The Begum of South Asia

From The Kathmandu Post (21 November, 2014)

Recalling Kathmandu Valley’s historical links with the rest of South Asia

There is an icon available in Kathmandu Valley that all of the colonised Subcontinent could utilise as its connection to a shared past. It is in the nature of South Asian regionalism that the memory of this icon has not been utilised to generate collective emotion among the societies of the Subcontinent. Nepal was not colonised as such, but it too can claim a link to this entity.

Directions: Go to the Ghantaghar clock tower at Durbar Marg, walk south past the Jame Masjid, and just as you reach the pedestrian overpass, on the left, you will come upon a mazaar. This is the tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal , the ruler of Avadh following the exile of husband Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who took the British head on in what many know as the Sepoy Mutiny.

If self-government is the first step towards progress and prosperity for the indigenes, then the memory of those who fought for liberation must be treasured collectively. Unfortunately, because independence arrived in much of South Asia in tandem with the devastation of Partition, many of the shared legacies went into eclipse. Amidst the tragedy and recriminations, when even Mahatma Gandhi has come to be regarded by many (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis) as ‘Indian’ rather than South Asian, who is to remember the Begum from Lucknow?

Kashi Vishwanath

In 1857, large parts of northern India rose up against the East India Company, from Jhansi to Meerut, Lucknow, Delhi, and Kanpur. Jung Bahadur Kunwar, who had decimated all competition to become the satrap of Nepal, supported the British to crush the uprising, with himself leading an expedition of soldiers to Lucknow and Benaras.

Whether it was magnanimity or an eye on royal treasures, Jung also gave refuge to those who fled the British after the uprising failed, including the Maratha aristocrat Nana Sahib and Hazrat Mahal. The Begum was housed in Thapathali and died 20 years after her arrival in the Valley. She was buried on the grounds of the Jame Masjid, then a traditional-looking building rising above the Kamaladi paddies on the eastern rim of Rani Pokhari tank.

The fact that Kathmandu’s citizenry is not alert to the existence of the Begum in our midst is one indication of how distanced we have become in engagement with the rest of South Asia. We may recite Kalidasa’s ‘Kumarasambhava’ to proclaim the connection between the Himalaya and the rest of the Subcontinent, and we may take pride in the fact that the Sakyamuni was born in what is today Nepal. Jumping to the modern era, we may also like reminding one and all about how Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala and his cohort fought shoulder-to-shoulder with freedom fighters for independence of (undivided) India. But the fact remains that today we are distanced, despite high talk of South Asian cooperation, and we also remain largely unaware of the deep linkages that Nepal, and Kathmandu Valley in particular, had with the rest of South Asia. Taught by schoolbooks and tourism brochures that Nepal was a forbidden kingdom that prospered in isolation, we fail to consider that the ‘Bagmati civilisation’ developed its high achievement by being open to Subcontinental cultures and economies.

The Lichhavi dynasty arrived in the Valley around the second century CE from present-day Vaishali in present-day north Bihar, to be followed by the Mallas. The ancient links also reached deep south to the other end of peninsular India. Since three-and-half centuries, the Namboodiri Brahmins of present-day Kerala have served as the main abbots of Pashupatinath, said to have been placed there by the Adi Sankaracharya and the rulers of Travancore. Among the invading Gorkhali armies, the name for soldiers came to be ‘tilanga’ deriving from Telanghana—indicating the presence of mercenaries from the deep south. (The Tilangha Ghar still stands in Ason Tole, with its line of soldiers outlined in stucco below the window sill.)

Turning to the South Asian northeast, while the story of Bungdyo (the deity who rides the Rato Machhindra chariot) may have achieved some mythical embellishments, there is no doubt he arrived from Kamrup (Assam). The tantric societies of the Brahmaputra and Kathmandu valley s were obviously connected through Bengal, and the kings of Nepal, including the last one, used to conduct animal sacrifice at Kamakhya Mandir. At some point in history, the Dhaka weave arrived from eastern Bengal to adorn the Nepali topi, by way of Palpa.

When Mughal emperor Aurangzaib desecrated Kashi Vishwanath in 1669, the people of Patan were disconsolate, being regular visitors to Benaras to venerate the revered Shiva lingam. Patan’s ‘prime minister’ of the day, Bhagirath Bhaiyan by name, decided to put up a temple to Bishweshwar (Shiva) on the southwest corner of what is today Patan Durbar Square.

Idea of South Asia

Historians will doubtless locate numerous other instances of Nepal’s connections with the rest of the Subcontinent, as well as with Tibet and the Middle Kingdom to the north and east. Against the effervescence of the earlier contacts, the Kathmandu intelligentsia has become distressingly insular—not only does it engage reluctantly with the intelligentsia elsewhere, it gives little import to the historical linkages that did exist.

Further, Nepal is today severely weakened in its ‘sovereign self’, having been battered by constant above- and under-ground intervention by neighbouring and overseas entities. Together with external weakness and internal divisions, the Nepali polity is moving inexorably towards a closed society, one in which many areas of discourse are becoming taboo.

As far as external connections are concerned, the readership of Indian newspapers and magazines has plummeted in Kathmandu. Till a couple of decades ago, Dinman or The Times of India used to provide an important window to India and the world, but not anymore. We are inheritors to a country that has so much to offer the rest of South Asia, but our insularity is proving a drag to both the Valley’s cosmopolitanism as well as to its ability to provide a base to build on the idea of South Asia.

The way for Kathmandu to rise to the occasion as a dynamic hub of South Asia is to remain an open society, to refuse to succumb to radical populism as well as the autocratic state. At the same time, we must try and remember our own South Asian past, which includes within it the personage of Begum Hazrat Mahal .


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