Sikander Sahib

or the Anglo-Indian James Skinner, has always fascinated me, and my trip to Delhi gave me the chance to visit his final resting place in the church that he had built in the north of the city. There is in fact a story relating to this from his days as a mercenary with the Mahrattas, which he tells with typical sangfroid in his memoirs:

“…as I was going to follow them, a horseman galloped up, matchlock in hand, and shot me through the groin, I fell, and became insensible immediately; and after my fall, the poor remains of my brave but unfortunate fellows met the same fate. I do not believe that fifty men out of the 1,000 escaped from the field untouched.

It was about three in the afternoon when I fell, and I did not regain my senses till sunrise next morning. When I came to myself, I soon remembered what had happened, for several other wounded soldiers were lying near me. My pantaloons were the only rag that had been left me, and I crawled under a bush to shelter myself from the sun. Two more of my battalion crept near me;-the one a subadar, that had his leg shot off below the knee; the other, a jemadar had a spear wound through his body. We were now dying of thirst, but not a soul was to be seen; and in this state we remained the whole day, praying for death. But alas! night came on, but neither death nor assistance. The moon was full and clear, and about midnight it was very cold. So dreadful did this night appear to me, that I swore, if I survived, to have nothing more to do with soldiering,-the wounded on all sides crying out for water-the jackalls tearing the dead, and coming nearer and nearer to see if we were ready for them; we only kept them off by throwing stones, and making noises. Thus passed this long and horrible night.”


Skinner broke his vow to give up soldiering, for after quitting the service of the Mahrattas (or rather, being dismissed with all European mercenaries after hostilities began with the Company) he took up arms for his father’s side instead, and went on to become one of British India’s most famous horse-soldiers and leaders of cavalry, in a theatre dominated by irregular horse such as Fayne’s, Hodson’s, Probyn’s and the Guides (more on Cptn.’Rake’ Hodson in another post, as I visited Humayun’s Tomb later in the day). His unit Skinner’s Horse, with their distinctive yellow tunics and pagris, still exists today in the Indian Army, with a glorious record of service. However, in his memoirs he does not mention the other oath he took, which was to pay for a church to be built if he survived that terrible night near Tank; this one he kept, and St. James’s Church stands to this day (apparently he also built a mosque, but it appears to have not survived).


I got out my taxi and crossed the crazy traffic of the road, and despite the guard not speaking any English and observing me suspiciously through the locked gate, was finally allowed in to look around without having to bribe him, so long as I took my shoes off.  Apart from a solitary sweeper at work, the place was to myself, and reading the plaques on the walls was like being transported in time. Most were dedicated to various Europeans, their wives and sometimes children also, and also some notable native Christian converts, who were killed by the mob in Delhi during the Mutiny, but others were more recent. There was also a roster of all the commanders-in-chief of the three battalions, separate plaques with lists of officers casualties, and all the decorated officers and men, from 1914 right up to the various Indo-Pakistani wars and Operation Rakshak.  Skinner’s grave itself was right before the altar.  Fittingly, even the pulpit was crowned by the crossed lances and emblem of Skinner’s Horse.


Various Skinner family members are buried outside in the family plot, which is well tended but kept under lock and key.


Skinner saw out his retirement in his estate at Hansi – despite falling victim to the increasing racism of the Company – with his successful horse trading business, his fourteen wives and penning his autobiography, in classical Persian (most of what I know about Skinner, comes from the English translation of this work).  His banquets and nautch dances were a byword for hospitality among the English officers, and he was known for his generosity, complete lack of airs and his never-ending stock of tales of his campaigns. Visitors had only fond memories of ‘Old Secunder’ and the devotion – and martial skill – of his famous ‘Yellow Boys’; to them, he was “Sikander Sahib”, incarnation of Alexander the Great. He died of natural causes in 1843 so was spared witnessing the Sepoy Mutiny, which his children endured. However, such was the loyalty and regard held for Skinner by the local people, that his estate in Hansi was a safe haven for Europeans and Christian converts during the bloodshed.

Skinner family pew

During the Siege of Delhi, St. James’ was used as the headquarters for the Delhi Field Force after Cashmere Gate had been taken. The whole area was the scene of terrible fighting after gross underestimation of the capabilities of the rebels – a third of the officers and men who took part in the storming of Cashmere Gate, were casualties by the end of the first day, and in the six days it required to take the Lal Qila, a total of nearly a thousand British troops, Gurkhas and loyal sepoys were killed – and the church itself was heavily damaged by rebel fire.  There was a photograph of the Church, taken shortly after the fall of Delhi, on display (compare this with my photo above):


My driver, a kindred spirit as he was an interminable mumbler, was curiously reluctant to take me to the Gate itself – which apparently is still pockmarked with shot and musketry – and since the whole general area is also called Cashmere Gate, we had a remarkably circuitous discussion about how to get there, along the lines of “Now let’s go to Cashmere Gate please” “This is Cashmere Gate.” “No, I want to go to the Gate itself,” “All this is Cashmere Gate…” so in the end, I gave up.  We drove over the approximate area where Johnny Nicholson was fatally shot (believing he was leading a bayonet charge against a rebel position only to find his men, a large number by this stage drunk, were refusing to move and he had ran out into the street by himself) but again, my driver had a curious reluctance to head west, so as to visit Nicholson’s grave, and when I asked him to head toward the Ridge, he said cars couldn’t pass through there.  I even told him the name of the road to go for, but he was quite resolute in not going.  Oh well, there is always next time.  Anyway, my stomach was rumbling after an early start and after visiting both Lal Qila and Jama Masjid before heading north in the searing heat, I was in no mood to argue a lost cause (I wouldn’t have made a very good sepoy mutineer).  I asked him to take me somewhere that served good non-veg, had airconditioning and cold beer. I wasn’t disappointed and his choice wasn’t a tourist trap; as the spear-bald waiter brought me huge plates of reshmi kebabs and bhuna gosht, which I helped down with a couple of bottles of Kingfisher.  And then I made a great and terrible discovery: the Delhi interpretation of kulcha.  I had paneer-stuffed kulcha, it was really quite amazing; I am sure they are quite unlike the genuine Punjabi article, as these were crispy, slightly browned but chewy and very good.  I fortified myself suitably for the rest of the day, which would include visiting Purana Qila, Humayun’s Tomb (the prototype for the Taj Mehal) and Nizamuddin Dargah, the Sufi shrine where the wishes of the devoted are fulfilled, regardless of their religion.  It was a good morning. 


2 responses to “Sikander Sahib

  1. Ha ha, taxi drivers are international! NYC taxi drivers do the same thing when taking one from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I had one pretend his car had broken down by turning it off. When called on it, he turned it back on reluctantly only to try to stop in the middle of the Manhattan Bridge and tell us he wouldn’t go any further. I have never cursed so quickly in Both Spanish and English. He took us home and was lucky I didn’t give him a kick in the pants as a tip. Thankfully the person I was with was more calm and peaceful than me….

  2. Amy: I think my driver was just being eccentric, rather than trying to avoid being inconvenienced by a long journey. Or he held a deep patriotic resentment against visiting Mutiny-era monuments.
    Either way, at the end of our brief two-day association in Delhi, he showed an oddly touching concern for my well-being when seeing me off to Haridwar on the train, which I will write about in my next post…

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