Brigadier-General John Nicholson's Obelisk


Hardly 20 minutes drive from Islamabad, en route to the that famous city of antiquity Taxila, stands one of the world's tallest obelisks. Erected in 1868 or 1890 (accounts differ on this point), this granite structure was built in honour of one of the British Empire's greatest millitary heroes: Brigadier-General John Nicholson (1822-57).

Born in Northern Ireland and educated at Dungannon School, Nicholson joined the army of the British East India Company in 1839. Shortly after arriving in India, he saw his first combat action in the first Afghan War (1839-42). Distinguishing himself in the defence of the town of Ghazni, Nicholson subsequent escaped from captivity by bribing his captors. Returning to India, Nicholson was appointed Political Officer in Kashmir and later District Commissioner in the Sagar area of Sind province, now in southern Pakistan, and rendered meritorious service during the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46), during which he was wounded in an attack on the Margalla Pass, where the Obelisk in his memory now stands. After the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49), during which he again distinguished himself, and the subsequent annexation of Punjab by the British, Nicholson was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Bannu, a town now in Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, which borders on Afghanistan. Nicholson's last and most dramatic act came after the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857 and shook British rule in India to its foundation. After intense combat with the mutineers, the British East India Company fought its way to Delhi, which was under the control of the mutineers and a symbolically important target of the British. Leading the assault on Delhi, Nicholson's column managed to storm into the city at the Kashmir Gate but encountered heavy resistance on the streets and he was mortally wounded in the back on 14th September as he was trying to rally his exhausted troops to push on to capture the Lahore gate. He succumbed to his injuries nine days later on 23rd September.

John Nicholson's life and illustrious career is the stuff of legends, and has inspired several books, ballads and generations of British boys and young men to join the army. A cult "Nikal Seyn" devoted to him was founded in India in his lifetime and the phrase "in the nick of time" may be attributed to his habit of turning up at places just when his help was needed most. The obelisk at the Margalla Pass is a testimony to the greatness Nicholson achieved in his comparatively short life, but it is not the only commemoration to him that stands to this day. My research  on the internet indicates that there is a bronze statue of him in the market square of his family town Lisburn in Northern Ireland, a memorial hall in memory of him and his siblings at Lisburn Cathedral, and a plaque with the words "Here lived General John Nicholson who led the assault of Delhi but fell in the hour of victory mortally wounded and died 23rd September 1857 aged 34 years" over the doorway of his former residence in Seymour Street. His statue used to stand at Kashmir Gate in Delhi, where he lies buried, but it was removed after independence and presented to Dungannon College.

Nicholson's fame was the product of a number of personal qualities which were the hallmark of great men of his time - he was ambitious, brave, gallant, perseverant and highly efficient - all rolled into one. He gained respect through his fair-handedness. At the same time, and in line with the prevailing attitude of the time, he was convinced of the superiority of the British nation and often contemptuous of the indigenous population. He was authoritian and in combat could be utterly merciless, this darker side to his character reflected in his order to blast captured Indian mutineers alive in front of canons (click on enlargeable image showing the canon-blasting of Indian mutineers at Peshawar in 1857).  Nicholson also advocated merciless revenge - including the flaying alive - against the killers of British people during the mutiny but was apparently unsuccesful in this particular regard. He died from his wounds in a bungalow in Delhi's cantonment area and is buried at the Nicholson cemetary in the city.

The photos were taken by me around 1990 when I was visiting my parents in Islamabad. The first photo was taken at a different time than the others. I intend to visit the Obelisk again in Autumn this year and will post a new set of photos then. Last time I wanted to climb the ladder inside the Obelisk but had second thoughts when the Keeper told me that bats may be nesting inside. Maybe I'm braver this next time!



The photo one on the left has a good frontal view of Nicholson's Obelisk on top of the Margalla Pass, where Nicholson was wounded. Behind the Pass (not visible on the photo) to the left of the Obelisk are remains of the famous Grand Trunk Road, built by the Afghan King Sher Shah Suri in about 1540, which connected Kabul with Calcutta. It was constructed on a route used by the Persians in about 516 B.C. The photos on the right are close-ups of the Obelisk which can be reached after climbing more than 100 steps. In the second photo from the right, my friend Raashid is standing with the Obelisk Keeper. On the last photo on the right I'm standing with him.  


The photo on the left is of the plaque on the wall directly opposite the Obelisk's padlocked door. The two photos on the right show me standing next to and sitting on the base of the Obelisk. The views from the Margalla Pass were splendid but the air was hazy, probably from the smoke emisions of the industries in the vicinity.  


These structures are located at the foot of the Margalla Pass and stand in the shadow of Nicholson's Obelisk. They are reproductions of classical Greek buildings. It may be noted, that the legendary Macedonian Warrior King, Alexander the Great, had passed through this area about 325 B.C. on his Indian conquest. Indeed, he stayed at Taxila, a city of antiquity hardly 8 kilometers from the Obelisk and famous in the ancient world for its university. Today only sprawling ruins, a fantastic museum stuffed with objects thousands of years old and a guest house, both shaded by with tall trees, and made in the British colonial era, are left for the visitor to see.


The photos below were eMailed to me on request and were taken in Northern Ireland

These two photos were eMailed to me on request by Mr. Paul Hewitt, Headmaster at the Royal School Dungannon in Northern Ireland, which Nicholson attended until 1838. The statue, which stands in the School's grounds since 1960, when it was unveiled by the late Lord Mountbatten, originally stood in Delhi at the Gate where Nicholson was mortally wounded on September 14th, 1857. After India gained independence in August 1947, it was shifted to the British Embassy to protect it from destruction by Indian fanatics bent on getting their hands on relics of the British Indian Empire. Subsequently, it was sent to Dungannon.



The two photos in this row and the five photos below were eMailed to me on request by Mr. Jim Collins, a resident from Nicholson's family town Lisburn near Belfast, Northern Ireland. The photos show Nicholson's statue as it stands today in the centre of the town of Lisburn. Note the very dramatic impression caused by Nicholson holding a sword poised to strike in one hand and a revolver in the other. 







The photo below is reproduced with permission from the website "Indian Cemetaries"


John Nicholson's tombstone at the Nicholson Cemetary in Delhi. The cemetary, which had degenerated into a rather pathetic condition, was recently renovated with a grant from the British High Commission.

The stone slab has an inscription which reads: "The grave of Brigadier General John Nicholson who Led the assault of Delhi but fell in the hour of victory mortally wounded and died 23rd September 1857 Aged 35 ".

Permission to upload this photo was granted by the administrator of the website Indian Cemetaries which collects the images of graves and monuments from historic cemetaries across the Indian subcontinent. Thank you John!


Books and Other Publications On John Nicholson

  R.H. Haigh: "Nickalsain, the life and times of John Nicholson, Brigadier-General in the army of the honourable East India Company, 1822-1857, Military affairs/aerospace historian instant publishing series, 1980. (364p).

Lionel J. Trotter: The life of John Nicholson: Soldier and Administrator, Based on Private and Hitherto Unpublished Documents, John Murray Publishing House, London, 1898. (333p).

Hesketh Pearson: The Hero of Delhi; A Life of John Nicholson, Savior of India, and a History of his Wars, Collins Publishing House, London, 1939. (291p).

Achmed Abdullah & T. Compton Pakenham: Dreamers of Empire, Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, N.Y., 1968. (368p).

Charles Allen: Soldier Sahibs, Abacus Publishing House, 2001. (384p).


If any visitor to this page has photos of any of Nicholson's monuments which are or which are not included on this webpage, please eMail me them and I will place them here with an acknowledgement, your write-up for the photos and a link to your website. Thanks.



Since May 20th, 2006, you are visitor number

Did you like or dislike my photo galleries?All critical and favourable comments and constructive suggestions from your side are highly appreciated.

Please eMail me or sign my guestbook.

The Hard Facts My Professional Career My Teaching, Research and Event Activities My Webalbums Anomalous Phenomena Computer Graphics