Lineage, Dynasty, and Architecture: Wajid Ali Shah in Metiabruz

by Srinanda Ganguly

Painted frontispiece of ‘Vājid ʿAlī Shāh seated with attendants’ (right) followed by the lithographed text’s embellished title page (left), from the Daryā-yi Taʿashshuq or ‘the impassioned sea’, another Urdu romantic mas̲navī in the dāstān tradition (Source: The British Library)

On 13th March 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, the tenth and last ruler of the state of Awadh, left Lucknow for Calcutta accompanied by a sizeable retinue including his mother Janab-i-Aliyah and brother Prince Sikandar Hashmat. A month earlier, on the 7th of February, Governor General Lord Dalhousie had ordered the annexation of Awadh, supposedly on the grounds of administrative incompetence and misrule. It was to contest this annexation that Wajid Ali was traveling to the British capital in Calcutta.

Awadh was one of the Mughal successor states that arose after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. In 1722, the minister of Awadh, Burhan-ul-Mulk, took over the region’s administrative control, although it remained nominally under the domain of the Mughal empire until 1819. The British presence at the Awadh court dates to 1764, after Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah’s defeat at the hands of the East India Company at Buxar. Following this defeat, the Company stationed troops at Awadh, and later a British Resident – who was the Governor General’s agent – was stationed at the court. In 1819 the Nawab of Awadh Ghazi-ud-Din-Haidar assumed the title of the King of Awadh, and the accompanying autonomy from the Mughal government, with British encouragement.

Coat of Arms of the Nawab of Awadh (Source: Michael Backman Ltd.)

Wajid Ali Shah ascended the throne of Awadh on 13th February 1847, and it was in November 1847 when the new Governor-General Viscount Hardinge visited the court in Lucknow, that the threat of annexation was first raised. Following the pattern of increasing British control over the kingdom and other former Mughal territories, it seems that the British wanted to take complete control of Awadh; one should not assume that Wajid Ali was a particularly bad or incompetent ruler.

‘Vājid ʿAlī Shāh enthroned with attending maidservants,’ from Tarikh-i Mumtaz (Source: British Library – BL Or. 5288, f. 12v)

In Calcutta, Wajid Ali intended to appeal his case before the Governor General Lord Canning (who replaced Dalhousie in late February 1856), and to travel further to England if necessary. However, Wajid Ali never returned to Awadh, and it was in Calcutta that he lived out the remainder of his life.

The king was given an estate in the Metiabruz area of Garden Reach, a suburb on the outskirts of the British capital of Calcutta.“Metiabruz” is a corruption of the name Matiya Burj, meaning “earthen tower.” The name comes from the mud bastion that was once located in the area.

Originally, the king and his retinue lived in three large mansions that had extensive grounds. As more and more people migrated from Lucknow to be with their former ruler, as many as 250 smaller houses sprouted in the compounds of the mansions within two years. Wajid Ali built parks, an Imambara, and even a menagerie.

Unfortunately, almost all of these structures were demolished after Wajid Ali’s death, when his property was divided amongst his heirs. To get a sense of Metia