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This Royal Family's Palace Is No Taj Mahal : Lizards and Bats Overrun Decrepit 600-Year-Old Monument in New Delhi

December 12, 1986|ELIZABETH BUMILLER | The Washington Post

NEW DELHI — The princess of the long-extinct Indian kingdom of Oudh is having a very bad first year in her new "palace." It is a 600-year-old, crumbling stone monument called Malcha Mahal that has no water, no electricity and hundreds of bats.

The woman's children say Her Highness deserves much better, and that the government of India should be ashamed for giving her a home in such disgusting condition. To make sure a visitor understands how unhappy they all are, the royal family's 24-year-old son, Prince Ali Raza, orders a servant to jab a stick toward the ceiling in the dungeon-like main room. Bats flap and screech in all directions, leaving their droppings on the Oriental carpet.

"How can we live like this?" asked the prince.

The Train Station

Princess Wiayat Mahal, officially known as the begum of the Royal House of Oudh (pronounced ow-wud ), has for years been one of the more bizarre characters of India. In New Delhi, people call her the begum , a title for a Muslim woman of high rank. As far from regal as her surroundings are now, they are considerably better than where she was before. For a decade, up until she was finally evicted in May, she lived with her children and a dozen snarling dogs in the New Delhi train station. Her purpose there was to shame the government of India into returning her ancestral property, which she said--and historians agree--was illegally seized when the British deposed her great-grandfather, the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, more than a century ago.

She particularly is seeking the return of the family palace in Lucknow, currently used as a pharmaceutical research center. According to news reports, it is decaying. Other family property is used by the government for libraries, courts and picture galleries.

The begum may be an eccentric case, but she is not entirely alone in her reduced circumstances. Many of India's great princely families, whose kingdoms made up a third of the country at the time of independence in 1947, have today lost all of the power and most of the wealth they once enjoyed. They used to receive government stipends, but these were withdrawn in 1971 because of political pressure on then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Still, the families have always been permitted to keep their ancestral homes, even if that meant turning them into hotels to pay for the upkeep.

Hers is a strange and poignant story of a woman who appears to have a legitimate property grievance, and yet who lives in a dreamy Indian past of maharajahs and princely states. She comes from a family of strong-willed Shia Muslims whose women were especially fierce in standing up to the British. Railway officials say she is the widow of a former defense minister of Pakistan.

These days, she wears a regal black gown and cape, and her haggard face looks older than her 56 years. The decade in the railroad station seems to have taken a toll. These days she has difficulty talking because of what her children say is a jaw injury. She speaks through clenched teeth, but her voice is garbled and it is impossible to understand her words.

But in her search for a proper home, the begum has inserted herself into the lives of some of the most powerful people in India--Cabinet ministers and department heads otherwise preoccupied with Sikh terrorists, industrial policy or drought.

Gandhi Steps In

It was no less than Gandhi who, after being told about the begum during a visit to the train station in 1984, ordered the then-home minister to find the woman a more suitable residence. A site selection team was sent out to inspect possible homes. Malcha Mahal ( mahal means palace) was one of the few suggested that wasn't in ruins.

But now that Gandhi is dead, assassinated Oct. 31, 1984, nobody in the government is certain that the begum was even given Malcha Mahal. The former home minister said nothing was ever decided, and his successors don't know where to find the file.

And now, in a new wrinkle, the Archeological Survey of India, which oversees historic monuments, is moving to have the begum evicted from what turns out to be the only well-preserved hunting lodge built by Feroze Shah Tugluk, the ruler of Delhi in 1325. "We want the monument back," said Nagaraja Rao, the survey's director-general.

Some time ago, a deputy superintendent of the Archeological Survey, Dhramvir Sharma, was dispatched to Malcha Mahal to investigate. He still shudders when he recalls how a snake fell from the ceiling onto his arm.

"I will never dare to go inside the monument again," he said. "She is living in hell. So many lizards, so many snakes. The bat smell was terrible. Inside in the darkness, I had a feeling of horror."

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