Prince Ali Raza, who had claimed to be the last surviving Oudh prince, recently passed away. Living alone in the ruins of a 14-century Tughlaq era hunting lodge in the heart of Delhi, he led a reclusive life and died a lonely death. When his body was found in the now-worn-down ruin that came to be called as Malcha Mahal, a table had been set for his mother, Princess Wilayat Mahal, who had committed suicide by swallowing her diamonds in 1993. Prince Ali Raza told BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt how he always set the table for his mother and filled a glass with fresh water every day, long after her death.
Prince Ali Raza photographed at Malcha Mahal, where he lived for over 30 years. © BBC
The dining table at Malcha Mahal © BCCL
The days of the nawabs had long been over, but the pride and sentiment takes a lot longer to fade away. When an older order crumbles, it’s more than just power and wealth that go down. The British occupation of India saw empires turn to dust, old systems challenged, ancestral wealth drained and older hierarchies replaced with new ones. In post-Independence India, aristocracy found itself struggling to adjust to the new order. A person’s worth in the social order was more important than his birth and lineage was not the only way to climb the social ladder.
Aristocracy was dying and, for royals, it was more tumultuous than Independence itself. There were some who were able to adjust and build a new life for themselves in the new world. The Rajputs displayed their impressive vintage car collections, put family heirlooms in museums, turned their massive palaces into hotels and invited the world to live the royal life by proxy for a while.
Image for representational purpose only © Thinkstock Photos
But some were not so lucky.
Ali Raza’s mother Wilayat Mahal had arrived in Delhi in the 1970s along with him and his sister Princess Sakina. She had claimed to be a direct descendant of the famous Awadh king, Wajid Ali Shah, and asked for a compensation from the then-government for the lost wealth and property confiscated by the British power. The veracity of the claim was challenged by the descendants of Wajid Ali Shah and Wilayat Mahal was branded an impersonator.
Wajid Ali Shah was the last ruler of Awadh, and a famous patron of the arts. Poet, playwright and dancer himself, he was an artist more than a ruler. Awadh resounded with the sound of music and ghazals in his reign, but the same merriment in the pleasures of art led to his downfall. He was exiled by the British in 1854 over accusations of a ‘debauched’ and ‘lawless’ lifestyle and regime.
Prince Ali Raza and his sister Princess Sakina © BCCL
The weight of dying aristocracy is often too heavy to bear. With an ancestral pride and a distrust of a world in which hierarchies are blurred, the reality of the aristocrat becomes more and more befuddled. Princess Mahal’s insistence on being awarded a palatial house was part of this befuddled identity. It was an attempt to preserve the leftover pride of an aristocracy that had long withered. It was this pride, mixed with a sense of entitlement, that she was to pass on to her children, particularly Prince Ali Raza, who preferred to spend his days alone within the dark walls of a crumbling monument that he called home, rather than let the world in. Mixing with commoners was not an option.
The Indira Gandhi government had offered them a house in Lucknow, which Princess Mahal had refused—Delhi was the city she wanted to live in. The offer of a DDA flat was also turned down. The last descendants of the Awadh lineage would not stay in a house meant for commoners. After a 9-year protest by the Begum, the government relented and offered them Malcha Mahal, the 600-year-old hunting lodge from the Tughlaq era.
Malcha Mahal as seen from outside © BCCL
Hidden amidst a dense forest in Lutyens’ Delhi, Malcha Mahal was in ruins, inhabited by animals of the wild kind and without any doors or windows. Wilayat Mahal accepted it and the place came to be called ‘Wilayat Mahal’. A board was hung outside that said “Ruler of Oudh” and also warned people of terrible consequences if they trespassed the property. It is believed that the family had come with 15 ferocious bloodhounds who guarded them against the prying eyes of the world.
One of the rooms at Malcha Mahal © BCCL
Life in the dilapidated remains they called Mahal was not easy. There were no electricity and water connections. The ISRO space station provided them with a water connection later, just about enough for survival. A royal family living in the ruins of a monument, fiercely guarded by their canines, is one of the most intriguing yet well-kept secrets of Delhi. After his mother committed suicide by swallowing the dust of her crushed diamonds, Ali Raza and his sister Sakina were left to fend for themselves, armed only with an inherited pride and an incapability of dealing with the new world.
Ali Raza was sometimes seen cycling to the market to buy groceries and meat for his dogs. He had to sell his family jewels to keep food on the table. In a house with no doors, bare minimum furniture and no electricity, the dining table, with old cutlery elaborately laid out at meal times, was the last attempt to relive the splendor of a life that was no longer there.
When he died, all that was found were letters from journalists who had written to him for interviews, most of which were ignored.
Image for representational purpose only © Flickr_lensnmatter
Prince Ali Raza was not alone in his misery. The loneliness of living as fading royalty in a modern world can get unbearable. Wealth and property are easy to take away, not pride and habit.
Raja Briraj Kshatriya Birbar Chamupati Singh Mahapatra, known as the playboy king of India, was the proud owner of an impressive collection of vintage cars, bikes and horses, and lived in a place with 30 servants in his heyday. In his last days, he lived in a mud hut and was dependent on villagers, who were once his subjects, for food. He died penniless and alone.
Call it the curse of royalty, but being born a king at the wrong time was worse than being a king at the right time.
Image for representational purpose only © Flickr_lensnmatter
Ms Singh Baghel, who hails from a royal family, says:
“With the new government we were also made irrelevant, and the old Thakur pride had so many notions. Of not working for personal gain; of not being able to discuss money; and so first went the chandeliers, then the silverware, jewels, fine clothes till eventually we sold even our heritage and surname to interviewers and journalists.”
The royal world, as we know it, has its charms and intrigues working for it. The common outsider is fascinated by the tales of valour, pride, luxury and integrity – most of which is true. What the world fails to see is the immense pain this burden of carrying a fading legacy brings with it. Being a royal today comes with the moral obligation towards your past but often without the financial benediction and social acknowledgement.
India lost most of its wealth to colonialism and it’s still struggling to be the golden bird it was once known as. When your family history boasts of a similar fate, how do you get past it?
Raj Shekhar, TNN, “Lonely in life, this Avadh ‘prince’ died a pauper”
Justin Rowlatt, BBC, “The lonely death of Delhi’s jungle prince”
Abhimanyu Singh, The Sunday Guardian, ‘The prince takes his bicycle to buy meat for his dogs‘
Andrew Marszal, The Telegraph, “India’s ‘last prince’ dies in obscure poverty in a mud hut”