Ownership of Malcha Mahal, royalty status of family in question after NYT storyUpdated: Nov 23, 2019 22:23 IST
More than a year after the death of the ‘last prince of Oudh’, Ali Raza, also known as ‘ Prince Cyrus’, in Malcha Mahal, a 14th-century hunting lodge, a New York Times story on Friday raised questions about the authenticity of his family’s claim to royalty. Based on the writer’s interactions with the ‘prince’ and his relatives in England and Pakistan, the story suggested that “they were, or had been, an ordinary family.”
Located in isolation in the reserve forest of the ridge area of Delhi, the Malcha Mahal has for decades been the subject of much speculation, all to do with its ‘royal’ occupants—‘queen’ Wilayat Khan and her two children, ‘princess’ Sakina Mahal and ‘prince’ Ali Raza who claimed to be the descendants of the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah.
The family appeared at the New Delhi railway station in the early 1970s, hoping to get ‘suitable’ accommodation befitting their ‘royal stature’ in place of her ancestral properties, which she said had been seized by the British after the annexation of Oudh in 1856. Her claim had caused a stir in the Parliament culminating in then prime minister Indira Gandhi allotting them Malcha Mahal in 1984.
Reacting to the NYT story, author RV Smith, a well-known chronicler of Delhi, says, “Everyone thought that the woman was eccentric. She was not related to the Nawab of Awadh and the Indian government gave them token compensation just to get over the embarrassment caused by the fact that the family had been living at the railway station for so many years.”
Historian Swapna Liddle also holds a similar view: “The whole issue of descent from the Nawab of Awadh was, in any case, a non-starter. The family had a tragic story.”
However, outside, in the area around Malcha Mahal, those who were acquainted with its occupants, find it hard to believe that they could have been anything but royal. “He had the command of a king. He cannot be anything but that. I have not seen him that often because he was a recluse, but he had an aura,” says Gopal Krishna, a security guard at the ISRO station, only a few metres away from Malcha Mahal.
Others are a bit more apprehensive. “Now when I think of it, he claimed to be a royal but no one ever came to find the family. Apart from a few journalists from foreign media houses, no ever came. He was like a ghost: wandering around sometimes, light-footed, without a sound,” says Phulwa, a resident of a slum near the Ridge.
Historians and conservationists say that a decision now needs to be taken about the Malcha Mahal, the medieval-era structure provided to them by the Indian government. The family shifted there in 1985. “The Malcha Mahal happens to be one of the many hunting lodges that Feroze Shah Tughlaq made in the 14th century. It is an important monument and needs to be conserved, and one can think of its re-adaptive use as well,” says Liddle. “The list of monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was made pre-Independence. Since this structure did not feature in it, it was given to the family to stay and once they occupied it, no government agency thought of protecting it,” she adds.
The monument, lying in a dilapidated condition, has in recent months come under the purview of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), which has proposed conserving it. “Now that it is empty, it should be conserved and protected; otherwise a beautiful monument will get encroached,” says Ajay Kumar, director of projects at INTACH.
However, both the state department of archaeology and the ASI maintain that there is no plan in place yet regarding the conservation and protection of this monument. “This is not a monument of national importance, which is why we have never taken it up. If at all we are asked to conserve it, we will request the state department of archaeology to take it up,” an official from ASI said.
Vikas Maloo, head of the state archaeology department, on the other hand, says that they have written to the ASI asking if they are conserving it. “If they are not conserving it, then we will do so,” he says.