by Srinanda Ganguly
While living in exile in Metiabruz, Wajid Ali Shah re-created a cultural and built environment as a link between his family’s court in Awadh and his new home in Calcutta. Though he had no administrative or political rights in Calcutta, the deposed King of Awadh nevertheless possessed the aura of a ruler and patron of his people—of whom a large number followed him to Calcutta. Wajid Ali Shah’s transformation of the built environment in Metiabruz signified that, even without a kingdom or a crown, he continued to be a cultural and social figurehead.
Wajid Ali Shah passed away on 21 September 1887, at the beginning of the month of Muharram. The very next day, a meeting was held at the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla to discuss what would happen to Wajid Ali’s property and possessions. The king had left no will, and there were two official wives and 47 children among whom his legacy had to be divided. A year earlier, in 1886, the Wajid Ali Shah Act XIX had been passed to deal with the administration of the estate after the king’s passing. By the terms of this Act, the estate at Garden Reach was to be “closed”: a thorough dissolution. His furniture, furnishings, chandeliers, swords, some jewelry, expensive Kashmiri shawls, and other items were all auctioned. His extensive wardrobe was handed over to his son, Qamar Qadr, to distribute among the late king’s servants; his library was taken over, assessed, and divided, with some manuscripts offered to the Lucknow Museum and some religious materials given to the Sibtainabad Imambara. The animals in his private zoo were auctioned off – even the pigeons that roosted atop the many houses of the estate! The houses were also emptied of their human inhabitants and put up for auction; many ended up being demolished.
Ostensibly, this clinically conducted dispersal and demolition of the King’s belongings and properties was to ease the process of dividing his property between his many descendants. However, if we consider it in light of our reading that Wajid Ali Shah’s architectural commissions in Metiabruz established his lineage, identity, and presence there, how might that affect our understanding of the destruction of this built landscape? In what way is architecture tied to memory, and memory to power? To understand the links between architecture, power, memory, and erasure, it would be useful to draw a parallel between Wajid Ali Shah and another ruler who was deposed and exiled to the East around the same time: the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II.
Bahadur Shah II ascended the Mughal throne in September 1837, when he was in his sixties. At the time, the administrative reach of the Mughal Emperor covered only the capital city of Shahjahanabad. However, Bahadur Shah’s status as a Mughal descendant invested him with a significance that far surpassed his political powers. The court that Bahadur Shah ruled in Shahjahanabad was culturally rich, if politically feeble. Himself a poet of renown who wrote under the pen name of Zafar, the Mughal emperor was the figurehead surrounded by a culture of poetry and music. Poets such as Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Zauq, Momin, and Dagh Dehlviflourished in this cultural milieu. This was similar to the “court” of Wajid Ali in Metiabruz, though on a much larger scale.
When the Revolt of 1857 broke out, Bahadur Shah was the figurehead around whom Indian forces mobilized in Delhi. Wajid Ali was imprisoned and kept in British custody in Fort William in Calcutta, precisely to prevent him from being established as a similar rallying point. Once the Revolt was quashed, Wajid Ali was released; as the British consolidated their position in India, he was no longer considered a political threat and was allowed to build a miniature court in the heart of the British power. Bahadur Shah, on the other hand, was captured, tried, and exiled to Rangoon, Burma in disgrace in 1858; much of the Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad was systematically destroyed.
Bahadur Shah lived in Rangoon for barely four years; he passed away on 7 November 1862 and was buried in an unmarked grave accompanied by a brisk and brief ceremony. A week after Bahadur Shah’s death, in a letter addressed to their headquarters in London, the British Commissioner of Rangoon wrote of the deposed Emperor’s burial:
A bamboo fence surrounds the grave for some considerable distance, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests. (Dalrymple, 2007, p 2)
The lack of a significant marker for the physical resting place of the last Emperor of the powerful Mughal dynasty implies the symbolic importance of built spaces dedicated to individuals. The erasure of any visible markers of Bahadur Shah’s grave was therefore an attempt to erase the memory of the Mughal dynasty itself.
There are some clear differences between the trajectories of these two lives. Wajid Ali lived and flourished in exile and his grave is easily locatable, but the kingdom he built in exile is no more and the memory of his presence in Calcutta is, at best, a niche interest outside the Metiabruz area. On the other hand, the walled city of Shahjahanabad persists, many of its landmarks remain, and those like the Jama Masjid and Red Fort or the jewellery market at Dariba Kalan have international renown. But Bahadur Shah’s grave (a shrine was built much later where it was surmised the unmarked grave was located) is far from the locus of Mughal power in North India; his memory remains only in the context of his position as the Last Mughal.
For both Wajid Ali and Bahadur Shah, the aura of kingship was believed to be so potent that their physical absence could not demolish the status they held in the public imagination. This was not so much caused by personal charisma, but by their dynastic lineage: while alive, each of the monarchs was the physical embodiment of a long history, tying a diminished present to the glorious past. After their passing, any physical marker of their presence would provide a space of remembrance, a visual reminder that would prompt stories. These memories and stories would not only be of Wajid Ali or Bahadur Shah, but also of the empires of Awadh and Mughal India, both of which were extinguished by the British. As the annexation of Awadh and the defeat of the Mughals were still part of living memory, they potentially provided a powerful subject around which discontent against the British could be built. To ease the British consolidation of their new Indian empire, it was therefore imperative to have these memories as amorphous as possible – by demolishing or dismantling the built environment – so that the older empires would gradually fade from memory as a new status-quo was established.
The British really feared the consequences if the court in Metiabruz was allowed to remain after Wajid Ali’s death, under the control of one of his sons. Even though the British administration had already told Wajid Ali that the title of “King” would not pass on to his heir, Viscount Cross, the Secretary of State for India, wrote:
We wished the late King’s premises and establishment at Garden Reach to be broken up as soon as possible. We were particularly anxious that any attempt to maintain the semblance of a court under the King’s sons should be firmly repressed. (Llewellyn-Jones, 2014, p 263)
As Wajid Ali Shah was not an adversary of the British at the time of his passing, he was given a funeral and burial according to his status as the last King of Awadh. His funeral cortege from Sultan Khana to the Sibtainabad Imambara was accompanied by a British military escort: the Loyal Poorbeah Regiment and a military band playing Handel’s “Dead March.” This was the last honor shown to the House of Awadh by the British. While his burial site at the Sibtainabad Imambara was allowed to remain (along with a handful of other masjids and imambaras), the rest of his estate was dismantled completely.
In present-day Metiabruz, Wajid Ali Shah’s grave is carefully tended. Separated from the rest of the main hall by a set of grilled entranceways, the chamber that houses Wajid Ali’s grave includes his sword and shield, his red-upholstered chair, and a tazia (a replica of the tomb of Husain, carried in Muharram processions) from his time.
The stories and histories of Metiabruz culminate at this grave; here, they are relatable to a physical form that once sat on that chair, wore that weaponry, and whose corporeal remains lie buried less than a foot away. Here, even if briefly, it is possible to imagine Metiabruz as it would have been in Wajid Ali’s time.
Dalrymple, William. The Last Mughal. New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
Llewellyn-Jones, Rosie. The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah. London: Hurst and Company, 2014.