The British ‘baba’ of Awadh

In the early 19th century,Saadat Ali Khan,the nawab of Awadh,had built huge gardens and a kothi for himself on the western outskirts of Lucknow,where he’d camp for leisure and hunting,away from the hurly-burly of running an empire.

Written by Faisal Fareed | New Delhi | Published:May 14, 2012 6:49 pm

In the early 19th century,Saadat Ali Khan,the nawab of Awadh,had built huge gardens and a kothi for himself on the western outskirts of Lucknow,where he’d camp for leisure and hunting,away from the hurly-burly of running an empire.

In the early 19th century,Saadat Ali Khan,the nawab of Awadh,had built huge gardens and a kothi for himself on the western outskirts of Lucknow,where he’d camp for leisure and hunting,away from the hurly-burly of running an empire. He called the gardens “Musa Bagh”.

Today,the kothi is gone,except for a few fast-dilapidating ruins. Musa Bagh is no longer a manicured,flourishing garden. It is still large and green,but uneven,and giving way to the city’s rapid expansion,as new colonies rise up in and around it. And in place of the nawab,and his royal guests,are young,ordinary couples,who head to the Bagh for public displays of affection. Like Rajesh,who’s come here with his girlfriend. Only the couple isn’t here for just playing out acts of romance. They are here to also pray at the “mazaar” of a “saint”,who goes by three names — “Kaptan Shah Baba”,“Gora Baba”,and “Cigarette Wala Baba”. With cigarettes in hand,which they tuck into a white tomb enclosed within low walls,the couple prays to the “saint” that their courtship culminates in marriage. “We’ve heard from many people that he helps lovers,” says Rajesh. Another couple — Ram Kailash and his wife — also offer cigarettes,after circumambulating the tomb,and thank the “baba” for blessing them with a child.

In a country of several peers and babas,who fulfill different wishes,and are given varied offerings,Cigarette Wala Baba stands out,not just because of the strange offering that devotees give him,but the fact that he really was no saint. He was,in fact,a British soldier — Captain Frederick Wales. A closer look at the whitewashed tomb reveals a faded inscription that reads,“Sacred to the memory of Captain F Wale,who raised and commanded the 1st Sikh Irregular Cavalry,Killed in action on 21st March,1858.” The epitaph also says that the tomb was erected by one “Captain LB Jones,Acting Commandant,1st Sikh Irregular Cavalry,as a token of regard for his officer,whom he admired both as a friend and a soldier.” Captain F Wale lived and died a Christian soldier,adds the inscription.

Unlike the tombs of other British soldiers killed in the 1857 Mutiny,which are spread over Christian graveyards in Lucknow,Wale’s tomb is not at a cemetery,and is the only one to have been accorded the status of a saint by locals. How did a British soldier,who was shot in the neck by an Indian rebel in front of his troops at Musa Bagh,at the height of the Mutiny,as per historical records,come to be revered as a saint? Like other legends,nobody knows the origin of this one either. “All we know is that he was a foreigner who loved smoking. He fulfills anyone’s wish if offered a cigarette,” says Ram Awadh,who has been following the ritual every Thursday — when most devotees pour in — as his family “has been doing for generations”. Many devotees are aware that Wale was a soldier,with no saintly attributes,but don’t bother. “As long as he listens to us,we see no harm in respecting him,” says devotee Vikram Singh.

As Musa Bagh falls to urbanisation and decay,the memory of this foreign soldier-turned-baba thrives.

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