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The Royal Insignia

An Article on Badshah Begum.....
Reproduced from :
THE STATESMAN - CALCUTTA
MISCELLANY, MARCH 2, 1986
COLUMN: WOMEN

BADSHAH BEGUM
KINGMAKER AND QUEEN

Vijaya Khan


Truly it is not in Europe that one discovers the greatness of England,

or the magic power that resides in the name of Englishman.

William Knighton, 1855



        The "magic power" of England and her Englishmen could be felt everywhere in Oudh by the early decades of the 19th Century. The rulers of Oudh no longer needed to rule. Treaty after treaty with the trading company based in Calcutta ensured the proper governance of their territories, while the "magic power" of its agents promised the rulers their security. In such times, therefore, the exigency of successful government became intrigue and deceit, while the exigency of morality called for the subservience of all to pleasure and to its gratification.

        There lived in these unusual times an extraordinary woman, who came to be known as Badshah Begum. The daughter of the famous court astrologer, Mubashir Khan of Delhi, she was married to Ghazi-ud-din Haider years before he was given the title of 'King' of Avadh.

        All her life Badshah Begum lived in the strict seclusion of her zenana, but that did not deter her from challenging the British, their agents and "protectors", and notably two kings of Oudh, even though they happened to be her husband and stepson. The purdah that Badshah Begum observed may have indeed guarded the truth about her beauty, but it could hardly conceal the truth about her intelligence, vitality and pugnacity.

        The royal zenana in Badshah Begum's time became a strange and wondrous place. Female soldiers had always been part of royal zenana establishments. In Badshah Begum's time however, not only were they armed with muskets, bayonets and cartridge boxes, but they were dressed in jackets, cross-belts and "white duck combinations", uniforms designed to resemble those of the 'sepoys' of the East India Company. The women were formed into companies and ranked like men.

        Apart from female soldiers, Badshah Begum's zenana had a contingent of trained women "bearers". Their initial training was military. Later they were trained to carry palanquins and other zenana conveyances of the King and his ladies into the zenana. It was rumoured at the time, that the chief of these woman bearers was a particular favourite of King Nasir-ud-din. She spoke to his majesty in the choicest of barrack slang, which the King not only enjoyed, but tried to match. This same woman, it was said at the time, was bribed by a royal lady to effect the King's death. In 1837, Nasir-ud-din died of poisoning.

        Mrs Fanny Parkes, who toured India "in search of the picturesque", felt most gratified when she stepped into the royal zenana of Badshah Begum for the first time, "…the greatest treat was a visit to the Begum…"


The old begam was the great lady, and in her palace were we received. It was a most amazing sight, as I had never witnessed the interior of a zenana before, and so many women assembled at once I had never beheld. I suppose from first we saw some thousands. Women-bearers carried our tanjans; a regiment of female gold and silver sticks, dressed in male costume, were drawn up before the entrance….


        Fanny Parkes "revelations of life in the Zenana" is full of vivid incredulity. She saw Badshah Begum after she had become a widow. Her zenana however seemed to pulsate with colour and activity. She saw a bevy of Nasir-ud-din's wives, who "were most superbly dressed and looked like creatures of the Arabian Tales". Indeed one of the wives quite overwhelmed Fanny Parkes by her beauty.


I never saw one so lovely, either black or white… She had several persons to bear her train when she walked;…This beautiful creature is the envy of all the other wives, and the favourite, at present, of the King Nasir-ud-din and his mother Badshah Begum, both of whom have given her titles…


        In the majestic seclusion of her zenana, Badshah Begum found opportunities to introduce new, very controversial practices into Shia religion. Such was her religious faith and imaginative genius, that these gave rise to certain expressions which have since set the Shias of Oudh apart from those of the rest of the world. The furthest extensions of her innovations were to simulate and celebrate the actual birth of the twelve Imams with unimaginable detail and pomp, partly in the manner of miracle-plays of the Middle Ages in England.

        Unquestionably, Badshah Begum was the force to reckon with, but everything paled into insignificance when compared to her role as kingmaker.

        Ghazi-ud-din Haider for reasons that characterized the times, preferred death for his son, Nasir-ud-din Haider, rather that his succession to the throne of Avadh. Badshah Begum was childless. She, therefore, matched her husband's whim by having Nasir-ud-din's mother killed (another wife of Ghazi-ud-din), and by then adopting Nasir-ud-din. Badshah Begum brought up Nasir-ud-din as her own; and as her own, she wanted nothing more than to see him King.

        So deep-felt was this desire, that when Badshah Begum realized that Ghazi-ud-din was adamant about disinheriting his son, she took up arms against her husband. It was no ordinary confrontation. Badshah Begum had armed her women to the teeth, who, inspired by the vision of their pugnacious queen, overpowered the King and sabotaged all his stratagems. It must be said here however, that had it not been for the "magic power" of Mr Low, the British Resident, the situation may have got completely out of hand. But the outcome of this contretemps was that Ghazi-ud-din's son, Nasir-ud-din, did become the King of Avadh.

        The logic of the times, however, was such that Badshah Begum's fierce loyalty and love for Nasir-ud-din, when he was young and defenseless, was reciprocated by him with irritation, anger and finally threat, when he was older and King.

        The past, undisguised, re-enacted itself, for now it was Nasir-ud-din's turn to hate and disinherit his son, Farid-un-Bakht, affectionately known as Munna jan. Nasir-ud-din, however, had underestimated the extent to which his stepmother had made the business of espousing the cause of an unwanted heir into a fine art. For when Nasir-ud-din attempted to eject Badshah Begum from the palace, not only did she refuse to leave, she refused to be threatened. Instead she prepared herself for another open confrontation.

        Nasir-ud-din sent a brigade of women soldiers into the royal zenana to have the Dowager Begum removed. The women of the zenana were no less armed so that a fierce battle took place with volleys of musket ammunition flying through Lucknow. The old Begum may have lost some fifteen or sixteen of her retainers, but the final victory was hers, even though the Resident had to be importuned to use his 'magic' again. Badshah Begum left the palace with a British guarantee that neither her life nor the life of the infant Munna jan would ever be endangered again.

        These skirmishes and successes were minor compare to what she was to achieve on the night of July 7, 1837.

        The time was shortly after 11-30 p.m., the moment of the sudden but long awaited death of King Nasir-ud-din Haider. It was a moment that Badshah Begum had been waiting for many years. She was no less prepared for it than the British.

        The Resident, Colonel Low, had, as secretly directed by the Governor-General, already drafted a paper ready for the signature of the next King of Avadh. Several names had been considered, but finally Nasir-ud-daula Mohammad Ali Khan, the oldest surviving son of the erstwhile Nawab Sa'adat Ali Khan was chosen, his age and senility being his greatest asset. Badshah Begum had her own candidate, the same son of Nasir-ud-din, Munna jan.

        Having ascertained that Nasir-ud-din was truly dead, Colonel Low and his assistants arrived at the incumbent Nawab's residence, to find the old man quite naturally fast asleep. He as summarily woken up, his signature was procured and then he was duly summoned to be crowned. By this time it was about three in the morning.

        Badshah Begum during this time, accompanied by Munna jan, had marched at the head of some two hundred heavily armed men led by Imam Bhishti, Mohan Singh and Lalta Prasad towards the Farah Baksh Palace. She had already sent a large force ahead, which had by this time reached one of the palace gates. When the Resident asked the Dowager Begum to return to her own palace, she silenced him by her reply: "…for God's sake allow me to see the dead body of the monarch as I had not been allowed to see him when he was living".

        Despite considerable opposition, Badshah Begum's troops entered the Farah Baksh palace, occupied all its rooms and then removed the incumbent ruler and his relations. Her troops could hardly contain their zeal, or ignore the fiery leadership of their heavily covered Begum. Having finished with the palace, the troops moved on to the Lal Baradari, the place where the coronation of the Kings of Avadh had taken place since Nawab Sa'adat Ali Khan.

        By the time the Resident had persuaded the highly excited crowds that he had to see the Begum, Munna jan had been crowned the next king of Avadh. The Begum was seated in a covered palanquin just below the throne. The hall was a riot of noise and commotion; customary nazrs (tributes) were being paid to the new King, while in celebration dancing girls performed to music and to the thunder of saluting guns. In all this, more and more people were arming themselves to defend Badshah Begum's side. The people of Lucknow had never been happy with the growing influence of the British, and saw this as an opportunity to tell them that.

        It was a wild night, bizarre but unforgettable. The dead body of Nasir-ud-din lay in one room, in another the incumbent Nawab sat bewildered and sleepy, and probably frightened out of his wits, while in the streets and in the halls of the Lal Bardari, the people seemed intoxicated by their success.

        The dawn that day, however, uncovered another truth. British forces were waiting around the Lal Baradari for the command to open fire. When the fifteen minutes granted to Badshah Begum to accept certain terms expired. Brigadier Johnson, the commandant at the Residency ordered his troops to open fire. The firing did not cease until most of the Begum's men were killed or wounded.

        Badshah Begum and Munna jan may have been arrested forthwith, but it will never be forgotten that, albeit for just a night. Badshah Begum had had her protégé crowned king. They were sent to the fort of Chunar which was in British territory, where both died in captivity.

        A brilliant intriguer, Badshah Begum was a woman of incredible resolution and courage. She, like her forebears, Nawab Begum and Bahu Begum, who, although never seen or heard, were the ones truly responsible for continually sharpening the thorn in the growing side of the British. It may well have been for some among the British to have thought that.

The poorest shopkeeper's wife in England, that has an honest husband and a home of her own, is more to be respected, and is a happier woman, than the Badshah Begum of Oudh, with all her glitter.


        But they did not understand that she in her own strange way had also fought for "a home of her own".


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