Two Brave Begums of Awadh

Begum Hazrat Mahal
  • This article tells you the story of two queens of Awadh who took on the British albeit in different ways.

Awadh, a region in Uttar Pradesh, has a long and layered history. It was once the great ancient kingdom of Kosala, the land of Sri Ram. In the post-Mughal period, it was the dominion of the Nawabs. One of the richest states in British India, Awadh was known as the granary of India. It was strategically important for the control of the Doab, a fertile plain between the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers. It is here that the syncretic culture or Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb was born and flourished. It was the dreamland where people of varied faiths lived together in harmony.


The story of Awadh’s near past is one of cultural, linguistic and artistic refinement, of wealth, luxury and prosperity. But also one of devastation, loot and plunder. It is an extraordinary tale of a civilization reaching its zenith, only to be destroyed most tragically. 


However, there’s beauty even in this tragedy because this destruction was resisted valiantly by Awadhis and two of their Begums: Mallika Kishwar, mother of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (the last king of Awadh) and Begum Hazrat Mahal, one of his many wives. 


In 1856, the British East India Company decided to annex Awadh under the Doctrine of Lapse policy, on the pretext of maladministration. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the then ruler of Awadh considered British to be his ally so this decision came as a shock to him. Instead of fighting the British in battle he decided to go to England and plead his case before the Queen.


However, he fell seriously sick on reaching Calcutta (where he was immediately imprisoned at Fort William) and couldn’t go further. His mother, Janab-e-Aliya Begum (Rajmata or Queen Mother) Mallika Kishwar who had never left the confines of the Zenana (female quarters), decided to travel to England to win back what she considered her family’s right. It was a tremendously courageous decision considering the times, the long and arduous journey, her age and the protected life she had led. She believed that after all Queen Victoria was ‘also a mother’ and would definitely recognize the injustice her son was being subjected to. 


Janab-e-Aliya reached a bitterly cold England after many months, having braved sickness and discomfort enroute, only to meet colder treatment at the hands of Queen Victoria. The British sovereign rejected her initial requests for an audience. When an audience was finally granted, Mallika realized that the real power lay with the British Parliament and there was nothing that Queen Victoria could do for her except offer some customary hospitality. Mallika and her aides turned to the parliament but they dismissed her petition. The mutiny of 1857 then made matters worse and the vengeful British were now unwilling to restore the kingdom back to her son, under any circumstance.


In 1858, a disappointed Mallika Kishwar decided to return to India via France. By this time, the exhausted queen’s health had deteriorated. She fell gravely ill and breathed her last in Paris. Her simple but stately funeral was attended by representatives of the Turkish sultans and a marble cenotaph was constructed over her tomb. 


Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had several wives, many of them accompanied him to Calcutta but many others had to stay behind in Lucknow. Begum Hazrat Mahal was one of them. She had great regard and love for her husband but she disliked the fact that he gave up his kingdom to the British without putting up a real fight.


In 1857, the mutiny spread to Awadh and the British lost temporarily. A leader was needed to restore order to the state that had fallen to anarchy in the absence of its king and the British authority, the Taluqadars or landowners of Awadh decided to place one of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’ sons on the empty throne. Begum Hazrat Mahal’s son Birjis Qadar was chosen, as he was barely 11 years old, Hazrat Mahal became the regent. 


The Taluqadars had expected her to remain a mere figurehead who would follow their instructions but she turned out to be a strong-willed woman with a mind of her own. She showed extraordinary administrative abilities and soon reorganized her army under the leadership of military commander Rajah Jai Lal Singh.


It is also believed that she organized a women’s regiment, with Uda Devi as its head, who fought bravely against the British. When the forces under the command of the British re-captured Lucknow and most of Awadh, the Begum’s army was forced to retreat. 


Ultimately, she had to seek asylum at Nepal. She died there in 1879 and was buried in a nameless grave in the grounds of Kathmandu's Jama Masjid.


These two iconic queens, Mallika Kishwar and Begum Hazrat Mahal proved that the women of Awadh not just embodied grace, delicateness, sophistication and poetic talent as alluring Tawaifs or courtesans but also epitomized courage, honour and strong leadership as rulers and administrators.


A park in Lucknow and a scholarship for the benefit of girl students belonging to minority communities have been named after Begum Hazrat Mahal. A commemorative postage stamp has also been released in her honour.


However one wonders if this is enough to celebrate a woman like her, who dared to stand tall in a world that was rigidly patriarchal and did not allow women to step out of the zenana. At least Begum Hazrat Mahal is still remembered, Mallika Kishwar has been completely forgotten as she lies buried in faraway France. She may not have got the chance to fight in the war of 1857 like Hazrat Mahal but her diplomatic efforts to save her kingdom were no less important. One can only hope that someday Awadh would give its heroic queens the respect they deserve.


1. Awadh ki Begumat by Dr. Yogesh Pravin (Hindi).

2. In the city of Gold and Silver by Kenize Mourad (a novel).

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3. Rani Abakka, the forgotten warrior queen of Karnataka

4. Warrior Queens Rani Durgawati and Naikidevi 

5. Why Ahilyabai Holkar was a great woman 

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