Malika Kishwar is not only one of the many great women forgotten in our history, which for the longest time has been dominated by males, but she is also one of the many queens forgotten among the many male legends buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, France. In spite of having rested in the cemetery longer than most of the personalities buried there, all that the once indomitable name can boast of, is an unmarked, square grave.
The Secular Queen
Malika Kishwar, who was reverently known as Janab-i Aliyah (Her Sublime Excellency), was the mother of Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oudh, a princely state in the Awadh region of North India. However, she was much more than a mother.
Malika Kishwar was of the belief that with the approaching danger of the British dominion, tehzeeb would be the glue that would hold Awadh together. She had authorised the construction of a Hanuman temple, following her dream in which a divine presence had commanded her to build a temple honouring Lord Hanuman.
She was a revered public figure, and the upholder of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb (Ganges–Yamuna Culture) which was a poetic Awadhi phrase used to describe the unique culture of the central plains of northern India. It is regarded as the syncretic fusion of Hindu cultural elements with Muslim religious elements. Malika Kishwar was of the belief that with the approaching danger of the British dominion, tehzeeb would be the glue that would hold Awadh together. She had authorised the construction of a Hanuman temple, following her dream in which a divine presence had commanded her to build a temple honouring Lord Hanuman.
The temple is now called Purana Hanuman Mandir and the area around it is called Aliganj as a tribute to Begum Janab-i Aliyah. She had also authorized the construction of the Naya Hanuman Mandir closer to her palace so that she could visit the temple more often. Her faith in Hanuman in spite of being a Shia Muslim Queen makes her the upholder of the principles of secularism and mutual respect for religious and social identities: qualities that are essential in every head of state
The Queen’s First Confrontation With The British
Wajid Ali Shah was deposed from his throne under the pretext of misgovernance, which was a part of the expansionist policy of the colonial administrator, Lord Dalhousie. When Malika Kishwar learnt of the unjust annexation by the British, she sought an appointment with the British general, James Outram to discuss the illegality of the move by the British. It was not common for the Queens of Awadh to participate in the State’s affairs. They were restricted by the ritual of purdah (the practice of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain), and were restricted to the “window-less bastions and courtyards” of the zenana (the part of a house for the seclusion of women).
Despite being in purdah, Malika Kishwar did meet James Outram, but it did not lead to any favorable outcome, as by then her son, Wajid Ali Khan, had refused to sign the annexation treaty and leave Lucknow with dignity. His wife, Begum Hazrat Mahal, on the other hand, decided to stay behind, and oppose the British dominion with all her might. Vijaya Khan ruminates, “Indeed one is forced to ask that had some of the wives and mothers been the rulers of Avadh instead of their husbands and sons, would the course of history of Avadh been different?”
Beyond the Zenana, and into Europe
Wajid Ali Khan had decided to go to London for a formal meeting with Queen Victoria, and Malika Kishwar, who had hardly seen the world beyond the walls of the palace, decided to accompany her son. However, when they reached Calcutta, Wajid Ali Khan’s health deteriorated, and he gave up on his ambition to secure an appointment with Queen Victoria.
Accompanied by her grandchildren, another son and numerous attendants, she set out to meet Queen Victoria. The journey was definitely not an easy one. They faced their first setback when a box containing 50,000 pounds worth of jewels, which were supposed to be gifted to Queen Victoria, slipped into the sea when they were disembarking at Suez.
Malika Kishwar, however, with her unwavering courage, decided to embark on the journey without him. Accompanied by her grandchildren, another son and numerous attendants, she set out to meet Queen Victoria. The journey was definitely not an easy one. They faced their first setback when a box containing 50,000 pounds worth of jewels, which were supposed to be gifted to Queen Victoria, slipped into the sea when they were disembarking at Suez.
Malika Kishwar: Both a Queen and a Colonial Subject
Malika Kishwar had to face a lot of hardships in order to uphold the ritual of purdah in a foreign land. Many historical essays recall the effort that had gone into forming a human corridor with the servants holding up calico sheets, so that Malika Kishwar could get off her carriage and board her train without being seen by strangers. Vijaya Khan posits, “Having to live within a restricted space, however spacious, for all their lives, seemed to have made women the guardians of culture, of its traditions and customs and also of language.”
Malika Kishwar’s lifestyle and her huge royal entourage made her a subject of interest for the media and the people of Britain. The aforementioned incident, along with many other instances of her stay (including how she had booked an entire hotel for her stay) were covered by the British press. She was constantly under scrutiny, and was exoticized and satirized.
Queen Victoria, herself, had said, “After luncheon received the Queen of Oudh. Much trouble in arranging that no man should look at her… She threw back her veil and kissed my hand, which the (her) grandson also did… She was much weighed down by her heavy dress, her crown and jewels, being very small… A few words were exchanged, when the Queen and I were seated… We then retired but missed the interesting site of her departure in state…” An air of curiosity and ridicule enveloped her. She had become an exotic, incomprehensible colonial, female subject.
Two Queens Meet Each Other
Malika Kishwar had to overcome a lot of bureaucratic issues to seek Queen Victoria’s audience. Her initial requests were denied on suspicious grounds. In fact, one of the reasons because of which her request was denied was that the formal petition which had been sent by her was addressed the wrong way. When finally, Queen Victoria consented to meet Malika Kishwar, all she could offer were “polite conversation(s)”. Nothing fruitful came out of the meeting.
The Situation Back Home: Another Queen Holds Strong
Around the same time, Begum Hazrat Mahal was leading the 1857 Great Uprising in Oudh against the European oppression. It has been said that both the queens shared a strong bond, and recognized the courage and strength in each other. They felt mutual admiration for each other. Their bond signifies, what in the feminist theory is called, ‘sisterhood’. Even though, this concept was conceived during the modern Feminist movement, and has its basis in ‘shared oppression’, what the two queens shared at that time were restrictions.
Both of them, for the longest time, could only call their zenana as their world. They were expected to comply with their husbands’, sons’ or brothers’ decisions, whether personal or political. But by recognizing the innate strength in each other, and eventually trusting each other with major tasks for the welfare of the state, the two queens stood testament to the bond.
An Indian Above Everything Else
The uprising made it impossible for Malika Kishwar to sustain her dialogue with the English. Her son was declared traitor, and was put under house arrest in Kolkata. Therefore, Malika Kishwar decided to travel back to Kolkata via Mecca. However, she was asked to declare herself as a ‘British subject’ and accept the British passport if she wished to travel. This was a ploy by the British to make the royal family officially accept the annexation. But Malika Kishwar refused to give up her identity under any circumstance.
Our nationalism has always been gendered. The concept of nationalism has always been a masculine one- either in the form of a male warrior, or the lack of recognition of the female efforts in the nationalist struggle. The ‘motherland’, a female conception of land, had to be protected against the invasion by foreign ‘males’. Malika Kishwar, thus, is one of the many women who have contributed to the nationalist struggle, and whose contribution must be recognized and applauded.
Malika Kishwar was assisted by the French, who gave her the permission to travel to Mecca via France. Her health was already on a decline, and unfortunately, she passed away just a day after they landed in Paris. Her death was followed by the deaths of her son and her granddaughter who had accompanied her. They were buried in the then newly created Muslim quarter at Père Lachaise.
It is thus, extremely surprising that all this unyielding, resolute queen is credited with is an unkempt plinth in the name of tombstone, which numerous tourists pass by every day, oblivious to the forgotten legend that rests underneath.