Birthday: May 19, 1824
Died At Age: 34
Sun Sign: Taurus
Also Known As: Dhondu Pant
Born Country: India
Born in: Bithoor
Famous as: Peshwa of the Maratha Empire
father: Baji Rao II
mother: Ganga Bai
children: Baya Bai
Died on: 1859
place of death: Naimisha Forest
Nana Saheb (also Nana Sahib) was a ''Peshwa'' of the Maratha Empire and a prominent freedom fighter during the 1857 Indian Mutiny. He was the adopted son of the Maratha ''Peshwa'' Baji Rao II. Baji Rao II was entitled to a pension from the British 'East India Company.' However, after Nana became a ''Peshwa,'' the British denied his position and thus terminated the pension. As a result, Nana revolted against the British and started gathering soldiers for his forces. He was the leader of the ''sepoys'' (British-employed Indian soldiers) in the Cawnpore (Kanpur) revolt during the 1857 uprising and successfully forced the British entrenchment to surrender. Nana subsequently gained control of the city. However, a subsequent massacre at the Satichaura Ghat turned the table. The British attacked Nana's forces. His army was defeated, and Nana, along with his family, fled to Nepal for shelter. There are many theories related to his death and his life after his disappearance.
Childhood & Early Life
Nana was born Nana Govind Dhondu Pant, on May 19, 1824, in Venu, Maharashtra, to Narayan Bhat, a well-educated Deccani Brahmin, and his wife, Ganga Bai, who was the sister-in-law of the ''Peshwa.''
The 'East India Company' defeated the Maratha in the Third Maratha War and exiled the 12th & the last ''Peshwa'' (ruler) Baji Rao II to Bithoor, near Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in Uttar Pradesh, where he managed a large establishment. Nana's father was made a court official in Bithoor, while Rao II, who had no son, adopted Nana and his younger brother in 1827.
Nana had grown up with Azimullah Khan, Tatya Tope, and Manikarnika Tambe. Manikarnika is famously known as Rani Lakshmibai. Khan later became Nana's “dewan.”
Nana studied Sanskrit and was known for his profound religious nature.
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As per Rao II's will, Nana was the heir-presumptive to the Maratha throne and also eligible for his adoptive father's annual life pension from the 'East India Company.' However, the pension was stopped after Rao died, on the grounds that Nana was not his biological son. This meant that the kingdom no longer existed, according to some of the hidden clauses in the 'Doctrine of Lapse.'
Nana was highly offended by both the termination of the pension and the suspension of various royal titles and grants that Rao II had retained in exile. Thus, he sent Khan as an envoy to England in 1853 to represent his case to the British government. Unfortunately, Khan failed to convince the British and returned to India in 1855.
The denial from the 'Court of Directors' infuriated Nana, and he decided to revolt. He joined the ''sepoy'' battalions in Cawnpore in 1857. Nana later wrote a letter to Sir Hugh Wheeler, the commander of the British forces in Cawnpore, informing him of the expected attack.
The 1857 Uprising & the Siege of Cawnpore
On June 6, 1857, Nana's forces, along with the rebel soldiers from Kalyanpur, attacked the 'East India Company' entrenchment. The 'Company' forces, though not prepared for the attack, managed to defend themselves, as Nana's forces were hesitant to enter the entrenchment.
More rebel “sepoys” later joined Nana, and in a few days, he had around 12,000 to 15,000 Indian soldiers in his force. During the first week of the 'Siege of Cawnpore,' Nana's forces had established their firing positions from the buildings around.
The defending Captain John Moore launched night-time sorties, which made Nana move his headquarters around 2 miles away, to 'Savada House' (or ‘Savada Kothi’). To respond to Moore's sorties, Nana decided to launch a direct attack on the British entrenchment, but the rebel soldiers refused to follow his orders.
Nana then used a trick to motivate the rebel soldiers. He said that the downfall of the 'East India Company' rule was predicted exactly 100 years after the 'Battle of Plassey.' The rebel “sepoys” finally agreed to launch a major attack on General Wheeler's entrenchment on June 23, 1857, which marked the 100th anniversary of the battle. However, Nana's forces were unable to enter the 'Company' entrenchment.
The entrenchment, on the other hand, had lost soldiers and was running short of ration supplies. To end the deadlock, Nana sent a female European prisoner to General Wheeler, with a deal. Nana asked him to surrender, and in return, he promised their safe passage to the Satichaura Ghat,
General Wheeler rejected the offer, as he suspected the genuineness of the deal. Nana then sent another female prisoner with a signed note, and it was accepted.
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Wheeler finally decided to surrender and to leave on the morning of June 27, 1857.
The Satichaura Ghat Massacre
As promised, Nana's forces and the rebel army escorted Wheeler's entrenchment to the river banks. The 'Company' forces were, however, allowed to carry arms.
At the Satichaura Ghat, Nana had arranged boats for their departure to Allahabad. The Ganges, being unusually dry at the Ghat, made the drift of the boats extremely difficult.
At the Ghat, there was a huge crowd that had gathered to witness their former masters leaving. In the crowd, there were also “sepoys” of the sixth 'Native Infantry' from Allahabad and those of the 37th from Benares, who had been brutally tortured by James George Smith Neill.
A possible gunshot from the high banks led to a huge massacre at the Ghat. Some of the 'Company' officers later accused Nana of planning the attack beforehand and also of betrayal and murder of innocent people. However, no definitive evidence against Nana was found.
The Bibighar Massacre
Following the Satichaura Ghat incident, the surviving women and children from Wheeler's entrenchment were moved from the 'Savada House' to 'Bibighar' ("the House of the Ladies") in Cawnpore.
Nana decided to use the prisoners to bargain with the 'East India Company.' General Henry Havelock of the 'Company' commanded his force to take over Cawnpore and Lucknow again.
Nana demanded that Havelock's 'East India Company' forces move back to Allahabad. The 'Company' forces, however, advanced persistently toward Cawnpore.
Nana then sent the army of his brother, Bala Rao, to stop the 'Company' forces but was defeated in the 'Battle of Aong.' Havelock's army also tortured people from the nearby villages.
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Meanwhile, Nana, Tatya Tope, and Azimullah Khan were debating on what to do with the 'Bibighar' captives. Finally, on July 15, 1857, an order to kill the 'Bibighar' captives was passed. Later, people debated over who had actually given the orders.
The Recapture of Cawnpore
General Havelock was informed about Nana's new position in the Ahirwa village after his forces reached Cawnpore on July 16, 1857. He ordered an attack on Nana's forces and emerged victorious.
Nana counterattacked by blowing up the 'Company' magazine in Cawnpore and departed to Bithoor.
To avenge the 'Bibighar' massacre, the 'Company' retaliated with violence, while Havelock resumed operations in Bithoor on July 19. However, Nana had already escaped by then.
Nana disappeared after the 'Company' recaptured Cawnpore. In September 1857, he was reported to have fallen sick due to malaria. However, this is doubtful. In June 1858, after the Gwalior recapture, Rani Laxmibai, Tatya, and one of Nana's close confidants, Rao Saheb, declared Nana Saheb as their new ''Peshwa.'' Due to this, many sources regard Nana as the last "Peshwa."
By 1859, Nana and his family were reported to have escaped to Nepal, where he was under the protection of the then-prime minister, Sir Jang Bahadur Rana.
There were also reports of Nana being spotted in Constantinople.
In the 1970s, a diary and two letters were retrieved, which stated that Nana lived in the guise of an ascetic named Yogindra Dayanand Maharaj in Sihor, located in coastal Gujarat, until his death in 1903.
Kalyanji, the brother of Nana's Sanskrit teacher, Harshram Mehta, had raised his son, Shridhar. Shridhar’s name was changed to “Giridhar.” Giridhar was later married to a Sihori Brahmin girl.
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According to the diary, Nana died in 1903 in Dave Sheri, Kalyanji's house in Sihor. However, some early government records mention that Nana had died in Nepal in September 1859.
Nana's grandson, Keshavlal Mehta (Giridhar's son), later recovered those two letters and the diary. G.N. Pant, former director of the 'National Museum,' accepted them in 1992. However, no official recognition was given to the documents.
According to K. V. Belsare’s book on the Maharashtrian saint Brahma Chaitanya, after losing the battle, Nana went under the protection of Brahma Chaitanya in the Naimisharanya forest in Uttar Pradesh.
The book claims that Nana lived in the forest from 1860 until his death in 1906. It also claims that the date of his death was between October 30 and November 1, 1906. However, the authenticity of the book is yet to be established.
Independent India hailed Nana as a freedom fighter. There is a park in Kanpur called 'Nana Rao Park' that was named in his honor.
French dramatist Jean Richepin composed 'Nana-Sahib,' a drama in verse, which opened at the 'Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin' in Paris on December 20, 1883.
Soviet actor Vladislav Dvorzhetsky portrayed Nana Sahib in the 1975 three-part miniseries 'Captain Nemo.'
The character of ‘Surat Khan’ from the 1936 American adventure film 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' was loosely based on Nana Saheb.
While the British were in search of Nana, he made a narrow escape from a detachment of the 7th 'Bengal Infantry.' However, in a rush, he left his sword on the table where he had been dining. Major Templer from the 'Infantry' brought the sword, which his family, in the 1920s, loaned to the 'Exeter Museum' in England. The sword was auctioned in 1992. It is not known where the sword is currently displayed.