontier for the Company. They included Herbert Edwardes, Henry Lumsden, Neville Chamberlain, Reynell Taylor, Patrick Vans Agnew, William Hodson and not so young Kaka James Abbott.

After spending a few months in Calcutta, Nicholson started marching westward with 27 Bengal Native Infantry to Ghazni in Afghanistan, the frontier, which at that time included Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tribal areas and beyond, was a real fascination for these young souls.

Nicholson tasted his first and only surrender at the hands of Afghans in Ghazni and was taken prisoner for several months.

In 1842, the Afghans butchered the British residents in Kabul and later massacred some 16000 strong British army and camp followers after promising them safe passage back to India.

 Nicholson was buried in a Christian war graveyard near Kashmir Gate in Delhi. He was 34 when he died. The Pathan and Punjabi irregulars accompanying Nicholson cried on his burial against the tribal traditions.

The tale of this massacre was told to the British by surgeon Dr William Brydon, who was left alive to tell the tale of horror and savagery. The Company’s army of retribution was sent which ransacked Kabul with equal savagery, leading to the freedom of Nicholson.

In Punjab, Sikhs had become increasingly troublesome after losing the 1848 battle of Chillianwala. Nicholson was based in Peshawar when one night, he was ordered to take Attock Fort, on the banks of river Indus, from Sikhs who were playing devious. Nicholson rode along with some 60 Pathan irregulars and reached Attock Fort in the morning taking the Sikh guards by surprise. He bluffed them into submission only on the strength of his personality and the fort was taken without a single bullet fired.

Thus, the legend of ‘Nikkal Sayn’ was born.

Next, Nicholson moved with lightening speed to take over the Margalla Pass that was guarded by a tower. A whole brigade of Sikh army was moving from Rawalpindi to Hasan Abdal to join forces with Governor of Hazara, Sardar Chattar Singh. The brigade was camping short of Margalla Pass when Nicholson rode into the Sikh camp and asked the commander to retreat within one hour or face consequences.

Just before one hour, under the dominating eyes of Nicholson, the Sikh army retreated.

After the battle of Gujrat in 1849, East India Company formally annexed Punjab to its dominion and Nicholson was appointed the first deputy commissioner of Rawalpindi. After serving there for a while, he left for the much-earned year-long furlough to England.Friends, like Edwardes, to get marrie. However, he returned to India in 1852, still a bachelor.

He was posted as deputy commissioner Bannu against the position vacated by Reynell Taylor, who was going on his furlough after serving a decade in India. It was in Bannu that Nicholson had to face the ferocious mountain people, Wazirs and Mehsuds.

The story was to be a typical one. The tribesmen were anticipated to descend into Bannu in the night and go on a rampage and then vanish in the morning. The British, in retaliation, would go on punitive expeditions into the mountains, which would lead to an equally painful experience for the tribal warriors. These revengeful retributions also won Nicholson a lot of respect among the tribals.

The Monument

The Monument

It was in Bannu that the legend of ‘Nikkal Sayn’ became truly unforgettable and some old folks still respond to some arrogant soul by saying “Te zan ta Nikkal Sayn wayay?” meaning, “Who do you think you are? Nicholson?”

Nicholson was in the Deputy Commissioner House in Bannu when by a Marwat tribesman attacked him. But, he was quick to get the attacker down using a musket.

A commemorative marble plaque authored by Herbert Edwardes, Nicholson’s dear friend, installed in the small colonial church next to Deputy Commissioner Bungalow in Bannu, reminds us of ‘Nikkal Sayn’.

After Bannu, Nicholson was moved to Peshawar again as Deputy Commissioner, where he was happy to be next to one of his dearest friend Herbert Edwards, the Commissioner of Peshawar.

It was from Peshawar that Nicholson started that fateful journey to Delhi in 1857, after which he would never see Herbert Edwardes or more importantly the frontier.

In early 1857, a 30,000 strong pre-dominantly mutineering regiment dumbstruck the East India Company in Delhi. The Company scrambled all available British and native forces from all over India. A number of Henry Lawrence’s young men started assembling from the frontier for the final battle. Nicholson at the head of Pathan irregulars set out from Peshawar and was joined by local Muslim tribesmen, including Muhammad Hayat Khan of Wah village whose father Hassan Khan was a close friend of Nicholson.

On the way, Nicholson ruthlessly butchered any mutineers including the suspects within his regiment.

In one incident, several cooks were hanged on suspicion of poisoning the officers.

Finally, the British forces took position just outside Delhi on the famous Delhi ridge, which overlooked Delhi and its fort.

In September 1857, the hostilities began and British were able to breach Kashmir bastion of the fort to enter the city. Different accounts tell of a brutal and ruthless carnage leading to bodies lying all over the streets with no discrimination of age or gender. Other accounts also tell of a similar fate for the British and their families. On September 14, 1857, during the ensuing mess, a musket ball hit Nicholson and he fell down. The soldiers evacuating Nicholson left him unattended on a stretcher. Lieutenant Robert (the later Commander in Chief of British Army) found him lying haplessly there. He was moved to a field hospital, where he died nine days later, on September 23, 1857.

Nicholson was buried in a Christian war graveyard near Kashmir Gate in Delhi. He was 34 when he died. The Pathan and Punjabi irregulars accompanying Nicholson cried on his burial against the tribal traditions and then returned home as they owed their loyalty only to ‘Nikkal Sayn’ and not the Company or Crown.

Nicholson was a brave but ruthless commander. Nicholson lost his younger brother Alexander to equally ruthless Afghans. He buried him near Ali Masjid in Khyber Pass. Another of Nicholson’s sibling, Charles, lost his right arm in the 1857 war and died in 1862 in India, while leading a Gorkha unit. Yet another Nicholson brother, William, while being part of Bombay army, died in Sindh in 1847 under mysterious circumstances. So, all four brothers lost their lives in India while serving the East India Company.

The Nicholson monument today reminds us of those unforgiving times — the conviction of those serving the Crown as well as of those resisting the Crown. During the colonial era, besides building the obelisk, another gothic building with a fountain was also built on the opposite side of the Grand Trunk Road.

While the obelisk is in good shape, the gothic building and fountain are in a dilapidated condition. The obelisk is next to a well-preserved section of the ancient cobbled Grand Trunk Road and makes for an excellent tourist spot. Unfortunately the whole area is neglected and is slowly being encroached upon by limestone quarries and related businesses.

A small project leading to some visible signboards, a tourist cum refreshment kiosk, car parking and a clean sitting area is all that is needed to revive this heritage site.

Omar Mukhtar Khan

Omar Mukhtar Khan
The author is a development professional with a passion for travelling. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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