MEHRU JAFFER | 30 MAY, 2016
Begum Hazrat Mahal: The Pari Who Became a Revolutionary
June, in particular is a good month to remember Begum Hazrat Mahal who led the first war of independence against the British in Lucknow. This Begum of Avadh had defied British forces of the East India Company in the great uprising of 1857.
She was one of the nine divorced women of Wajid Ali Shah, Lucknow's last ruler.
“When the king left Lucknow on 13 March 1856 he took with him as well as his mother, three of his wives including Khas Mahal and Akhtar Mahal. An unknown number of wives were left behind in Lucknow as well as nine divorced women including Hazrat Mahal and her young son,” writes Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in The Last King in India.
Begum Hazrat Mahal took charge of the city despite her divorce from the king and her supporters included Raja Jailal Singh, a former Nizam of Azamgarh. It was Raja Jailal who fed support to the rebellion from the suburbs around Lucknow.
The other supporter defending Lucknow was Nana Sahib, a Maratha soldier and childhood friend of Rani Lakshmibai. Nana Sahib led the revolt against the British in Kanpur. Like Begum Hazrat Mahal he too retreated to Nepal after the British regained Lucknow in 1858.
Wajid Ali Shah was forced to leave Lucknow for exile in Calcutta, by the British. Lucknow was one of the most bitterly contested cities during this first war of independence against the British.
Between the exile of Wajid Ali Shah in March 1856 and the first war of independence in June 1857, Lucknow was defended by Begum Hazrat Mahal and she ruled as regent for 10 months. Her 12 year old son Birjis Qadr was crowned in the Baradari at Qaiserbagh, the palace built by his father.
After the British overpowered the freedom fighters, Begum Hazrat Mahal refused a pension and continued gorilla attacks on British military centers till November 1859. She spent the rest of her life in Kathmandu, Nepal and was buried there in 1879.
It may be recalled that fighting broke out at the end of June in 1857 against the British after soldiers mostly from the Avadh region heard that their mild mannered ruler was unceremoniously stripped of his throne and his kingdom by the British on grounds of mismanagement. Their first reaction was one of disbelief. Their second reaction was of anger. soldiers in different parts of north India took up arms and in Lucknow laid siege to the city's British Residency where English and Anglo Indian inhabitants were hiding for four and a half months between July and November 1857.
But before Begum Hazrat Mahal transformed into a revolutionary she was a fairy. It may be recalled that apart from official wives and temporary wives there was yet another category of women, the pari or fairy who was often taken on as a temporary wife if the king found her pleasing and talented. The fairies were certainly an innovation of Wajid Ali Shah, poet prince and were recruited from the lower classes, including courtesans who lived mainly in Chowk, in the old city.
These women were not educated but after tuitions some of them acquired sophistication. Some fairies went on to become expert singers or dancers while others proved to be good for nothing.
Begum Hazrat Mahal's maiden name was Muhammadi Khanum, and she was born in Faizabad. Her father was a slave called Umber owned by a Ghulam Hossein Ali Khan. Her mother was a Muslim mistress of Umber. A courtesan by profession, Muhammadi was taken into the royal harem after being sold by her parents.
She was later promoted to a fairy and was called Mahak Pari by the king. She became a begum after being accepted as a royal concubine of Wajid Ali Shah and the title Hazrat Mahal was given to her after the birth of their son, Birjis Qadr.
For some time Wajid Ali Shah was completely smitten by Hazrat Mahal. writing many poems for the dusky beauty.
Soon the king moved on to other women but in 1845 when he learned that Mahak Pari was pregnant, he immediately put her into purdah and gave her the title of Iftikhar-un-nisa or pride of all women.
Now this beautiful fairy, brave freedom fighter and pride of all women is immortalised in a documentary film directed by Mohiuddin Mirza and produced by the Films Division that was screened in the city by Lucknow Expressions Society in the presence of Kaukab Qadr Meerza, great grandson of Begum Hazrat Mahal and Manzilat Fatima, the warrior queen's great great grand daughter.
“The aim is to never forget how the entire city had united under the leadership of Begum Hazrat Mahal to stand up against the British irrespective of religious and gender differences,” said an organiser of the event.