Begum Hazrat Mahal, also known as the ‘Begum of Awadh’, was one of the earliest female freedom fighters during the First Indian War of Independence. She was the first wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and possessed the courage and leadership to rebel against the British East India Company during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. After the British annexed their territory and the King of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was sent away in exile to Calcutta, she took the responsibility of managing the affairs of the state in her own hands. Later, in association with the revolutionary forces, she seized control of Lucknow and declared her son as the new King of Awadh. She played a pivotal role in the first war of Indian independence and fought the British forces along with other revolutionaries. But the British troops attacked Awadh again and after a long siege were able to re-capture it, forcing her to retreat. She refused to accept any kind of favors and allowances offered by the British rulers. Finally she sought asylum in Nepal, where she died after some time. She was the only major leader never to surrender to the British, and she maintained her opposition through twenty years of exile in Nepal until her death.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born as Muhammadi Khanum in 1820 in Faizabad, Awadh, India, to a poor Syed family, descendants of Prophet Muhammad.
She was a courtesan by profession and after being sold by her parents, she was taken into the royal harem as a ‘khawasin’. Later she was sold to Royal agents and was promoted to be a ‘pari’.
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After being accepted as a mistress of the King of Awadh, she was promoted and given the title of a begum. Later, the title 'Hazrat Mahal' was bestowed upon her after the birth of her son, Birjis Qadra. She was a junior wife of the last Tajdaar-e-Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.
In 1856, when the British East India Company annexed the state of Awadh and ordered the Nawab to step down from the throne, she wanted him to resist and fight for the kingdom on the battlefield. But her husband, the King of Awadh, handed over the kingdom and was sent in exile to Calcutta.
Then she took up the charge in her own hands and decided to get Awadh back from the British. She fought bravely and also urged the rural folks to take part in the war. Later her forces seized control of Lucknow and she placed her 14-year-old son on the throne of Awadh on July 5, 1857.
It was with the support of the people of Awadh that she was able to recapture the lost territory of Awadh from the British rule. Within a year in 1857, when India’s first struggle for independence broke out and people revolted against the British, she emerged as one of the prominent leaders in the war.
With other famous heroes of 1857 such as Nana Saheb, Beni Madho, Tatya Tope, Kunwar Singh, Firuz Shah and all other revolutionaries of northern India, she fought courageously in the first freedom struggle of India.
Alongside Rani Laxmi Bai, Bakht Khan and Maulvi Ahmadullah, she played a unique role in the 1857 struggle. She was not only a strategist but also fought in the battlefield. She worked in association with Nana Saheb and later joined the Maulavi of Faizabad in the attack on Shahjahanpur.
Later, the British troops returned to recapture the state of Awadh and attacked her kingdom. Despite her brave efforts to save her state, the British company was able to re-capture Lucknow and most of Awadh on March 16, 1858. When her forces lost ground, she fled from Awadh and tried to organize soldiers again at other places.
After the defeat, although she kept an army in the field throughout the year, she was never able to re-establish herself and her son in Lucknow. She further accused the British of using discontent among the native people as a pretense for taking over the country, and demanded the restoration of her family as rightful rulers.
After residing for a brief period in Terai, she lost most of her adherents by the end of 1859 and was forced to migrate to Nepal where after much persuasion she was allowed to stay. She spent her entire wealth in sustaining the one hundred thousand refugees of 1857 who had traveled with her to Nepal.
Later she was offered a hefty pension by the British to return to her kingdom and work under the company but she refused the offer. Despite demands of the British government asking for her handover to face trial, she was allowed to live in the Himalayan kingdom where she died in 1879.
Personal Life & Legacy
She died on April 7, 1879 in Kathmandu, Nepal, at the age of 59. She was buried in a nameless grave in the grounds of Kathmandu's Jama Masjid.