The lonely life and death of an Indian prince

The body of the reclusive Ali Raza was found in his rundown palace but no one knows for sure when he died — or if he was really a prince at all

NEW DELHI, INDIA – MARCH 20, 1975:  Descendant of Begum of Avadh named Begum Wilayat Mahal (45) with her daughter Sakeena (19) and son Ali Raza (17) were occupying the second class waiting room at the New Delhi Railway Station for the past three months. Wilayat Mahal who claims to be a great-granddaughter of Haarat Mahal, wife of Wajid All Shah the last Nawab of Oudh. Wilayat Mahal is the widow of Inayat Husain who was acting Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University at the time of the Partition. Inayat Husain and Wilayat Mahal crossed over to Pakistan where he rose to the position of Defence Secretary, after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan, Inayat Husain was in difficulties and later died, his widow and three children returned to India in the early sixties and settled in Kashmir. After their house was burnt they moved to Delhi. (Photo by N Thyagarajan/Hindustan Times )
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In a broken-down palace, in the midst of an urban forest within Delhi, a prince died, alone and unseen.

At least, he said he was a prince — the last of one of the royal families of Oudh, a kingdom that once existed in the state of Uttar Pradesh. But that kingdom was long gone: in 1856, the British annexed Oudh, proclaiming it to be corrupt and poorly governed.

The ruler at the time, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, was portrayed as dissolute, lax in his enforcement of laws and so extravagant that he was spending his 2150-year-old kingdom into bankruptcy and chaos. After the annexation, the nawab was exiled to Calcutta and died there three decades later. The other members of his extensive family dispersed across the country as well — which was how Ali Raza, the prince who liked to call himself Cyrus, finally came to live in the ruined Malcha Mahal palace in Delhi.

No one knows exactly when the reclusive Raza, who was 58, met his end. His body was found on September 2 by a group of staff from a nearby earth station, which transmits signals to satellites put into orbit by India’s space agency. The earth station stands next to Malcha Mahal within the Ridge, a long belt of forested land.

The earth station employees often dropped in to check on Raza. "We had not heard from him for two or three days," one of them, Vijay Yadav, told The Hindustan Times. "So we went inside without his permission for the first time. He had died by then." Raza was found lying on the floor near his bed. No information about how he died was released. Three days later, the city authorities buried him in a public graveyard.

Raza’s mother and sister had also lived — and died — in Malcha Mahal. They had earned their right to live there out of a spectacular act of obstinacy.

After Indian independence in 1947, the Indian government allocated Raza's mother, the widowed Begum Wilayat Mahal, a palace in Srinagar. That palace burned down in 1971, so she came to Delhi with her children and her 12 dogs in search of a home.

She expected the government to return her family’s old Oudh palace, but it did’t happen. The government had seized several royal properties in Oudh and converted them into libraries, art galleries and even a pharmaceutical research laboratory. So she, her children and dogs moved into the first-class waiting room in Delhi’s railway station and stayed there — for seven years.

In 1981, an American journalist from People magazine described the family’s “home” in the station. Even without servants, the Begum lived in some style.

“The Begum has carpeted her tiny quarters with Persian rugs, erected a makeshift throne with velvet bolsters and hung family portraits around her,” the magazine reported. “Royal meals — cooked on braziers outdoors — are served on heirloom china. The tea sets are silver and the napkins hand-embroidered.”

In 1984, the then-Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, intervened. The next year, the family were housed in Malcha Mahal: a ruin consisting of five large chambers with no plumbing or electricity or even doors and windows, but still recognisably palatial. Somehow the prince rigged up a telephone connection and ran water in from the nearby earth station. But he still cooked over firewood.

“They did not encourage visitors and had set their dogs on a few people who dared to get close to their new home,” Sohail Hashmi, a historian of Delhi, told The National. “Cyrus's mother seemed to have some money, because she lived with those dogs and they must have cost a bomb to maintain.”

The Begum died in December 1993 — committing suicide, so the story goes, by crushing her diamonds and drinking them down. For a while, the prince kept her ashes in a crystal container on a table. His sister Sakina died earlier this year but the exact date remains uncertain.

As Raza stayed on in Malcha Mahal, he grew progressively lonelier. Few people visited him. Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, an activist who campaigns for the protection of Delhi’s heritage monuments, said that he had run into him twice during rambles in the Ridge.

“He was a very introverted person,” Mr Rooprai said. “He was very fluent in English and well-mannered. But he always sounded troubled and bothered. Perhaps he was very bothered by curious people trying to invade his privacy.”

Mr Rooprai had seen Malcha Mahal from the outside, he said. “But I decided not to enter the gate, respecting their privacy. It is an old, dilapidated structure, just like other constructions of [the 14th century emperor] Feroz Shah Tughlaq in the area.”

Raza’s death removes any possibility of solving the mystery that has dogged the family since 1947: were they really part of the royal house of Oudh at all?

The Begum always claimed she was the great-granddaughter of Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Oudh. But Mr Hashmi says it is difficult to be certain.

“The British wanted to erase all traces of the royals who had resisted them, and they by and large succeeded,” he said. Most were executed or “forced into extreme penury, and that is one reason I have some difficulty in accepting the claims of this family.”

But he could be wrong, he admits. A branch of the family might have lain low and surfaced only after the British left India.

Mr Rooprai pointed out that Oudh still has a “titular prince” — a man who can validate his ancestry back to Wajid Ali Shah. “For the legitimate Oudh family, these guys were impostors,” he said.

Even if Raza was of the Nawab’s lineage, he cannot be called the last prince, Mr Rooprai said. “Hundreds of men with the same blood lineage must be alive today, given the fact that nawabs of Oudh had a colourful past.”

But the family had no doubts about its past. “We are rulers,” Raza declared grandly to People magazine. Whether anyone else believed it or not, Raza did. And it appears he died with that conviction still firm and unshaken.