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Hazrat Mahal was one of the wives of Wajid Ali Shah, Nawab of Awadh (now Uttar Pradesh) when the British annexed it in 1856. She made a brave if doomed attempt to take back the kingdom from the British during the war, was captured and exiled to Nepal. She was born Muhammadi Khanum and given the name Hazrat Mahal when she entered the royal harem. Not much is known about her early life, but she may have been sold into the Nawab’s service, as was the practice in those days. The Nawab was a well known collector of accomplished women who were known as ‘paris’ or ‘fairies’ of the palace. A trained singer and dancer, Hazrat Mahal appears to have received some education in the royal harem. She was said to have been comely and undoubtedly possessed an aptitude for organisation and command.

Awadh had been ceded to the British nine years before the outbreak of war, and Hazrat Mahal and her young son Birjis Qadar had elected to stay behind in Lucknow while Wajid Ali Shah shifted his glittering court to Kolkata. When the people rose in 1857 they put Qadar, then 10 years old, on the throne and declared Hazrat Mahal regent. In the short time she had to rule the kingdom, she made several intelligent decisions and appointed both Hindus and Muslims to high posts. It was only a few months, however, before the might of the British army arrived at the door, and quickly scored a victory against the demoralised Awadh soldiery. Hazrat Mahal attempted to marshal her troops by leading them herself from elephant-back on the field. The army rallied and pushed the British beyond Varanasi and Allahabad. However, this spread her force out and it was only a matter of time before the British were again pressing their advantage. At last the resistance began to crumble, and she and her son fled with a few attendants to Nepal.

The British offered her terms of surrender, declaring that she would have ‘all the consideration which is due to her as a member of a royal house, but political powers she shall never have, and she will do wisely to secure by prompt submission a generous treatment and an honourable position for the rest of her life.’ Hazrat Mahal rejected these terms with contempt. When the Queen of England issued a proclamation bringing the ‘revolt’ to a close, she issued a counter-proclamation which was a merciless criticism of the fair words and bland phrases of that document, counselling the people not to have faith in it, saying, ‘faith is the unvarying curtain [for deceit] of the English and also [the disposition] never to forgive a fault, be it great or small’. She applied for asylum to the Nepal government, and was granted it though she had to make do with a meagre allowance of Rs 400 a month, and is said to have paid with all her jewellery. The British for their part never allowed her to return to India, and she died in exile in 1879.

Govt of India issued a commemorative stamp in the honour of Begum Hazrat Mahal on 10 May 1984.
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