In Photos: The ‘Danse Macabre’ in Malcha Mahal
Although the lodge was in shambles, the dining area was stocked up with royal cutlery.
Although the lodge was in shambles, the dining area was stocked up with royal cutlery.(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)

In Photos: The ‘Danse Macabre’ in Malcha Mahal

Disclaimer: This story was first published on 9 November, 2017 and has been republished and updated with the New York Times new findings on Wilayat Mahal’s family.

The material things we collect over the course of our lives, often outlive us, perhaps to tell the world about the stories that we leave behind. After “Prince” Ali Raza – believed to be the last descendent of the royal family of Awadh (Oudh) – was found dead in the first week of November, the 14th century lodge he spent most of his life in, and the items stored within became the keepers of a sordid tale.

Consumed by the forest of the central ridge in Delhi, the reclusive Malcha Mahal bore a semblance to its erstwhile occupants — Begum Wilayat Mahal and her children, Sakina and Ali. The unkept “royal” setting echoed memories of the characters who lived like ghosts, unable to come to terms with the present.

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As media houses ransacked the vestigial flicker of the family’s history in search of a dramatic story, their lives were laid out in the open for all to see. Through letters, books, and magazine subscriptions, in neatly stacked tea sets and dog vaccination cards — all of it reflected a danse macabre, that embodies the eerie setting of Malcha Mahal.

Begum Wilayat Mahal, the self-proclaimed grand daughter of the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, spent most of her life writing to the Government of India, asking that she be allotted a palace.

After Begum Wilayat Mahal’s death, the servants that accompanied the family began to leave. The family’s pack of dogs began to die one after another. Things quickly fell apart like a pack of dominoes.
After Begum Wilayat Mahal’s death, the servants that accompanied the family began to leave. The family’s pack of dogs began to die one after another. Things quickly fell apart like a pack of dominoes.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)

She never had a palatial residence, but settled for a hunting lodge built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq – who ruled over the Sultanate of Delhi. It was here that she committed suicide in 1993.

Prince Ali’s library membership card and a copy of <i>Anna Karenina,</i> with a handwritten note addressed to Princess Wilayat.
Prince Ali’s library membership card and a copy of Anna Karenina, with a handwritten note addressed to Princess Wilayat.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)

Journalists have for years been trying to crack the case of this secretive family, yet most of what was known about them were eccentric myths and half-truths. There were several unanswered questions. For instance, where did they come from? Why did the other descendants of the Royal family of Oudh call them frauds? Why would they refrain from settling all doubts for once and for all?

But the story finally got closure after New York Times journalist Ellen Barry tracked down the other half of the family — an estranged older brother by the name of Shahid who had been living in England — far away from this royal mess.

Shahid confessed to the journalist that their father Inayatullah Butt was the registrar of Lucknow University, his brother was Mickey Butt and not a prince, and Shahid’s English wife Camillia called Wilayat’s claims of a royal lineage “a bloody big act.”

When did Princess Sakina die? How did she die? No one knows.&nbsp;
When did Princess Sakina die? How did she die? No one knows. 
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)

Like a lot of stories in the Indian subcontinent, this too began at the moment of Partition when the family was torn between staying at their comfortable Lucknow home or making the move to Pakistan. In the end, they packed up and set off for Lahore.

Butt died soon after and Wilayat “now with all restraining influence on her gone, furious over the expropriation of her property, accosted Pakistan’s prime minister at a public appearance, Shahid said, and slapped him,” the report said.

She was confined to a mental hospital in Lahore for six months and when she got out, she decided to head back to India with her dwindling wealth.

Hand-written notes and a CD case of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s <i>Romeo &amp; Juliet.</i>
Hand-written notes and a CD case of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Romeo & Juliet.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)

Back in India, she announced that she was the Queen of Awadh (Oudh) and pressured the government to hand over the properties of this erstwhile kingdom.

They even changed their identities.

“They took on new identities: Farhad became Princess Sakina, occasionally Princess Alexandrina; Mickey became Prince Ali Raza, and later called himself Prince Cyrus. They no longer made any mention of their Pakistani relatives, or the spacious family house in Lahore that was waiting for them should they return. Maybe they forgot it existed. They seemed to shed their past entirely, to come from nowhere,” Ellen Barry wrote in The New York Times report.
Prince Ali  wasn’t exactly a people’s person. But after his sister Sakina’s death, he retreated further into himself.&nbsp;
Prince Ali wasn’t exactly a people’s person. But after his sister Sakina’s death, he retreated further into himself. 
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
How many meal times have these items of cutlery seen? &nbsp;
How many meal times have these items of cutlery seen?  
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
A neatly stacked tea set makes for a peculiar sight amid the disarray that is Malcha Mahal.
A neatly stacked tea set makes for a peculiar sight amid the disarray that is Malcha Mahal.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
Although the house was in shambles, the dining area was well stocked with expensive-looking cutlery.
Although the house was in shambles, the dining area was well stocked with expensive-looking cutlery.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
A photograph of Begum Wilayat with one of her mastiffs. When she first arrived in Delhi, she brought with her around 12 dogs.
A photograph of Begum Wilayat with one of her mastiffs. When she first arrived in Delhi, she brought with her around 12 dogs.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
A  biography, purportedly hand-written by Sakina.
A biography, purportedly hand-written by Sakina.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
Hidden in the forests of Delhi, Malcha Mahal had no electricity or water supply; Visitors were unwelcome, making it inaccessible in every possible manner.&nbsp;
Hidden in the forests of Delhi, Malcha Mahal had no electricity or water supply; Visitors were unwelcome, making it inaccessible in every possible manner. 
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
An old radio among the miscellaneous objects in Malcha Mahal’s courtyard.
An old radio among the miscellaneous objects in Malcha Mahal’s courtyard.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
Ironically enough, the family lived in the lodge without any electricity.
Ironically enough, the family lived in the lodge without any electricity.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)
A letter addressed to Ali, appreciating his art, lies next to a crate full of old paint.
A letter addressed to Ali, appreciating his art, lies next to a crate full of old paint.
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)

With the bloodline coming to an abrupt halt, ideally the lodge belongs to the Archaelogical Survey of India who should take up the responsibility of preserving the items of historical interest and most importantly restoring the building.

The death of Ali Raza has attracted reporters and visitors from all over the city who have unchecked access, making the ancient monument a prey to possible vandalism.

Heritage buff Sohail Hashmi who is an expert on all things ancient in Delhi said, “I’m against the idea of the government giving a heritage building as compensation whatever the reason maybe. Ideally, the Archaeological Survey of India should restore it but the government will only do so if it is of national importance. If a highway has to be built around Humayun’s Tomb, it’ll rise to the level of national importance,” he pauses, “But as far as the Indian government is concerned, nothing has happened in the past few hundred years.”
Old letters addressed to the royal family.&nbsp;
Old letters addressed to the royal family. 
(Photo: Shorbori Purkayastha/The Quint)

360 View: What’s Inside Malcha Mahal?

(Photo: Prashant Sharma/The Quint)

(Photo: Prashant Sharma/The Quint)

(Photo: Prashant Sharma/The Quint)

(Photo: Prashant Sharma/The Quint)

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