This is the story of Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh, the ambassador of Lucknow's resistance against the English tyranny.
Of the several chapters that history has scripted, this one remains largely overshadowed by the folklores of Rani Laxmi Bai, Mangal Pandey and other such popular protagonists of the Revolt of 1857. This is the story of Begum Hazrat Mahal, a courtesan, a begum and an exceptional leader who became the symbol of Awadh's resistance against the British. Belonging to an age when women were expected to stay in pardah, the course of Begum Hazrat Mahal's destiny has taken a turn, a turn that flipped the British world upside down.
Early life of Begum Hazrat Mahal
Marked by more troubles and twists than your average blockbuster suspense thriller, Begum Hazrat Mahal's life was nothing if not a series of turbulent events. Born into a poor family as Muhammadi Khanum and trained in dance to be only sold later to the Royal Court of the Nawab of Awadh, her life in the palace could be best described as momentous. She started off as a khawasin (maid) before being elevated as the leader of all courtesans, after which she entered into a nikah mut'ah (temporary marriage under contract) with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.
As recounted by scholars, the Nawab had several mut'ah wives, who were given the status of Begum only after they bore him an heir. Consequently, this is how Muhammadi Khanum was named as Begum Hazrat Mahal, when she gave birth to a son, Bijris Qadir.
Sometime later, the Nawab of Awadh was exiled to Calcutta and Begum Hazrat Mahal along with her 12-year-old son, Bijris Qadir were left behind. Moved to desperation by the British who were armed with the Doctrine of Lapse, Hazrat Mahal throned Qadir as the official heir and took charge of administration and strategy herself. This was not as easy as it sounds - she had to strike a balance between the unreasonable British policies and the domestic scorn from the older queens (other wives of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah), in the backdrop of a surging rebellion of Indian soldiers in the English army at Meerut and Bengal.
A strong leader & an adroit strategist!
Soon Lucknow also became vulnerable to the mutiny as the most bitterly contested constitution in the first war against the British. This was when Hazrat Mahal stood her ground, despite formal orders from Queen Victoria to officially transfer Awadh to the East India Company.
Begum Hazrat Mahal not only issued a counter proclamation refusing to do so but also united the population of Awadh to launch off a 'peasants in uniform' military rebellion in Awadh. Her awe-inspiring words successfully created a harmonized equation and brought all sections of the society to fight the English tyrants.
Her words led to the great uprising of people and the impressions of this are still drilled in the walls of The British Residency in Lucknow. Breaking gender norms and social hierarchy, the Begum proved when life gives you lemons, you squeeze them into the eyes of your enemy.