The Story of Faizabad & its Begums

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    Faizabad has been in the news because of the recent decision by the Government of Uttar Pradesh to rename the district of Faizabad, Ayodhya. Most people, outside Uttar Pradesh, don’t even know about the historic town of Faizabad, as it gets completely dwarfed by its more famous and news-making neighbour – Ayodhya. But Faizabad and Ayodhya which are just 6 km apart, have very separate and distinct histories.

    Ayodhya, known as ‘Saketa’ in ancient India, dates back to the time of the Kosala Mahajanapada (5th-6th century BCE) and is also believed to the birthplace of Lord Ram; Faizabad, meanwhile is a young city - just 296 years old and it served as the first capital of the Nawabs of Awadh. The story of Faizabad is part of the lesser known story of the Nawabs of Awadh, in the early ‘pre-Lucknow’ years.

    The story begins in 1722, when Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila appointed his trusted minister Saadat Khan Burhan-ul-Mulk (1680 –1739) as the Governor of Awadh, thereby laying the foundation of the ‘House of Nishapur’ that would rule Awadh till 1856. Saadat Khan’s grandfather had migrated to India from Nishapur in Northern Iran. As a result, Faizabad and later Lucknow, had a strong Persian influence, unlike the other Sunni courts of India such as Bhopal and Hyderabad.

    Saadat Ali Khan built a small mud fortification known as ‘Qila Mubarak’ near the Laxman Ghat in Ayodhya, where he camped with his followers. However, it was a very cramped place and not very convenient to stay during the monsoons. Hence, he decided to move further afield, around 6 km outside Ayodhya, to build a large house for himself. His followers settled around this house, and the area soon came to be known as the ‘Bangla’ or ‘Bungalow’.

    Not many people know that it was Saadat Khan, who betrayed his master, Muhammad Shah Rangila to Nadir Shah, the ruler of Iran. When Nadir Shah marched to Delhi in 1739, Saadat Ali Khan informed the Persian ruler of the vast wealth of the Mughals and even detailed where it was hidden. However, soon after he was so overcome by remorse at his actions, that he committed suicide on 19th March 1739. That was the night before Nadir Shah began the massacre of the inhabitants of Delhi.

    Saadat Ali Khan was succeeded by his son-in-law Nawab Abu Mansur Ali Khan, better known as Safdarjung (1708-1754). Though born in Nishapur in Iran, Safdarjung quickly rose in the ranks at the Mughal court, thanks to the influence of his father-in-law. It is Safdarjung who named Saadat Khan’s ‘Bangla’ and the mud hutments around it, as ‘Faizabad’ or the ‘city of bounty/abundance’. Under him, the settlement began to grow in size. However, having been appointed as the ‘Wazir’ or the Prime Minister of the Mughal empire, Safdarjung spent most of his time in Delhi.

    In 1753, due to court intrigues, Safdarjung was unceremoniously dismissed from his position and had to flee from Delhi. The following year, depressed and heartbroken, Safdarjung died at the age of 46, in Sultanpur around 60 kms from Faizabad. He was temporarily buried in the Gulab Bari (Rose Garden) in Faizabad, before being shifted to a grand tomb in outskirts of Delhi. Ironically, more than his achievements, it is this decision to bury him in Delhi, rather than Faizabad, that has kept his memory alive. Today, the name ‘Safdarjung’ is familiar to any resident of Delhi, as apart from the Safdarjung tomb, there is a Safdarjung road, Safdarjung Enclave, Safdarjung hospital and even a Safdarjung airport in Delhi.

    It was under Safdarjung’s son and successor Shuja-ud-daula (1732-1775) that Faizabad reached the pinnacle of its glory. The nawab built a number of palaces, gardens, imambaras, mosques, bazaars and other fine buildings in the city. He enlarged the original ‘Bangla’ and transformed it into the magnificent Dilkhusha palace. He also built a magnificent bazaar in the city with a grand entrance known as the ‘Tripolia’ gate, because of its three arches. In 1764, Shuja-ud-daula lost the battle of Buxar and was forced to accept the overlordship of the British East India company. Strangely, after his defeat, he built a large fort in Faizabad, curiously named ‘Fort Calcutta’, which served as his military headquarters. It was built by a French adventurer and military engineer Antoine Polier, who had also rebuilt Fort William in Calcutta, after its destruction, at the hands of Nawab of Bengal.

    No history of Faizabad or Awadh can be complete without the mention of the wife and mother of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula, who played a very important role in Faizabad’s history. The term the ‘Begums of Awadh’ appears in Indian history books, only in reference to the early British Indian history and Warren Hastings. This does a great disservice to the two extraordinary ladies. First, the Nawab Begum, daughter of Nawab Sadaat Ali Khan and the widow of Nawab Safdarjung. Having inherited a fortune of around Rs 90 lakhs (in 1739) from her father, she was considered to be the richest woman of her time in India. A great philanthropist and a patron of the arts she commissioned a magnificent mosque in Faizabad, known as the Moti Masjid. A politically astute lady, she advised her son on the matters of the state and had encouraged her son to fight against the British East India Company.

    The second lady was Bahu Begum, the wife of Nawab Shuja-ud-daula. Like a mother-in-law, Bahu Begum too was an extremely astute lady. Following Awadh’s defeat at the hands of the British in 1764, the Nawab was compelled to pay Rs 40 lakhs as indemnity to the British. Since the Awadh treasury was bankrupt, it is Bahu Begum who mortgaged her possessions and raised the money. Nawab Shuja-ud-daula was so impressed by his wife’s financial acumen, that on his death, he left his entire private wealth to her.

    Bahu Begum’s son Asaf-ud-Daula became nawab at the age of 26, on the death of his father, in 1775. He had to contend with an empty treasury, and extremely wealthy, powerful and domineering mother and grandmother. To move away from the influence of these two ladies, one of his first acts was to move his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow. The Nawab created a grand court at Lucknow, while the Begums ran a parallel court in Faizabad. At this time, Warren Hastings, the Governor General of the British East India company needed money to finance his wars,and was putting pressure on the Nawab for payment.

    With Nawab’s support, Warren Hastings sent British troops to Faizabad, imprisoned the Begums, tortured their servants, and forcibly seized all the wealth and possessions of the two ladies. This ruthless act against two revered ladies outraged even the British community in India and reverberated all the way to the House of Commons in London. Bahu Begum died while under house arrest in 1815, and it was as if the last hope had ended for Faizabad. From then on, it is Lucknow that would be synonymous as the ‘Nawabi’ city, while Faizabad faded into oblivion.

    Till recently the Dilkhusha palace of the Nawabs, the original ‘Bangla’ of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan around which the city grew, served as an office of the narcotics department of Uttar Pradesh police. It is in such a derelict state, that it had to be abandoned due to the fear of it collapsing. A number of other Nawabi buildings and gardens have simply disappeared. The tombs of the city’s benefactors - Nawab Shuja-ud-daula & Bahu Begum and the Imambara are the only remnants of its Nawabi past.

    Just like once it was overshadowed by Lucknow, today Faizabad is overshadowed by its neighbour, Ayodhya.

    Did you know?

    There is a town named Fyzabad in Trinidad, established by the Girmitiya settlers from Uttar Pradesh in the early 20th century.

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