Volume: 8, No: 08 ; August-2014
The importance of royal women in the history of Avadh has not been fully appreciated. Their importance is made even greater because the zenana has always been a world unto itself, impenetrable and inscrutable. Indeed, one is forced to ask that had some of the wives and mothers been the rulers of Avadh instead of their husbands and sons, would the course of history of Avadh been different? It is in fact often forgotten how crucial the role of some of the Begums of Avadh was during this time, not only in response to the changing times and its compulsions, but to the little that has survived today of that great efflorescence of what came to be described by Avadhi and Lucknowi culture.
Not only did the presence and patronage of Nawab Begum and Bahu Begum safeguard and foster the magnificence of Faizabad, it came to be crucial for the protection and perpetuation of the line of Avadh. It was these two women and later others, who helped steer Avadh through a glorious, even though sad history. It was in the hands of these women, whether Nawab begum or Bahu Begum, Badshah Begum or Malika Kishwar, that its culture found shape and drew sustenance. And even when the crown of Avadh had been finally seized in 1856, it was Hazrat Mahal, one of its begums, who remained intransigent and fought for its restoration.
The steady dereliction of Imperial Delhi in the eighteenth century gave Avadh the bricks and mortar for its foundation. While the dynasty which grew on this foundation lasted for a hundred and thirty-six years (d. 1722-1856), it knew only in its early years the strength and integrity which comes from true sovereignty. The informal independence gained from the Mughals by Avadh was soon replaced by its dependence on the new imperial force of the day, the British East India Company. Shuja-ud-daula’s defeat by the British at the battle of Baksar in 1764 sealed the fate of Avadh and put it into the political grip of the British based in Calcutta. Their hold tightened continually until grip became grab and in 1856 the Avadh dynasty ended.
The political history of Avadh has a quality of sad inevitability. It is strung together by the rule of puppet-like figures, of whom some were more difficult to manipulate than others. A few of the nawabs, even though powerless remained responsible and occasionally even intransigent to British strategy and pressure. Others made not even the pretence of office but grew bleary in the haze of pleasure, in its device and pursuit.
It was perhaps this political stalemate, which had done away with the need for the soldier-statesman such as the first three rulers of Avadh, from which emanated a peculiar calm and security. Such a state of affairs not only stimulated a unique cultural efflorescence, but attracted and produced some unusual men and women.
Avadh, its dynasty, culture and commerce first began in a settlement made by Burhan-ul-Mulk Sa’adat Khan on the banks of the river Ghagra, near a keora or screw-pine jungle. This became knows as Faizabad and later, in his nephew and successor Safdar Jung’s time, as Bangla, after the mud bangla or shooting box that Burhan-ul-Mulk had built for himself. Although Shuja-ud-daula, Safdar Jung’s son and heir, had chosen Lucknow as his capital, he was persuaded to return to Faizabad after 1761.
Contemporary descriptions of Faizabad are few but vivid. Shuja-ud-daula built and rebuilt its bastions, recruited and organized the army, planned its gates and gardens, its markets and mansions. Very soon, while Faizabad’s fame made people think nothing of abandoning Shahjahanabad (Delhi), the lure of profit made the unknown seem a piece of cake for merchants from China, Persia, Europe and Afghanistan. In the streets, gardens and markets of Faizabad, men from far corners of India mingled with those from distant lands. They came again and again, while many stayed on. Shuja-ud-daula had some two hundred Frenchmen attached to his court who were employed to train the army and direct the manufacture of arms. Among these was also the well-known Claude Martin. According to a contemporary, Faizabad became a city in which ‘no one as much as dreamed of poverty and distress.’
With Shuja-ud-daula’s untimely death in 1775, the existence of Faizabad was suddenly threatened. This threat however, came to be cushioned for a few years by the presence of two remarkable women, Shuja-ud-daula’s mother, Nawab Begum and his wife, Bahu Begum.
Nawab Aliya Sadrunissa Begum, Nawab Begum and her daughter-in-law, Jenab Aliya Mualiya Amat-uz-Zehra, famous as Bahu Begum, dominated not merely the zenana, but the polity and politics of the early history of Avadh. Indeed for a time it seemed as if two capitals co-existed, Faizabad and Lucknow, one dominated by the will of two women, the other by the whims of its rulers. They lived in the strictest of segregation from men in a zenana where a boy of six was too old to enter.
The segregation of women from men was part of the ethos of the East. Its origins lay in the tenets of Islam but its influence was widespread, especially in India. Segregation or purdah (literally curtain), came to partly represent position and wealth in society apart from becoming the means of protecting women from outsiders, strangers and indeed all men other than those of the family. Purdah also became part of the etiquette of modesty in parts of India within the zenana so that younger women in deference covered their faces even in the presence of senior female in-laws.
The begums, therefore, lived among their countless attendant women, defied and resisted, intrigued and ruled, all within the window-less bastions and courtyards of the zenana. Indeed had some of the begums of Avadh been less independently wealthy and less formidable, they may have escaped notice as so many did, whether of British officialdom, of prominent courtiers or of contemporary writers.
The financial independence of these begums lay in the dowries they received at the time of their marriage. Some dowries were legendary in size, while some, a mere pittance. Among the begums of Avadh, Nawab Begum, and even more so her daughter-in-law, Bahu Begum, happened to be extremely rich women in their own right. Nawab Begum was the daughter of the first ruler of Avadh and was married to the second, while her daughter-in-law came from a prominent Persian family whose grandfather was attached to the court of Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi.
Not only did their dowries consist of invaluable jewellery, gold, silver, clothes, elaborate household effects, horses, elephants, cattle, servants, a token army, but also of villages and indeed entire districts. Legally this was always their property and not that of their husbands. The land provided them with revenue throughout their lives. Apart from this dowry, an appropriate meher or dower was fixed at the time of marriage which could be claimed by the wife from her husband at any time. Even though this meher was rarely claimed, it was part of Muslim law and was far from being an empty formality. Moreover, both these women survived Shuja-ud-daula, the son of the one and husband of the other and thus inherited a great deal of his property.
Commensurate to their influence and importance, little is known and even less has been written about these begums. Later there were a few English women who saw behind the purdah of the zenana. They faithfully recorded and reported their impressions to friends and family in England who, with an equal sense of history, collected and compiled these for posterity. While these impressions are quite invaluable for the glimpse they give us into a lifestyle, which even the most unbridled of imaginations may find difficult to recreate, they have distinct limitations. For one thing, they are often compilations of visual impressions, rather than of observations based upon knowledge. Fanny Parkes, Emily Eden, Meer Hassan Ali (an English woman who married a Lucknowi) and many others, may have seen a great deal but they simply did not speak Persian, Urdu or Hindustani well enough to comment upon the conditions and complexity of the lives of women in purdah.
Having to live within a restricted space, however spacious, for all their lives, seemed to have made women the guardians of culture, of its traditions and customs and also of language. It was perhaps for this reason that a simple matter like story-telling became a matchless art during this time. The begums did not share the freedom of their husbands and sons who could make rules as easily as they could bend or break them.
The imperial zenana in Delhi was a vast and complicated part of the Mughal administration. Its pattern was adopted in Avadh. The zenana of the nawab-wazirs of Avadh consisted of a separate building or set of buildings. Its architecture was rather ordinary by comparison to the palaces and residences the nawab-wazirs and later the Kings of Avadh built for themselves. The zenana built by Burhan-ul-Mulk however, was built of mud as his own residence was, a far cry from the zenana of his daughter Sadrunissa and all those who followed.
The basic dictates of the zenana left little room for architectural innovation. Its type remained unaltered even into the early part of this century. The buildings of this royal establishment were large and rectangular whose walls rose to the roof unbroken by any opening on at least three of its sides.
Within the building there was a principal courtyard open to the sky. Framed by wide, covered corridors, these had on their outer edges at regular intervals, handsome pillars which supported the attenuated arches distinct of Avadh architecture. On to these long covered corridors opened the living quarters of the chief begum. It could well be that one room occupied more or less the entire side of this large courtyard, while another consisted of the private imambara of the begum, a third of some more rooms and bath chambers and the fourth of an entrance which connected the other parts of the zenana or even the outside world. There were endless other courtyards all connected, surrounded by halls, rooms, offices, stores, dispensaries, kitchens, aab-khanas or store-rooms for water, tosha-khanas or store-rooms for valuables, and other imambaras.
The beauty and dignity of some of these rooms lay in their simplicity. By comparison to the rooms and halls outside, they were bare and uncluttered. The floors were always covered with a spotless white cloth, chandni, and by the time of Ghazi-ud-din Haider (1814-1827) often overhung by Bohemian or Venetian chandeliers. At most there were the traditional low beds used by the poor and rich alike, distinguished not by design as much as by whether the legs were covered by gold or silver or were just of plain wood. Brass and silver lamps, chiraag-daans, stood in corners, while by the bedside stood a spittoon, ugal-daan, and a large, elaborate betel-nut and betel-leaf box, paan-daan, delicately crafted with gold and silver.
And yet not a corner of these rooms, halls and courtyards was ever empty. The mere presence of some of its begums, larger than life, filled these vast spaces with their majesty.
When holding court, the begum sat on a bejewelled seat or musnad supported by matching cushions and bolsters, whose pearls and precious stones were held in place by exquisite embroidery in gold and silver thread. Somewhere in the folds of the rich satin, silk, or gold-cloth of her pyjama, held at her waist by intertwined bands of gold and silver, off whose tassels tinkled emeralds, pearls and rubies, was a peshqabz or dagger, its tip poisoned, its blade incomparable, its hilt bejewelled. The sun played on the rubies and pearls of her large gold nath, a nose-ring, a sing of being married as well as that the husband was alive, while her deputtah or cloth to cover the head with, of the finest tissue, soft and transparent gleamed like a sheet of dew. This variety of cloth was in fact called shabnum or dew. If the begum was a widow, however, she was jewelless, her dress was plain with its colours sombre and subdued. In either circumstance there was a beautiful ganga-jamni box, the gold being compared to the river Ganga, the silver to the Jamna, containing made up betel-leaf cones beside her, and a pechican, a huqqa used by women, whose base may have been of perfect crystal, billur, or of fine filigree.
The ultimate favour that a begum could bestow upon someone was a betel-leaf cone, a gilori or paan, from her own khas-daan or a puff at her huqqa. And occasionally as an indication of favour and equality, a lady may have been asked to share the begum’s musnad. Generally, however, the women sat in front of her on the plain white chandni. The conversation was varied, the voices muffled as they can only be with a paan stuffed into one side of the mouth.
On the other hand, the begum may have been seated in her room dictating or telling her secretary about matters ranging from communications with officials ‘outside’, to orders related to aspects of zenana administration. Drafts of these orders were made by the appropriate secretary which then had to be approved by the begum before these were signed, sealed and dispatched. It was through written notes that the begum exercised her power and prerogative. Nawab Begum stood out amongst all the begums of Avadh as being a brilliant letter writer and was known to be extremely exacting of her draftsmen. The begum’s secretaries and drafts-men could be both men and women. Muhammad Faiz Baksh was one such man, employed at first by Nawab Begum and later by Bahu Begum. He will always be remembered for his valid account of the life and times of both these begums in Faizabad.
When men were in attendance, elaborate arrangements were made to safeguard the privacy of the zenana by curtaining it off from any possible view. The begum would receive him seated behind a heavy curtain. Communication was never direct but conducted with the help of a eunuch or female attendant who also stood behind the curtain. The woman would repeat the message of the man on the other side after having delivered his elaborate messages of respect and homage to the begum even though she could hear him perfectly clear. The begum would whisper her reply to her secretary, lest her voice be heard, who would repeat this to the man. Not only was it unthinkable that any man so much as see the hem of the begum’s dress, it was almost worse, were he to hear the echo of her voice.
And if by some stroke of misfortune the begum felt more than an ordinary headache and a hakim or doctor was required, the curtains were more closely drawn than ever. No matter how serious the illness, no more than the hand was offered to the hakim through the curtain, to make his diagnosis by feeling the pulse.
If, after having dealt with matters of state, the begum was tired, she retired to her room. Two women massaged her feet and legs, another two her arms and back, and yet some more fanned her. Usually, at the bottom of the begum’s bed sat another woman who attempted to induce sleep in her mistress by her talent of story-telling.
Thus, in attending to the begum, waves of women busied themselves, making the walls resound and the space shrink. Theirs was a hierarchy whose functions were as varied as of soldiers and guards dressed as men – of palanquin bearers, messengers, secretaries and accountants, of cooks with different specialization, of hosts of attendants, each responsible for a different aspect of the begum’s personal care and toilet, of story-tellers and scores of general servants.
There were the ubiquitous eunuchs, the khwaja-saras. When despotism combined with polygamy, their employment came to be regarded as a compelling necessity to guard women in the Middle and Far East. Indeed eunuchs dominated the zenana hierarchy. Some became powerful and important as confidantes and favourites of their begums. As they had no heirs, the wealth they accumulated during their careers reverted back to the state after their death.
The majestic seclusion of the zenana, however, was no barrier to the threat Nawab Begum, but much more so, Bahu Begum, came to pose to Asaf-ud-daula, the grandson of the one and the son of the other, to his successors and indeed to the British.
Sadrunissa was the oldest daughter of Burhan-ul-Mulk, Subedar of Avadh. She was married to his nephew and successor Mirza Muhammad Muqum better known as Safdar Jung, in around 1724. The bride was about twelve years old while the bridegroom was about fifteen or sixteen years of age. Whether Sadar-e-Jahan, Sadrunissa or Nawab Begum was beautiful or plain may perhaps never be known, the purdah being so stringent. It is, however, known that Safdar Jung never married again nor ever sought the company of other women, being deeply attached to his wife. For this Safdar Jung must surely be singled out among the other rulers of Avadh, some of whom married as many as seven hundred times.
Not only was Nawab Begum endowed with qualities of fair play, justice and deep personal piety, she combined unusual political astute-ness with commanding courage. If the dynasty of Avadh survived the death of its founder Burhan-ul-Mulk in 1739, it was essentially because of his daughter’s wisdom and foresight.
Nadir Shah plundered Delhi the year Burhan-ul-Mulk died. The landlords and small chiefs who had been effectively subdued by Burhan-ul-Mulk, raised their heads and arms again in an attempt to secure their individual independence. In his capacity as the Nawab of Avadh, Safdar Jung was hesitant to face them despite his superior military strength, lest he be defeated. Had it not been for Nawab Begum’s forceful prompting which eventually culminated in success, there may have been no further history of Avadh. This was not the only instance when her involvement and insight proved crucial.
Nawab Begum’s court and courtiers maintained the peace and pomp of Faizabad. While there is no doubt that the basis of the court style of Avadh was Mughal, it came to acquire a distinction which was unique and Avadhi.
Perhaps the obvious factor lay in the difference of religion, Sunni Delhi, Shia Avadh. In other words, while the stamp of culture of Imperial Delhi was Persian, as indeed was the court language, the Persians themselves were Shia as opposed to their Sunni masters. The Persians were therefore compelled to practice their religion with caution and care, even though they were often the most important officials of the court.
In Avadh this was immediately reversed. The rulers and their court, who were mostly Shia, became the dazzling guardians, and as it were, the direct successors of Shia Safavid Persia. For the underpinning of Avadh culture was Shia faith and practice, centred around the martyrdom of the Prophet’s family. Its impetus, development and distinct style must in significant measure be associated with women led by the Begums of Avadh, especially Nawab Begum and Bahu Begum.
As the death of Nawab Begum was sudden in 1796, it caused enormous consternation among the people of Faizabad. There were several important eunuchs and nobles from Delhi. Broken in spirit and bereft of all that they had once known and owned, they had gathered in Faizabad. Here their lives had been relit for a few more years by familiar beacons of glory and grandeur. For Nawab Begum’s style had been in keeping with that of the late Mughals, the Emperors Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah I. The peoples’ livelihood, peace and prosperity had emanated from her presence and bounty.
With her death, Nawab Begum’s establishment broke up and scattered. Had it not been for Bahu Begum, apart from the fall of Nawab Begum’s establishment the whole city of Faizabad would have collapsed. Instead, Faizabad flourished for yet a few more years under the aegis of Bahu Begum, the splendour of whose court outshone even that of the dead begum.
Amat-uz-Zehra, later famous as Jenab Aliya Muta’aliya Bahu or daughter-in-law, Bahu Begum was probably born in 1729. Originally from Persia, her grandfather had achieved considerable prominence at the court of Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi, as the chief superintendent of the royal household. In 1745 or thereabout, Amat-uz-Zehra was married to Jalal-ud-din-Haider, better known as Shuja-ud-daula. It appears however, that this marriage only took place at Emperor Muhammed Shah’s behest as Shuja-ud-daula was most reluctant. No marriage had cost as much as this one, not even the marriage of Emperor Shah Jahan’s son Dara Shikoh. The marriage cost 46,00,000 rupees as against the 32,00,000 spent for Dara Shikoh’s wedding.
Bahu Begum’s wealth was enormous and became of great consequence. It was crucial to her husband and came to draw much attention throughout her life; from those nearest to her son Nawab-Wazir Asaf-ud-daula, to those farthest away from her, like the Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings.
At first Bahu Begum’s wealth was propitious for Avadh, later it tantalized the British Company based in Calcutta. Historians have in fact often questioned the legitimacy of Bahu Begum’s wealth, especially in view of the fact that at the time of her husband’s death his entire treasury had been entrusted to her by him. They have since argued that by Muslim Shia law of inheritance, only a fraction of this wealth was rightfully hers. While this is true, it must not be forgotten that Bahu Begum was independently very rich and that she demonstrated this independence by several gestures even during the lifetime of her husband.
It was her dowry, larger almost than legend, which more or less bought back Shuja-ud-daula’s throne, after his defeat by the British at Baksar in 1764. The British had assessed that Shuja-ud-daula owed to the East Indian Company as a present, four million rupees for his remaining territories which he would have had to otherwise also cede to them. His own treasury being quite empty, Bahu Begum handed over to him her money, gold and jewellery. This, along with the two million rupees given to him by his mother, Nawab Begum, cleared the debt within a few months. It was perhaps this gesture more than anything else which brought the magnanimity and concern of his wife to Shuja-ud-daula’s notice. After this he seems to have decided to entrust his finances to Bahu Begum.
The fact that Mirza Amani, famous as Asaf-ud-daula, was the oldest of Shuja-ud-daula’s sons by Bahu Begum, was not enough to ensure his succession to the throne of Avadh. Stories regaling his antics and indulgences had begum to circulate in Avadh and even reached the ears of those in Calcutta, while he was still young. Sa’adat Ali, a step-brother was deemed far more suitable by all concerned except by the real power behind the throne, Bahu Begum. She was clearly aware of her son’s shortcomings but wanted, more than anything else, to see her own son as successor to her husband. Even Nawab Begum attempted to persuade Bahu Begum from installing Asaf-ud-daula on the throne for she had judged his temperament and recognized its proclivities. Bahu Begum, however, had her way and Asaf-ud-daula became Nawab-Wazir of Avadh. Asaf-ud-daula’s accession to the throne of Avadh was to have far reaching repercussions, affecting Bahu Begum herself, the future of Faizabad and ultimately the history of Avadh.
While Bahu Begum was still in mourning for her husband, Asaf-ud-daula approached his mother for six lakh rupees. This was the first of such demands which continued more or less month after month, until in late 1775 he was made to sign a deed renouncing all further claims on his mother’s property. This guarantee was attested to by the British Resident, Bristow, on behalf of the Company. The undertaking, however, seemed not to deter Asaf-ud-daula. In 1781, he approached his mother again for what he described as his rightful inheritance. In order to procure this amount Asaf-ud-daula solicited the help of the British. This may have seemed almost too good to be true, for Hastings and the Company were like the Nawab-Wazir in terrible financial straits. Having implicated both the Begums in a conjectured plot of rebellion planned by Raja Chait Singh of Banaras, Hastings decided that Bahu Begum no longer deserved the protection and mediation of the Company as agreed to in the guarantee of 1775.
In 1781 both the Begums were arrested by the British. Jawahir Ali and Bahar Ali, eunuchs, whose position at the court of Bahu Begum was unrivalled, were tortured until they handed over the treasure. Members of the royal zenana and khurd-mahal were harassed, humiliated and made to suffer enormous privation.
All this proved to much for even the British in England. On his return to London, Warren Hastings had to face an impeachment trial which lasted from 1788 to 1794. ‘The spoilation of the Begum’ formed the second charge brought against Hastings, his action having been deemed by the prosecution as ‘highly criminal’. It was at this trial that the indictment of Warren Hastings by Edmund Burke and James Mill became famous.
Bahu Begum lost her only son Asaf-ud-daula in 1798. Contrary to the common belief that there was no love lost between mother and son, she was bereft. Since no one could live up to Bahu Begum’s style, nor match her stature, this always created much resentment and jealousy in the family. This found expression in the rudeness and indignity they tried to subject her to. Bahu Begum’s principal concern, therefore, became her own court in Faizabad, its courtiers, women and servants. She, like Nawab Begum, extraordinarily enough, always had a concern for the lesser wives and women of the khurd-mahal too. She knew that all these people would be left without any shred of succour and redress after her death.
Bahu Begum, therefore, made a will in which she made the East India Company the trustee of her entire property valued at seven million rupees. She did not trust her family. She stipulated that the interest be used as pensions known as Amanat Wasiqas for all those named by her in perpetuity. Bahu Begum thus created the first of the wasiqas, a charitable trust peculiar to Avadh and paid only in Lucknow and Faizabad.
Bahu Begum had outlived five rulers of Avadh and had seen the installation of the sixth. She died in 1815, at the age of about eighty-six and with her died Faizabad.
It is not possible to judge Bahu Begum by ordinary standards. She stood out amongst all, as a woman not merely privileged by birth, marriage and enormous wealth, but because of her intelligence, magnanimity and strength of purpose. Unlike Nawab Begum, Bahu Begum remained illiterate all her life. This never seemed to hamper her perspicacity or tenacity in dealing with the outside world. Like her mother-in-law she always militated against the growing influence of the British. She was quick to see through the British plans of making Avadh a buffer state between themselves in Bengal and the strong Marathas. And yet, when she saw there was no one worthy in her own family, she made the British the trustees of her property after her death.
During her lifetime there were few women and men who could rival her strength or match her dignity in northern India. At the peak of her glory it is said that she had at her command ten thousand troops, an excellent cavalry, innumerable horses and elephants. There were a hundred thousand people whose daily bread depended upon her. Indeed in the words of a contemporary resident of Faizabad: ‘…all felt as happy and secure as though they were in a mother’s arms.’
The city that Burhan-ul-Mulk had founded, that Shuja-ud-daula had adorned and that Nawab Begum had maintained and cherished, became resplendent in the shadow of Bahu Begum. In the history of Avadh, the life and times of Bahu Begum forms a unique, albeit complicated chapter.
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