Meerut's association with the First War of Independence, in 1 857, gives it a special place in India's freedom movement.
There's very little information on Meerut as a tourist destination. And when I told my friends that I would be spending a day at this one-horse town in western Uttar Pradesh, they looked at me with disdain. As a child, I had read that Meerut had a strong association with India's freedom struggle. and I was keen to find out more. With a photographer for company, I set off in a private car at eight in the morning.
From south Delhi. it took us nearly an hour to reach the Deihi-Meerut Road after crossing the busy Mohan Nagar Chowk and the Hindon bridge in Ghaziabad. Driving on the two-laned road was smooth and the car purred effortlessly at 80 kmph. Crossing Murad Nagar and Modi Nagar, a wave of green and yellow mustard fields greeted us as we approached Meerut Bypass. A huge signboard welcomed us to the city.
It was only 10 am, and I had the whole day to get acquainted with the city. At the outset, I must admit I was quite impressed by the well-laid-out roads. The Vikram autorickshaws plying in the city-those sturdy vehicles in green and white-seemed to burst at the seams with passengers, much more than they were meant to carry.
Meerut was one of the 16 major towns of the Ashokan period, and had gained prominence as an important Buddhist centre .Today, Meerut is demarcated into city area and cantonment area, but more than half the area is taken up by the cantonment, reputed to be the oldest, and perhaps the biggest in India. "All the popular spots are located in that area," says Rahul Sharma, an employee of the Marksheet Department of Chaudhary Charan Singh University. Sharrna offered to take us on a tour of the city, reeling off the names of tourist attractions that would be of interest to me.
"Apart from the Ghantaghar (clock tower) built by the British in 1914, there are other places of interest like Saheed Smarak, Kali Paltan Mandir, Kali Mai Ka Mandir, Abu Lane Market, PVS Mall (on Delhi Road), Company Bagh and Chaudhary Charan Singh University," he says.
Saheed Smarak or Ashok Ki Laat was the first spot on our hastily drawn-up itinerary. In fact, as Sharma pointed out, it looms large over the city's skyline. Sure enough, we had noticed it as we entered the city. Located just behind the taxi stand on Delhi Road, the 122-ft high pillar was constructed in 1962, say the local people. The Ashoka emblem graces the top of the white marble tower. It is here that the 85 troopers led by Mangal Pandey, an Indian soldier in the British army, were court-martialled for refusing to use the cartridges that were greased with the fat of cows and pigs. Pandey was executed by hanging and the 'mutineers' were stripped off their uniforms and sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment, leading to the outbreak of the First War of Independence.
A giant-sized statue of Pandey, opposite the tower, seemed to be watching the sprucing-up work being carried out by the Meerut Development Authority. A museum adjacent to the tower is soon to be opened to the public. Besides housing artefacts related to the Mutiny, it will have a library with reading material on the Mutiny and the struggle for Independence.
After saluting Mangal Pandey, it was time to head for Kali Paltan Mandir, another popular tourist attraction in Meerut. Also known as Shree Baba Augharnath Shiv Mandir, it lies in the heart of the Cantonment. Driving down wide roads, we noticed army establishments and vehicles, along with men in olive green.
KALI PALTAN MANDIR WAS THE HIDEOUT FOR FREEDOM FIGHTERS AND WAS WITNESS TO THEIR MEETINGS WITH OFFICERS OF KALI PALTAN
The temple stands out in the horizon for its splendid modern architecture. "The Shivalinga in the temple emerged on its own, and it has been attracting Lord Shiva's followers ever since," says a devotee. Since it was Monday-considered to be auspicious for the worship of Lord Shiva-a large number of devotees crowded the interiors of the temple. Apart from its religious significance, it is also associated with history.
According to the temple authorities, even though no one knows when the temple was built, Indian troops - referred to as Kali Paltan, a name that distinguished them from their British counterparts—prayed here much before India became independent. The temple also served as a hideout for freedom fighters and was witness to their meetings with officers of Kali Paltan. 'Vater from a well in the temple complex is said to have quenched the thirst of Indian soldiers. But with the introduction of new cart ridges, and the controversy about the use of animal fat in them, the residing priest of the temple barred the sold iers from using the well.
Today, tourists take some interest in the well, only because of the mammoth Vijay Stambh that is right next to the periphery of the well. Inaugurated by Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Arora, who led the Indian Army in the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, it was constructed in the memory of the soldiers.
The nondescript Kali Mai Mandir, hemmed in by the narrow lanes of crowded Sarafa Bazar in the Cantonment area, was a revelation. "It is believed that the temple is around 500 years old," says Sharma, "and was set up by people who came here from Faridpur, Bangladesh."