Begum Hazrat Mahal – An ideal of feminism not only in the state but also for the world

Lucknow is known as the “City of Nawabs.” It was ruled by several Tajdaar-e-Awadh means rulers of Awadh. They made the city their capital, and now the town has a very influencing history and culture. But history doesn’t only talk about the Nawabs; there was someone else who was not a Nawab. But it was a forever charming woman, who by her bravery ruled the state and earned the title of Only Ruling Women of the state and Begum of Awadh. She became the sign of strength and an idea of feminism in the state and in India and world history.

Who was Begum Hazrat Mahal?

The name of that charming, brave woman was Begum Hazrat Mahal, whose original name was Muhammadi Khanum, born in Faizabad, Awadh, India. She was also known as the Begum of Awadh, the second wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Tajdaar-e-Awadh. A brave woman whose bravery in a dominant male society of that time was outstanding.

Begum Hazrat Mahal was a mother, a Queen, and a symbol of resistance. She was rose as a courtesan by profession, then became a Queen and later become the one and only women leader and a freedom fighter of Awadh. 

She openly revolted against the British by criticizing them for their lack of freedom of religion. She didn’t like East India Companies’ behavior towards Indians’ religious sentiments as the company destroyed the temple and mosques to build the roads. Begum also criticizes the new bullets which had cartridges made of pig fat forbidden by Islam and tallow cow fat forbidden by Hinduism. 

During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, she fought against the British East India Company; she also fought against the Doctrine of Lapse in the same year. After her husband had been outlawed to Calcutta, she took charge of the conspiracies in the state of Awadh and occupied the supervision of Lucknow. She organized an army of women commanded under Uda Devi. 

It is said that Mahal was born in an impoverished family. Her father was a slave called Umber. Her parents sold her to a royal harem as a Khawasin, then to Royal agents, and later she was promoted to a Pari. After being sold to the Royal Harem as a Khawasin, she was trained in the royal ways and decency. Because of her beauty, intelligence, and creativity, she became the part of the royal Pari Khana (Houses of Fairies). The young Muhammadi was renamed as “Mahak Pari” in the Pari Khana. She clambered Mahak Pari and became a temporary Nawab wife under contract, which is called “Mutah Wives.”

It was a rule that anyone of Mutah, who can give birth to a son, will get the title of “Begum.” And she will be the Nawab’s official wife and will get a “Mahal” in his palace. After giving birth to a son, Hazrat Mahal became one of the favorite “official” younger Queens and named Begum Hazrat Mahal. She made her son, Prince Birjis Qadr, the Wali of Awadh, which means a ruler.

How she became a leader?

It was that time when Mangal Pandey was hanged on 8th April 1857, and this incident was acted as the trigger to start the movement against the British. Revolution was started soon and spread like wildfire. And it was the moment of India’s First War of Independence. Everyone has joined the movement, but there was a lack of a leader. Wajid Ali was exiled to Calcutta, and the official Crown Prince, young Birjir Qadr, was a 12-year-old boy. He was too young to lead the fight. At that time, Begum Hazrat Mahal took over the bridles of the administration to control and fight against the British. She fought from the front with strategic plans, which surprised the purdah or veil practicing country.

The Begum proved herself as a leader. The fight against the British started with uniting Hindus and Muslims. She also motivated women to become warriors and join the fight. Also, I asked all the people to donate funds to fight. She united all three military fronts – Cavalry, Artillery, and Infantry. King Raja Lal Singh commanded her army, her confidant Mammu Khan was superintendent – in – charge. She also organized a women army to fight against the British under the commander of a Dalit Woman, Uda Devi. 

The battle of Chinhat fought amidst a mango grove on June 30, 1857, a small village outside Lucknow, set matters in stone. Where the British were soundly beaten and forced to retreat to their fortified Residency inside Lucknow. Awadh was officially free of British rule from that day.

But Begum’s efforts went in vain when King Jang Bahadur of Nepal sent Gurkha Troops to help the British army, and her fighters betrayed her by changing side. She lost the fight and fled to Nepal in 1858. The same king gave her safe passage and refuge in Kathmandu without any official guarantee. A historic account mentions that she had carried her jewels and little wealth with her. And she bought her asylum to live with dignity. The British tried to bring her back to India with official promises of pardon and pension. But she refused to return and live in on their terms, as she didn’t believe the British. 

Begum Hazrat Mahal died in exile in 1879 in Kathmandu, Nepal, buried in an unmarked grave close to the Jama Masjid in Kathmandu, where Begum helped build the masjid and named it as “Hindustani Masjid.”

Begum Hazrat Mahal –  Bravery in History

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 her son’s interests, and the chiefs have sworn to be faithful to him. The Begum declares undying war against us.”

Another example, many British accounts of the battle of Musa Bagh in Lucknow noted that the Begum was personally present in the fight, fighting from the front against the enemy and rallying the 9,000 or so rebels who fought there. Sometimes she was seen riding an elephant in battle as well.

The Begum’s great-great-granddaughter, Manzilat Fatima, who lives in Kolkata, in an Email interview with Madhuri Katti, said, “Begum Hazrat Mahal was promised entitlement, wealth, property and an attractive pension by East India Company, not once or twice but at least four times! She refused to accept their offer because, first, she didn’t trust them (the conspiracy by which they had framed her husband Wajid Ali Shah and compelled him to step down from his throne was the best example).

Second, the Queen’s statement had loopholes and bindings for an apparent submission of powers under the British province. So she decided to stay back in Kathmandu and live a free life in a foreign land rather than die as a slave under the British. This is one major decision that distinguishes Begum Hazrat Mahal and Wajid Ali Shah from the rest of the royal families, who surrendered to the British to earn their goodwill and retain their status!”

According to a history researcher, Arti Johri wrote, “Begum Hazrat Mahal’s legacy was diminished in the changing landscape of India post-1857. Her humble beginnings as a courtesan made her an inadequate role model. The courtesans at the zenith of Lucknow’s court were no petty “nautch-girl” as described by the colonists’ Victorian sensibilities. They were sophisticated women, well-versed in the arts of dance, music, and poetry. Their association with the courts made them extraordinarily wealthy, and 19th-century British records indicate that they were in the highest income-tax bracket before 1857. While the British derided the courtesans and their espoused culture, they did not hesitate to tax them on their “ill-earned.” During the Mutiny, the courtesans monetarily supported the rebels, and their homes became rebel hideouts and secret meeting-venus.

Yet this courtesan culture, the associated decadence, and ‘debauchery’ became a source of embarrassment for the late 19th-century Indian nationalists, social reformers, and emerging middle-class English educated ‘elite.’ Indian nationalists believed that it was decadence and indolence that had helped the British uproot power in the princely state.”

Begum Hazrat Mahal was much more than any other personality who rose to become a leader. She alone managed to unite Hindu-Muslim, women, courtesans, landlords, landless peasants, and Dalits and bring them together to fight against the British’s dominant power. Her name got a place in Indian history and an essential part of the history of the world. She was a woman who created a path for any other woman of her time.

In Begum Hazrat Mahal’s Memory

  • Begum Hazrat Mahal was buried in an unremarked place located in Kathmandu’s central part near Jama Masjid, Ghantaghar, which Jama Masjid Central Committee is taking care of.
  • On 15 August 1962, Old Victoria Park was renamed by Begum Hazrat Mahal’s name in the memory of her role in the great revolt against the British. Along with the park’s renaming, a marble memorial was constructed, which includes a marble tablet with four round brass plaques bearing the Coat of Arms of the Awadh royal family. The park has been used for Ramlilas and bonfires during Dusshera and Lucknow Mahotsava (Lucknow Exposition).
  • In her memory to honor her, on 10 May 1984, India issued a commemorative stamp. C.R. Pakrashi designed the first-day cover, and Alka Sharma made the cancellation. Over 15,00,000 stamps were issued with that stamp.
  • The Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India, has started the Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship for Meritorious Girls belonging to minority communities. This scholarship is implemented through the Maulana Azad Education Foundation.

We can end with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah himself the following line:

Sharon par tab hi padi saher mein, khude mere bazaar, Hazrat Mahal (Calamity fell on the houses in the morn; my bazaars were looted, Hazrat Mahal

Tu hi baais e aisho araam hai garibo’n ki gamkhwaar, Hazrat Mahal (You alone are a source of comfort, O comforter of the poor, Hazrat Mahal)

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