Lucknow was once the glorious capital of the Nawabs of Awadh, and many of the spectacular monuments they built continue to define the city. Among the most iconic of these are the Bara Imambara and the Rumi Darwaza built by the fourth Nawab, Asaf-ud-daula (r. 1775-1797). It was, in fact, he who shifted the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775, and turned the town into a magnificent city.
Although the Nawab dreamt big and had the best architects and engineers at his disposal, none of the impressive monuments he commissioned would have taken shape without a man named Raja Tikait Rai. No one really remembers him today, except for the people of Tikaitganj, a village named after him 19 km from Lucknow.
Raja Tikait Rai was Asaf-ud-daula’s Finance Minister and the man who held the purse strings of Awadh. Had he not managed the Nawab’s finances as well as he did, Lucknow may have been without some of its signature monuments. But instead of being applauded for his work, sadly, Tikait Rai left office in disgrace. Was this a grave injustice or was there more to it than meets the eye?
Who Was Tikait Rai?
While the Nawabs of Awadh were Shia Muslims, they employed Hindus as in very senior positions to manage their military, financial and administrative affairs. Most of these selections were made on merit. Tikait Rai was born into a middle-class Hindu family in Dalmau town in Rae Bareili district in Uttar Pradesh. He belonged to the Kayastha clan, and most of the men from his community formed the core of accountancy in the courts of the Mughals and the Nawabs. Some even went on to occupy positions of high rank and were honoured with titles such as ‘Raja’, ‘Kunwar’ and ‘Muhsinul Mulk’. Raja Tikait Rai was one of them.
He started his career as a clerk and rose to the post of Chief Finance Officer in the administration of Asaf-ud-daula. The Nawab had replaced the old aristocracy of his father and predecessor, and filled those posts with meritorious officers. Among these was Raja Tikait Rai, who replaced Surat Singh, a man whose family had served in the court of Awadh for six decades.
Tikait Rai’s growth curve was steep and he was quickly promoted as assistant to the Finance Minister, and then as Finance Minister on the death of his predecessor in 1792. But he had a monumental challenge on his hands as he attempted to put the financial affairs of Awadh in order.
This was an especially difficult task. Unlike his father, Asaf-ud-daula was not interested in military and civil affairs, which he left to his bureaucracy. Instead, he lavished money from the Treasury on building numerous monuments and gardens in his new capital. Under Asaf-ud-daula, Lucknow witnessed the greatest splendour Awadh had ever seen. His extravagance made Awadh a paradox of wealth and poverty, with crushing taxation and debts.
The Awadh Treasury was under pressure from another source as well. It was being drained by the British East India Company, which kept demanding money from the Nawabs, on one pretext or another, leaving them no choice but to pay up.
There was so much pressure on Raja Tikait Rai to keep Awadh’s finances in order that he once travelled all the way to Calcutta, the imperial capital of India, along with Hasan Raza, one of the most powerful nobles in the Nawab’s court. They were there to discuss reforms in the Awadh administration and settle the debts that the Nawab owed the Company. But their mission failed. In the following years, Asaf-ud-daula’s debts grew exponentially and Tikait Rai could no longer balance the interests of the Nawab and the Company.
A Shrewd Ploy
Asaf-ud-daula was under tremendous duress and he needed a scapegoat. So, at the instigation of Raja Jhao Lal, a favourite in the administration, charges were brought against Tikait Rai. Jhao Lal hailed from the same community as Tikait Rai did and was jealous of his meteoric rise. He would do anything to discredit him. Moreover, he had the ear of the Nawab.
Tikait Rai was accused of financial fraud and misappropriation of funds for personal gain. He was also accused of misusing his position as Finance Minister to employ close relatives in the Treasury and siphon off large sums of money via money lenders. Jhao Lal even told the Nawab that Tikait Rai had “built palaces of gold bricks” for himself with the money he had allegedly looted from the Awadh Treasury. Tikait Rai was dismissed from service and the Nawab wanted to appoint Jhao Lal in his place.
However, Hasan Raza, the British Resident George Cherry and Tikait Rai together formed one lobby in the Awadh court, and at Raza’s urging, Cherry managed to get Tikait Rai reinstated, in May 1796, albeit with reduced powers. Although he had regained his honour, Tikait Rai lost his job a month later, when both he and Raza were dismissed from service as a result of intense factional court politics.
Raja Tikait Rai’s tenure as Finance Minister of Awadh, from 1792 to 1796, left a remarkable legacy in the form of markets, sarais or inns, temples, bridges and even village settlements that he built.
A large number of these mega-projects were commissioned as part of a food-for-work programme launched by Asaf-ud-daula in the wake of a massive drought that had struck Awadh in 1785. Executed by Hasan Raza and Tikait Rai, these projects provided a livelihood for jobless labourers and farm hands even though they placed a heavy burden on the Treasury.
Tikaitganj, on the outskirts of Lucknow, was one of these mega-projects. Here, Tikait Rai built a bridge, a Shiva temple and a mosque. This exquisite bridge is well preserved and is supported on pillars and five-pointed arches.
Two beautiful octagonal minarets, three stories high, are located on the flanks at the terminal end of bridge. A white marble tablet on the first level of one of the minarets bears an inscription in Persian. It describes the design elements of the monument.
The mosque in Tikaitganj, called the Shahi Jama Masjid, is compact and has three main bulbous domes that form the roof of the main prayer hall. According to local residents, it was built by Raja Tikait Rai to honour Asaf-ud-daula when he visited the village.
It is hard to decide whether Raja Tikait Rai was a loyal servant or a fraudster, or a little of both, as there are different perspectives on his integrity. While his detractors accused him of fraud, the British Residents who opposed the Raja Jhao Lal faction gave him a clean chit. Likewise, while some accounts say that Tikait Rai went to great lengths to clear the debts owed to the East India Company, others claim it was the extravagant expenses of the Nawab that thwarted Tikait Rai’s efforts to balance the books.
We also know nothing of what happened to Raja Tikait Rai after he was dismissed from service. What we do know is that his mentor, Hasan Raza, died in penury. As for Tikait Rai himself, the fact that none of the Kayastha zamindars or feudal land owners of Awadh trace any connection to him suggests that he too died in obscurity.
Cover Image: Asaf al-Daula (Nawab of Oudh) at a cock-fight with Europeans, British Library
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