HistoriCity | Awadh and its continuing journey as UP’s cultural and political heart - Hindustan Times

HistoriCity | Awadh and its continuing journey as UP’s cultural and political heart

May 21, 2024 08:30 AM IST

An account of Awadh’s history must include the community of indigenous communities like the Nishads, who live along the banks of the Sarayu and other rivers

The region of Awadh has been politically important for at least the last two and half thousand years. Presently, this region comprises nearly 25 districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP), with voters exercising their franchise in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections in key locations such as Ayodhya- Faizabad, Rai Bareilly, Amethi, and Lucknow, among others. Much of Awadh’s history is shrouded in darkness and therefore myths are generally thrown up to fill the blanks. However, it is the rich and versatile histories of this region that sustain its famed, yet under attack, Ganga-Jamuni syncretic culture.

Plate 3 from the third set of Thomas and William Daniell's 'Oriental Scenery.' The print shows the entrance gateway to the Lal Bagh at Faizabad, a pleasure garden established by Shuja' al-Daula. (British Library Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections/Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Plate 3 from the third set of Thomas and William Daniell's 'Oriental Scenery.' The print shows the entrance gateway to the Lal Bagh at Faizabad, a pleasure garden established by Shuja' al-Daula. (British Library Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections/Wikimedia Commons)

Awadh, also known as Kosala, was one of the 16th Mahajanpadas, or kingdoms, that existed between the 6th and 4th century BCE (Before Common Era). It is also said to be the site of the Ramayana, one of the two great Hindu epics, and modern-day Ayodhya, believed to be the birthplace of Ram.

The empire-builder, Bimbisara (5th- 6th BCE), who laid the foundation of the Mauryan empire; the renouncer, Buddha; and the initiator of Jain religion, Mahavira—all fought, preached or proselytised in the lush and fertile plains of the present-day Awadh region, described by both Mughals and the British as the granary and garden of India, whose rich soil has always attracted armies and causing continuous contestation.

Subalterns of Awadh

Any account of Awadh’s history is also incomplete without looking at the indigenous communities inhabiting the region. The Nishads, who survive to this day and live along the banks of the Sarayu, Ganga, Gomti, Yamuna, Son and other rivers in Uttar Pradesh. Besides the riverine Nishads, the Bhars (also called Rajbhars owing to their kingly past) also abounded the region, accounting for one of the other major indigenous communities found here. Both Bhars and Nishads while marginalised socio-economically remain politically important. The high profile and lone Congress stronghold of Rai Bareily, for instance, takes its name after Bharauli, which according to local tradition was the capital of a Bhar kingdom. With the absence of conclusive evidence, however, it is difficult to ascribe either accurate dates to their period or rule, or how they lost their political power.

A strong tradition prevails in Awadh and in fact, among the Bhar community across Uttar Pradesh that King Suheldev, revered among Bhars, defeated and slayed Salar Masud (remembered as Ghazi Mian or a holy warrior), a legendary general of Mahmud Ghazni in the 11th century, on the day Masud was to get married.

Shahid Amin has shown in Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan, that this tradition is largely based on Mirat-i-Masudi or Mirror of Masud, a Persian hagiography written in the 1620s. Historically speaking, however, an account written six centuries after an event, cannot usually be considered either authentic or accurate. Nevertheless, today’s religiously polarised politics have meant that Suheldev is posited as a hero and defender of Hinduism against the invader Masud, and these accounts seldom mention that soon after Suheldev killed Masud, he was cut down by a commander of Masud.

Awadh during Mughal Rule: The formation of composite culture

Though various Afghan tribes maintained a presence in the region since the time of the Ghaznavid raids and the Sultanate period, its first mention as the Subah of ‘Oudh’ comes during the reign of emperor Akbar (1556-1605) when it was one of the dozen-odd provinces under the Mughal rule.

The death of emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 plunged the Mughal kingdom into a crisis from which it never recovered. Feudatory kingdoms like Bengal and Hyderabad became all but independent of the central authority in Delhi and each sought to serve its own interests first.

The province of Awadh too was in constant turmoil and the small settlement of Ayodhya was, at this time, on the cusp of entering a defining period in its history. Mughal emperor Farukh Siyar appointed two little-known Hindus as governors of Awadh in quick succession. The first Hindu governor was Chabile Ram. After his death in 1719, his nephew Girdhar Bahadur was appointed governor. In 1722, Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah appointed his minister, Mir Muhammad Khan, the governor of Awadh, who then adopted the title of Saadat Khan, declared himself the independent Nawab of Awadh, and built the Qila Mubarak in Ayodhya. According to tradition, it was in Saadat Khan’s time that the first land grants to Ramanandi Akharas were made.

Saadat Khan’s successor, Abu-i-Mansoor Khan Safdarjung (1739–1754), moved the capital a few kilometres west to what was first known as ‘Bangla’, a name derived from the wooden mansions built there for the new seat of the province. Later, this came to be known as Faizabad.

In 1775, Safdarjung’s grandson, Asafudaulah moved the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow which was being developed into a city that sought to rival the now fading eminence of Shahjahanabad (Delhi). It is believed that Asaf, who was the first Awadh-born nawab, commenced the construction of Lucknow’s famous Bara Imambara as a relief measure against drought, and since then it has acquired the somewhat disturbing monicker of 'a monument to hunger’. A couplet from that time even equates him with God.

Jis ko na de Maula

Usko de Asafudaula

(To whom God does not give

Asaf-ud-daulah will give)

Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah died in 1797. In the next sixty years or so, Awadh came to be ruled by seven nawabs. Barring a few exceptions, all of them continued to patronise religious bodies and individuals. The court at Lucknow acquired fame for its patronage of poetry, dance and music, and war became a distant memory. A syncretic Hindustani culture thrived and its extent was epitomised by the last king of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, who in 1855 while responding to a complaint pertaining to a religious dispute between Hindus and Muslims over a place of worship, is believed to have said:

Hum ishq ke bande hain mazhab se nahin waqif

Gar Kaaba hua tuh kya, butkhana hua, tuh kya?

(I am a man of love, not familiar with religion

What of it, be it the Kaaba or the temple?)

Annexation of Awadh and the Rebellion of 1857

On February 7, 1855, the British annexed Awadh. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah offered neither resistance nor acceptance and announced his plan to go to London on 12 March 1855 to make his case to the king of England. However, he was unable to make it beyond Calcutta, where he was to stay until his death in 1887 in Matia Burz, a small fortress, under British guard.

In 1851, Lord Dalhousie had described the kingdom of Awadh as 'a cherry which will drop into our mouths someday. It has long been ripening'. Prof Rudrangshu Mukherjee writes in ‘Awadh in Revolt, 1857-1858’, “British Governors-General in India very often referred to Awadh as something to be eaten. Wellesley had promised London 'a supper of Oudh'”.

With the benefit of hindsight and historical research, many historians have observed that the mutiny or the rebellion of 1857 was doomed from the start. It lacked a common goal, leadership and military organisation. Therefore, it degenerated into anarchy and with the death and capture of key rebel leaders like Rana Beni Madho of Mankapur near Rai Bareily, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Tatya Tope, Kunwar Singh, Maulvi Ahmad Ulla Shah and Begum Hazrat Mahal to name a few, it was quickly quelled by the British forces.

However, the role of various small chiefs like Man Singh of the Mehdona (Ayodhya) in suppressing the rebels by siding with the British has not been appreciated enough by the common people of Awadh.

Man Singh was tasked by the British to win over as many talukdars to the British side as possible. An illustration of this can be seen in letters written by Man Singh to the chiefs of Awadh. He used the theme of religion and labelled the Muslims as anti-Hindu, which was remarkably similar to how the British portrayed the rule of Muslim kings. The rebellion was ultimately triggered by the rumour of cartridges greased with pig and cow fat, it had caused common Muslims and Hindus to fight shoulder to shoulder and created the spectre of a general insurrection against landlords.

With these very real fears in mind, Man Singh raised the bogey of the return of Muslim rule in an attempt to persuade the talukdars of Awadh to support the British. Addressing those talukdars who might still have been thinking of the rebellion as a war for their respective religion, Man Singh wrote: ‘It is also surprising that people should aid and put into power those very Mussulmans who, on invading India, destroyed all our Hindoo temples, forcibly converted the natives to Mahomedanism, massacred whole cities, seized upon Hindoo females and made them concubines, prevented Brahmins from saying prayers, burnt their religious books, and levied taxes upon every Hindoo. They are those very Mussulmans who prided themselves on calling us infidels, and in subjecting us to all sorts of humiliation”.

It was a variety of factors that led to the defeat of the rebels of 1857, they were larger in number and resources but lacked cohesion and more importantly, suffered from serious internal sabotage by the likes of Man Singh of Ayodhya and the Nawabs of Rampur, who sided with the British to ensure the prosperity and proliferation of their lineages.

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archaeological digs. The views expressed are personal


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