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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Escape of the Begum

Escape of the Begum

Rana Safvi imagines the scene in Chandni Chowk in September 1857, when the British crushed the sepoy mutiny

An 1860s’ photograph of Chandni Chowk, the principal street of Shahjahanabad. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPremium
An 1860s’ photograph of Chandni Chowk, the principal street of Shahjahanabad. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On 14 September 1857, British troops breached Kashmere Darwaza, crushed the “mutiny" and occupied Shahjahanabad. It was only a couple of centuries earlier that the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had founded the city and made it his capital, and his daughter, princess Jahanara Begum Sahib, had built the “avenue of moonlight", Chandni Chowk.

With flowering trees, neatly laid gardens, a canal flowing through, and lamps illuminating it all, Chandni Chowk was magical. It had shops selling unique objects d’art, textiles, attar, hookah bases made from porcelain or glass, wine cups, gems and jewellery. The shops themselves were scented with the finest perfumes, with bolsters and brocaded cushions lining the walls, and shopkeepers who bent deeply from the waist to present their salaams.

I have walked out of the Chandni Chowk Metro station and into this history. I walk along the cement road divider—a canal used to run in its place once—and soon reach the Gurdwara Sisganj Sahib. It is here, on the Kotwali Chabutra, that the gallows were erected in 1857 and thousands of Shahjahanabad residents were lined up to be hanged. The ones waiting could hear the screams of those condemned before them. Bloated corpses rotted on the roads, with no one to bury or cremate them—everyone had fled the city. I cross over to Dariba Kalan, named after dur-e-be-baha, the Persian word for an incomparable pearl. It is where one goes to buy a trinket or two, the shops on this street being known for their jewellery. I see a window open out from an old haveli and my mind wanders to the days after the mutiny, as the wrath of the British visited this delicate place.

Dariba was home to many aristocrats—the nawabs of the Mughal court. No doubt they would have heard the announcement of ghadar (revolt) by the rebel sepoys and watched the events as they unfolded from 11 May 1857.

‘Capture Of Delhi, 1857’, a coloured lithograph by Béquet Frères. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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‘Capture Of Delhi, 1857’, a coloured lithograph by Béquet Frères. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A passer-by collides with a handcart-puller and the goods spill on to the street. There is a commotion. But I am still lost in the 19th century, where the commotion was over something much more serious.

I see a woman, a housemaid, enter a haveli in Dariba via a wicket in the massive gateway and I can’t stop myself from following her. Inside, I notice the gardens are full of flowers but the fountains have run dry. I hurry after her as she enters the house, heading straight for the private quarters, the zenana diwan khana, where I imagine a begum would have sat beside her husband.

Perhaps she would have offered him a paan (betel leaf) from a khasdan, her treasured filigreed silver container. A silver spittoon, ugaldan, would have been kept next to him. They would just have finished the dawn prayers and the sound of gunshots and cannonballs would have worried them. I can see it all now—the begum’s personal maid rushing in huffing and puffing, as if chased by the devil.

A 2013 picture of the traffic at Chandni Chowk. Photo: Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times
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A 2013 picture of the traffic at Chandni Chowk. Photo: Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times

“Begum saheba," she would have cried, “may khuda (god) have mercy on us. Rafiq Miyan, one of the stable boys in the qila (fort), has just brought news that Badshah Salamat left the qila before dawn. He has gone to Humayun’s maqbara (mausoleum). Woe is me, why did I live to see this day!"

Emperor Abu Zafar Mohammad Bahadur Shah II, known more popularly as Zafar from his nom de plume, had left the qila because he wanted to avoid the bloodshed that followed as retaliation for his actions in leading the rebel sepoys. The British walked unchallenged into the fort once he had left and most of the royal family had fled.

The residents of Shahr Panah, or City of Refuge, as Shahjahanabad was called then, were now about to become refugees. They wanted to escape the walled city before the British locked its gateways. They had heard stories of the death penalties and executions of notable residents over the past few days, since the British had breached the Kashmere Darwaza. The most famous of them was Maulvi Muhammad Baqir, who published the weekly Dehli Urdu Akhbar. The paper had reported in detail the uprising in Delhi and other parts. The maulvi not only encouraged the soldiers to fight but urged them to maintain communal harmony, which the British were trying to disrupt. He was arrested, along with many others the British suspected of being rebels, and shot on 16 September.

If there could be arrests and executions even while the emperor was in the qila, there could be no guarantee of safety for anyone once he had left, unless one had sided actively with the British over those four months.

A few people stayed on—like the poet Mirza Ghalib, whose locality, Gali Qasim Jan in Ballimaran, was guarded by the soldiers of the maharaja of Patiala, whose troops had fought alongside the British in the siege of Delhi. It had havelis belonging to the hakeems (physicians) in the maharaja’s employment. The tradesmen and bankers who had helped the British stayed on and flourished.

A mutiny memorial (now know as Ajitgarh) was later erected on the Delhi Ridge by the British; it gives a timeline of the siege. For me, the last line is the most telling: “On 21st September the city was evacuated of the enemy."

The begum saheba of my imagination would have busied herself in calming her crying children and asked Mubarak, the maid, to feed them. She would have known that she needed to prepare for the escape. She would have gone to her bedroom, where her jewellery was kept. I can see her taking out a few heavy gold pieces and putting them inside the strip of the drawstring, izarband, in her pyjamas. They were going into uncharted territory and jewellery, which could be converted into money, would be handy.

Nawab saheb was back, “Begum, we have to leave now. It’s no longer safe for us here. I have brought a bullock cart. Climb on to that with the children and hide your faces. Wear Mubarak’s clothes as disguise. Cover yourself with her dupatta. Tell the servants to meet us at the baraf khana (ice factory) in Paharganj. Come on, let’s go."

He had seen death roaming the streets and knew it was time to leave.

Fi amanillah (god be with you), Mubarak would have wished upon their journey.

I moved slowly towards Chawri Bazar, now a busy Metro station. Till the 19th century, though, this street was also called the “Bazar-e-Husn", after the courtesans who held court on the first floor; it was a place where young sprigs and jaded aristocrats alike came to attend soirées where classical music, dance, poetry and conversation flourished. But when the begum’s bullock cart passed by, there was silence on the upper floors. The courtesans had been very active against the British, they had supported the rebel sepoys and been important centres for plotting and planning against the angrez. So most had fled, anticipating the British wrath.

Instead of husn (beauty), the begum saw people armed with sticks, cudgels, swords and poleaxes. Corpses were piled like logs.

She hid her face in Mubarak’s dupatta and closed the babies’ eyes with her palms.

As the bullock cart reached Jama Masjid to cross into Matia Mahal, its gateways were bustling not with the dastango (storyteller), kabachi (kebab sellers) or kabootar (pigeon) sellers, but with British soldiers and officers in red uniforms. A few British officers were escorting some dignified-looking Indian gentlemen up the steps of the masjid. By the looks of it, it wasn’t to exchange pleasantries.

Some young men, too, were being dragged screaming up those steps. The British seemed to have made Jama Masjid their headquarters.

One of the babies started crying, and with her heart in her mouth the begum pulled them under her dupatta and started crooning softly to them. Nawab saheb had slid under the piles of rugs and blankets in the cart to avoid being spotted.

By now, I too had made my way to Jama Masjid. It was standing serenely in the afternoon sun, its warm red sandstone glowing. Its magnificent steps were full of beggars and tourists trying to avoid them.

Our begum saheba was lucky. Just as her bullock cart approached the masjid and a few curious British soldiers turned their gaze towards it, a group of men, enraged by their presence in the mosque, attacked the British picket at the bottom of the mosque steps with sticks. A volley of gunshots silenced them.

The cart bearing its aristocratic burden had by then made its way to Chitli Qabar. I jostled my way into Matia Mahal, the lane made famous by Karim’s, the restaurant which has served nihari and biryani from the turn of the 20th century.

In 1857, Matia Mahal was lined with aristocratic havelis and gardens. I passed the famous gur-ka-sherbet shop at the corner of Pahadi Imli that sells jaggery sherbet spiced with lime.

Eyeing the bangle and dress shops on either side, I reached Chitli Qabar. This is the grave of Syed Roshan Sahib Shaheed, who was buried here 650 years ago. Today tourists visit it for the famous Mota Pehelwan’s biryani.

I head towards Dilli Darwaza in hot pursuit of begum saheba’s bullock cart. Today, the area houses garment shops, but when she passed Amir Khan ka Bazaar, the grocery and the leather shops where saddles, bridles, reins, etc., were sold, were all deserted. The windowpanes had cracked and the awnings were hanging upside down. The looters had been at work.

I walked past the shops displaying dazzling clothes but begum saheba’s cart had passed a lofty apartment known as Bangash ka Kamra. Today, that’s the name of the area.

Though she wasn’t in a mood to appreciate it, she had heard of this apartment suite built by Faizullah Khan Bangash, which was said to be so tall that it talked to the skies and taunted the mountains with its solid foundations.

Things were quieter here for me now, as they were back then for the begum and her family. Nawab saheb poked his head out of the pile of straw and blankets that he had hidden under.

The place seemed relatively calmer, the sound of gunshots and screaming was faint. Their cart left the walled city, exiting from the Dilli Darwaza—and so did I.

Today, there are traffic snarls because of the Metro construction.

In 1857, however, thousands of veiled women, children, young and old men were fleeing the walled city.

We made our way towards Paharganj, where the young nawab and his family had found refuge along with thousands of others that day.

They had escaped just in time. At midnight, the British soldiers started the slaughter of innocents. They entered houses and began killing those sleeping within, climbing on to the roofs to get at those sleeping there too.

The mutiny in verse

Ancient Sky, Delhi’s mortal enemy,/what did you gain when Delhi’s every trace was lost?...

Neither the Fort is there, nor its old street./Why, then, should Delhites think Delhi is Heaven?

— Sāqib in ‘Fughān-i Dihlī (The Lament For Delhi)’. Translated by Pasha Mohamad Khan.

Zewar almas ka tha jin se na pahna jaata

Bhaari jhumar bhi kabhi sir pe naa rakhha jaata Sar pe bojh liye chaar taraf phirte hai

Do qadam chalte hain mushkil se tau phir girte hain

(Those frail ladies are made to carry heavy loads, alas

They can barely walk a few steps before they fall down

The delicate ones who couldn’t carry the weight of precious gems

For whom heavy jewellery was a burden too heavy)

— Azurda in ‘Lament For Delhi’ after the fall of Delhi in 1857. Translated by Rana Safvi.

Rana Safvi is a historian who is documenting the monuments of Delhi, and author of Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails In Mehrauli, The First City Of Delhi and Tales From The Quran And Hadith.

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Published: 14 Oct 2016, 11:04 AM IST
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