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Nana Saheb
Born (1824-05-19)May 19, 1824
Disappeared 1857
Nationality Indian
Title Peshwa
Predecessor Baji Rao II
Religion Hinduism
Parents Narayan Bhatt and Ganga Bai

Nana Sahib (born 19 May 1824 – disappeared 1857), born as Dhondu Pant (Marathi: धोंडू पंत), was an Indian, Maratha aristocrat, who led the Kanpur rebellion during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. As the adopted son of the exiled Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao II, he was entitled to a pension from the English East India Company. The Company's refusal to honour the pension, as well as its generally arrogant policies, compelled him to revolt and seek freedom from British rule in India.

Early life

Nana Sahib was born on 19 May 1824 as Nana Govind Dhondu Pant, to Narayan Bhatt and Ganga Bai.[1] Following his defeat in the Third Maratha War the East India Company had exiled Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa of the Maratha Confederation, to Bithoor near Cawnpore (now Kanpur), where he maintained a large establishment paid for in part out of a British pension. Nana Sahib's father, a well-educated Deccani Brahmin, had travelled with his family from the Western Ghats to become a court official of the former Peshwa at Bithoor. Lacking sons, Baji Rao adopted Nana Sahib and his younger brother in 1827. The mother of both children was a sister of one of the Peshwa's wives.[2]

Nana Sahib's close associates included Tatya Tope and Azimullah Khan; Tatya Tope was the son of Pandurang Rao Tope, an important noble at the court of the Peshwa Baji Rao II. After Baji Rao II was exiled to Bithoor, Pandurang Rao and his family also shifted there. Azimullah Khan joined the court of Nana Sahib as Secretary, after the death of Baji Rao II in 1851. He later became the dewan in Nana Sahib's court.


The Doctrine of lapse was an annexation policy devised by Lord Dalhousie, who was the Governor General for the British in India between 1848 and 1856. According to the Doctrine, any princely state or territory under the direct influence (paramountcy) of the British East India Company (the dominant imperial power in the subcontinent), as a vassal state under the British Subsidiary System, would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either "manifestly incompetent or died without a direct heir".[3] The latter supplanted the long-established legal right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor. In addition, the British were to decide whether potential rulers were competent enough. The doctrine and its application were widely regarded by Indians as illegitimate. At that time, the Company had absolute, imperial administrative jurisdiction over many regions spread over the subcontinent. The company took over the princely states of Satara (1848), Jaipur and Sambalpur (1849), Baghat (1850), Nagpur (1853), and Jhansi (1854) using this doctrine. The British took over Awadh (Oudh) (1856) claiming that the local ruler was not ruling properly. The Company added about four million pounds sterling to its annual revenue by the use of this doctrine.[1] With the increasing power of the East India Company, discontent simmered amongst sections of Indian society and the largely indigenous armed Jhansi forces; these joined with members of the deposed dynasties during the Indian rebellion of 1857.

Under the Peshwa's will Nana Sahib was, through his adoption, heir-presumptive to the Maratha's throne, and eligible for his adoptive father's continuing annual pension of £80,000 from the East India Company. However, after the death of Baji Rao II, the Company stopped the pension on the grounds that the Nana was not a natural born heir and that the kingdom no longer existed. The Nana, while still wealthy, was greatly offended by both the termination of the pension and by the suspension of various titles and grants that had been retained by Baji Rao in exile. Accordingly, Nana Sahib sent an envoy (Azimullah Khan) to England in 1853 to plead his case with the British Government. However, Azimullah Khan was unable to convince the British to resume the pension, and he returned to India in 1855.

Role in the First War of Independence of 1857

Nana Sahib won the confidence of Charles Hillersdon, the Collector of Cawnpore.[4] It was planned that Nana Sahib would assemble a force of 1,500 soldiers, in case the rebellion spread to Kanpur.[5]

On 6 June 1857, at the time of the rebellion by forces of the East India Company at Cawnpore, the British contingent had taken refuge at an entrenchment in the northern part of the town. Amid the prevailing chaos in Cawnpore, Sahib and his forces entered the British magazine situated in the northern part of the town. The soldiers of the 53rd Native Infantry, who were guarding the magazine, thought that Sahib had come to guard the magazine on behalf of the Company. However, once he entered the magazine, Nana Sahib announced that he was a participant in the rebellion against the Company, and intended to be a vassal of Bahadur Shah II.[6]

After taking possession of the Company treasury, Sahib advanced up the Grand Trunk Road stating that he wanted to restore the Maratha confederacy under the Peshwa tradition, and decided to capture Cawnpore. On his way, Sahib met the rebel Company soldiers at Kalyanpur. The soldiers were on their way to Delhi, to meet Bahadur Shah II. Sahib wanted them to go back to Cawnpore, and help him defeat the British. The soldiers were reluctant at first, but decided to join Sahib when he promised to double their pay and reward them with gold, if they were to destroy the British entrenchment.

Attack on Wheeler's entrenchment

The Nana Sahib with his escort. Steel engraved print of 1860, published in History of the Indian Mutiny

On 5 June 1857, Nana Sahib sent a letter to General Wheeler informing him to expect an attack next morning at 10 am. On 6 June, his forces (including the rebel soldiers) attacked the Company entrenchment at 10:30 am The Company forces were not adequately prepared for the attack but managed to defend themselves as the attacking forces were reluctant to enter the entrenchment. The Indian forces had been led to believe that the entrenchment had gunpowder-filled trenches that would explode if they got closer.[6] The Company side held out in their makeshift fort for three weeks with little water and food supplies, and lost many lives due to sunstroke and lack of water.

As the news of advances over the British garrison spread, several of the rebel sepoys joined him. By 10 June, he was believed to be leading around twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Indian soldiers.[7] During the first week of the siege, the Nana Sahib's forces encircled the attachment, created loopholes and established firing positions from the surrounding buildings. The defending Captain John Moore retaliated and launched night-time sorties. The Nana Sahib withdrew his headquarters to Savada House (or Savada Kothi), which was situated around two miles away. In response to Moore's sorties, the Nana Sahib decided to attempt a direct assault on the British entrenchment, but the rebel soldiers displayed a lack of enthusiasm.[6]

The sniper fire and the bombardment continued until 23 June 1857, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey. The Battle of Plassey, which took place on 23 June 1757, was one of the pivotal battles leading to the expansion of the East India Company rule in India. One of the driving forces of the rebellion by sepoys, was a prophecy that predicted the downfall of East India Company rule exactly one hundred years after this battle.[8] This prompted the rebel soldiers under Nana Sahib to launch a major attack on the entrenchment on 23 June 1857. However, they were unable to gain an entry into the entrenchment by the end of the day.

The entrenchment had been steadily losing its soldiers and civilians to successive bombardments, sniper fire, and assaults from the attackers. It was also suffering from disease and low supplies of food, water and medicine. General Wheeler's personal morale had been low, after his son Lieutenant Gordon Wheeler was decapitated in an assault on the barracks.[6]

The Nana Sahib and his advisers came up with a plan to end the deadlock. On 24 June, he sent a female European prisoner, Rose Greenway, to the entrenchment to convey their message. In return for a surrender, he promised the safe passage of the Europeans to the Satichaura Ghat, a dock on the Ganges from which they could depart for Allahabad.[7] General Wheeler rejected the offer, because it had not been signed, and there was no guarantee that the offer was made by the Nana Sahib himself.

Next day, on 25 June, Nana Sahib sent a second note, signed by himself, through another female prisoner, Mrs. Jacobi. The entrenchment divided into two groups with different opinions—one group was in favour of continuing the defence, while the second group was willing to accept the offer. During the next day, there was no bombardment from Nana Sahib's forces. Finally, Wheeler decided to surrender, in return for a safe passage to Allahabad. After a day of preparation and burying their dead, the Europeans decided to leave for Allahabad on the morning of 27 June 1857.

Satichaura Ghat massacre

File:Kanpur massacre.jpg

A contemporary image of the massacre at the Satichaura Ghat

On 27 June 1857, Europeans who had been promised safe passage from Wheeler's entrenchment arrived at the Sati Chaura Ghat (jetty) to take the boat out when Sahib's army ambushed them and killed many.

On the morning of the 27 June, a large column led by Wheeler emerged from the entrenchment. Sahib sent a number of carts, dolis and elephants to enable the women, the children and the sick to proceed to the river banks. The Company officers and military men were allowed to take their arms and ammunition with them, and were escorted by nearly the whole of the rebel army.[7] They reached the Satichaura Ghat (now Satti Chaura Ghat) by 8 am. Sahib had arranged around 40 boats, belonging to a boatman called Hardev Mallah, for their departure to Allahabad.[9]

The Ganges river was unusually dry at the Satichaura Ghat, and the Europeans found it difficult to drift the boats away. Wheeler and his party were the first aboard and the first to manage to set their boat adrift. There was some confusion, as the Indian boatmen jumped overboard and started swimming toward the banks. During their jump, some of the cooking fires were knocked off, setting some of the boats ablaze. Though controversy surrounds what exactly happened next at the Satichaura Ghat,[7] and it is unknown who fired the first shot,[9] the departing European were attacked by the rebel sepoys, and most either killed or captured.

Some of the Company officers later claimed that Sahib had placed the boats as high in the mud as possible, on purpose to cause delay. They also claimed that Sahib had previously arranged for the rebels to fire upon and kill all the Europeans. Although the East India Company later accused Sahib of betrayal and murder of innocent people, no definitive evidence has ever been found to prove that Sahib had pre-planned or ordered the massacre.[10] Some historians believe that the Satichaura Ghat massacre was the result of confusion, and not of any plan implemented by Sahib and his associates.[11] Nevertheless, the fact that sniper fire from cannons pre-positioned along the riverbank was reported on the scene might suggest pre-planning.

Whatever the case, amid the prevailing confusion at the Satichaura Ghat, Sahib's general Tantya Tope allegedly ordered the 2nd Bengal Cavalry unit and some artillery units to open fire on the Europeans.[6] The rebel cavalry sowars moved into the water to kill the remaining Company soldiers with swords and pistols. The surviving men were killed, while women and children were captured, as Sahib did not approve of their killing.[12] Around 120 women and children were taken prisoner and escorted to Savada House, Nana Sahib's headquarters during the siege....

The rebel soldiers also pursued Wheeler's boat, which was slowly drifting to safer waters. After some firing, the European men on the boat decided to fly the white flag. They were escorted off the boat and taken back to Savada house. The surviving men were seated on the ground, as Sahib's soldiers got ready to kill them. The women insisted that they would die with their husbands, but were pulled away. Sahib granted the British chaplain Moncrieff's request to read prayers before they were killed.[13] The British were initially wounded with the guns, and then killed with the swords.[7] The women and children were taken to Savada House to be reunited with their remaining colleagues.

Bibighar massacre

The surviving women and children, around 120 in number, were moved from the Savada House to Bibighar ("the House of the Ladies"), a villa-type house in Cawnpore. They were later joined by some other women and children, the survivors from Wheeler's boat. Another group of women and children from Fatehgarh, and some other captive women were also confined in Bibighar. In total, there were around 200 women and children there.[14]

Nana Sahib deputed a tawaif (nautch girl) called Hussaini Khanum (also known as Hussaini Begum) to care for these survivors. He decided to use these prisoners in bargaining with the East India Company.[6] The Company forces consisting of around 1,000 British, 150 Sikh soldiers and 30 irregular cavalry had set out from Allahabad, under the command of General Henry Havelock, to retake Cawnpore and Lucknow.[13] Havelock's forces were later joined by the forces under the command of Major Renaud and James Neill. Sahib demanded that the East India Company forces under Havelock and Neill retreat to Allahabad. However, the Company forces advanced relentlessly towards Cawnpore. Sahib sent an army to check their advance, and the two armies met at Fattehpore on 12 July, where General Havelock's forces emerged victorious and captured the town.

Sahib then sent another force under the command of his brother, Bala Rao. On 15 July, the British forces under General Havelock defeated Bala Rao's army in the Battle of Aong.[6] On 16 July, Havelock's forces started advancing to Cawnpore. During the Battle of Aong, Havelock was able to capture some of the rebel soldiers, who informed him that there was an army of 5,000 rebel soldiers with 8 artillery pieces further up the road. Havelock decided to launch a flank attack on this army, but the rebel soldiers spotted the flanking manoeuvre and opened fire. The battle resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, but cleared the road to Cawnpore for the Company forces.

By this time, it became clear that the Company forces were approaching Cawnpore, and Sahib's bargaining attempts had failed. Sahib was informed that the British troops led by Havelock and Neill were committing violence against the Indian villagers.[15] Some historians believe that the Bibighar massacre was a reaction to the news of violence being perpetrated by the advancing Company troops.[11]

Sahib, and his associates, including Tantya Tope and Azimullah Khan, debated about what to do with the captives at Bibighar. Some of Sahib's advisers had already decided to kill the captives at Bibighar, as revenge for the murders of Indians by the advancing British forces.[15] The women of Sahib's household opposed the decision and went on a hunger strike, but their efforts were in vain.[15]

Finally, on 15 July, an order was given to kill the women and children imprisoned at Bibighar. Although some Company historians stated that the order for the massacre was given by Sahib,[13] the details of the incident, such as who ordered the massacre, remain unclear.[14][16] According to some sources, Azimullah Khan ordered the killings of women and children at Bibighar,[17] while some believe a Begum or slave-girl or mistress of Sahib ordered the killings.[18]

At first, the rebel sepoys refused to obey the order to kill women and children. When they were threatened with execution for dereliction of duty some of them agreed to remove the women and children from the courtyard. Sahib left the building because he did not want to be a witness to the unfolding massacre.[6] The women and children were ordered to come out of the assembly rooms, but they refused to do so. The rebel soldiers then started firing through the holes in the boarded windows. After the first round of firing, the soldiers were disturbed by the cries of the captives, and adamantly refused to fire at the women and children.

An angry Begum Hussaini Khanum termed the sepoys' act as cowardice, and asked her lover Sarvur Khan to finish the job of killing the captives.[6] Sarvur Khan hired some butchers, who murdered the surviving women and children with cleavers. The butchers left, when it seemed that all the captives had been killed. However, a few women and children had managed to survive by hiding under the other dead bodies. It was agreed that the bodies of the victims would be thrown down a dry well by some sweepers. The next morning, when the rebels arrived to dispose off the bodies, they found that three women and three children aged between four and seven years old were still alive.[15] The surviving women were cast into the well by the sweepers who had also been told to strip the bodies of the murder victims. The sweepers then threw the three little boys into the well one at a time, the youngest first. Some victims, among them small children, were therefore buried alive in a heap of corpses.[7]

Recapture of Cawnpore by the British

"Futtehpore, the scene of the late engagement between General Havelock and Nana Sahib," from the Illustrated London News, 1857

The Company forces reached Cawnpore on 16 July 1857. General Havelock was informed that Sahib had taken up a position at the Ahirwa village. His forces launched an attack on Sahib's forces, and emerged victorious. Sahib then blew up the Cawnpore magazine, abandoned the place, and retreated to Bithoor. When the British soldiers came to know about the Bibighar massacre, they indulged in retaliatory violence, including looting and burning of houses.[6][19] On 19 July, General Havelock resumed operations at Bithoor, but Nana Sahib had already escaped. Sahib's palace at Bithoor was occupied without resistance. The British troops seized guns, elephants and camels, and set fire to Sahib's palace.


Sahib disappeared after the Company's recapture of Cawnpore. His general, Tantya Tope, tried to recapture Cawnpore in November 1857, after gathering a large army, mainly consisting of the rebel soldiers from the Gwalior contingent. He managed to take control of all the routes west and north-west of Cawnpore, but was later defeated in the Second Battle of Cawnpore.

In September 1857, Sahib was reported to have fallen to malarious fever; however, this is doubtful.[20] Rani Laxmibai, Tatya Tope and Rao Saheb (Nana Sahib's close confidante) proclaimed Sahib as their Peshwa in June 1858 at Gwalior.

By 1859, Sahib was reported to have fled to Nepal.[21] Perceval Landon recorded that Nana Sahib lived out his days in western Nepal, in Thapa Téli, near Ririthang, under the protection of Sir Jang Bahadur Rana, the Prime Minister of Nepal. His family also received protection, but in Dhangara, eastern Nepal, in exchange for precious jewels.[22] In February 1860, the British were informed that Sahib's wives had taken refuge in Nepal, where they resided in a house close to Thapathali. Sahib himself was reported to be living in the interior of Nepal.[23]

Sahib's ultimate fate was never known. Up until 1888 there were rumours and reports that he had been captured and a number of individuals turned themselves in to the British claiming to be the aged Sahib. As these reports turned out to be untrue further attempts at apprehending him were abandoned. There were also reports of him being spotted in Constantinople.

Jules Verne's novel The End of Nana Sahib (also published under the name "The Steam House"), taking place in India ten years after the 1857 events, is based on these rumours. In The Devil's Wind, Manohar Malgonkar gives a sympathetic reconstruction of Nana Saheb's life before, during and after the mutiny as told in his own words.[24] Another novel Recalcitrance published in 2008 the 150th anniversary year of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and written by Anurag Kumar shows a character similar to ahab receiving blessings from an Indian sage who also gives him a special boon connected to his life and the battle of 1857.

After the independence of India, Sahib was hailed as a freedom fighter, and the Nana Rao Park in Kanpur was constructed in honour of Sahib and his brother, Bala Rao.

Belsare's account

Sholapore Native (Indian) Police in Charge of a Hindoo Rebel

Shri K. V. Belsare's book on the Maharashtrian Saint Shri BrahmaChaitanya Gondavalekar Maharaj states that after losing the battle with the Company, Shri Nanasaheb Peshwe went to Naimisharanya, the Naimisha Forest in the vicinity of Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh where he met Shri Gondavalekar Maharaj, who assured Shri Nanasaheb Tumachya Kesala dhakka lagnar naahi. Ya pudhil ayushya tumhi Bhagavantachya chintana madhe ghalavave. Me tumachya antakali hajar asen.(No one can harm you now. You should spend rest of your life in God's service. I will be near you at your last breath) Shri Nanasaheb then was living in a cave in Naimisharanya with his 2 servants (from 1860 to 1906, until his death). According to the book, he died on 30/31 Oct / 1 Nov 1906 at the age of 81 years, when Shri Gondavalekar Maharaj was present with him. Shri Maharaj performed all his rituals.

Initially Nanasaheb was very much upset from losing the kingdom in battle with the British. But Shri Gondavalekar Maharaj explained to him the "Wish of God". He said, "It is very sad that Nanasaheb had to lose the battle and the kingdom in such a tragic way, but fighting with the British is totally different than fighting with Mughals. People from the middle class who know the British language will lead the next freedom war against British. Soon they will come into the picture. Your role as King or warrior has finished, and now you need to focus on the 'internal war'." Initially it was very difficult for him to accept this fact, but slowly, Nanasaheb accepted this and made progress on the path to God. He was staying in the cave along with his 2 servants who used to go to Ayodhya to bring newspapers (Kesari) and foodstuffs. Nanansaheb used to visit "Pashupatinath" in Nepal and to meet his family – Samsherbahaddar & wife.[25]

Preceded by
Bajirao II
Succeeded by

In the culture

Nana Sahib (Captain Nemo) is the main character of the Soviet film ru:Капитан Немо, his role is played by Vladislav Dvorzhetsky. He is also seen in Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties as Nanib Sahir.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India (3rd ed., 1989), pp. 226–28. Oxford University Press.
  2. , Saul David. The Indian Mutiny (published 2003), pp.45–46. Penguin Books, ISBN 0-141-00554-8.
  3. Keay, John. India: a history. New York: Grove Press Books, distributed by Publishers Group West. 2000 ISBN 0-8021-3797-0, p. 433.
  4. The Indian Mutiny: The Siege of Cawnpore
  5. Brock, William (1857). A Biographical Sketch of Sir Henry Havelock, K. C. B.. Tauchnitz. Retrieved 12 July 2007. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 "The Indian Mutiny: The Siege of Cawnpore". Retrieved 11 July 2007. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Wright, Caleb (1863). Historic Incidents and Life in India. J. A. Brainerd. p. 239. ISBN 978-1-135-72312-5. 
  8. Mukherjee, Rudrangshu (August 1990). ""Satan Let Loose upon Earth": The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857". pp. 92–116. Digital object identifier:10.1093/past/128.1.92. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Echoes of a Distant war". The Financial Express. 8 April 2007. Retrieved 11 July 2007. 
  10. Hibbert, Christopher (1978). The Great Mutiny: India, 1857. Viking Press==. pp. 194. ISBN 0-670-34983-6. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Nayar, Pramod K. (2007). The Great Uprising. Penguin Books, India. ISBN 978-0-14-310238-0. 
  12. G. W. Williams, "Memorandum", printed with Narrative of the Events in the NWP in 1857–58 (Calcutta, n.d.), section on Cawnpore (hereafter Narrative Kanpur), p. 20: "A man of great influence in the city, and a government official, has related a circumstance that is strange, if true, viz. that whilst the massacre was being carried on at the ghat, a trooper of the 2nd Cavalry, reported to the Nana, then at Savada house, that his enemies, their wives and children were exterminated ... On hearing which, the Nana replied, that for the destruction of women and children, there was no necessity' and directed the sowar to return with an order to stay their slaughter". See also J. W. Kaye, History of the Sepoy War in India, 1857–58, 3 vols. (Westport, 1971 repr.), ii, p. 258. (This reprint of Kaye's work carries the title History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857–58.)
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Brock, William (1858). A Biographical Sketch of Sir Henry Havelock, K. C. B.. Tauchnitz. pp. 150–152. Retrieved 12 July 2007. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 English, Barbara (February 1994). "The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857". pp. 169–178. Digital object identifier:10.1093/past/142.1.169. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 V. S. "Amod" Saxena (17 February 2003). "Revolt and Revenge; a Double Tragedy (delivered to The Chicago Literary Club)". Retrieved 11 July 2007. 
  16. Mukherjee, Rudrangshu (February 1994). "The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857: Reply". pp. 178–189. Digital object identifier:10.1093/past/142.1.178. 
  17. Ward, Andrew (1996). Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and The Indian Mutiny of 1857. Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-2437-9. 
  18. -Mitchell, Sergeant William Forbes (1893). Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857–59 Including the relief, siege, and capture of Lucknow, and the campaigns in Rohilcund and Oude.. MacMillan And Co., Limited. 
  19. "India Rising: Horrors & atrocities". National Army Museum, Chelsea. Retrieved 11 July 2007. 
  20. "The South Australian Advertiser, Monday 12 March 1860". Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  21. Letter, The Times, (London), 28 December 1860.
  22. [Perceval Landon, "The Later Days of Nana Sahib", Under the Sun. New York, Doubleday, Page & Co. (1907), pp. 272–288.]
  23. Wright, Daniel (1993). History of Nepal: With an Introductory Sketch of the Country and People of Nepal. Asian Educational Services. pp. 64. ISBN 81-206-0552-7. 
  24. Manohar Malgonkar (1972). The Devil's Wind. Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-02176-6. 
  25. K.V.Belsare, Brahmachaitanya Shri Gondavalekar Maharaj – Charitra & Vaagmay

Further reading

  • Gupta, Pratul Chandra (1963). Nana Sahib and the Rising at Cawnpore. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-821523-1. 
  • Shastitko, Petr Mikhaĭlovich; Savitri Shahani (1980). Nana Sahib: An Account of the People's Revolt in India, 1857–1859. Shubhada-Saraswat Publications. 

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