KLF: The woman who valiantly led armies on an elephant to keep the British at bay

Published: February 18, 2013
Writer Kenize Mourad waxes lyrical about the life of Hazrat Begum Mahal .

Writer Kenize Mourad waxes lyrical about the life of Hazrat Begum Mahal .


When asked to name a woman who embodies resistance to colonial rule in the subcontinent, even those intimately familiar with India’s history would quickly and invariably blurt out one name: Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi.

She often appears in textbooks, with an almighty sword raised aloft as the flames of war devour the world around her. But when you mention the equally valiant and intelligent Hazrat Begum Mahal, who for nine months resisted the colonisers’ bid to take over Awadh, most people just scratch their heads. The begum, who was one of the wives of Awadh’s ruler, Wajid Ali Shah, was not intimidated by the colonial rulers’ firepower. Her husband was exiled to Calcutta when the British annexed Awadh (in present-day Uttar Pradesh) in 1856. Begum Mahal did not budge though – she tried to keep the British at bay.

On day three of the fourth Karachi Literature Festival, however, the valiant lady who somehow slipped into obscurity drew quite a lot of attention. Journalist and writer Kenize Mourad, who has written a rich narrative on the life of Begum Mahal titled ‘In the City of Gold and Silver’, read excerpts from her work.

To say that the Society Suite at the Beach Luxury Hotel was packed more tightly than a wad of paan in a jowl wouldn’t be an exaggeration – there were far fewer seats than people. But even the elderly easing into the room cautiously on crutches didn’t seem to mind standing for a good half an hour as they listened to Mourad wax lyrical about Begum Mahal’s bold resistance to British rule. So packed was the room that one rotund gentleman even tried to hold his stomach in before muttering “this is insane” and snaking his way to the door through the sea of people.

“I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t much written about this extraordinary lady,” said Mourad. She was drawn to Begum Mahal after one of the brave lady’s counsels came to her in the 70s and recounted tales from the past. “I then searched for her in the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, but I couldn’t come across much material.”

It was then that she decided to travel back to Lucknow and meticulously collect accounts from families known to have resisted British rule. She pored over documented correspondence between Begum Mahal and other rebels. What emerged was a spectacular account of a begum who shed her veil, abandoned opulence and thundered into battle on an elephant with her army during the War of Independence in 1857.

“Begum Mahal was only 24 years old when she said that she was ready to put up a fight against the British,” said Mourad. “After the colonial powers took over Awadh, Begum Mahal fled on horse but still organised hit-and-run attacks on the British.” After the revolt petered out, Begum Mahal fled to Nepal where she died.

But why was the life of this extraordinary woman not documented the same way as that of the Rani of Jhansi? Mourad has one theory. “I think it has to do with Partition. At that time, nobody in India would want to pay tribute to a brave Muslim lady who went out of ‘pardah’ (veil) to fight the British.”

But the people attending the Karachi Literature Festival just couldn’t seem to get enough of her. When scholar Aliya-Iqbal Naqvi, who moderated the session, told the audience that Mourad’s book had been sold out and that people would have to place orders outside, there was a sudden rush for the door, even though one more writer was in line to speak about her book.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2013.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (4)

  • Rashid
    Feb 18, 2013 - 3:36AM

    You can’t sell a book without a story behind it. It helps if you can put colours on these stories. The author doesn’t find anything in archives and what does she do? Goes to descendants of anyone who is connected to the past in whichever way to get the stories.
    And who doesn’t know that such stories always become more colourfull with each passing generation adding its own spin just to bask on reflected lory of the past. She did fought the British though, but to compare her with Jhansi ki rani is a bit of strech and blaming her relative anonimity on partition naratives is a little ingenious.


  • John B
    Feb 18, 2013 - 6:32AM

    Additional info, hope the moderator allows it along with my earlier post:

    Another account of the battle: Begum of Oudh and Rajputs giving her refuge after her defeat in Lucknow on June of 1858:

    “At the battle of Nawabganj in June of 1858, the Raikwar Zamindhars of Sitapur and Bahraich fought and fell with all the historic heroism of Rajputs. The Begam of Oudh, driven from Lucknow, took refuge in the Rajput Fort in Baundi, and these chivalrous Chiefs (Rajputs) were devoted to her cause. The British general who led the battle at Nawabganj wrote ” have seen many battles in India and many brave fellows fighting with a determination to conquer or die; but I have never witnessed anything more magnificent than the conduct of (war) of these (Rajput) Zamindhars”.

    The elephant story might have originated here where the Rajputs maintained the Elephant army. But no record of Begum fighting on elephants when she took refuge in Fort Baundi. 

    The account of Battle  by Sir.Colin Campbell (Lord Clyde) who led the campaign that defeated Begum and others.

    “The population of Oudh and Rohilkhand stimulated by the presence of Begam  of Oudh, Nawab of Bareilly and Nana Sahib himself joined the mutinous sepoys en masse. In this quarter of India alone it was the revolt of the people rather than the mutiny of an army that had to be quelled. Valuable assistance was lent by Sir Jang Bahadur of Nepal, at the head of his gallant Gurkhas.”(7000 troops as mentioned earlier).

    The account of Sir Hugh Rose (Lord Strathnairn) who led the battle against the Jhansi Rani in central India:

    ” the formidable opponents were disinherited Rani of Jhansi and Tantia Topi, whose military talent previously inspired Nana Sahib with all the capacity of resistance he ever displayed. The Rani died fighting bravely at the head of her troops in June 1858. Tantia Topi, after running backwards and forwards through central India, was at last betrayed and run down in April, 1859″

    Both the women, Begam and Rani were defeated at the same time, June of 1858. Begam took refuge with Rajputs after the defeat in the hands of Nepal Gurkha army and later went to live in Nepal where she died later, with pensions.

    Rani fought at the head of her troops and died in the battle and recorded specifically by her enemy general.

    Hence Rani lives and Begam died. Everything about the 1857 events were recorded in minute details, including the field notes since the events sealed the East India company for good and brought British crown to power.


  • cut
    Feb 18, 2013 - 9:12AM

    Please do not compare freedom fighters according to their religion.Rani Laxmi Bai or Begum Hazrat Mahal both played an heroic role in India’s first war of Independence.To comment who is greater is utter childish.
    In Lucknow a marble memorial was build by state Govt.in 1962.Begum Hazrat Mahal Park situated in heart of Lucknow is truly the biggest landmark of the city.The paths are interwoven into the beautiful, green landscaping.
    In the the evenings, when the fountains go up and the lights turn on, it’s a sight most of us can feast our eyes on.
    Govt of India issued a commemorative stamp in the honour of Begum Hazrat Mahal on 10 May 1984.
    Indian school history books have praised her courage and valor.We do not just scratch our heads.The author has bigoted views.
    Pakistan cannot honor such a freedom fighter for obvious reason—Nawab of Oudh were SHIA.


  • Stranger
    Feb 18, 2013 - 1:30PM

    There are many unsung heroines and heros in our daily lives.


More in Books