Lineage, Dynasty, and Architecture: Wajid Ali Shah in Metiabruz

On 13th March 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, the tenth and last ruler of the state of Awadh, left Lucknow for Calcutta accompanied by a sizeable retinue including his mother Janab-i-Aliyah and brother Prince Sikandar Hashmat. A month earlier, on the 7th of February, Governor General Lord Dalhousie had ordered the annexation of Awadh, supposedly on the grounds of administrative incompetence and misrule. It was to contest this annexation that Wajid Ali was traveling to the British capital in Calcutta.

Awadh was one of the Mughal successor states that arose after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. In 1722, the minister of Awadh, Burhan-ul-Mulk, took over the region’s administrative control, although it remained nominally under the domain of the Mughal empire until 1819. The British presence at the Awadh court dates to 1764, after Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah’s defeat at the hands of the East India Company at Buxar. Following this defeat, the Company stationed troops at Awadh, and later a British Resident – who was the Governor General’s agent – was stationed at the court. In 1819 the Nawab of Awadh Ghazi-ud-Din-Haidar assumed the title of the King of Awadh, and the accompanying autonomy from the Mughal government, with British encouragement.

 

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Awadh coat of arms at Sibtainabad Imambara, Kolkata
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wajid Ali Shah ascended the throne of Awadh on 13th February 1847, and it was in November 1847 when the new Governor-General Viscount Hardinge visited the court in Lucknow, that the threat of annexation was first raised. Following the pattern of increasing British control over the kingdom and other former Mughal territories, it seems that the British wanted to take complete control of Awadh; one should not assume that Wajid Ali was a particularly bad or incompetent ruler.

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‘Vājid ʿAlī Shāh enthroned with attending maidservants,’ from Tarikh-i Mumtaz (Source: British Library – BL Or. 5288, f. 12v)

In Calcutta, Wajid Ali intended to appeal his case before the Governor General Lord Canning (who replaced Dalhousie in late February 1856), and to travel further to England if necessary. However, Wajid Ali never returned to Awadh, and it was in Calcutta that he lived out the remainder of his life.

The king was given an estate in the Metiabruz area of Garden Reach, a suburb on the outskirts of the British capital of Calcutta.“Metiabruz” is a corruption of the name “Matiya Burj,” meaning “earthen tower.” The name comes from the mud bastion that was once located in the area.

Originally, the king and his retinue lived in three large mansions that had extensive grounds. As more and more people migrated from Lucknow to be with their former ruler, as many as 250 smaller houses sprouted in the compounds of the mansions within two years. Wajid Ali built parks, an Imambara, and even a menagerie.

Unfortunately, almost all of these structures were demolished after Wajid Ali’s death, when his property was divided amongst his heirs. To get a sense of Metiabruz as it was in that time, we can only turn to textual sources and oral history. Perhaps the best account of Wajid Ali’s years in Calcutta is Abdul Halim Sharar’s book Guzishta Lucknow, a history of Lucknow and its culture. Sharar, whose father was an employee of Wajid Ali’s in Calcutta, spent ten years in this miniature kingdom, and one chapter of his book is based on his personal memory of this time. Sharar writes that the building activity undertaken by Wajid Ali in Calcutta was perhaps only second to Shah Jahan in his much larger domain of the Mughal empire:

In Lucknow the King had constructed only the Qaisar Bagh, a few houses in the neighbourhood, an Imam Bara and a tomb for his deceased father, but in Matiya Burj he had established a beautiful town of fine houses. On the other side of the river, exactly opposite Matiya Burj, are Calcutta’s famed Botanical Gardens. But they were as nothing compared to the earthly paradise of Matiya Burj and the entrancing wonders it contained. (p 72)

In Calcutta, Wajid Ali received an annual pension of 12 lakh (1.2 million) rupees a year from the British, much less than he was accustomed to. Within this tight budget, the former king built up a cultural and architectural milieu comparable to his earlier life in Lucknow. For instance, Hindustani classical music flourished in Calcutta under his patronage, and famous singers such as Gauhar Jaan began their careers in the city after moving from Awadh. Nevertheless, he managed to replicate the grandeur of Lucknow in its heyday. According to Sharar:

The real Lucknow had ended and was replaced by Matiya Burj. There was the same bustle and activity, the same language, the same style of poetry, conversation and wil (sic), the same learned and pious men, the same aristocrats, nobles and common people. No one thought he was in Bengal: there was the same kite-flying, cock-fighting, quail- fighting, the same opium addicts reciting the same tales, the same observance of Muharram, the same lamentations at the recital of marsiya and nauha, the same Imam Baras and the same Kerbala as in former Lucknow. But the ceremony, pomp and circumstance with which the King’s Muharram procession was invested probably could never have been equalled in Lucknow even in the days of his rule. After the Mutiny, a Muharram procession of tazias could never have been carried out in Lucknow with the former glory, but in Calcutta thousands of people, even the British, came to Matiya Burj as pilgrims. (p 74)

How do we read this (successful) attempt to recreate the past in a new land? We may certainly attribute it to nostalgia and a desire for familiarity, but perhaps it is best interpreted as a way to signify that the glory of Awadh continued to be embodied in its last ruler, despite his displacement from his kingdom. Architecture lends itself to communicating subtle ideas of identity, affiliation, and power, as may be seen through the building programmes of most empires and dynasties. Monuments, whether religious or secular, are the most tangible and accessible markers of metaphysical ideas. Wajid Ali Shah’s transformation of the built environment in Metiabruz to something that would have been familiar to those from Awadh is a mark of continuity between the kingdom that his ancestors ruled and the significantly smaller, geographically distant area now (nominally) under his control.

Perhaps the most potent example of architecture as a symbol of lineage and continuity may be seen in the Mughal empire. The most well-known monuments of the Empire are inarguably two tombs – Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal – and the structure of both is a reference to a monument in Samarkand, the Gur-i-Mir (the tomb of Amir Timur).

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Gur-i-Mir, tomb of Amir Timur, Samarkand
(Source: Reha Günay, Aga Khan Award for Architecture)

Similarly, Mughal gardens follow the Timurid char-bagh (four-quarter garden) layout plan, and many tombs have a hasht-bihisht (eight paradise) floor layout. Who were the Timurids, and why were they important to the Mughals?

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Princes of the House of Timur, Mir Sayyid Ali, circa 1550-1555 (additions made in 1605 and 1628)
(Source: British Museum)

Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the Mughal Empire, was descended from Amir Timur (a Turko-Mongol warlord, who established the Timurid empire in Central Asia and Iran, sometimes referred to as “Tamerlane”) on his father’s side and from Chingiz Khan (also called Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire) on his mother’s. Since Babur’s connection to Chingiz Khan was from his mother’s side, Babur was barred from staking a claim on that lineage. Therefore, his Timurid genealogy took on supreme importance.With the fall of Herat (the late Timurid capital, in the early 1500s) to the Uzbeks, Babur became the last Timurid descendant. Perhaps due to this, the reestablishment of a Timurid empire became Babur’s chief goal. After repeated failures to establish an empire in Central Asia, Babur finally managed to declare himself emperor in India following his victory over Ibrahim Lodi in 1526 at the Battle of Panipat. Much like Wajid Ali, Babur witnessed the demise of a once-powerful kingdom before his own eyes and this demise created his own position as the last scion of the dynasty.

While the world politics of Babur’s time allowed him to strike out on his own and lay the foundation of a dynasty on the same scale as that of his ancestor, Wajid Ali’s circumstances were very different. Though both moved from the heartlands of their dynasty to a distant land where they were relatively unknown, Babur had the autonomy to fight and establish a kingdom. Wajid Ali, on the other hand, had no such powers –and could only create a small-scale replica of the milieu he left behind.

In the context of Awadh, maybe the most telling symbol of lineage and continuity are the two Sibtainabad Imambaras, one in Lucknow and the other in Metiabruz. There is some debate about who commissioned the Lucknow Sibtainabad Imambara – with some sources attributing it to Amjad Ali Shah, others to Wajid Ali himself. Regardless of who ordered its construction, Wajid Ali endowed a trust for the upkeep of the Sibtainabad Imambara immediately after taking the throne of Awadh. To do so, he deposited a sum of 7 lakh (700,000) rupees in the treasury of the British Residency in Lucknow as a perpetual loan to the East India Company–the interest that accrued from this loan was to pay the wages of the various staff of the Imambara, from a lawyer and muezzin to masons and gardeners.

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Sibtainabad Imambara, Lucknow
(Source: Mohsin Mirza, in Sanober Haider’s Sintainabad Through the Lens of Time)

Compared to the two main Imambaras of Lucknow – the Asafi or Bada Imambara and the Husainabad or Chhoti Imambara – Lucknow’s Sibtainabad Imambara is a much smaller structure. While all three have the same main facade consisting of a row of iwans or arched colonnaded entryways, Sibtainabad’s is far shorter than the other two.

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Asafi Imambara or Bada Imambara Lucknow, anonymous artist
(Source: British Library)
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Husainabad Imambara or Chhota Imambara, Lucknow
(Source: Antara Sarkar, Wikimedia Commons)

The form and style of the Sibtainabad Imambara in Calcutta was naturally limited by Wajid Ali’s financial constraints, and it is by far the least imposing of the four. Here, a large gateway leads into a central courtyard that is surrounded on two sides with a colonnaded open area. To the left is a row of offices and straight ahead lie five arched entranceways leading into the Imambara itself. Though the structure itself pales in comparison to its counterpart in Lucknow, it has an unmistakable air of opulence with its polished marble floors, Belgian glass lamps, ornate tazias, and alams brought all the way from Lucknow by Wajid Ali.

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Sibtainabad Imambara, Kolkata (Source: Author)

Despite its diminutive structure, the Sibtainabad Imambara in Calcutta served a very important function as the congregational space for the Shia community in a region that was largely Sunni. According to scholars such as Rosie Llewelyn-Jones, the religious significance of the Metiabruz Sibtanabad was comparable to that of the Bada Imambara in Lucknow: it occupied a central space in the religious life of the community. Unable to muster the resources to build a structure comparable to those of his ancestors, to use architectural form and style as a citation that would evoke his status as a Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali resorted to the simple tactic of using the same name.

Though he spent the last decades of his life in exile, Wajid Ali ensured that he would remain significant to his people by setting up a miniature domain in Metiabruz. A report in The Statesman from the time describes his funeral procession:

The wailing cries were heard incessantly. The feeling was universal, and it has scarcely ever been my lot to witness so impressive and so mournful a scene. The entire Mahomedan community seemed to have felt a sense of personal calamity in the death of the King of Oudh.

References:

Llewellyn-Jones, Rosie. The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah. London: Hurst and Company, 2014.

Sharar, Abdul Halim. Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture. Translated by E.S. Harcourt and Fakhir Hussain. In The Lucknow Omnibus. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Cover Image: Painted frontispiece of ‘Vājid ʿAlī Shāh seated with attendants’ (right) followed by the lithographed text’s embellished title page (left), from the Daryā-yi Taʿashshuq or ‘the impassioned sea’, another Urdu romantic mas̲navī in the dāstān tradition (Source: The British Library)

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