Volume: 17, No: 06 ; June-2023
On 6 March 1858, under the command of the British commander-in-chief, Colonel Colin Campbell, the last British assault on the ancient city of Lucknow took place. The army was composed of a mixture of Englishmen, Scottish men, Sikhs, Bengali men, and even Nepalese men.
The city, loved by successive Nawabs of India, was full of walled gardens and palaces, mosques and tombs, and tightly packed houses. Many of these fine gardens, mosques and palaces were in ruins. Some places, like Secundra bagh, which the Highlanders stormed on 6 November 1857, still bore the corpses of hundreds of defeated rebels’ sepoys.
The survivors of the rebels and the guards, the remnants of the rebellious sepoy troops from all over Northern India, the common people of the city, the warriors and the mercenaries from the surrounding hills, fought that day as fiercely as they had fought since the day they captured the city and encircled the British battalion at their Residency on the 30th of June, 1857.
Delhi and Kanpur were under British control. The armed forces marched towards Jhansi and Gwalior. And the wild and unruly Lucknow did not seem to last much longer. By the 21st of March, it was all over.
Yes, the British did conquer many things that summer, great lands, cities, unimaginable wealth, and an empire, but there will never be anyone to claim, tame, or diminish the many gems of India that were despoiled during those scorching months.
Her name was Begum Hazrat Mahal, and this is her story.
This is a story that sounds like a best-selling novel or a big-budget movie. The poor girl who became a courtesan. The bespectacled Nawab who made the courtesan, his lover. The Begum who never gave up, even after everyone else did.
Hazrat Mahal’s birth and early life are lost to history. But what we do know is that it was a painful and tragic time. The most popular version of the story states that Hazrat Mahal was born on an undetermined date and her name was Muhammed Khanum. Her parents converted her into a dancer and sold her to the harem of the Awadh ruler.
Her life began there as a ‘Khawasin’ (maid) before she was ‘elevated’ to ‘Pari’ (fairy), and finally ‘Begum’ after she became ‘Wajid’ Ali Shah’s ‘mistress’. When she bore him a son, ‘Birjis’ Qadar,’ the ‘Tajdaar’ of the ‘Awadh’ was so delighted that he married her first to produce a legitimate successor, naming her ‘Hazrat Mahal’, the name she would go down in history to be known as.
The life of Hazrat Mahal was quite different from that of many such begums. In fact, the Nawab later divorced her as other wives came into his life. However, the real turning point in the history of Awadh and the life of the Begum occurred in 1856. That year, the East India Company took over the entire state of Awadh.
In February 1856, Awadh and many other states were annexed. The annexation itself was easy. At that time, the Awadh army was in a state of mutiny. The Nawab consented to be retired to the city. He left for Calcutta on the first day of May 1856. He arrived there on the second day of the month. He spent the remainder of his life in the city. He built a’mini Lucknow’ in exile. Hazrat Mahal along with her son did not accompany him. She was a brave and charismatic woman. She was determined to fight for her son’s rights and that of Awadh. She had the backing of courtiers, leaders, and people.
But passions alone don’t change nations’ destiny. Revolution does. And that’s exactly what was happening in North India at that time. Millions of ordinary Indians were beginning to resent the British. More than that, tens of thousands were joining the Indian army as sepoys or sahibs (soldiers) to fight for their cause. The resentment was fueled by the British’s highhandedness. It was a powder keg waiting to explode.
We all know that it all began in Meerut when a sepoy, named Mangal pandey, objected to the new cartridges for his rifle and refused to fire it. On March 29th 1857, Pandey was put to death. But the rebellion spread from there to Kanpur, to Delhi, and by June, thousands of rebellious sepoys were marching on Awadh.
Up until then, Hazrat Mahal, and her followers, including the Awadh nobility, had remained relatively silent. But, seizing the moment, they organized themselves and swept British rule from the state. They did so with the help of the local landlords, the nobility, and even the common peasants who flocked under the banner of the begum – a feat that may have surprised those who thought the fighting days of Awadh were over.
On the 5th of June, Begum Hazrat Mahal crowned her son, Birjis Qadar as the rightful king of Awadh and Raja jai Lal was named as his military commander.
The battle of chinhat, fought in a small village on the banks of a mango tree on the 30th of June 1857, saw the defeat of the British, who were roundly defeated and retreated to their fort, the Residency, in Lucknow. From that day, Awadh was declared free from British rule.
William Howard Russell’s much-quoted line from My Indian Mutiny Diary sums up his feelings at the time – “This Begum exhibits great energy and ability. She has excited all Oudh to take up the interests of her son, and the chiefs have sworn to be faithful to him. The Begum declares undying war against us.”
Hazrat Mahal assumed power for a period of ten months as her son’s regent. She was supported not only by her supporters but also by the people of Awadh and even the late Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Jafar acknowledged her rule from Delhi. She would become a popular administrator, and many Indian and British accounts attest to the fact that she was not afraid of battle. According to some accounts, the Begum would go from one camp to the next, to boost morale with fiery speeches and to take part in battles.
An 1858 issue of The Times of London said, “She is a woman of greater strategic genius and courage than any of her generals.”
To put it another way, many British histories of the battle at Musa Bagh, in Lucknow, mention that the Begum personally fought and rallied the 9,000 rebels who were fighting there. She was also sometimes seen on an elephant in battle.
Over a century and a half later, it is difficult to summarize the Begum’s leadership and inspiration. But to give you some context – at the time – the Begum controlled the largest area of the rebel lands, commanded the largest rebel army of the war, and endured the longest against the invading British, who would bring powerful imperial forces to destroy Lucknow.
There were a number of factors that worked against her. The main one was the lack of unity among the rebels. The British, on the other hand, had a single commander whose sole objective was to eliminate every single rebel force before moving on to the next one. They had unhindered supply lines, advanced technology, and much more money and raw materials than the Begum. They had support from many Indian kingdoms as well as from Nepal. The Begum had her own will, limited supplies, disparate allies, and, ultimately, a lack of firepower.
On 18 March 1858, Lucknow fell to the British. The begum had been offered pensions, rule under British rule and mercy by the British, but she had refused them all. For her, it was all or nothing. She would remain that way until the end. She escaped from Lucknow before the fall of the city, and made her way into the Himalayan forests of the north, fighting fiercely against the pursuit of the British, before seeking sanctuary in Nepal.
The British protested with the Nepali ruler, but the Nepalese ruler refused to give her up. The British offered a pension to her to return as their regent in Lucknow, but she refused. Hazrat Mahal lived in Kathmandu for 16 years, slowly losing all of her wealth. She refused to return in surrender, and when she died on 7 April 1879, she had no money for a grave.
She is buried in a tiny grave in an encircled corner of Kathmandu’s Jama Masjid – undefeatable till the end. In a small victory, her son Birjis Qadar was allowed to return to Kathmandu with a pardon after his mother’s death. Warm memories that contrast starkly with the rest of the country seems intent on ignoring this brave begum, while others such as Rani Lakshmi bai and Mangal pandey continue to be glorified in songs and movies. A postage stamp and an offering at her grave were issued by the government, who also made a documentary about her. It hardly seems enough to pay tribute to a woman who could have lived an opulent life, but instead chose an incredibly difficult but free life.
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