One man’s fight to save 1857 heroine’s memory

By Sudeshna Sarkar


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Kathmandu : India may be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1857 uprising, but no one has bothered to hail a man here who has helped preserve the memory of one of the leaders of the Sepoy Mutiny all these years.

But for Karimuddin Miyan's fight, the last resting place of Hazrat Mahal – the Begum of Avadh and wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah – would have been dug up and her mortal remains lost forever.

While the grave lies unsung and forgotten here, the 79-year-old Miyan, who saved it from desecration, has received no official acknowledgement for his effort.

Hazrat Mahal had played a considerable role in the 1857 war of independence, throwing her lot with other leaders after her husband was exiled by the British to Kolkata. Placing her 14-year-old son on the throne, it was she who ruled Lucknow after rebellious soldiers wrested the city from British control.

However, when luck deserted the warriors and the British began gaining back lost territory, the begum fled to Nepal where she was offered sanctuary by the then all-powerful Rana prime minister Jung Bahadur.

"She arrived in Nepal with seven retainers and a relative," says Miyan, whose mother's grandfather was one of the seven.

"They tried to return to Lucknow in the first year of their arrival in the hope that they would win the battle but had to give up the attempt when they realised the war was lost."

After the begum died in 1879, Jung Bahadur built a grave for her on the grounds of Kathmandu's Jama Masjid. It is a plain, nameless grave, unbefitting of the memory of the legend that the begum was, without any inscription or head stone.

In 1957, the then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, urged by the begum's great grandson Anjum Quder to locate the grave, asked the Indian embassy in Kathmandu to do so. The bureaucrats traced the grave, located in a prominent commercial area in the capital, but did nothing more.

About 40 years ago, the grave faced an acute threat as the then administrator of Kathmandu sought to claim the land, remove the grave and build a guesthouse.

"It would have meant an end to Hazrat Mahal's memory," says Miyan. "The cabinet approved the step and a gazette notification was also published to that effect."

To prevent the desecration, Miyan, who used to run a small cigarette factory, petitioned then king Mahendra, the present king's father, asking him to stop the plan.

"The king sent his field marshal, Keshar Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, to look into the matter. He came to the masjid just as I was coming out after completing my prayers and I took him to the grave," Miyan reminisces.

"The field marshal said it was a pity that a woman of the begum's stature had her grave in such dingy surroundings."

King Mahendra asked his officials to stop their development plans and the grave was saved.

However, subsequent unrest in the capital has seen vandals attack the little grave, pulling down its iron fencing and even damaging the inner rectangle.

Miyan says the mosque committee members are too busy fighting among themselves to pay any heed to the grave.

And the Indian government, which spends hundreds of thousands of rupees on development projects in Nepal, has not seen it fit to honour its own or those who championed the grave.

No one in the embassy has heard of Miyan and he is never invited to any functions, including the celebration of Independence Day and Republic Day when hundreds are called, including ministers facing allegations of graft.