India's Royal House of Oudh

By Ninian, Alex | Contemporary Review, February 2001 | Go to article overview

India's Royal House of Oudh


Ninian, Alex, Contemporary Review


'SEND me a loaded revolver' wrote Princess Sakina of Oudh to the BBC producer who wanted to televise the history of the Royal House of Oudh. 'I will allow your cameras here but on one condition -- that you send the revolver 24 hours in advance'.

I met the Princess and her brother Prince Cyrus Riza at Malcha Mahal, or Malcha Palace, the 700-year-old mined fort which is their abode. I left the main thoroughfare outside Delhi and followed a narrow single track through an eerie forest of thin spindly trees, close enough together to blot out the sun. In the gloom I came to two metal posts holding a bronze plaque which said 'Rulers of Oudh' just visible over a tangle of tall wild grass and cactus. It bore the family emblem of two fishes and their staring dead eyes added to the macabre feel of the place.

A sinister looking retainer, dressed in a dark uniform with a blue sash and blue and white turban opened the rusty gate. In the dim light I stumbled up a steep rocky path in an uncanny silence until the cracking of dry twigs under my feet triggered off the unearthly din of dogs, unseen but growling, barking and baying, the sound booming and echoing through the trees. I could see nothing but the dense wood until I was suddenly face to face with the building, Malcha Mahal, itself.

Built around 1300. it had been a Muslim outpost and was now a ghostly ruin in the forest. It had one very high single storey of some 30 feet. The red brown stone walls were three feet thick and they were punctuated by huge gothic arches for entrances and smaller ones for windows, but the place had neither doors nor windows. The roof was broken and the building, partly overgrown by vegetation, was open to the elements. In the wet season the rain pours in, ruining the last of the royal carpets and furnishings. In the dry season, snakes invade and have to be killed by the dogs, and in all seasons the place is inhabited by bats, birds and lizards. It had the feel of Blairwitch or Gormenghast.

Unfortunately the BBC never filmed it. It may have been that the request for the gun discouraged them, or it may have been for other reasons, but in their wisdom they never appeared. I learned later that the Princess planned to take her own life in front of the TV cameras as her final historic gesture in a generations-long fight for the family's rights.

With barely a word of introduction the Princess launched into a twenty minute monologue of the saga of the Royal House of Oudh.

The Prince and Princess are the son and daughter of the famous Begum of Oudh, whom Princess Sakina describes in her strong resounding voice as 'Her Highness' and 'The Regnant, The Supreme Being of States, The Strong Head of Wills'. They are approaching their forties, are unmarried and are, tragically, the latest and, perhaps, the last of a tormented line that stretches back hundreds of years.

'We now consider ourselves the Dynasty of the Living Dead', says Sakina, and 'all I desire is to be interred beneath the feet of Her Highness, the Immortal Princess. For us two, everything is bleak and desolate; the Her Highness's dogs are our closest ones, they do not have the deceit of humans'.

The story begins from a mix of history, myth and legend, with claims that they are descended from the Kings of Persia, the Compound of Macedonia and even the Pharaohs of Egypt. They came by horse to India in the Moghul invasions of the Middle Ages and set up the kingdom of Oudh in and around what is now known as Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, just a hundred miles south of Nepal. The Princess had a distinguished face, thin and drawn, set off by long black uncombed hair and she wore a long dark gown down to her feet. She explained that when the British took over, the old rulers lived uncomfortably under them, but accepted the system which allowed them to keep their lands, their wealth and their palaces. Some of the greatest speeches ever made in the British Parliament were those of Burke and Sheridan defending the rights of a Begum of Oudh in the 1780s. …

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