Wknd exclusive: Ira Mukhoty writes of purdahs and the pandemic
In the oppressive dawn of a monsoon morning in Calcutta in 1780, two furious British men stood fourteen paces apart, preparing to settle their long-standing and bitter differences via a duel. One of the men — aging, pensive and rheumy-eyed — appeared an unlikely candidate for the somewhat disreputable sport of dueling. But Warren Hastings, Governor General of Bengal, had been engaged in an increasingly acrimonious feud with another member of the Supreme Council of Bengal, Philip Francis.
Though Francis was wounded in the duel, he not only recovered almost immediately but went home to England and mounted a campaign against Hastings that would bring about a trial for the latter’s impeachment on grounds of corruption and excessive use of coercive methods against indigenous leaders.
Hastings would eventually be acquitted, but a number of scandalous revelations would be made during the long trial, one of the most damning being Hastings’s alleged brutal handling of the Begums of Awadh.
In the 21st century, during the nine long months of a pandemic, in the torpor of the sun-blasted days as spring spiked into summer, I found myself wondering obsessively about these Begums, the subject of my next book. How did these women, always in purdah, sequestered and separated, exercise so much influence in late-18th-century North India that they almost brought about the ruin of the most powerful man in the British East India Company?
As my own life became ever-narrower — a shuffling presence behind the walls of my home in a crowded yet suddenly stilled megacity — I chose to travel (in my mind) to Faizabad and Lucknow, to understand the ambiguous world of these Begums, shadowy yet glittering.
The answer, as always, was money. The two most important women of Awadh at that time were Sadh-ruh-nissa, known as Nawab Begum, and her daughter-in-law Unmatuzzohra Bano, known as Bahu Begum, wife of Shuja-ud-Daula. These women were fabulously wealthy, at a time when opulence and extravagance were something of a specialty of North Indian courts. Bahu Begum, beloved foster daughter of the Mughal emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur himself, brought a dowry in 1745 that was the stuff of legends. An estimated Rs 46 lakh was spent on her wedding, making it the most expensive ceremony in Mughal history.
The enormous treasure that Bahu Begum owned allowed her to make a most gallant and profitable gesture in 1764, after Shuja-ud-Daula’s disastrous defeat by the East India Company at the Battle of Buxar. The British had demanded of Shuja-ud-Daula a huge sum of money to restore his lands and title, a sum which Bahu Begum scrupulously gathered together from among her own possessions, including her pearl-studded nose-ring, an eloquent symbol of her married status.
“If he [Shuja-ud-Daula] ceases to live, all these things would also cease to be of value to me,” she is said to have declared to a concerned relative. Her generosity earned her Shuja-ud-Daula’s eternal gratitude, and he shifted permanently to Faizabad, where he entrusted his wife with his treasure and his seals of state.
In Faizabad, Shuja-ud-Daula and Bahu Begum created a luminous court culture to rival the Delhi court of the Mughal emperor. They patronised architecture and attracted poets, artists, musicians and dancers, who transformed the provincial backwater of Faizabad into a fabled city of culture. Even widowed, after her son Asaf-ud-Daula became Nawab in Lucknow, Bahu Begum continued to preside over the rival court of Faizabad with panache.
She retained control over Shuja-ud-Daula’s personal wealth and remained the centre of a huge network of patronage and power in which she is said to have employed more than 10,000 people. All this, the Begums accomplished while being circumscribed by a purdah that was entirely opaque. The palace in which the women lived was guarded by Mewati infantry, night and day. Inside the palace were powerful Kashmiri women guards and near the doorway were some 25 eunuchs, guarding that liminal space between the outside world and the shadowed world inside. Indeed these eunuchs were not only guardians of the Begums’ lives but also their agents, their ambassadors and their spies, walking that jagged line between the zenana and the world of men.
In many ways, life in the pandemic began to mirror the secluded life of the Begums of Awadh. Like the Begums, we too were masked, eyes peering furtively from behind ‘veils’ and face coverings. Shops, school and restaurants remained closed to us, forcing us into a form of sequestration. During the endless summer months we hunkered indoors, the outdoors out of bounds. The past became calamitously present when my third book was published in the middle of the pandemic and I struggled to interact with the newly insubstantial world. How, I wondered, did the Begums manage?
The Begums maintained their powerful prestige through the total control of their wealth and through the visible and expert manipulation of symbols. When they travelled out of the palace walls they did so in an elaborate cortege that included mace-bearing attendants, elephants, runners with flags and drums — symbols of royalty that the Mughal emperors also used.
The Begums also used their wealth to ostentatiously celebrate their Shia heritage. Since Shias were a minority in Awadh, the grandiose celebration of Shia festivals became a symbol of the Begums’ elite status. Nawab Begum began the building of Imambaras while Bahu Begum sponsored the chanting of dirges during the month of Muharram. Within the confines of the zenana, their high-voltage expressions of Shia piety through song and recitation increased their prestige.
In the 1780s, Bahu Begum would come under relentless pressure by both the British East India Company and Asaf-ud-Daula to give up her fabulous wealth to the former, but “should the country be lost to me”, the Begum wrote threateningly to the English Resident, “it shall be lost to all. I give you this intimation; note it.”
Bahu Begum was entirely true to her word. She remained undaunted, counting on a fragile claim to immunity on the basis of the respect due to her as a pious Shia noblewoman. In the end, it was Hastings whose reputation would suffer for his perceived violence towards the Begums, and it was Asaf-ud-daula whom posterity would remember as the wastrel son of an indomitable mother. It was Bahu Begum, invisible but omnipresent, who kept her treasure and her reputation intact till her death.
As this endless year draws to a guttering end, I realise that we too have used oblique pathways to be seen, and heard. In this brave new world, we have found a sanitised space — cyberspace — through which we have exchanged ideas, goods and services. Told our stories, sold our books, our poems and our art. In disembodied Zoom meetings and pixelated Instagram Lives, shuttered against the fierce sun and a nameless fear, we have transcended our sequestration to find a way to be human, once more.
(Ira Mukhoty is the author of Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire, Akbar: The Great Mughal, and Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History)