This article was written by Shivangi Kaushik.
Born as Muhammadi Khanum at Faizabad, Awadh, India, into an extremely poor family, Muhammadi Khanum was sold into the royal harem as a khawasin (attendant). She was trained in the harem in manners, etiquette and Royal ways. She grew up to be a beautiful, intelligent girl and rose from being a khawasin to being a part of the royal Pari Khana (house of fairies).
In those days beauty could help you up to a certain point, but to stand out among the crowd of girls one had to be clever, creative and wise, especially in a harem full of women. The house of fairies was an institution set up by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1822 -1887) to train young, beautiful girl for theatre and dances. The last Nawab of Awadh was a patron of the arts, drama, dance, music and poetry. He was a gifted composer who had received vocal training under great ustads (teachers ). He is widely credited with the revival of Kathak, a classical Indian dance form. In the Pari Mahal, Muhammadi Khanum’s talent was noticed, and she was given a new name Mehak Pari (fragrance fairy). This was the time when courtesans were not looked down upon and were refined and respected. Soon, Mehak Pari had a special place in Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s court, and she became Nawab’s concubine. The Nawab had many such wives, and they were given the title of ‘Begum’ if they gave him a male heir. Then, they would become his official wife and could get accommodation in the palace. Mehak Pari did produce a male heir and was given the title of Begum and the new name ‘Hazrat Mahal’.
She was one of the favourite young queens and envied by other older queens. In 1856, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had to leave Awadh, after his Kingdom was annexed by the East India company on very flimsy grounds. He was sent to Calcutta. He could not take all his wives and servants so, Begum Hazrat Mahal, her son, the young heir to the throne, Birgis Qadr, and the other wives were left in Awadh.In1857, rumours of anger among sepoys in the British army started doing the rounds. The cartridges of a new rifle were greased with cow and pig fat – cow being a sacred animal for Hindus and pig was forbidden for Muslims. Soon this rumour fanned deep anger and resentment for the East India company and revolt broke out. This was India’s first war of independence.
The people of Awadh were already angry that their ruler had been deposed. They stood with the rebellious soldiers of various cantonments. They needed a leader, and Begum Hazrat Mahal played the part. This is where the true character of Begum Hazrat Mahal came out. She led from the front; organising, planning strategy and administrating. This was a big surprise to the East India company. She united Hindus and Muslims against the British. She worked across the classes, castes, religions and genders to bring everybody together against one common enemy. She was in charge of her army. Her army commander was a Hindu king. The rebels under her leadership took the city of Lucknow, forcing Sir Henry Lawrence, commissioner of Awadh, along with his troops and all Europeans to seek refuge in the residency.
Begum Hazrat Mahal and her forces kept on attacking the residency, and Sir Henry Lawrence had no choice but to stay put and wait for more troops. The siege of the residency continued for months, and the troops that came for help could only save the people trapped inside the residency as Begum Hazrat Mahal had made sure that they could not fight the resistance and her army. The siege of the residency lasted for several months, Begum Hazrat Mahal called upon the people to stand by her and her army and to donate funds and help her to throw the British out of India. She refused all offers of a peace treaty and a pension. As the siege of the residency was a long one, soldiers felt demotivated, and many deflected and deserted. The king of Nepal also agreed to send his army to help the British. Begum Hazrat Mahal left with a relatively small army and had to flee from Lucknow. She finally fled towards the Nepalese border joined by another rebel prince Nana Sahib Peshwa, thinking of organising her troops again and attacking the British. Slowly the war of independence was crushed. Many of its leaders were either caught and hanged or dead.
After the revolt of 1857 powers went from the East India company to the British monarchy. Queen Victoria, proclaimed herself as ‘Empress of India’. In 1858, she passed a proclamation, promising to give more freedom to native Indians for their religion and better governance. Along with this came a pardon for all the rebels.
Begum Hazrat Mahal refused to surrender, calling the proclamation a sham. She said,”To eat pigs and drink wine, to bite greased cartridges and to mix pig’s fat with sweetmeats, to destroy Hindu and Musalman temples on pretence of making roads, to build churches, to send clergymen into the streets to preach the Christian religion, to institute English schools and pay people a monthly stipend for learning the English sciences, while places of worship of Hindus and Musalman are to this day entirely neglected; with all this how can people believe that religion will not be interfered with?”
She refused to surrender and escaped to Nepal, and she took her jewels and treasures along with her to live a dignified life in a new land. ‘The Times’ in London stated, “The Begum of Awadh shows greater strategic sense and courage than all her generals put together.” High praise indeed.
Begum Hazrat Mahal died in exile in 1879. She was buried in a cemetery close to the mosque she helped built and had named it ‘Hindustani Masjid’. While in exile, she continued to closely follow developments back in India and repeatedly refused to return to India. With each offer of a pardon and a pension, she sent a fitting reply. To one such offer she had replied, “Do not tell me about such things, I am fully aware what you have done with the children of Tipu Sultan and with Bahadur Shah Zafar until your type of people will prevail, Lakshmi Bai and Hazrat Mahal will take birth in this country.”