The begum who discovered Hanuman during Ramzaan

Neha Simlai
Janab-i’Aliyyah was buried in Paris, but Awadhis recall their queen who believed in Hanuman

A few hundred years ago, a way of life emerged in the Doab region of Uttar Pradesh. Aptly called the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, it grew into an identity of its own for the people of the region who revered both the rivers and the two cultures that emerged from the west and the east. This subculture of peaceful coexistence became a metaphor for mutual respect of religious and social identities.

A testament to the historical continuity of fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures, the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb is still evident and relevant in locally celebrated festivals and micro-traditions. Unique to Awadh and Lucknow, Bada Mangal is  a festival that takes an obscure snippet of history and makes it a lesson in tolerance and celebration, its history forgotten, much like that of the female protagonist in its story.

While much is always written about this tehzeeb, the loss thereof, the pioneering women behind the promulgation of this culture are often not given their due. While Begum Akhtar, Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder, Shivani and Attia Hosain are still names that some of us are familiar with, there are female heroines, from Muslim and Hindu families who have instituted, fought for and left behind legacies of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.

One such Awadhi heroine was Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah (also known as Malika Kishwar).

When Shuja-ud-Daula, the third Subedar-Nawab of Awadh, with his capital in Faizabad, was busy making efforts to extend his dominion up to Bihar, by supporting Shah Alam II, and subsequently Mir Qasim, his queen Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah was busy trying to stabilise her place in the zenana.  Shuja-ud-Daula had been recognised as the nawab after the death of his father, by the Mughal emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur in 1753.

Until that point, Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah had been childless, and the British East India Company had already started making appearances on Awadh's margins. The rumbles of the impending Doctrine of Lapse (which came much later) had already started by this time. Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah desperately wanted a child, preferably a male heir who would consolidate Awadh's fortunes and indeed ensure her own position of power in its palace.

Unlike other queens of her time, Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah is said to have been a queen with strong connections among the people of Awadh. She is also said to have had deep-rooted faith in how the tehzeeb would be the glue that held Awadh together in the fragmented realities that would follow the dominion of the British East India Company. She would often travel across the breadth of Awadh and on one of her trips, Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah decided to get some work done along the ever-meandering Gomti, in Lucknow.

On a Tuesday night, during Awadh's hot summer, Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah dreamt of a divine presence commanding her to build a temple honouring Lord Hanuman. The dream had also pointed her to an exact place where she would find an idol of Lord Hanuman. The Shia Muslim queen had grown up espousing the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. The next morning, she ordered the excavation of the site and when the idol was found, she is believed to have personally supervised the construction of the temple that had since come to be called Purana Hanuman Mandir €" the area around it came to be known as Aliganj (as a tribute to Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah).

The kissas (folklore) of Purana Lucknow, claim this day was a Tuesday during the Hindu month Jyestha. The Sanskrit word Jyeshtha translates to The Eldest and is the name of the 18th nakshatra or lunar mansion in Vedic astrology and is associated with Indra, chief of the gods. The ruler/lord of Jyeshtha is Buddha (Mercury).

Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah is said to have been blessed with a son soon after she started praying to Lord Hanuman every Tuesday of the Jyeshta. And as another gesture of grand Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, she named her first-born son Mangat Rai Firoz Shah.

With her new-found faith in Hanuman, Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah commissioned a replica of the original idol during the holy month of Ramzaan that year. She tasked Jathmal, one of her commanders to bring the other statue to be installed in another temple in Faizabad, so that she could visit it more often. Jathmal made arrangements for its transport back to Faizabad on an elephant. At some point en route from the Gomti in Lucknow to the Saryu in Faizabad, the elephant stopped in its tracks and refused to budge. The day is also said to have been a Tuesday in the Jyestha month. A year later, again during Ramzaan in 1753, the construction of the Naya Hanuman Mandir was completed.

Since then, Bada Mangal has been celebrated on every Tuesday of Jyestha, as the summer intensifies in Awadh. Across temples dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the kapata (doors) of the sanctum sanctorum are closed for a snaan (bath) of the idol, vastra dharan (clothing) and shringaar (beautification). It is said that the first vastra and shringaar of both the temples had come from Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah. After the completion of the ceremonies the temple doors are opened to the devotees just before midnight and remain open till the early hours of Wednesday.

Years later, when Wajid Ali Shah was imprisoned at Fort William in Calcutta, Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah would make the long journey to England alone, to seek an audience with the Queen of England, determined to win back that which was her family's by right.

But here, in Awadh, each year, thousands of devotees continue to celebrate Bada Mangal at the Purana and Naya Hanuman Mandirs among other temples that have been constructed since.  In the cacophony of blaring speakers belting locally created bhajans inspired by hit Bollywood songs, mingled with the sound of snarling traffic and the chaos around Lucknow, one may easily miss this ode to the delicately nuanced and ever graceful Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. However, it continues to make its presence felt in the peaceful coexistence and tolerance which have thus laid the foundations of innumerable mosques and temples in the area.

And while one of Awadh's many heroines, Begum Janab-i'Aliyyah, may lie buried in an unmarked grave in the hillside cemetery of Père Lachaise in faraway Paris, this year too, despite the rhetoric of religious insularity and polarisation of vote-bank politics, in the middle of the holy month of Ramzaan, faiths will coalesce during Bada Mangal and this day will continue to serve as a reminder that here in Awadh, a Shia-Muslim queen could have faith in a Hindu deity.

(Neha Simlai is an international consultant working on environmental sustainability and development themes across South Asia)

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