Monday, October 24, 2011

A visit to one of the World's Most Creepiest Places

There are some places in the world where humans quite simply should not go. Not just haunted places, but sites where ancient forces still hold sway. We can recognize such locations by the responses they evoke within us—that feeling we call “the creeps.

But just where are these places, and why do they terrify us?


This excerpt comes The World's Creepiest Places by Dr. Bob Curran currently out in stores.

SALIMGARH FORTRESS

Yamuna River, Delhi, India

“There are Officers Quarters in Mian Mir whose doors open without reason and whose furniture is guaranteed to creak, not with the heat of June, but with the weight of the Invisibles who come to lounge in the chair….”
—Rudyard Kipling, “My Own True Ghost Story” from The Phantom Rickshaw

India is a land of legend and mystery. Here, the lore and traditions of ancient days seem to blend seamlessly with the modern world. Ghosts are as much a feature of Indian life as they are in the West—perhaps more so. The phantoms of women who have died in childbirth, old men who have died from starvation, and children who have perished in appalling circumstances seem to appear with a kind of regularity, begging for alms or pricking at the consciences of the more well off. Arguably more than any other country in the world, in India the idea of the supernatural is more closely linked with a sense of justice and equanimity.

It is perhaps this sense of unequal justice that underpins many of the ghosts that haunt the ancient fortress of Salimgarh on the Yamuna River, which flows through Delhi—probably India’s most haunted stronghold. Far older than the neighboring Red Fort, Salimgarh has been renamed Swatantrata Senani Smarak (Freedom Fighters Memorial) and is now a museum. Even so, it still retains much of its ancient atmosphere and mystery. The lore attached to the site and the feelings that many visitors have experienced there are rooted in the building’s turbulent history.

The fortress was built on an island in the Yamuna by Islam Shah Suri (1545–1554) also known as Jalal Khan, the second ruler of the brief Sur Dynasty, which reigned over that part of India for part of the 16th century, and which expanded the town of Delhi as its capital. The Sur rulers were Islamic Pathans from Bihar who briefly overthrew the Mughal Emperors who had initially ruled Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Northern India. The second Mughal Emperor, Humayan, had started building up Delhi, but found himself under attack from the Sur rulers and was driven out of the town. Islam Shah Suri then built a fortress on the river to protect his newly acquired capital. The name Salimgarh simply means Salim’s Fort, and the place was considered to be impregnable and well able to stand against the Moghals. Although a largely ineffectual ruler, Humayan was determined to take back the town and launched a ferocious assault against it in 1555. During the various battles, many prisoners were captured and were taken back to Salimgarh to be tortured and executed. Their wails and groans can still be heard today by visitors to the site. By this time the Sur Dynasty was in upheaval; Islam Shah Suri was already dead, his 12-year-old son was assassinated by a rival faction, and the fortress fell again to the advancing Mughal forces. It was to become an army camp for the various Mughal Emperors.

During the reign of the powerful Mughal ruler Aurangzeb I (1666–1707), the so-called “Conqueror of the World,” Salimgarh was once again converted into a prison and a house of torture. Although a strong monarch, Aurangzeb was a despot and many of those who rose against him were condemned to languish within its sombre walls were they were subjected to horrific deprivations and abuse. It was said that Aurangzeb instructed his warders to wash the stone walls with the blood of those whom they had beaten and maltreated as a warning to all others who would rebel against him. Thus, the misery of the prisoners was actually ingrained into the very stones of the place and added to the chilling atmosphere.

The most frequently seen ghost within the fortress’s precincts is that of a shrouded lady who wanders across the battlements and is seen in the courtyard as well. Sightings of her state that she is always wrapped in white with glittering jewelery. According to local tradition, this specter is that of Zebunissa, Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter. She was said to be his favorite child (her name means “Ornament of the Throne”), a woman who was very gentle and a popular and accomplished poetess. In fact, 50 years after her death in 1707, her major diwan (a collection of poems) was discovered and circulated; it was said to be the most beautiful verse anywhere in India. Deeply religious, she was interested in Sufism (a mystical form of Islam) and much of her writing reflects this. She also gave up wearing grand Islamic black clothes, signifying importance at the Moghul Court, and took to wearing simple white garments, becoming known as Zaib-al-Tafari (Worthy of Praise) for her humility and devotion. However, the times in which she lived were greatly unsettled within the Mughal Empire and her despotic father had many enemies who wished to see him overthrown. One of those who conspired against him was Zebunissa’s brother Akbar to whom he was very much attached. Perhaps very unwisely she wrote him several letters of support abhorring their father’s tyranny all across the Empire. When, in 1681, a number of elements elected Akbar as Emperor, Aurangzeb moved quickly and viciously to re-establish his authority and put down the rebellion. In the course of his reprisals, he found the letters that Zebunissa had written to her brother. Although he had killed many of those who had stood against him or had been complicit in the rising, Aurangzab could not bring himself to slay his daughter. Instead, he had her imprisoned in Salimgarh from which she wrote to him many times, begging for her release. Each time her request was turned down and, hearing of her father’s death in 1707, Zebunissa herself passed away. However, her ghost remained to haunt her prison. According to some accounts, the phantom appears on the ramparts of the Fortress singing some her own couplets and enchanting all who hear them.

Somehow, however, certain accounts of her phantom appear to have been confused with some other dark Indian entity. When she lifts her veil, it is said, she reveals not the beautiful face of the Zaib-al-Tafari, but that of a hideous green-skinned creature with sharp and vicious-looking teeth. This may be the face of a rakshasa or a churel, both forms of Indian vampires (the latter being the demonic spirit of a woman who has died in childbirth—a common type of ghoul in Far Eastern lore). Such a countenance signals the doom of the viewer as the thing may well attack. The lady in white is to be avoided at all costs!

By the 1850s, the British were well established in India and in 1857 the powers and substantial lands of the British East India Company were transferred to the British Monarchy, in the person of Queen Victorian, ushering in a period of British Colonial Rule known as the British Raj. 1857 was also the date of a major mutiny of Indian troops often referred to as the Sepoy Rebellion or the Indian Mutiny. The causes for the Mutiny are very complex and had partly to do with relations between the East India Company and local taluqdars (rural landlords) who felt that Company agents were unnecessarily meddling in their affairs without fully understanding them, particularly the Caste system. The tipping point, however, was the use of cartridges for the new Enfield 1853 Pattern Rifle, which was used by the Company Army and contained many Indian Muslim troops or sepoys. The rifle barrels had a tighter fit and the gunpowder came in paper cartridges, the ends of which had to be bitten off to release it during reloading. These cartridges were coated in grease made from pig fat to protect them from dampness. Of course, no Muslim would bite into pork fat, as it would be offensive to their religion, and if the British authorities were to use beef fat, this would be offensive to Hindu sepoy brigades (since the cow was a sacred animal in the Hindu religion). Nevertheless, the British went ahead and issued some of the cartridges and, although they were subsequently withdrawn, rumors persisted among the native soldiers that new cartridges were secretly greased in both pork and beef fat. The situation came to a head in the Bengal Native Infantry, a branch of the Bengal Army in which there were already problems. The Mutiny spread across the Indian sub-continent and the British were forced to act. Using Salimgrah as a holding and interrogation center, they shipped Mutineers there for “questioning” which, it is believed, often involved physical abuse. The sense of injustice against religious beliefs and practices was overwhelming.

By this time the Mughal Empire had been so driven back by the British that the current Emperor, Bahdur Shah Zafar II only ruled a small amount of land around Delhi. Even so, he was taken prisoner by the British—he was captured almost beside Humayan’s tomb—and briefly held in Salimgar where he conspired with a number of the Mutineers. In retaliation, he was beaten and starved, and it is said that his emaciated and bloodied ghost still wanders some of the corridors of the old Fortress, even though he was later moved to Rangoon in Burma and was only there for a brief period. He was really the last of the Mughal ruler of the area and was certainly badly treated by the British during his brief stay. The sense of injustice follows his specter like a pall.

On July 8th, 1858, a peace treaty was signed between the British at the Mutineers in the town of Gwalior, south of Agra. Although the Rebellion was over, some prisoners were still held in Salimgarh, although the British Army used Lal Quila (Red Fort now in the Old Quarter of Delhi which had been completed in 1648) as their cantonment (headquarters for military forces/police) during most of the Raj. However, it’s said that Salimgarh was used as an intelligence post for housing political prisoners and rebels who spoke out against British rule. There seems little doubt that, like the Mughal Emperors before them, the British used torture deep in some of the rooms of the Fortress in order to obtain their information.

The Fort remained in British hands until the end of their rule in India in 1945. For the latter part of the time (1940–47), it was a prison that held members of the Indian National Army. This was a Nationalist organization formed during World War II in order to bring an end, by terrorist means, to the British Raj, and to drive the British out of India with the aid of the Japanese. These men considered themselves to be Freedom Fighters, fighting the oppressive British regime, and it is in their memory that Salimgarh enjoys its modern name. Their ghosts are supposed to wail in the cells of the Fortress each night.

With such a violent and turbulent history, is it any wonder that the Fortress is frequented by ghosts? Many visitors and those working late within the walls claim to have heard and glimpsed things—distant voices, shouts, and even vicious laughter. Usually, however, when an attempt is made to find the source of these sounds, they die away altogether. And if anecdotal accounts are to be believed, many people have experienced what sounded like footsteps which seemed to follow them, accompanied by a blast of cold air on their backs. Yet when they turn round, there is no one there. As with other ancient sites, visitors have felt unaccountable catches on their arms or tugs at their sleeves, again with nobody there. The sense of foreboding and anguish is very strong within the walls of Salimgarh according to many people—perhaps the terrible pain of the tortured has actually found its way into the stones of the place.

A violent history, an imprisoned princess, and torture chambers from both the Mughal and British eras have all contributed to the ominous traditions of Salimgarh. Is it any wonder the place is creepy? 

1 comment:

  1. Great post. This place is worth to visit and explore. Visited Red Fort many times, but never been here, nor heard. Is there any other creepy historic place in Delhi worth to explore.

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