The Red Taj Mahal and the Dutch Hessings of India
When we ask an average European family on a trip to India what they are hoping to see, their preference and plan, the answer we tend to get is: ‘the beautiful Taj Mahal, manifestation of a husband’s love for his wife’. But wait a minute, have you ever come across a red Taj Mahal, which is a manifestation of a wife’s love for her husband? Well in fact there is one in India, in the very city where the white Taj Mahal is located, Agra. But this Taj Mahal was made by a Dutch woman for her Dutch husband, the erstwhile governor of Agra under Maharaja Mahadji Scindia - Colonel John Hessing.
The author having been associated as a research consultant with the descendant of Maharaja Mahadji Scindia, will bring to the readers the interesting saga of a Dutchman, who went on to become the Governor of the imperial city of Mughals, Colonel John Hessing, his son George Hessing, and the clash of Empires in pre-modern India. Get ready to go on an Oriental Odyssey, to the land of Maharajas!
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Shrimant Mahadji Scindia, a Maratha warrior who conquered Delhi and employed the Dutchman Hessing. (Scindia family of Gwalior/Author Provided)
Rise of Mahadji Scindia
Mahadji Scindia, was the greatest of the Maratha warriors after Chatrapati Shivaji, the founder of Maratha Empire. First, a little background information about the Marathas.
Marathas is a community that calls Maharashtra, a state part of Deccan peninsula in India, its home. In Indian history, Marathas are popular for their strategic foresight and martial prowess. They made a major contribution to defeating several foreign powers in India that had carved out their kingdoms and zones of influence, with the help of certain Indian ‘comprador’ subservient allies they befriended over the years.
It was a Maratha warrior named Mahadji Scindia who made the Mughal emperor a so called “puppet in his hands” and ruled India as a de facto emperor in 18th century. He established his own ‘military-industrial complex’ near Agra, a city that was once the capital of the Mighty Mughal Empire, and one of the three powerful “Gunpowder Empires” of the Muslim World, along with Ottomans and Safavids.
Agra, home to the beautiful Taj Mahal, was an important city in Scindia’s Empire, and under the Scindias, two Dutch administered Agra in the name of Maharaja Scindia. These were the Hessings, one of whom even created a RED TAJ MAHAL!
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Agra Scindia’s “Military-Industrial Complex”
Emrys Chew, of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies Singapore, writes, “the Maratha ordnance [weapons] factories emphasized adaptation rather than innovation, but incorporated relatively sophisticated indigenous technology and involved local manufacturers.”
These steps taken by Scindia so alarmed the English East India Company that it put a ban on British serving as gunners with the Marathas and sought to curtail the trade in muskets. But where there is a will there is way, and with the assistance of several multi-ethnic military advisers including Dutch, Scindia went on to create one of the finest armies in India—including the 27,000-strong brigade known as the ‘Deccan Invincibles’—supplied from Scindia’s arsenal at Agra.
By combining these new weapons with new battlefield tactics, the Marathas came close to defeating the British on several occasions.
During the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-5), Arthur Wellesley’s success at Assaye against Scindia owed more to a bayonet charge than any advantage in firepower conferred by Western arms, and the hero of Waterloo who defeated Napoleon later called Assaye the hardest-fought battle of his entire career.
According to Professor Priya Sathia of Stanford University:
“Maratha military culture derived from an elaborate military economy like that of Birmingham’s, in which skilled metalsmiths might as easily craft temple ornaments as artillery. In Maratha towns, metalworkers and wheelwrights might make parts for bullock carts or artillery. As in the West Midlands, the whole regional economy profited from defense contracts. Scindia had high-quality flintlocks made locally. One mercenary described them as ‘very excellent … far superior to the ordinary Europe arms’.
Maratha small arms were better suited to the climate and local gunpowder; Maratha cannon combined iron and brass exteriors in an ingenious manner that made them lighter and more durable than British versions. British military observers admired the elevating screw used in larger cannon, which permitted ‘a certain amount of interchangeability’.” (Priya Sathia, 2018)
Warrior Hessing, The Hollander
On the tomb of Colonel John Hessing “The Dutchman”, known as the Red Taj Mahal in the Indian city of Agra, there is an epigraph that records details of his life:
“In the year 1784, he entered into the service of Madho Rao Sindhia (Mahadji Scindia) and was engaged in the several battles that led to the aggrandizement of that Chief and wherein he signalized himself so by his bravery as to gain the esteem and approbation of his employer, more particularly at the battle of Bhondagaon near Agra in the year 1787, which took place between this Chief and Nawab Ismael Beg, when he then became a Captain, and was severely wounded. On the death of Madho Rao Sindhia in 1793, he continued under his successor, Daulat Rao Sindhia (Maharaja Daulatrao Scindia), and in 1798, he attained to the rank of Colonel and immediately after to the command of the Fort and City of Agra, which he held to his death.”
Epitaph of Colonel John Hessing, at the site of the Red Taj Mahal. (Kevin Stadage/Author Provided)
Colonel John Hessing was a native of Holland (now the Netherlands) and was born in 1740. He came to India in 1764, and entered the service of the native princes. After many adventures, no records of which appear to exist, he joined De Boigne, a French commander in the service of Maharaja Scindia, a Maratha warrior turned king, and obtained the command of one of the first two battalions the General raised.
He was present at the battles of Lalsot, Chaksana, Agra, and Patan. After the latter, he quarreled with his commander and left him. Soon after this he was specially employed by Mahadji Scindia to raise a bodyguard for that chief, and accompanied him to Pune in 1792.
Gradually Hessing increased his party to a small brigade of four battalions. In 1800 ill-health obliged him to resign his command in favor of his son George, and, "covered with wounds received in war" the fine old Dutchman retired to fill the post of Commandant of the Fort of Agra. Here "in his judicial capacity” he so tempered justice with mercy, that he was universally loved and esteemed, and in this honorable retreat passed the remaining years of his life, spending with liberality a well-earned fortune.
He had several opportunities of extending hospitality to British officers, who visited Agra for amusement or curiosity. Lord Metcalfe, then a young civilian and Assistant Resident at Ali Jah Mahadji Scindia’s son, Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia’s camp, met John Hessing at Agra in March, 1801, and thus describes the incident:
"I breakfasted by invitation with the Dutch Commandant, Colonel J. Hessing. I found him with his son, who commanded in the engagement at Ujjain, where his battalions were defeated; a Mr. Marshall, an Englishman, and two others, whose names I have not learnt. The breakfast consisted of kedgeree (rice and eggs), fish, game, fowls, curry and rice, stews, oranges, pears, pomegranates, eggs, bread-and-butter, cakes of all kinds, pancakes, and a number of other dishes which lave escaped my recollection -amongst others I have forgotten to enumerate cheese. The Dutchman was as polite as a Dutchman could be, and very well meaning, I am certain. On the following day I breakfasted and dined with him again."
Dutch warrior John Hessing passed away on the 21st of July, 1808, aged sixty-three years, of which thirty-seven had been spent as an adventurer in military service in India. From some passages in Skinner's "Memoirs" it appears the Colonel was father-in-law to Robert Sutherland, and it seems certain that his wife was a sister of Madame Perron. Smith describes John Hessing as "a good, benevolent man and a brave soldier."
A beautiful mausoleum was erected to his memory in the Catholic burial ground at Agra. It was designed in imitation of the Taj Mahal, and now it is known as Red Taj Mahal because of its color and cost a lakh of rupees!
When Colonel John Hessing died at Agra, Perron, King Scindia’s French officer, instantly proceeded there and appointed Colonel George Hessing to the command of the fort, sending a French officer named Geslin to take over charge of his brigade, which had marched to Delhi. George Hessing the Dutchman had 4000 fighting men under him.
The Red Taj Mahal tomb of John Hessing. (Shriom Gautam/CC0)
Red Taj Mahal
The Red Taj Mahal, tomb of Dutchman Colonel John Hessing, is situated in Nehru Nagar, close to MG Road of Agra. It happens to be far smaller than the Taj Mahal made by Mughal emperor Shahjahan, and this tomb is housed within a Roman Catholic cemetery called Padretola, or Padresanto, one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries of Northern India. It is mentioned in historical sources that the cemetery dates back to the 1550s, from the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar, when Armenian Christians who shifted and settled in Agra began burying their dead ones.
The grief-sickened wife of John Hessing, Lady Anne Hessing, commissioned his tomb, which was erected in the span of one year in 1803, also often called Hessing’s tomb or ‘John Sahab Ka Rauza’ by the locals.
Considered to be one of the finest European tombs in India, the mausoleum is largely constructed in late-Mughal style with a slight architectural blend of European elements, which makes the tomb unique.
At the entrance is a Persian verse.
Red Taj Mahal stands on a stone platform. (Vishal Sharma/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Built in red sandstone, this square tomb stands on a square plinth with stairs and jaalis (screen work) decorating it, and with accesses to the tahkhana (underground chamber or a crypt) where the actual grave is found.
Every corner of the platform has an attached chabutra (platform) which are octagonal in shape with carved panels. The platform has carved panels running all around it.
The central grave chamber is surrounded by the Islamic hasht-behesht (eight heavens) arrangement of eight chambers. The tomb has arched openings on four sides with double alcoves on two sides. Topped with a large dome with an inverted lotus and finial or spire, the four corners of the tomb have attached four turrets/minarets with chhatris (cupolas) with pinnacles on the top. The grave lies in the central hall with engraved inscriptions in English.
Colonel George William Hessing, miniature portrait. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Jorus Sahib, the Half-caste Dutchman
Colonel George Hessing was a half-caste Dutchman, being a son of Colonel John Hessing by a "Native woman." But though Grant Duff describes the mother in these terms, there is little doubt that she was a sister of Major Derridon and Madame Perron, for Skinner mentions that George Hessing was the General's nephew.
Hessing was known amongst the Indians as Jorus Sahib, a corruption of his Christian name, which cannot bear comparison with the sonorous Jowru applied to Thomas. The first mention of George Hessing is in 1798, when, in conjunction with Fidele Filose a Neapolitan Italian in service of Maharaja Scindia, he expertly effected the capture of Ghatkay Rao.
In 1800, on the retirement of his father, he succeeded to the command of a brigade of four battalions, which he quickly increased to eight. The next year he accompanied Maharaja Scindia to Malwa, and on reaching the Narmada, was sent forward to protect Ujjain against a threatened attack by Holkar, another Maratha chief.
Although it was in the rainy season, and the country flooded with water, Hessing made an astonishingly rapid march, and arrived at the capital in June, but eventually he was defeated by the forces of Holkar.
Just previous to the battle of Ujjain he had dispatched four of his battalions to his father at Agra, where he now made his way. He was soon called upon to march with these to assist in the war against George Thomas, and it was through his lines that Jowruj Jung, the Indian name of George Thomas, cut his way when he escaped to Hansi. After this Hessing returned to Agra.
Smith states that his four battalions were taken over by Perron in 1808, and made the foundation of the Fifth Brigade, Hessing being promoted to the command of the Second, in succession to Robert Sutherland; but he did not hold the appointment long, for his father died in July, and he was transferred to the commandantship of Agra. He was here when General Lake captured the fort. After his surrender he retired to Chinsura for some time, and eventually removed to Calcutta, where he died on the 6th of January, 1826, aged forty-four years.
Scindia’s Multi-National Army
Mercenaries of multiple nationalities in India were part of Maharaja Scindia’s army, such as the Armenians Aratoon and Jacob, Hanoverian Pohlmann; Hessings, the Hollanders; Filoses the Neapolitans; and, of Britons and Anglo-Indians, the Skinners, Gardner, Shepherd, Sutherland, Davies, Dodd, Vickers, Bellasis and the brothers Smith.
This army of Maharaja Scindia was trained on European lines and was a powerful war machine in early modern India, the second best army of an Indian Maharaja being that of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, who also employed people of multiple nationalities.
The palace of King Scindia still standing in Gwalior, India has a multinational collection of artifacts and antiquities.
When in India now my Dutch readers will know where to go, to Gwalior and Agra, as it is the latter where the Red Taj Mahal tomb of Dutchman Colonel John Hessing still stands.
Top image: The tomb of Colonel John Hessing in Agra, a copy of the Taj Mahal in red sandstone. Source: DeepanjanGhosh/CC BY-SA 4.0
By Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami
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