Near the historic St James Church at the heart of Kashmere Gate, lies a 200-year-old sprawling, but severely dilapidated, structure that is commonly known as the haveli of Colonel James Skinner – a colourful Anglo-Indian mercenary-adventurer who was known locally as “Sikandar Sahib” and to this day remains closely associated with several aspects of British and Indian history in Delhi.

The old building of Hindu College complex at Kashmiri Gate, Delhi. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

For several reasons spanning the past two centuries, this structure is closely intertwined with the city’s history.

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In early 1820s, mercenary and adventurer Colonel James Skinner (1778-1841) – the son of a Scottish military officer and an Indian woman – acquired a five-acre estate near Kashmere Gate where he constructed his palatial house, and later in 1836 Delhi’s oldest church, St James’.

In the former, he lived nearly 20 years till his death. While the church continued to serve the public, his house was changed hands between owners, finally getting converted into two complexes that for decades served as the addresses for the Capital’s two most famous colleges — St Stephen’s and Hindu.

The old St Stephen’s complex now houses the offices of Delhi’s chief electoral officer, but the old Hindu complex — currently part of a zonal office complex for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) — now lies in disrepair: bits of plaster keep falling off, sections of the walls are heavily damaged by seepage, and the tiled roof is in ruins.

Now, the Hindu College Old Students Association — the official alumni association of the college — wants to restore the complex and convert it into a memorial to mark 125 years of the foundation of the institution in 2024, and has approached MCD to help with its conservation.

The beginning: Col Skinner’s estate

Talking a walk through the severely run-down complex near St James’ Church, it’s hard to tell this area was once described by historians as a palatial house. All that remains of his grand estate is the old Hindu complex — the remaining chunks are now unrecognisable, with portions of the old facade being taken over by shops, unauthorised constructions, and godowns.

Colonel Skinner was one of the most important figures of Delhi in the early 19th century – and for several reasons remains important in contemporary India. Skinner, who joined the Maratha army as a mercenary, was forced out after the Marathas went to war with the East India Company. He then joined the Bengal Army of the East India Company. In 1803, he raised two cavalry regiments for the British at Hansi – known as 1st Skinner’s Horse and 3rd Skinner’s Horse (formerly 2nd Skinner’s Horse) — these are units of the Indian Army to this day, and he is often referred to as the “father of the Indian cavalry”.

Skinner also commissioned several paintings, was a prolific writer, and erected several buildings, including the iconic St James’ Church.

Historian and author Swapna Liddle in her book Chandni Chowk: The Mughal city of Old Delhi described Skinner as an “interesting figure of Delhi society”. She wrote that Skinner had initially built a house for himself in Kucha Raiman, south of Chandni Chowk, in 1811 but soon sold it off and built a new mansion — the old Hindu complex — closer to Kashmere Gate in the 1820s.

“The part of the city just within the Kashmiri Gate was where many of the higher British officials lived. The palace of Dara Shukoh (emperor Aurangzeb’s brother) had been converted into residency where highest British official in Delhi lived. It was given classical European Facade and other large mansions were similarly converted,” Liddle wrote.

Dennis Holman, in his 1961 biography of the adventurer titled Sikander Sahib: The Life and Times of James Skinner, wrote that Skinner’s “hall of private audience” was “modelled on that of the emperor”, referring to Mughal emperor Akbar Shah II.

Holman wrote that Skinner’s hospitality was proverbial, and the mansion played a key role. “It was his joy to assemble a knot of friends at his home at Delhi… The joyous excursions that were made amongst the interesting environs of Dehlee, when pitching our tents amidst ruins that extend for twenty miles around it — now at the mausoleum of Hoomayoon, now at the gigantic pillar of the Coutub, or again among the Cyclopean walls and speaking silence of the old city of Toghlucabad,” he wrote.

Transformation into Hindu College

After remaining in the Skinner family for more than a half a century, the mansion was later acquired by Rai Bahadur Sultan Singh, the treasurer of the Imperial Bank of India towards the end of the 19th century.

Separately, prominent banker Krishna Dassji Gurwale in 1899 established Hindu College at the Kinari Bazar in Chandni Chowk, with prominent Delhi citizens as trustees. However, within a few years, the college decided to shift due to space constraints, and Gurwale purchased the Skinner mansion from Singh.

Former Hindu College principal Dr Kavita Sharma in her book Hindu College Delhi: A People’s Movement wrote that Gurwale started the college after his father, Ramji Das Gurwale — emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s banker — was tortured and hanged in the compound of the Chandni Chowk Kotwali by the British after Zafar’s arrest.

“Rai Bahadur Sultan Singh, who was a trustee of the college, owned many old properties of Colonel Skinner after his death including this haveli. Singh was persuaded to sell Skinner’s Haveli to Hindu College at the price of 87,000 in 1908,” Sharma wrote.

The college moved to its current location at North Campus in 1953, and the last remaining portion of the mansion now falls under the municipality, with the remaining parts encroached.

Disrepair, and plans for conservation

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), in the book Delhi: The Built Heritage, noted that Skinner’s estate is “now lost in a cluster of commercial spaces, old shops and many other unauthorized construction”.

“Now only few traces of the original architecture exist. The grand gateway is one of the few remnants… Skinner s house is an important built heritage and has great historical and architectural significance,” the book stated.

The structure also finds a mention in the MCD urban development department’s heritage list as a “Grade-2 heritage structure of zone-C”, which are buildings and precincts that evoke architectural aesthetic, or sociological interest.

Hindu College Old Students Association president Ravi Burman said the alumni association wants to restore the structure into a memorial to mark 125 years of the college’s foundation.

“We have held meetings with municipal commissioner Gyanesh Bharti and the heritage cell. In another 10-15 days, we will start a survey of the site with the help of experts. There are three parts of structures inside the complex — a circular building, an amphitheatre, and a section with pillars. We want to restore all three of them and turn it into a memorial,” Burman said.

A senior MCD official said the corporation plans to conserve the structure but the shortage of funds has been a major hurdle. “The college alumni association has approached us to help in the conservation of the old college building,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, current Hindu principal Anju Srivastava said the college or its alumni association will extend a helping hand to conservation efforts.

“I am not aware of the offer made by the alumni association but we have also asked our history department to look into the site and its history associated with Skinner’s haveli,” she said.