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A city on the banks of the Ganges River located south of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh in the centre of northern India. The place has long had a strong military presence; during the Rebellion of 1857 it was one of the main battlegrounds and the site of one of the worst atrocities committed by the Indian rebels in that conflict.    
More background info: Kanpur, formerly known as Cawnpore, has a long military history, and still today you can see countless military installations and barracks in the city.
During the British colonial era, Cawnpore was already a major military garrison of the East India Company forces. As such it became the stage of some of the key episodes in the Rebellion of 1857, which the British refer(red) to as “Mutiny” and which today is known in India as the “First War of Independence”.
For a bit more background on this see under The Residency, Lucknow.
When the rebellion started, the commander of the Cawnpore garrison, General Hugh Wheeler initially thought that his Indian troops would stay loyal, given that he was married to an Indian woman, spoke the local language and knew and respected the customs.
Yet after the rebellion had spread to nearby Lucknow by May/June, Wheeler too decided to take refuge in an entrenchment. However, he was less well prepared than his counterpart at the Lucknow Residency, and when the Siege of Cawnpore set in, it soon became clear that food and water supplies and sanitary conditions were unsuitable for holding out long.
After three weeks of assaults, with dwindling supplies and diseases beginning to break out, the British surrendered to the rebels in return for a guarantee of safe passage. This would take them to a landing stage on the Ganges River at Satichaura Ghat, from where they would take boats to safety in Allahabad.
On 27 June the British column, together with servants, women and children, were escorted by the rebel army to the river. What happened next has become known as the Satichaura Ghat Massacre. Exactly how it started remains unclear to this day, but fighting broke out and the rebels attacked the boats. General Wheeler was killed in this battle.
Eventually the British surrendered again, after which the rebels divided the men from the women and children, who were taken away. The ca. 300 men were then massacred by gunfire and swords on the Ghat. Only four of the British men survived, of a party that had managed to get away as the fighting broke out.
The women and children were meanwhile taken to a “Ladies' House” called Bibighar. Later other British women and children from around the region who had survived so far joined, so that around 200 in total were there, under the supervision of a woman called Hussaini, a courtesan (possibly prostitute) at the local ruler's palace, often referred to as “the Begum” (cf. Taj Mahal of Bhopal). Initially the captives were held as bargaining chips for the rebels with the British. But when General Havelock (see The Residency) was nearing Cawnpore on his way to Lucknow with relief troops, the rebels decided to kill off all the British women and children.
This became known as the Bibighar Massacre. In fact, the rebels themselves proved reluctant to carry out the order – so a squad of local butchers was drafted in to finish the job. And butcher they did. They entered the house and methodically slaughtered the captives with their swords and hacked them to pieces with cleavers. After the mass murder, the mutilated bodies were dumped in a nearby well, presumably in order to hide the evidence of the atrocity.
However, the British relief forces did not have to look hard for evidence when they got to Cawnpore. They had expected to find the captive women and children alive. Instead they encountered the site of a bloodbath at Bibighar House. It didn't take them long to also discover the hacked-up bodies in the well.
Shocked by this discovery, the British not only strengthened their resolve, but also embarked on a campaign of vengeance and escalating counter-violence.
Once the British had restored their control over Cawnpore, captured rebels deemed guilty of having taken part in the insurgency and the massacres were subjected to torture and then strung up from the trees right at the very spot where the massacre had taken place, within sight of the well and the ruined Bibighar House. Others were executed by being tied in front of cannons which were then fired. (Cf, also Nicholson cemetery, Delhi.)
After the bodies had been recovered from the well, it was filed in and sealed and the site was turned into a memorial within a year of the Rebellion being crushed by the British. After Indian independence in 1947, however, this was later dismantled (see below).
The Siege of Cawnpore, and especially the massacres at Satichaura Ghat and Bibighar, as well as the brutal reprisals by the British that followed, together remain amongst the very darkest chapters in Indian-British history.
Modern-day Kanpur is a city of ca. 3 million inhabitants and one of northern India's main industrial centres. As one of the key industries here is the production of leather, the city's many tanneries also make Kanpur one of the most nastily polluted places in India (and that's saying something in a country where pollution is so omnipresent!).
The name Cawnpore, by the way, is still in use within the military “Cantonment” of the city. Right next to the All Souls Memorial Church, for instance, is the “Cawnpore Club” (an exclusive officers' club, originally founded by the British).
What there is to see: Probably the main place associated with Kanpur's role in the 1857 Rebellion is the All Souls Memorial Church.
By size and grandeur it looks more like a cathedral (unlike other, much smaller churches I've seen in India that actually did claim that epithet … I know, I know, its application is not all about size, but still … there is usually a correlation). This huge edifice is made from red brick and is rather Italianate in its architectural style.
Inside there are countless plaques on the walls honouring dead members of the military, including quite a few who perished in the Rebellion of 1857. Some of the plaques are worded quite aggressively, calling the killings “treacherous” and promising God's “vengeance”. Also in this church we were shown a guest book from 1933 (!?!).
Outside the church is a small graveyard and a few memorials are dotted around. Amongst them is a marker stone that says “Wheeler's Entrenchment” (see above).
Behind the church to the east is a large memorial in ultra-neo-Gothic style incorporating parts of the former Bibighar Memorial Well (see below) and a statue of an angel that my guide claimed had a dual facial expression: sad on one side, smiling on the other. But to be honest I couldn't really detect so much of a difference between the two halves of her face.
The second site related to the events of 1857 is located a couple of miles north-west of the church. What today is Nana Rao Park was the site of the Bibighar Massacre and formerly the location of the Memorial Well built by the British only a year after the atrocity to commemorate the victims. This memorial was destroyed after India gained independence (revisionism, anyone?), but parts of the Gothic structures survived and were moved to be incorporated into the memorial behind the All Souls Memorial Church (see above).
Today the round shape of the former well can still be made out, but looks unspectacular and forlorn. There are a few memorial stones by the park entrance, all inscribed in Hindi only and apparently honouring not the massacre victims but those of the reprisals meted out by the British afterwards against captured Indian “freedom fighters” (according to the off-the-cuff translations provided by my guide).
A rather unexpected surprise feature in the park is a colony of fruit bats that must have chosen this place as their home despite (or because of?) its grim history. It was quite a sight to see these huge flying foxes hanging in their tree.
The third site related to the atrocities of 1857 is Satichaura Ghat (also spelled “Satti Chura Ghat”), better known simply as “Massacre Ghat” by the Ganges River. There is absolutely no commodification of what happened here, not even a simple plaque or something. The only indication is that the road leading to the site is indeed called Massacre Ghat Avenue (at least on Google maps).
There's a temple and a wrestling sandpit (apparently it's a popular local sport here, according to my guide) and you can walk down to the river using the Ghat's steps, which are painted a deep (blood?) red. But if you don't know the dark history of this spot then you won't find anything here to educate you about it.
When I visited it was the dry season and the River Ganges wasn't actually there. Instead there was a wide sandy plain stretching out to the horizon. My guide said the river waters were to the north of that sandy plain. I have to take his word for it. I never saw any waters of the Ganges. (Those Indian “holy rivers” proved to have a habit of being elusive to me – cf. also the Yamuna in Delhi and under India in general.)
I didn't see so much of the rest of Kanpur, as we only drove between the three sites outlined above and thus kept mostly to the so-called “Cantonment” military area of the city. And the military presence is quite obvious. Not only are there barracks, and their entrances marked with tanks or artillery guns, you also see many soldiers. In addition there are a few military memorials (I spotted one relating to the conflict with Pakistan in 1965!). There are also plenty of roadside billboards glorifying certain sections of the army or advertising military service.
All in all, I can't say Kanpur was a highlight of my trip to India. The church was quite impressive in its own right, OK, and there is a certain aura left from the dark chapters in Indian/British history that took place here, but it all remains a bit abstract and undercommodified. The Ghat and the memorial park were positively underwhelming, to be quite frank.
So whether a detour to Kanpur is really worth it from a dark-tourism perspective will depend on how keen an interest you have in the city's Mutiny-related history. I couldn't really make out many other merits that could entice foreign visitors to this place – and its reputation as a bland, grimy, mainly industrial place doesn't help.
Location: in the middle of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, about 50 miles (80 km) south-west of Lucknow, and ca. 250 miles (400 km) south-east of Delhi.
Google maps locators:
All Souls Memorial Church: [26.4506, 80.3692]
Nana Rao Park: [26.472, 80.361]
Satichaura Ghat: [26.4587, 80.3809]
Access and costs: quite off the usual tourists routes, but not too difficult to get to, though getting around and to all the dark sites is only easy by private guided tour, so not cheap.
Details: Kanpur is well connected by road (it's on the main highway to Delhi) and railway, with express connections to Delhi and Agra, as well as a fast regional line to Lucknow, but has only a small regional airport (with domestic flights to Delhi), so most visitors will more likely come overland.
For getting around to see all the places outlined above, you really have to have private transport, ideally on a guided tour, like I did it on my India trip in 2016/17. Otherwise you'd have to get taxis to cover the relatively significant distances between these sites individually. However, whether you can get access to the All Souls Memorial Church without a local guide, is not so clear. Even with my guide it took a along time before he could get someone to let us in. Without a guide you'd have to take your chances, but I guess they're likely to be small.
But the other two open-air sites are freely accessible at any time.
Time required: if you have private transport, no more than a few hours, maybe half a day. Doing it independently and on public transport would take significantly longer.
Combinations with other dark destinations: the most logical combination, both thematically and in terms of geographical proximity, has to be Lucknow, some 50 miles (80 km) to the north-east. The Residency in that city is India's largest and most significant remnant and memorial of the 1857 Rebellion.
To the west of Kanpur, Etawah also has significant colonial-era associations – see under India for more on that.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing much within the city or its immediate environs, but India's No. One tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal of Agra is “only” about 150 miles (250 km) to the west of Kanpur, so is within roughly half a day's journey's reach.
And south of Agra, en route to Etawah, the Chambal River provides a unique nature reserve experience on safaris by boat on one of India's cleanest rivers (of which there aren't many in this pollution-ridden nation).
See also under India in general.
  • Kanpur 01 - Satichaura GhatKanpur 01 - Satichaura Ghat
  • Kanpur 02 - aka Massacre GhatKanpur 02 - aka Massacre Ghat
  • Kanpur 03 - blood-red stepsKanpur 03 - blood-red steps
  • Kanpur 04 - the Ganges somewhere in the distanceKanpur 04 - the Ganges somewhere in the distance
  • Kanpur 05 - wrestling sandpitKanpur 05 - wrestling sandpit
  • Kanpur 06 - All Souls memorial churchKanpur 06 - All Souls memorial church
  • Kanpur 07 - marker stoneKanpur 07 - marker stone
  • Kanpur 08 - inside the churchKanpur 08 - inside the church
  • Kanpur 09 - plenty of commemorationKanpur 09 - plenty of commemoration
  • Kanpur 10 - angry tabletKanpur 10 - angry tablet
  • Kanpur 11 - vengeful tabletKanpur 11 - vengeful tablet
  • Kanpur 12 - damaged angelKanpur 12 - damaged angel
  • Kanpur 13 - cemeteryKanpur 13 - cemetery
  • Kanpur 14 - in memoriamKanpur 14 - in memoriam
  • Kanpur 15 - gothic memorialKanpur 15 - gothic memorial
  • Kanpur 16 - memorial park in the cityKanpur 16 - memorial park in the city
  • Kanpur 17 - fruit bats hanging in a treeKanpur 17 - fruit bats hanging in a tree
  • Kanpur 18 - it is still a very military cityKanpur 18 - it is still a very military city
  • Kanpur 19 - military sloganKanpur 19 - military slogan
  • Kanpur 20 - memorial plaqueKanpur 20 - memorial plaque
  • Kanpur 21 - cityscapeKanpur 21 - cityscape

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