The Forgotten Tale of Queen Malika Kishwar, the Mother of the Last King of Awadh

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    It was unthinkable for that time. In the mid 19th century, Queen Malika Kishwar, the mother of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, broke social barriers and travelled to London to meet Queen Victoria and plead for her son's kingdom. A remarkable feat for a woman who had spent more than 50 years in purdah! Sadly, she never returned. In this article, we will learn about the forgotten tale of Queen Malika Kishwar, the mother of the last king of Awadh.

    Queen Malika Kishwar's Unmarked Grave in Paris

    Queen Malika Kishwar, also known as Janab-i-Aliyyah, meaning 'Her Sublime Excellency', lies in an unmarked grave among more than a million graves at the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Despite her important role in saving the kingdom of Awadh, her grave has remained forgotten and unkempt. How did she end up being buried thousands of miles away at Père Lachaise Cemetery?

    The Annexation of Awadh by the British Empire

    Awadh was one of the numerous kingdoms that emerged following the decline and fall of the Mughal empire in the early 18th century. While the successive treaties that the nawabs had signed with the British East India company from 1765 onwards had stripped Awadh off most of its powers, the nawabs still ruled in great pomp and splendour from Lucknow. The splendour of the Lucknow court reached its apogee under Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who succeeded to the throne on 14th February 1847, following the death of his father Nawab Amjad Ali Shah. Sadly, he fell prey to the expansionist policies of Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of British India. On 11th February 1856, using the pretext of maladministration, the kingdom of Awadh was annexed to the British empire.

    Role of Queen Malika Kishwar in Saving Awadh

    Despite being in purdah, Queen Malika Kishwar did meet the British envoy in Lucknow to seek justice for her son and save the kingdom. But it was too late. King Wajid Ali Shah had refused to sign the annexation treaty. He was aware he did not have enough military force to oppose it, and hence had decided to leave Lucknow as well, in a dignified manner. It is believed that he had hoped to win back the kingdom through diplomacy and dialogue directly with Queen Victoria. He left Lucknow with 500 men and landed in Kolkata with this hope of returning one day, but that was not to be. The long river journey to Kolkata had made the King very sick, so he aborted his plans of heading the diplomatic mission to England. It was decided that instead of him, his mother, brother and son would go to England.

    The fascinating details of Malika Kishwar’s mission to Europe to meet Queen Victoria are described in Rosie Llewellyn Jone’s book ‘True Tales of Old Lucknow’. The royal party left Calcutta on board the SS Bengal on 15th June for the transit port of Suez, on the mouth of the Red Sea. From there they intended to travel overland to Alexandria and then take one of the regular steamships that travelled to Southampton. However, a minor disaster struck the party at Suez, when a box containing 50,000 pounds worth of jewels, intended as gifts for Queen Victoria, slipped into the sea while disembarking at Suez. Despite this ill omen, the party landed at Southampton aboard the SS Indus, on 21st August 1856.

    A box containing 50,000 pounds worth of jewels, intended as gifts for Queen Victoria, slipped into the sea

    The arrival of this exotic entourage created a sensation in Southampton and was even covered by the popular British newspaper, The Times. Accompanying the Queen and her party were her nine maids, 110 attendants, several soldiers acting as bodyguards, and seven eunuchs. They took over the entire Royal York Hotel , which they had hired for ten days, for a sum of 100 pounds.

    At the end of August 1856, the entire party decided to travel by a special train. The problem was how to get Malika Kishwar, who was in strict purdah, from her closed carriage to the train. The station master refused to close the station to the general public. Finally, the servants formed a human corridor , holding up calico sheets between the carriage and the train, enabling the Queen mother to board. An illustration of this incident was widely circulated in the British press.

    The party moved into a house just off London’s Marylebone road, where they stayed for the next 13 months. During the entire duration, the Queen Mother’s visit was relentlessly covered by the British press. She was the fodder for the paparazzi as her purdah and royal Indian entourage evoked curiosity and satire. The then famous Punch magazine even published satirical verses. One can only imagine her discomfort with all the attention, while her agents were trying to capitalize on the attention to generate sympathy for the Queen and the Awadh Kingdom.

    Ironically, the very men who had sealed the fate of the Awadh kingdom, the directors of the British East India company, entertained the male members of the Royal party at their head office. They were taken on a tour of the Company’s museum and a banquet was thrown in their honour.

    Finally on the afternoon of 4th July 1857, Malika Kishwar met Queen Victoria at the Buckingham Palace. In her daily journal, Queen Victoria writes about this meeting –

    ‘After luncheon received the Queen of Oude. 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 ...’

    Why did it take eleven months for the two queens to meet? The mission had to face bureaucratic hurdles, like the appointment of an agent recognised by the authorities, the protocol of seeking a royal appointment and finally their petition was rejected for being introduced in the parliament on the grounds that it was addressed, in a wrong way! All the back-door negotiations to circumvent bureaucratic loopholes did cost a lot of money too. Meanwhile, by then realities were changing rapidly back home in Oudh. The 1857 Great Uprising was led by none other than Malika Kishwar’s daughter-in-law Begum Hazrat Mahal. The British governor general reacted by placing King Wajid Ali Shah under arrest in Kolkata and officially declaring him a traitor. Thus there was no further scope of any diplomatic dialogue on Awadh in England’s court or Parliament and the delegation decided to return, as they could not even plead for the release of their King.

    She was bluntly told to acquire a new passport as a British subject, as technically there was no Oudh Kingdom

    The colonial harassment did not stop with mere negative press coverage, denial of dialogue or discussion in the Parliament. When the Queen Mother expressed the desire to return to Kolkata via Mecca, she was denied the travel permission for her pilgrimage. She was bluntly told to acquire a new passport as a British subject, as technically there was no Oudh Kingdom. It was a clever ploy to make the royal family accept the annexation officially, but the Queen Mother refused. It was then that France came to her aid. She was given permission to go to Mecca via France. Thus, her entourage landed in Paris on 23rd January 1858, but tragically the ailing Queen Mother died on the morning of 24th January, the very next day. Apparently, her ceremonial funeral in Paris was attended by many a royal entity and she was buried in the newly created Muslim quarter at Pere Lachaise. Soon after, her son and granddaughter who had accompanied her died too and they were also buried in the same family grave. Thus, the royal mission ended up being metaphorically and literally buried in a foreign land.

    Rosie Llewellyn’s book ‘ The Last King in India’ also mentions that in 1884, the Prèfet de la Seine, Eugene Poubelle, had written to the then British ambassador in Paris about the poor state of the grave and the need to take measures for its upkeep. The buck was passed till it reached the deposed King Wajid Ali Shah who was almost a pauper by then and probably had no funds to repair or restore it. Thus, it remained unkempt, unrestored and forgotten, till date.

    Today it takes hours to locate the unkempt grave at Père Lachaise, as there is no mention of it on the maps. Her fifth generation descendent Aman Khan was probably the first one from the family to visit the grave on Shab-e-Barat last year to light a candle and it took him two days to find it.

    There are rare history enthusiasts, who take the trouble of finding the grave after searching for hours. For others, it is just an unknown, raised and old cracked brick platform under a green canopy, where they can rest.

    Like most mothers, the Queen Mother of Oudh, remains a silent and unsung hero.

    Special thanks to Manzilat Fatima, a descendant of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who shared her family’s story.

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