Hers is a name you come across quite often in Lucknow – Begum Hazrat Mahal, mother, queen and a symbol of resistance during the Revolt of 1857. Yet few who stroll down Hazrat Ganj recall this gutsy royal from Awadh, who rose from humble roots to become a courtesan, a queen and then a leader. Interestingly, Hazrat Mahal is believed to have been born in an extremely poor family in Faizabad, as Muhammadi Khanum. Her father is said to have been a slave called Umber, who was owned by a certain Ghulam Ali Khan. At a very young age, she was sold into the royal harem as a khawasin (attendant). Here, she was trained in the royal ways and etiquette. She was beautiful, intelligent and very creative, and soon became part of the royal Pari Khana (House of Fairies).
The House of Fairies was an institution set up by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1822 - 1887), the last Nawab of Awadh, to train young and beautiful girls to become professional singers and dancers, or recruits for his experiments in theatre. The Nawab was a great patron of the arts and he turned Awadh into a centre of art, literature, music and theatre. Why, even courtesans or dancers were refined and respected back then. The young Muhammadi was rechristened ‘Mahak Pari’ in the Pari Khana, and climbed the ranks to become one of the Nawab’s ‘Mutah’ wives, or ‘temporary wife under contract’. It was an alliance that enjoyed legitimacy under the Shia variant of Islamic marriage. The Nawab had many Mutah wives, or temporary concubines, and any of these women who would give him a son was given the title of ‘Begum’. These, in turn, were given ‘Mahal’ quarters in his palace. These would then become ‘official’ wives.
– Soon after she became his ‘Mutah’, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah gave Muhammadi the title of ‘Iftakar-un-Nissa’ or Pride of All Women.
After she bore him a son, she became one of the favourite ‘official’ younger queens. It was at this time that she became Begum Hazrat Mahal.
Different accounts of that era state that Begum Hazrat Mahal was not very popular in the royal household as she had not entered a marriage alliance through royal family connections. She was also envied by other older, official queens as the Nawab was fascinated by her beauty and talent. By all accounts, she also did not enjoy the trust of the Queen Mother and was often treated less than kindly. But she was much loved by her husband. Life In Awadh After Annexation In 1856, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had to leave Awadh after his kingdom was annexed by the East India Company. Forced to leave Lucknow, he set sail for Calcutta on 13th March 1856 but could not accommodate his numerous wives and servants. Besides, the Nawab had assumed that his move to Calcutta was temporary. He had also planned to visit Queen Victoria, with an official complaint or appeal to regain his lost glory.
His mother, Queen Janab-i-Aliyah, played a crucial and supportive role in this move. In fact, she made it to England and met the Queen, in a futile attempt to persuade her to clear her son’s name and return him his power. She died in Paris on her way back. Those who were left behind in Awadh included Begum Hazrat Mahal, her son and young heir to the throne Birgis Qadr, and Wajid Ali Shah’s other wives and ‘Mutah’ wives. As the drama unfolded in Awadh, elsewhere there was growing anger among sepoys over rumours that the bullet casings of the new assault rifles had been laced with grease made from animal fat. This went against the sepoys’ religious beliefs. Resentment was also mounting among royals all across India over the infamous ‘Doctrine of Lapse’, which the British used as a flimsy excuse to annex kingdoms across the board. Awadh was one of these. The hanging of Mangal Pandey in Barrackpore on 8th April 1857 acted as a trigger and what started as a mutiny soon spread like wildfire. This was the Revolt of 1857 or India’s First War of Independence. The people of Awadh, already furious that their ruler had been deposed, were adamant to stand up and be counted as rebellious soldiers from Meerut and Bengal (as most British army recruits were from Awadh) poured in. There were increasing attacks on British camps but there was also a lack of coherence and confusion. The local jagirdars and policemen had joined the revolt but they needed a central authority to rally around. With Wajid Ali away, the rebels began to look to the young Birjis Qadr, son of Begum Hazrat Mahal, who was barely 12 years old at the time.
Although he was the official Crown Prince, he was too young to lead and it was Begum Hazrat Mahal who took over the reins of the administration and strategic planning during this crucial period She led from the front, which was a big surprise as these were, after all, women who were always behind the purdah or veil. Capable Administrator & War Strategist The Begum proved her mettle as a leader. She began by uniting Hindus and Muslims against the British. She then motivated women to become warriors and join the war, and appealed to all sections of society to donate funds.
– In one go, she razed religion, gender and class differences and united everyone in the revolt.
She also united and coordinated all three military fronts – cavalry, artillery and infantry. Her army commander was a Hindu King Raja Jai Lal Singh; her confidant Mammu Khan was superintendent-in-charge; and women units were led by able commander Uda Devi, a Dalit woman. Uda Devi played an exemplary role as a sniper and has a memorial in the place where she was taken down by the British after she killed 32 men from a vantage point. According to an account by James Taylor , an ex-officer of the British Indian army who authored several books on 1857 revolt -
The rebels under her leadership took the city of Lucknow on 30th May, forcing Sir Henry Lawrence, newly appointed Chief Commissioner of Awadh, his troops and all Europeans to seek refuge in the Residency and fortify it. Begum and her troops kept attacking the Residency as Henry Lawrence waited for reinforcements and assistance. The Begum’s troops not only confined them to the Residency for a long time, she also took other measures to defend the city from the British. The latter did enter the city but could only help in evacuating the Residency. But the resistance from the Begum and her army was so strong that they had to flee Lucknow. Anticipating fierce retaliation, the Begum started building strong walls around the city. The Lucknow Siege started on 30th May and lasted till 27th November 1857. Sir Henry Lawrence lost his life to a grievous injury on 4th July 1857 and is buried within the Residency. As most Indian sepoys in the British Army had defected, the siege lasted a very long time. Begum Hazrat Mahal proved to be very proactive as she issued proclamations regularly, encouraging people to unite and fight against the British. In fact, the Begum was determined to evict the British from her soil and records say that she attacked Lt General James Outram , who had been summoned to reinforce the army and his soldiers who had been stationed at Alambagh palace nine times!
According to Lucknow historian Rosie Llewellyn- Jones, who has extensively researched the era, the Begum contemptuously rejected Outram’s offer of a peace treaty with Queen Victoria and the promise of a pension of one lakh rupees. She made repeated calls to her troops and rebels to fight.
– She even rode on an elephant along with her soldiers in one of the attacks, literally leading from the front.
All her efforts went in vain when King Jang Bahadur of Nepal agreed to send Gorkha troops to help the British army. Also, her supporters had run out of patience and they betrayed her trust by switching sides. Finally, Kaiserbagh Palace was lost but not before Begum Hazrat Mahal escaped to Musa Bagh, a country house outside Lucknow, on 15th March 1858. She finally fled towards the Nepal border, where she was joined by Maratha leader Nana Saheb. She had still not lost hope and continued to administer and organise her troops! After the Revolt of 1857, power was transferred from the East India Company to the British Monarchy. In response to Queen Victoria’s proclamation issued on 1st November 1858, promising better governance and the right to religious freedom of all native princes, Begum Hazrat Mahal sent a scathing rebuttal, which is well recorded:
After losing Lucknow, Begum Hazrat Mahal retreated to Faizabad and joined Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah, Nana Saheb and others in the battle of Shahjahanpur. But as Gorkha forces arrived, fearing capture and humiliation, the Begum fled to Nepal. The same King Jang Bahadur, who had betrayed India, provided her safe passage and refuge in Kathmandu. Historic accounts mention that she had carried her jewels and a little wealth with her, and she bought her asylum to live with dignity. In spite of repeated appeals to return to India, and the promise of official pardon and pension by the British, Begum Hazrat Mahal was adamant. She did not want to return and live on their terms. The Begum’s great-great-granddaughter, Manzilat Fatima, who lives in Kolkata said in an email interview, “Begum Hazrat Mahal was promised entitlement, wealth, property and an attractive pension by the East India Company, not once or twice but at least four times! She refused to accept their offer because, first, she did not trust them (the treachery by which they had framed her husband Wajid Ali Shah and compelled him to step down from his throne was the best example).Second, the Queen's proclamation had loopholes and bindings for an obvious submission of powers under the British monarchy. So she decided to stay back in Kathmandu and live a free life in a foreign land rather than die a slave under the British. This is one major decision that distinguishes Begum Hazrat Mahal and Wajid Ali Shah from the rest of the royal families, who surrendered to the British to earn their goodwill and retain their status!”Belated Recognition The valour of Begum Hazrat Mahal did find mention in the historic accounts of Sir Henry Lawrence, who died in the battle at the Residency, and there were positive reports of her valour in the British and Western press. According to a reference by Taylor, “The Times in London briefly chronicled her history. At the end of 1858, it was saying, like all the women who have turned up in the insurrection she has shown more sense and nerve than all her generals together.”
Begum Hazrat Mahal died in exile in 1879. She was buried in an unmarked grave close to the Jama Masjid in Kathmandu. She had helped build the mosque and named it ‘Hindustani Masjid’. Her country lived within her as she continued to follow all the developments back home, wrote poetry and involved herself in noble causes. She persistently refused to return to India on British terms. However, her son Birjis Qadr did return to Indian soil, to Metiabruz, Kolkata, after the death of his father Wajid Ali Shah in 1887. He died under tragic and mysterious circumstances after attending a dinner along with his son, Khursheed, in July 1893, but luckily his pregnant wife, Mehtab Ara survived. Due to fear of conspiracies over legal heirship (as Wajid Ali Shah had many wives and children who were also claiming to be the legal heir), she too had disappeared from the public gaze. It was only much later that Birgis Qadr’s son Meher Qadr returned to claim that he was the legitimate heir. Begum Hazrat Mahal’s great-grandson Kaukab Qadr still lives in Kolkata and Begum Hazrat Mahal has all but become a footnote in history.
According to a history researcher, Aarti Johri, who wrote her Master’s Liberal Arts thesis titled Paternalistic Politics And Feminine Fates: The Legacies of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and Begum Hazrat Mahal of Oudh in June 2012, at Stanford University: “Begum Hazrat Mahal’s legacy was diminished in the changed landscape of India post-1857. Her humble beginnings as a courtesan made her an inadequate role model. The courtesans at the zenith of Lucknow’s court were no petty ‘nautch-girls’ as described by the Victorian sensibilities of the colonists. They were sophisticated women, well-versed in the arts of dance, music and poetry. Their association with the courts made them extremely wealthy and 19th century British records indicate that they were in the highest income-tax bracket before 1857. While the British derided the courtesans and the culture they espoused, they did not hesitate to tax them on their ‘ill-earned’ wealth. During the Mutiny, the courtesans monetarily supported the rebels, and their homes became rebel hideouts and secret meeting-venues.Yet, this courtesan culture, the associated decadence and ‘debauchery’ became a source of embarrassment for late 19th-century Indian nationalists, social reformers and the emerging middle-class English-educated ‘elite’. Indian nationalists believed that it was decadence and indolence that had helped the British uproot power in the princely states,” Johri writes in her thesis. But Begum Hazrat Mahal was much more than just an uncomfortable figure who rose to become a leader. She managed to unite Hindus, Muslims, women, courtesans, landlords, landless peasants and Dalits, and got them to come together for the great rebellion, which found an important place not just in Indian history but in world history as well. She was a woman way ahead of her time!
Madhuri Katti is a Kolkata based physics teacher, heritage enthusiast and an aspiring writer.
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