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When the Kingdom of Avadh (or Oudh to the British) was annexed into British India in 1856 A.D., its capital Lucknow was the most opulent city in India. As Mughal India faded into the twilight of history lesser Mughal outposts had started to outshine its imperial capital at Delhi. Hyderabad and Lahore were both renowned Mughal cities. The jewel in the crown however was Lucknow boasting broad avenues and landscaped gardens, palaces with untold riches jostling for pride of place in its heart, the lilting melody of ghazal love ballads and qawwali sufi devotional songs permeating the fragrant night air and skilled tawaif courtesans performing mujra dance for the pleasure of aristocrats and rich merchants bedecked in fine jewellery.

Wajid Ali Shah
Until 1856 Avadh was ruled by Wajid Ali Shah the 10th and last Nawab of his dynasty. A decade of his rule had seen a revival of the performing arts. He was a great dancer, poet, playwright and patron of the arts. In his stupendously rich palace of Qaisarbagh in Lucknow he  opened a theatre, Rahas Manzil, thought to be the first Hindustani theater building. Unfortunately the old adage concerning the Roman Emperor Nero was also true of Wajid Ali: as Avadh mired in poverty and lawlessness was burning, the Mughal Nero was dancing Kathakali in his Rahas Manzil. The British did not need any greater pretext to annex his kingdom and send Wajid Ali into exile in Bengal.

Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana was watching these developments with keen interest from his Himalayan perch. He had learnt from an early age how the Indian rulers had promised his grand uncle Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa to join ranks if he fought the British. The Punjabi ruler Ranjit Singh had even promised Bhimsen Thapa that Nepal's territory would border the Ganges River in the south if he declared war on British India. Emboldened he had fought the British to bitterly witness Nepal's defeat and his personal ruin. The Indian rulers had not come to his rescue. Nepal had to face the British might all alone. Jung Bahadur remembered how the country was truncated by the Treaty of Sugauly and he had since neither forgotten nor forgiven the Indian rulers for abandoning Bhimsen.

History changes course as often as the Yellow River in China! A small discontent in the ranks of the Indian regiment based at Barrackpore near Calcutta -where a few sepoys protested cartridge purportedly greased with pig and cow fat as they had to chew on it to reload their Lee Enfield rifles - turned into a full scale revolt that challenged the might of Imperial Britain. Open mutiny started in Meerut. The conflagration spread like wildfire. From the Bengal army to the Maratha regiments to Avadh where a large number of soldiers for the Bengal army were recruited mutiny became the order of the day. Independent India would call it its First War of Independence. The leaders of the revolt are revered today as martyrs. Personalities like Nana Sahib, the Maratha peshwa (ruler) and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi were deprived of their kingdoms by the "Doctrine of Lapse" introduced by Governor General Lord Dalhousie. Nana Sahib was the adopted son of the Maratha ruler who the British did not allow to succeed to the throne.

Similarly Rani Lakshmi Bai and her husband had an adopted son who the British did not recognize to be the rightful heir. Begum Hazrat Mahal of Avadh stayed behind in Lucknow after her husband's ouster and raised an army. The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar reduced by 1857 to ruling just the Red Fort in Delhi was reluctantly thrust into assuming a symbolic leadership of the mutiny. All of them joined their armies in the rebellion. The Company reeled from one military set back after another.

Jhansi ki Rani Luxmi Bai by German Hoffman
The East India Company had started the British Raj exactly one hundred years earlier by defeating the Bengal Army at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 A.D. The British commander Robert Clive became the Governor of Bengal. The historic opportunity to kick the British out of India exactly one hundred years later was fueling the determination of soldiers and kings alike. Forces of Nana Sahib took Kanpur, one of the military strongholds of the British in North India. Lucknow was liberated by an army put together by the determined Begum Hazrat Mahal. She promptly installed her minor son Birjis Qadr as the ruler of Avadh and got recognition from the Mughal emperor. The erstwhile Rani of Jhansi recaptured Jhansi and Gwalior. The mutinous soldiers from Meerut overran British garrisons and laid siege to Delhi.

Begum Hazrat Mahal
Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana had witnessed first-hand the might of Imperial Britain during his visit in 1850 A.D. He did not want to be in the losing side this time like his grand-uncle. Of course, if the British asked for his military assistance, it would be a difficult decision to make. Nepal had historical ties with all the important princely states of India, both Hindu and Muslim. Jung knew that the policy of divide and rule perfected by the British had given them sway over large swathes of territory as big as Europe in just a hundred years since Plassey. But those Indian rulers had betrayed Bhimsen Thapa. Jung's mind was in turmoil, and the fact that the Nepalese court was equally divided over the issue did not help.

The British Resident in Nepal Lt. Colonel G. Ramsay wanted to see the prime minister post-haste. He had a missive from the Governor General of India Lord Canning. Jung was a pious man and he did not like to hurry in the morning. He had his early morning rituals to perform, hear the hymns from the Brahmins and offer his worship to the Sun God, giver of all life. Above all he did not like kow tow-ing to the British resident. On purpose he took longer than he normally did to get ready that morning. Let the colonel wait Jung murmured to himself. He was also worried about the tiding he suspected the resident was bringing.

Colonel Ramsay was finally let in to meet Jung standing ramrod straight attired in his usual military fatigue, the French medal awarded by the French president prominently displayed on his chest to tweak the British resident's pride. Jung's posture made him taller than his actual height. He had learnt a thing or two about Napoleon Bonaparte during his sojourn in France. Colonel Ramsay handed over a kharita the royal pouch used traditionally for such missive. It contained a letter from Lord Canning to the effect that the British wanted Nepalese military assistance as Lucknow was falling to the rebels and the rest of Avadh would follow soon. The British troops by themselves would not be able to hold much longer. The worst fears of Jung Bahadur had been realized. He knew the decision he would have to take could decide the fate of his own country.

Birjis Qadr last Nawab of Oudh


  1. Great work Mr. Rana. However please note that the cartridge incident didnt happen in Meerut. It was Barrackpore near Calcutta and the man responsible was Mangal Pandey.
    Cheers and enjoy your blogs

  2. The decadence of the Nawab of Lucknow is legendary.It is said that he could not flee from the British as all his servants who clothed and tied his boots had run away and he could not or would not tie the lace of his own shoes!
    So instead of supporting such feckless rulers he opted to support the British and was amply rewarded in return.The looting and sacking of Lucknow and the Nawab`s palace by the Gurkhas is another story

  3. An aside. I understand that the ruler of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, who had pledged to align himself with Nepal against the British reneged after realising that the fighting mettle of the Gorkhali army was such that it may absorb his kingdom. Hence Nepal was humbled by the British and the Treaty of Sugauli resulted.

    However, in your account above, it is not clear whether the Indian Mutiny would have succeeded had not Nepal helped the British. Were the British to have been pushed out of India in 1857, instead of 1947, the history and geography of the sub-continent might have been so different. There might have been a multitude of Indian kingdoms with Nepal enjoying comparative military advantage over them, i.e. no unified hegemonous India.

  4. Gautamji, Thanks, I have placed Barrackpore on the map.
    Horatio, thanks for the comments. During the mutiny the Punjab and the southern Indian states did not revolt but assisted the British, like Nepal, in putting down the revolt. In his account of the mutiny Padma Jung, son of JB writes that Nepal joining in the fray not only helped the Britsh militarily but also helped sway many smaller Indian states stay neutral or join the Brits. If the British had left India in 1857 A.D. there is no doubt that Nepal would be a major power in the north given the eclipse of the Mughals.

  5. Prior to the treaty of Sugauli, British -India army had almost come within 10KM of capital Kathmandu. No one came to rescue Nepal then. Bhimsen Thapa had no choice but to sign the treaty under the victor's terms. It would have been a great folly if Nepal had trusted smaller states of India again in 1857 and challenged the british. Obviously a right move and Jung Bahadur was rewarded with the return of 12000sq Km of green fertile land in Kailali, Kanchanpur, Banke and Bardia back to Nepalese map. A proposed Tharuhat pradesh now.

  6. Dear Mr Subodh Rana, when you wrote above: "Lucknow boasting broad avenues....the lilting melody of GHAZAL love ballads", the word "Ghazal" reminds me of the great music of "Ghazal Johor" which is very popular traditional music in my home state (Johor) in Malaysia. Johor is 1 of 13 states in Malaysia, located at the the most southern part of Malaysia (border of Singapore). I still remember last time during my childhood time whenever there was wedding ceremony in my village, the Ghazal group would thrill the guests with their energetic Ghazal performance. The arabic lute, accordion, drum, maracas and many more musical was like a mini orchestra. If any of your blog readers would like to watch the performance of a Ghazal Johor group, please click this YouTube link . For background information about Ghazal Johor please click . I am not sure what is the fundamental difference between my hometown version of Ghazal as compared to Lucknow Ghazal, BUT one think I am very sure is the moment I hear the rhythm of Ghazal Johor music, my big tummy with 44 inches waistline starts to move by itself and my XXL-sized body can't resist from dancing:-) Oh I love Ghazal Johor!

  7. Subodh,
    Remember that even though Ochterlony managed to be so close to Kathmandu (went almost Makwanpur), it was not the closest Nepal had seen her enemies. During Damodar Pandey and Bahadur Shah's era , when we intervened Tibet on behalf of Panchen Lama and looted Digarcha, Chinese emperor Qian Leung dispatched his trusted illegimate son and famous military general, Fu Kangan. Fu and his 300K army paraded all the way to Dhaibung, and were beaten in the last fight. These mountains could trap pretty much every foreigner in those days.

    By the time of Bhimsen, though, the royal court was different. What to say. Damodar had been slain. Bahadur was not there. Amar Singh, the Siranchoke Thapa, had his issue with untested Bhimsen, the Borlange Thapa. The real fighters were sidelined, and Bhimsen had already started what is the early form of Rana-shashan, with plum positions given to his relatives. The result was almost loss of the country, but our morale was already down by the time second anglo-Nepal war had started. We could have still stopped Ochterlony, but some people in KTM were too eager to sue for peace.

    That, my friend, is the true history.

  8. Oh, and as for this king of Lucknow, he is depicted ably in Satyajit Ray's movie, Satraj Ki Kheladi. Wajid Ali, unfortunately, was a thoroughly depraved man. His father had given more than 1 karod to British to fight against Nepal in anglo-saxon war. We didn't need to sympathize with these people. Jung et al did a right thing by looting Lucknow, they deserved it for going against Nepal.

  9. Dear Subodh,
    Great writing but a few mistakes. As editor you want the date as 1858 A.D not 1958 A.D.
    As a result of the Gorkhas looting Avadh until about 20 years ago Gorkhas couldn't get a free glass of water at Lucknow station. Do keep up the writing. What about the British in Kathmandu one of whom became a close friend of Jung Bahadur's, he was a doctor while the Maharaja practiced medicine with crust jewels et al. While showing the good doctor around his palace he pointed to a picture of Gagan singh Thapa saying "My uncle, a remarkable likeness, I shot him". I think it was Gagan Singh who was King Rajendra's wife's lover. I think too a few of the Jung Bahadur's legends would be fun.
    As always

  10. PS: The Doctor's name as far as I can recall was Oldfield and the Maharaja and he were thick as thieves.

  11. Dubby, you getting confused with Mathbar Singh and Gagan Sing and mixing them as you go. Oh, boy.

    Naresh Shamshere


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