Did You Know this Begum Faced British in the Battlefield?

Begum Hazrat Mahal

Does the name Hazrat Mahal ring a bell in you? Vaguely? From afar? Honestly, in me it didn’t. Then one morning standing in front of the dazzling white Baradari I felt a shiver in my heart. Qaizarbagh, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. The grand building, sparkling in the mid-morning winter sun, a fine example of 19th century Islamic architecture, is witness to so many momentous events in Indian history, one being that of the grit of Begum Hazrat Mahal.

Walking Baradari’s windy corridors, you could almost hear the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah’s soulful humming of his own song in Urdu, ‘Jab chhor chale Lakhnau nagari / Kahen hal ke hum par keya guzari…’ (When I left the city of Lucknow / How may I express what went through me). You could see before your eyes some 43 seconds of legendary director Satyajit Ray’s internationally acclaimed film The Chess Players.

Nawab Wajed Ali Shah’s Wife Begum Hazrat Mahal

One of the last kingdoms to be annexed in India by the colonial British empire was Awadh. Governor General Lord Dalhousie dethroned Wajid Ali Shah, an exceptionally talented poet, lyricist, music composer and dance choreographer, and exiled him to Calcutta in 1856. This set the flint-spark to the gunpowder of anger, gathering in Indian hearts, over a hundred years, against the British East India Company’s ruthless regime. Within a year India was in flames. The first organized freedom movement spread like wildfire across vast areas of the country in 1857.

Walking the windy corridors of Baradari soon I could hear, drowning Wajid Ali Shah’s melancholy humming, the voice of a brave lady urging her subjects to rise against the British: Begum Hazrat Mahal.

Largely forgotten by mainstream history, Begum Hazrat Mahal was one of the great leaders of India’s first organized armed uprising against the British. She was Wajid Ali Shah’s wife. But unlike the poet Nawab, she refused to surrender before Dalhousie’s blatant aggression. Born as Muhammadi Khanum, in Faizabad, C. 1820, she was titled Begum Hazrat Mahal on giving birth to her son Bijris Qadr in 1845. Even as Wajid Ali Shah’s caravan left Lucknow for Calcutta, and the British retinue moved in, the Begum symbolically declared her 11-year-old son, Bijris, the Wali (ruler), and cried freedom.

Her Valour and Retreat

India’s first war of independence, often derogatorily termed by colonial historians as the Sepoy Mutiny, was remarkable in many senses, one of them being an unshakable forging of unity among Hindus and Muslims. Besides her courage to take on the British colonial power, history will also remember Hazrat Mahal for her deeply liberal patriotism. One of the main leaders of her battalion that seized control of Lucknow from British forces was a Hindu, Raja Jailal Singh. She also worked in close association with another brave Hindu leader of the movement, Nana Sahib. It has also been reported that the Begum led her troops from the forefront and personally appeared in the battlefield of Alam Bagh, mounted on an elephant, on February 25, 1858.

True, finally she had to retreat in the face of the mighty forces of British colonialism. But she did not surrender. Instead, she crossed over to Nepal and took asylum under the protection of king Jung Bahadur. Despite repeated appeasing gestures from the highest quarters of the British administration, Begum Hazrat Mahal refused to be a British subject. She chose a lonely death in Kathmandu on April 7, 1879, where she lies buried in a forlorn grave.

Walking the windy corridors of Baradari, I suddenly remembered the real name of this grand building, erected in 1854, was Qasr-ul-Aza, the Palace of Mourning, in memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the historic battle of Karbala. The spirit of sacrifice, the spirit of the battle of the just against injustice, lives on. I walked out. Turned around. And whispered, Salam Begum.