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The sad plight of Zeenat Mahal

R.V. Smith
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HISTORY The once famous Zeenat Mahal in Lal Kuan now lies in a state of near-ruin, laments R.V. Smith recalling its days of glory

P assing by Zeenat Mahal's palace (also known as Zeenat Mahal) in Lal Kuan in old Delhi fills one with dismay at the plight of this once magnificent 1846 structure. Zeenat Mahal was the youngest and favourite queen of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was the age of her grandfather, and key participant in the Revolt of 1857, collaborating at first with nobles like Hakim Ahsanullah Khan alias Gangaram Yahudi (a name coined by his enemies) but charting out her own course after she suspected the emperor's physician of being a British mole.

This was not true because Ahsanullah Khan was a man of great foresight who advised Bahadur Shah to adopt a cautions approach lest the rebellion failed to dislodge the East India Company Sarkar. His mansion was not far from that of the queen and still exists with much of its earlier trappings, including the beautiful 19th Century chandeliers. Zeenat Mahal has almost disappeared, with only the badly marred façade and boundary wall staring the passerby in the face. A girls' school now occupies the inner space and outside is a rabbit's warren of shops overhung with electric wires and signboards. At one corner a dhobi plies his trade of ironing out clothes and dirt and refuge litter the street over which all sorts of vehicles weave their way in and out. And yet this place was one of the most posh areas of Shahjahanabad.

Tomboyish figure

Zeenat attracted the emperor's eye because of her tomboyish figure. Some alleged that this was because of the monarch's love for boys in his youth, which made his father, Akbar Shah II decide against making him heir apparent, and Zafar's step-mother, Mumtaz Mahal II advocating the cause of her own son, Mirza Jahangir. But the British overruled Akbar Shah's decision as they thought the younger prince was not only wayward but a drunkard. He played into their latter's hands by firing a shot at the British Resident, Charles Seton, at the Red Fort and was sent into exile in Allahabad. He returned to great rejoicing, which gave birth to Phoolwalon-ki-Sair, because of royal entreaties but was sent back because of continued disorderly conduct which included an attempt on the life of Zafar. He died an alcoholic at a young age and the way was clear for his brother to succeed to the throne.

Zeenat Mahal came to the Red Fort with much fanfare despite her not so grand heritage and was all-powerful in a short time because of her beauty and penchant for court intrigues. The emperor doted over her and granted her every wish. When she went to her maternal home drums were beaten to announce her arrival. This made her known as Danka Begum among the young men who allegedly kept her company in this palace. But much of the gossip was the result of character assassination by the queen's detractors, who were jealous of her power and swift rise to fame. It is pertinent to remember that Zeenat Mahal was the prominent queen who accompanied Zafar into exile in Rangoon, with Bibi Taj Mahal and some others opting out, last named returning to Delhi from as far away as Allahabad.

Zeenat, though who grumbled against the ousted king as “the Buddah who keeps coughing all the time”, also died in Rangoon (Yangon) more than 20 years after her husband. Mirza Jawan Bakht died there too but some of their descendents are still to be found in that city.

When one buys nahari from the roadside facing Zeenat Mahal all this and more comes to mind and one wishes that mahal was somehow restored to its pristine glory as a memorial to a once a gallant queen and freedom fighter who opened the doors of the Red Fort to the rebel sepoys from Meerut on the morning of May 11, 1857. Beauty, brains and courage were her hallmark then.

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