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JUNG BAHADUR'S NEPAL - A HAVEN OF REFUGE

"In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity", Sir Winston Churchill.

The burden of defeat carried many of the mutinous Indian leaders and their near and dear ones all the way to the Nepal Terai. They came in desperation: caravans of the weary and hungry, wounded and dying. Most had left all their possessions behind in the hurry to escape the justice of the victors. They sought refuge from destiny.  Many came in hope, some of the leaders with trepidation: would their former enemy Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana hand them over to the British? They knew what that would mean. The fall of Delhi had led to the slaying of the children of the Last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zaffar and the old man's banishment to Burma. The once mighty Mughal dynasty of Babur, Akbar and Shah Jehan had met an ignominious end. What would happen to the ruling dynasties of the Maratha warriors and the Kingdom of Avadh?

Jung Bahadur had returned to Kathmandu triumphant. The visit to England, the victory over the Tibetans and now the crowning glory of his career, the victory in the Indian Mutiny, had firmly put him in an unassailable position in the kingdom. For the first time since the Anglo-Nepal Wars Nepal held its head high and Jung Bahadur rightfully took the credit. Even his enemies grudgingly recognized his genius, his farsightedness and bravery. He had indeed done Nepal proud. The grateful British had returned to Nepal some of the land in the Nepal Terai ceded to the British over fifty years earlier. The "new territories" of Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kanchanpur would add significant revenue to the national coffer. Too, Jung Bahadur and his armies had brought back enormous treasures from the "Lucknow Loot". Amidst all this brouhaha disturbing news came to Jung Bahadur that would shatter his peace of mind, test his mettle and Nepal's fortune too.

After leaving the stifling heat of the Gangetic plains, the refugees entered the Terai jungles only to encounter the secret weapon defending Kathmandu valley from marauding armies of the south: plasmodium vivax, the malarial parasite. The wounded and the weak, the stragglers fell prey to wild animals. The once proud armies that had challenged the might of the East India Company and nearly succeeded in bringing it to its knees were in tatters. Begum Hazrat Mahal with the 10 year old son king Birjis Qadr and a ragtag retinue of desperation entered Nepal. By 1859 Nana Sahib the Maratha warrior along with a large retinue of followers including several wives was also seen crossing the border into Nepal after months of hiding. His last stand at Gwalior had been thwarted, his prime minister Tantya Tope captured and executed. Jung Bahadur's border posts had been put on full alert. The movement of the erstwhile enemies closely watched. The news had to be sent to Kathmandu post-haste.

Begum Hazrat Mahal, picture from Lucknow
Begum Hazrat Mahal and her retinue slowly made their way through the 4 kos, over 10 miles, of dense jungle before coming into the valley. Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana had offered her and her son sanctuary after considerable deliberation, at first refusing her request. Consequences of granting refuge to those wanted by British India could be dire for the hero. But at the same time he wanted to establish Nepal as a sovereign kingdom and he no longer wanted to be seen kowtowing to Colonel Ramsay the British resident. The love-hate relationship between the British Resident and the Nepal Durbar was legendary. The sympathy at the plight of the defeated Indian rulers was palpable at most aristocratic homes. The Begum was grateful to her erstwhile enemy for the sanctuary.

It was something about Kathmandu valley that brought a sense of deja vu to the Begum, descending from Thankot in her coolie chair, carried across the shoulders of four burly Gorkhali pipa. She glimpsed at a distance the gilded pagoda roofs, the Bhimsen Tower and the stupa on the hill. She searched her memory. She saw images of herself playing in similar surroundings; there was a fleeting glimpse of the ping she used to swing in against the white mountain background, then nothing. She closed her eyes and searched her memory once again. She was in a strange city now full of horse-drawn tongas and minarets, walking, walking; and then she was picked up to be trained as a tawaif, a courtesan. She was taught to dance the mujra. She entered a large house Pari Khana, House of Fairies, and suddenly she was the star of the show.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah
The Nawab's mother had taken a great liking to her, perhaps because she was a good dancer, perhaps because she was fairer and prettier than the rest and perhaps because she had the hill look about her. Anyway, she had grown up to be the favorite tawaif of the Nawab until he had taken her as his concubine, his mahak pari fragrant fairy, and then after the birth of her son, one of his principle wives. As they say, the rest was history. She had been reinvented as Begum Hazrat Mahal at the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. She woke up from her reverie as she crossed the Bagmati River. She was extremely tired. The retinue made its way towards Thapathali, where she was given a temporary residence by the Maharajah.


Nana Sahib
Nana Sahib could never forgive the British for what they had done to him. The "Doctrine of Lapse" cooked up by Lord Dalhousie to swallow the Indian princely states had taken away his inheritance of the leadership of the Maratha Confederacy and a large amount of pension. Unable to have children the last Maratha ruler Baji Rao II had adopted Dhondu Pant as a young boy and styled him as Nana Sahib, a Maratha hero from a bygone era, nearly as illustrious as the legendary Shivaji. The British in all their perfidy would not recognize adopted children, only direct lineage! Nana Sahib suddenly felt old. He had gambled and lost. Now he would have to take refuge in one place or another for the rest of his life. The Nepalese had shown him great sympathy and he was grateful to Jung for that. He would send his wives and his son to Kathmandu. The marriage to his third wife Kashibai had not even been consummated! He would himself wander the Himalayan range as a mendicant. He knew that the only thing he could save of himself hereafter was his soul.

Birjis Qadr, last king of Avadh

Maharajah Jung Bahadur took care of his guests well. He took the old Sanskrit saying, "Atithi Devo Bhava", Guest is Divine, to heart. He bestowed pensions becoming of their aristocratic stature. Begum Hazrat Mahal decided later to spend her time away from the limelight of Kathmandu and retired to Nuwakot, where she would die in 1879 A.D. Her son Birjis Qadr left Nepal for Calcutta after his mother's death. By some accounts Nana Sahib passed away in Deukhuri, western Nepal. Others saw him in Constantinople. His virgin wife Kashibai found love in the court of Nepal.

People say that Begum Hazrat Mahal was buried in the grounds of the Jama Masjid in central Kathmandu. Today, just off the shopping market there is a grave without any marking but under lock and key.

I have come across a couplet in Urdu describing her in her last repose.

Ai bad-e-saba aahista chal


Yahan soee hui hai Mahak Pari

(O’ zephyr, blow sweetly and calmly

Here lies in slumber Mahak Pari)

Comments

  1. Well written sentimental piece.It never ceases to amaze me the fate of kings and rulers of yester years.One day they are almighty rulers of all that they survey and then next they are refugees seeking asylum.Wars and conspiracies were always just round the corner.
    And just to needle the `hero` Junga Bahadur? Could it not be that his motive for granting asylum to the Begum was the immense wealth she had brought with her,not to mention her own sex appeal?

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  2. Yes, Govind, Luxmi in any form would be good enough! Don't know about the sex appeal of the 38 year old Begum though.

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  3. Lyrically written, as always.

    A bit concerned with the sentence "They sought refuge from destiny" in the first paragraph though. Was it really their destiny to meet this ignominious defeat at the hands of the British? This sentence reminded me of the term "manifest destiny" - the 19th century American belief that the United States (often in the ethnically specific form of the "Anglo-Saxon race") was destined to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean. The native Americans (so-called Red Indians) were slaughtered and decimated under this racist belief - one of the saddest sagas of ethnic cleansing.

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  4. Subodh,
    Wonderfully written. I have a few things to add:

    1. Thanks for the photo of what used to be known as Begumka Makbara. Please let me know who did Kashibai find love with?

    2. I think Jung Bahadur was forced to give the refuge to these people, because as you mentioned there wAS widespread sympathy for them in Durbar.

    3. There was a minor war in Terai with the rebels of Dhundu Pant (Nana Saheb). Since Rana princes loved Nana Sahib, he was allowed to stay incognito in Nepal. British rulers could never have found out even if Nana was living in Thapathali, but he was said to have lived somewhere in Terai.

    I have read the details of that war, but I don't recall who led the war, and who were meted out what type of sentence after the war. It could be in Purusottam Shamsher's book. It could have been in one of those journals published by British embassy officials later. But there exists a detailed report of that skirmish.

    3. How Jung juggled with his internal distaste for British (in particular, Dhir Shamsher is said to have been very anti British as he aged), his realpolitik, his relationship with the princes in Nepal durbar, his own problem with Ramsey, and his help of British in mutiny are extremely important lessons for our new crops of bureaucrats.

    We are still in the same position. A powerful neighbor that is often despised in Kathmandu but has to be respected/kept at a friendly distance is something that is permanently becoming our diplomatic issue.

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  5. Not Manifest Destiny, the British conquerors did not have much use for evangelicalism in India. It was the East India Company, as in making money. I think for those mutineers whose destiny had suddenly been altered, there was only escape.

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  6. I had missed out reading a couple of these Jung escapades and it has been a pleasure catching up on these tonight. I think your knowledge and passion about matters like the Lucknow loot are so great that you could do more research and write a best seller. No kidding.

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  7. Mama,

    Was the Begum Nepali by birth ?

    Amar

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  8. Hey Amar, great you caught on! I was waiting for this comment. Yes, there are some stories on this and the fact that she decided to live her entire life in Nepal, not going back to India even after the British pardoned her, says something. Please refer to this story:

    http://nepalicreation.blogspot.com/2007/08/begum-hazrat-mahal-untold-story.html

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  9. JB's atithi bhakti arose by the report of his sirdar Sidhiman Singh from Tarai depicting what Nana Sahib and party carrying literally the state treasure of the PESWAS included the famous "Nau-lakha"the principal jewel,perhaps without a rival in the world, which was finally ended in his pocket plus that teenage beauty of 13yrs called Sundra Bai,better known as Kasi Bai permanently ensconced in his thapathali darbar premise .JB was well-expressed in a sentence by Henry Lawrence in the event of assassination of the most worthy PM Mathabar singh who had a great hand in JB's rise in the Shah court but met his creator through the later hand(cowardly act); "Poor as is my opinion of Jang's moral character,I do believe him guiltless of this murder". Laurence Oliphant had seen even more lowliness of JB when on tour of Thapathali ,showing him to the picture of Mathabar singh remarked ,"That is my poor uncle,Mathbar Singh,whom I shot;it is very like him" as if showing off a game trophy to a guest of honor.

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  10. There is no feeling such as "athithi devo bhava" in Jung Bahadur's act. It was just an act of an opportunist. He let nana saheb and others in just for the precious jewels he bought with him. Moreover he made nana saheb give up kashibai for him, in order to allow him to stay in nepal. Please read manohar malgaonkar's (marathi writer) book on 1857 revolt for further details about it.

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    Replies
    1. Offering refuge to the leaders of the failed revolt wanted dead or alive would invite the wrath of the Raj. JB knew this very well. Would Jung Bahadur risk his friendship with the British just for the Naulakha necklace? He had much more than that already as he was the uncontested ruler of Nepal.

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  11. Mr. Anonymous seems like Dr. Mahesh Raj Panta to me. All his comments are just enlightening. I may be wrong but he is one of the true scholar with thorough and most accurate knowledge about Nepal's history.

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