A widow claiming to be descended from royalty was believed, and even given a dilapidated palace to live in
For 40 years, stories about Indias most mysterious and reclusive royal family persisted among foreign correspondents in New Delhi. Few were granted an audience with them or were able to report on the tragic downfall of a dynasty said to have ruled a kingdom of five provinces in northern India until 1856.
The widowed Begum Wilayat and her children, Princess Sakina and Prince Ali Raza, also known as Cyrus, claimed to be the heirs of the Nawab of Oudh, descendants of Persian nobility. They reportedly regarded the Mughals, Indias imperial rulers from the 16th to the 19th century, as common as dirt and considered ordinariness not just a crime [but] a sin!.
Their subsequent lives of poverty in Malcha Mahal, a dilapidated palace in jungle outside the city, were considered a physical representation of the trauma, devastation and cruelty India suffered through partition at the hands of British. Except it turns out that the carefully crafted family legend was a sensational lie: these were not descendants of the royal house of Oudh. They were simply imposters.
An astonishing story published last week in the New York Times, by journalist Ellen Barry tells how after four years of work in India and Pakistan as well as Bradford, West Yorkshire, she discovered that the family legend was simply made up.
I had become curious, Barry wrote, about how a family with wealth and status had become lost in the forest about who they were. The tangled web of lies and eccentricity she uncovered has since gone viral.
Begum Wilayat arrived at New Delhi station in the early 1970s and occupied a VIP waiting room with her dogs, servants and two children, demanding that the state return to her the looted wealth and property of her ancestors. Refusing to move, she squatted in the room, furnishing it with rugs and antiques, for almost 10 years before being granted Malcha Mahal, a 14th-century hunting lodge in thick forest south-west of the city. Wilayat announced to the world that she was the Queen of Oudh, demanding the vast properties of a kingdom that no longer existed, wrote Barry. An ordinary grievance, unaddressed, had metastasised to become an epic one.
Her Royal Highness, as she was called, moved into the palatial ruin in 1985 and would give rare, eccentric interviews in which she and her children would rail against the injustices of the British and Indian governments. They died in poverty: Begum was alleged to have committed suicide in the 1990s by drinking poison mixed with powdered diamonds and pearls. Sakina apparently died in 2016, and Cyrus, Barrys key contact and friend, died alone, reportedly of dengue fever, in late 2017.
There is no nice way to put this, wrote Barry. Im unravelling a story that was the central work of their lives. It is impossible to know, now that he and his sister are dead, whether they even knew it wasnt all true. Either way, this article would have crushed him.
In her pursuit of the truth, Barry discovered that Wilayat had, before partition, been in fact the widow of a civil servant, Inayatullah Butt, in Lucknow, former capital of the Oudh region. She had been admitted to a Lahore mental hospital after her husband died, and later announced that she was Queen of Oudh.
While her younger children simply believed her, Wilayats eldest son, Shahid Butt, left for England in his teens and secretly sent money to support the family. He died at home in Bradford earlier this month, holding his wifes hand.
They were so convincing, and so insistent, wrote Barry, that for 40 years people believed them.