The legend of Nikkal Sayn

Crossing Margalla Pass on Grand Trunk road near Islamabad in Pakistan, you cannot miss a tall magnificent obelisk right at the Margalla Pass, the Nicholson Monument. The monument reminds us of the days gone by when East India Company used to rule India on behalf of the Crown.

Born in 1822 in Lisburn near Belfast, Nicholson was one of the seven siblings of a middle class rural family. One of the uncles, Uncle Hoggs had made a fortune in law practice in Calcutta and through his connections; Nicholson got recruited by the East India Company to arrive in Calcutta in 1839. The next eighteen years upto 1857 would establish Nicholson as one of the finest Generals of East India Company and one of the favorites among Henry Lawrence’s ‘young men’. These young men over next few decades tamed the Indian frontier for the Company and included Herbert Edwardes, John Nicholson, Henry Lumsden, Nivelle Chamberlain, Reynell Taylor, Patrick Vans Agnew, William Hodson and not so young Kaka James Abott.

After spending few months in Calcutta, Nicholson started marching westward with 27 Bengal Native Infantry to Ghazni in Afghanistan, the frontier which at that time included Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tribal areas and beyond and was a real fascination for these young souls. Nicholson tasted his first and only surrender at the hands of Afghans in Ghazni and was taken prisoner for several months. In 1842, the Afghans butchered the British resident in Kabul and later massacred some 16000 strong British army and camp followers after promising them safe passage back to India. The tale of this massacre was told to British by the lone surviving surgeon Dr Brydon who was left alive to tell the tale of horror and savagery. First Afghan war was cast in stone and the Company’s army of retribution was sent which ransacked Kabul with equal savagery and also led to freedom of Nicholson.

In Punjab, Sikhs had become increasingly troublesome after losing the 1848 battle of Chillianwala. Nicholson was based in Peshawar when one night, he was ordered to take over Attock fort on the banks of river Indus from Sikhs who were playing devious. Nicholson rode along with some sixty Pathan irregulars and reached Attock fort in the morning taking Sikh guards by surprise. He bluffed them into submission only on the strength of his personality and the fort was taken without a single bullet fired. The legend of ‘Nikkal Sayn’ had born.

Next Nicholson moved with lightening speed to take over Margalla Pass guarded by a tower. A whole brigade of Sikh Army was moving from Rawalpindi to Hasanabdal to join forces of Governor of Hazara, Sardar Chattar Singh. The brigade was camping short of Margalla Pass when Nicholson rode into Sikh camp and asked the Commander to retreat within one hour or face consequences. Just before one hour and under the dominating eyes of Nicholson, the Sikh army retreated.

After the battle of Gujrat in 1849, East India Company formally annexed Punjab to its dominion and Nicholson was appointed the first Deputy Commissioner of Rawalpindi. After serving there for a while, he left for the much earned year long furlough to England. He was advised by friends like Edwardes to get married however he returned to India in 1852, still a bachelor. He was posted as Deputy Commissioner Bannu against the position vacated by Reynell Taylor who was going on his furlough after serving a decade in India. It was in Bannu that Nicholson had to face the ferocious mountain people, the Wazirs and Mehsuds. The story shall be typical that tribesmen shall descend into Bannu in the night and go on rampage and then vanish in the morning. This shall be followed by British going on punitive expeditions into mountains which led to equally painful experience by the tribal warriors. However these revengeful retributions also won Nicholson a lot of respect among tribals. It would be in Bannu that the legend of ‘Nikkal Sayn’ shall become truly unforgettable and some old folks would still respond to some arrogant soul by saying ‘ Te zan ta Nikkal Sayn wayay? meaning ‘who do you think you are? Nicholson?’. It was in Bannu when he was attacked by a Marwat tribesman in the Deputy Commissioner house however Nicholson was too quick to get the attacker down using a musket. A commemorative marble plaque authored by Herbert Edwardes, a dear friend of Nicholson installed in the small colonial church next to Deputy Commissioner Bungalow in Bannu, reminds us of ‘Nikkal Sayn’.

After Bannu, Nicholson was moved to Peshawar again as Deputy Commissioner, Nicholson was happy to be next to one of his dearest friend Herbert Edwards, the Commissioner of Peshawar. It was from Peshawar that Nicholson would start that fateful journey to Delhi in 1857 after which he shall never see Herbert Edwardes or more importantly frontier.

The Indian mutiny as British call it and war of independence as locals call it started in early 1857 and finally made its way to Delhi where a thirty thousand strong pre dominantly mutineering regiments have gathered for the final battle. The East India Company was dumbstruck and scrambled all available British and native forces from all over India. A number of Henry Lawrence’s young men started assembling from the frontier for the final battle. Nicholson at the head of Pathan irregulars set out from Peshawar and was joined by local Muslim tribes including Muhammad Hayat Khan of Wah village whose father Hassan Khan was a close friend of Nicholson. On the way, Nicholson ruthlessly butchered any mutineers including the suspects within his regiment. One incident involved hanging of several cooks who were preparing food for the officers on suspicion of poisoning of food.

Finally the British forces took position just outside Delhi on famous Delhi ridge which overlooked Delhi and its fort. In September 1857, the hostilities began and British were able to breach Kashmir bastion of the fort to enter the city. Different accounts tell of a brutal and ruthless carnage leading to bodies lying all over the streets with no discrimination of age or gender. Other accounts also tell of a similar fate for British and their families. Anyways during the ensuing mess, Nicholson was hit by a musket ball and he fell down. It was 14th September 1857.

Nicholson was immediately evacuated from the site however the soldiers evacuating him left him unattended on a stretcher. It was there where he was found lying helpless by Lieutenant Robert, the later Commander in Chief of British Army. He was moved to field hospital where he died nine days later on 23rd September 1857. He was buried in a Christian war graveyard near Kashmir gate in Delhi. Brigadier General John Nicholson was 34 when he died. The Pathan and Punjabi irregulars accompanying Nicholson cried on his burial against the tribal traditions and than returned home as they owed their loyalty only to ‘Nikkal Sayn’ and not the Company or Crown.

General Nicholson was a brave but ruthless commander but perhaps ruthlessness was order of the day. Nicholson lost his younger brother Alexander to equally ruthless Afghans and buried Alexander himself near Ali Masjid in Khyber Pass. Another of Nicholson sibling Charles first lost his right arm in 1857 war and then died in 1862 in India while leading a Gorkha unit. Yet another brother William died in Sindh in 1847 under mysterious circumstances while being part of Bombay Army. So four out of four Nicholson brothers lost their lives in India serving for East India Company, at times the nature is indeed unforgiving.

The Nicholson monument today reminds us of those unforgiving times, conviction of those serving the Crown as well as of those resisting the Crown. During the colonial era, besides building the obelisk, another gothic building with fountain was also built on the opposite side of the Grand Trunk road. While the obelisk is in good shape being solid concrete, the gothic building and fountain are in dilapidated condition. The obelisk is next to a well preserved section of ancient cobbled Grand Trunk road and together, all these monuments make an excellent tourist spot. Unfortunately the whole area is neglected and is slowly being encroached upon by lime stone quarries and related businesses. A small project leading to some visible sign boards, a tourist cum refreshment kiosk, car parking and a clean sitting area is all what is needed to revive this heritage site.

The writer is based in Lahore and blogs at He can be reached at

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