August 21, 1960
Sunday Magazine Section
By Najma Nasreen
A CENTURY ago Lucknow was said to be the Paris of the East. In fact it was the nucleus of all that is beautiful. A city of palaces and gardens, art and architecture, language and literature, music and dance, it was the greatest seat of culture with all its intrinsic poetry and romance that is East. From highest to the most humble, from king down to the peasant all were happy and contented. Avadh was a land of milk and honey, a veritable paradise on earth "Subh-e-Banaras", the mornings of its Benares were proverbial. Sham-e-Avadh the evenings of its Lucknow were legend.
But in this world all that comes is destined to go. On February 7, 1856, therefore, came a bolt from the blue on that land. The greed of Dalhousie swallowed up the happy kingdom overnight. The popular king Wajid Ali Shah and with him the peace of Avadh, was removed. The king was not only popular but also a man of great talents and learning. He was a gifted poet, a famous litterateur, and a reputed patron of fine arts. He was the symbol of Indian nobility, modesty, dignity, and culture. The entire land from royalty down to the man on the street was shaken like a dreamer by a nightmare.
Hazrat Mahal, as she is known to history, was the Queen of this unfortunate king. She was the mother of Prince Birjis Quder, the eldest surviving son of the monarch. Before marriage her name was Muhammadi Khanum. Muhammadi Khanum is said to belong to a poor Syed family, descendants of Prophet Muhammad. This is also corroborated by the King giving her the title of Iftikhar-un-nisa (the Pride of all Women) at the time of marriage. The King of the land married her at the age of 14 for her exceptional beauty and purity of descent. After her only child Birjis Quder was born, her husband gave her the title of Hazrat Mahal, the Revered Lady. She has since been known by the sober name Hazrat Mahal which aptly describes her legendary personality in just two words.
When Wajid Ali Shah was ordered by the British to step down from the throne, she wanted him to resist. She preferred losing the kingdom, going any way, on the battlefield. But her husband thought differently. Handing over the kingdom to the British, the King of Avadh left for Calcutta on way to England to try getting it back by pleading. But this made the valiant queen only go ahead single-handed. Within a year in 1857, when her faithful subjects revolted against the British Hazrat Mahal at once took up the leadership. At popular request she allowed her son Prince Birjis Quder, then 14 years old to be crowned King of Avadh on July 5, 1857 Hazrat Mahal herself assumed charge as his guardian and regent.
To forge national unity on a countrywide basis the Queen Regent even agreed to break away from the traditions of the previous Kings of Avadh. On behalf of her son she sent on August 14, 1857 Abbas Mirza as an envoy with a token subsidy to the Moghul Emperor at Delhi. The following letter was sent in the name of King Birjis Quder:
"My Lord! This humble self has wiped out the Feringhees. Few remain in the Bailery Gaard awaiting their doom. I do earnestly hope that Your Imperial Majesty will bestow on me the same kindness that was the privilege of my ancestors. I hope your Your Imperial Majesty will honour me by accepting certain presents (which are being forwarded) along with this supplication."
Emperor Bahadur Shah the then leader of the nation, was only too glad to accept the homage and wrote back:
"My dutiful son Mirza Birjis Quder Bahadur King of Avadh! I do appreciate that in this young age you have done great things. Rest assured that the Seal of Title will be sent to you soon. You will be granted greater territories than your ancestors I do award you the crown."
In recognition of this loyal tribute the Mughal Emperor granted King Birjis the Sanad and a Royal Seal, thereby according the young monarch with legal rights hitherto wanting in the kingdom of Avadh since its inception in 1819. The writer has herself seen this ornamental silver Seal with Prince Meher Quder the son of King Birjis in Calcutta. It is crown-shaped and bears the following inscription in Persian:
"Iqbal-e-Shah, Khuldillah Mulkahu Sikandar Jah,
At the head is an Arabic quotation from the Quran which means, "God will soon help thou to victory."
Gold and silver coins of King Birjis Quder and Mohurs bearing verses were circulated by the Royal Mint at Lucknow. Hazrat Mahal the Queen Mother was the virtual hand behind all acts of the revolutionary Court at Lucknow. She was proclaimed Rajmata the mother of the people. Says Russel of Hazrat Mahal:
"She was a woman of great energy and ability. She has excited all Oude to take up the interests of her son, and the the chiefs have swowrn to be faithful to him. The Begam declares undying war against us; and in the circumstances of the annexation of the kingdom, the concealment of the suppression of the Treaty the apparent ingratitude to the family for money lent, and aid given at the most critical times, has many grounds for her indignant rhetoric"
It was her sincerity of purpose that attracted around Begum Hazrat Mahal over one and a half lakhs of rebel sepoys and native soldiers - an army numerically more than what any other leader brought against the English anywhere. This army consisted mainly of the people of Avadh and most of them were retained by the Rajas, Jagirdars and Talukdars who were the vassals during the kingdom and allies of Hazrat Mahal in the freedom struggle. Historians are also surprised to find that the revenues and taxes which used to be paid to previous Rulers of Avadh after much harassment and bloodshed, were paid to Hazrat Mahal promptly by the same landholders. And the love and esteem in which the Queen Mother and the young and last King of Avadh, Birjis Quder, were held belied the theory of those who justified the annexation of Avadh on grounds of unpopularity of the ruling family.
Eminent English and Indian historians like Ball, Basu, Sherar, Mir Zair, Russel, Sunder Lal, Zakaullah and others are eloquent on the military and administrative ability of Hazrat Mahal. To defy the English with success, to wrest the land from them and hold for almost a year, to defeat them in many battles, and to successfully and elegantly elude their hunting armies on defeat were no mean achievements. By doing these Hazrat Mahal did what no other woman, or every man, could do in the great though unsuccessful Revolution of 1857.
During her 10-month rule as Regent, in spite of the turbulent times Hazrat Mahal used to hold regular durbars. In addition she used to preside over the council of war and personally direct the operations in the field. Under her banner at one place or other fought such famous heroes of 1857 as Nana Rao, Moulvi Ahmedullah, Beni Madho, Tatya Tope, Kunwar Singh, Firuz Shah and all other revolutionaries of northern India. To Raja Man Sing she awarded Khila'at and the title of Furzund (Son of the State) for his outstanding bravery in the Alambagh Engagement. Hazrat Mahal had herself appeared on the battle field that day. In the battle of Musabagh Hazrat Mahal personally led 9,000 troops against the English invaders. When her palace at Kaiserbagh was being stormed and five thousand faithfuls turned traitors, she stuck to her guns like a man, Hazrat Mahal was the last leader to retreat when the Indian forces were finally defeated in Lucknow on March 18, 1858. These are the reasons that prompted S. N. Sen to write that "she was a better man than her husband and lord".
In the early stages of the War of 1857 when British rule from Avadh had overnight vanished like a dream, "Gen Outram offered to restore the vast territories of Shuja-ud-daulah's time to King Birjis in lieu of peace". This obviously meant that the rest of India should go to the English if necessary with the help of the forces of Avadh Hazrat Mahal simply refused to be selfish, to play dirty, and to betray the greater cause of Indian freedom. Later, from a position of strength the British offered to "restore the domains of her husband ex-king Wajid Ali (under British suzerainty) as before, and recall the deputation to England." But the great woman would settle for nothing short of complete freedom for the entire country. On defeat Hazrat Mahal was offered the principality of Lucknow and a large annuity. The proud queen spurned the offer with open derision. Lastly, through an European artist who went for a portrait of Birjis Quder to their residence in Nepal the Governor-General offered a British pension of fifteen lakh of rupees to Birjis Quder and five lakh to Hazrat Mahal if they returned home". But Hazrat Mahal refused. She could not countenance returning to her own land as a subject and slave in chains of gold and silver.
When she migrated to Nepal, with Hazrat Mahal went one hundred thousand refugees of 1857. Besides her faithful Rajas and Talukdars, the Queen of Avadh voluntarily played host in exile to such dignitaries as Nana Saheb, Bala Rao Peshwar, Mirza Koshak brother of Bahadur Shah, and the Nawabs Mahmud Khan of Najibabad, Mazhar Ali of Kamuna, Enayetulla of Pilibhit. Retiring into exile Hazrat Mahal had taken with her the fabulous treasures of Avadh running into hundreds of crores of rupees. But only after 16 years when she died in Kathmandu in 1874 there was not enough money to spare for even a modest mausoleum on her grave. Hazrat Mahal had spent her entire wealth in sustaining the vast number of Indian refugees in Nepal. Considering that she had no income and no hope of an income for generations to come for herself or for her young son King Birjis. Hazrat Mahal's sense of supreme sacrifice, generosity, valour and patriotism in this regard speaks volumes of her character, upbringing and greatness of the woman that she was.
He highest aspiration was to keep the flame of freedom burning, which she did even to her last breath in Nepal. Her militant activities against the English were not only to reclaim her husband's territorial possessions. By accepting the British term of truce made on three different occasion in the war of 1857 she could have returned to greater pomp an luxury at the head of the old kingdom in Avadh. Long after the great Movement dissolved in blood and tears, the English again invite her at least to a life of ease and comfort back home. But every offer was rejected with contempt. She died in voluntary exile and was buried in a commonplace grave in Kathmandu.
A girls from a poor family, she rose to the height of a Queen and still higher to a place in history where her selfless devotion to the cause of freedom, her feminine courage, her patriotism, her example of national pride shall ever remain resplendent with a hundred inspiring themes. Her memory too is entitled to the respect of the brave and the true hearted of all nations. "Iftikhar-un-Nisa" was really the "Pride of all Women".