Begum Hazrat Mahal, or ‘Begum of Awadh’, was one of India’s first female freedom fighters, leading the battle in the First Indian War of Independence in 1857.
Bold and tenacious, Begum Hazrat Mahal has marked her place in history as the only major leader of the First Indian War of Independence in 1857. to never surrender to the British, opting instead to continue resisting—even during her years of exile.
She had humble origins, being born into a poor Syed family in Faizabad, Awadh, under the name Muhammadi Khanum.
A courtesan by profession, she was eventually sold into the royal harem by her family, wherein she swiftly changed her fortune: moving from a lowly ‘khawasin’ to a ‘pari’, and finally, to a ‘begum’, once the King of Awadh accepted her as his royal concubine.
The title ‘Hazrat Mahal’, however, wasn’t bequeathed to her until 1845, when she gave birth to her son and the royal heir, Birjis Qadra.
Begum Hazrat Mahal’s famed patriotism first came to the forefront in 1856, when the British East India Company annexed the state of Awadh, and forced the Nawab into submission. The Nawab complied despite her protests and was sent to exile in Calcutta. She refused to follow and decided to regain control over Awadh herself.
Relentless in her pursuit, Begum Hazrat Mahal appealed to the rural folks of Awadh herself, and urged them to join her in the fight. With their support, she singlehandedly led her troops to victory, and seized control over Lucknow once again. On 5th July, 1857, she triumphantly reinstated Indian rule in Awadh, handing over the throne to her 14 year old son.
Within a year in 1857, India’s dissent for the British rule gained explosive momentum, and mutiny broke out in the form of the First Independence War.
Begum Hazrat Mahal proved to be indispensable in this struggle. She was discontent with mere strategising, and took to the battlefield alongside bravehearts such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bakht Khan, and Maulvi Abdullah. She also worked closely with Nana Saheb, and went on to assist the Maulavi of Faizabad during the attack on Shahjahanpur.
Begum Hazrat Mahal lost control over Lucknow and most of Awadh once the British troops returned on 16th March 1858; she fled the state with her army. Her failure to save the kingdom, however, did not deter her from attempting to organize soldiers again at other places.
By the end of 1859, after a brief residential stay in Terai, Begum Hazrat Mahal had lost most of her adherents, and was forced to seek asylum outside the country.
She migrated to Nepal, and persuaded the Himalayan Kingdom to let her stay, in spite of the British Government’s demands for her handover.
She spent her entire wealth in the country, attempting to provide for the one hundred thousand people that had, in their loyalty, followed her.
The British offered her a hefty pension to return to Awadh and work under them, but she turned it down, and continued to resist the British rule till she breathed her last in 1879.
She was buried on the grounds of Jama Masjid in Kathmandu. In an attempt to recognise her pivotal role in India’s first freedom struggle, she was duly honored at the Old Victoria Park in Hazratganj, Lucknow on 15th August, 1962, and was commemorated with a marble memorial, bearing the coat of arms of the Awadh family.