Found: Raj-razed town
All that Abdul Latif Ansari, 65, had to go by was a tattered, hand-drawn, two-century-old map and family lore about how his forefathers had suffered twice in British hands.
It was enough to keep bringing the Mumbai businessman to Basti, eastern Uttar Pradesh, for 14 years to search out his ancestral home, lost in the mists of time for a century and a half.
The district administration didn’t know Mahua Dabar ever existed. Nor had any historian chronicled its weavers’ vendetta with the country’s colonial rulers, spanning two generations and two provinces hundreds of miles apart.
“I began from zero. There was no trace of the town; the Basti district map had no reference to it,” Ansari, a textile exporter who began his search in 1994, told The Telegraph. “But I was adamant. I had to verify what I had heard from family elders about the town that our ancestors had fled after the British razed it during the 1857 revolt.”
His persistence prompted the then Basti district magistrate, R.N. Tripathi, to set up a committee of historians from Lucknow who, after 13 years of research, have now confirmed that the town indeed existed, at a spot 15km south of Basti town.
Ansari feels he has paid off a debt to his ancestors — which is what some of his forbears in Mahua Dabar too must have felt when, in the first weeks of India’s first war of independence, they attacked a boat carrying British soldiers.
They had reason to feel vengeful.
In the early 19th century, the East India Company, eager to promote British textiles, had cut off the hands of hundreds of weavers in Bengal.
Twenty weavers’ families from Murshidabad and Nadia had then fled to Awadh, whose nawab resettled them in Mahua Dabar and allowed them to carry on with their livelihood.
Many of the first-generation weavers had already lost their hands, but they taught the craft to their sons and the small town of 5,000 people soon became a bustling handloom centre.
It was around March-April 1857 when Zaffar Ali, a young man whose grandfather had migrated from Bengal, spotted a boat coming down the Manorama (a tributary of the Ghagra) on whose banks the town was located.
The historians’ report names the six soldiers beheaded: Lt T.E. Lindsay, Lt W.H. Thomas, Lt G.L. Caulty, Sgt Edwards and privates A.F. English and T.J. Richie.
On June 20 that year, the 12th Irregular Horse Cavalry surrounded the town, slaughtered hundreds and set all the houses on fire. The Raj decreed that no one could live in the place from then on. On the colonial revenue records, the area was marked gair chiragi (non-revenue land).
Mahua Dabar ceased to exist.
Ansari, whose ancestors had fled to places such as Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Pune, landed up 137 years later, on February 8, 1994. Armed with his map — a family heirloom — he got surprisingly close to the actual spot where the town existed, between Kalwari and Mehsan, around 200km east of Lucknow.
“The place was covered by fields of peas, wheat and arhar. I realised it would be impossible to dig for proof under the crops. That’s why it took so long to collect evidence.”
Ansari kept coming back, leaving his sons to look after his business. The historians’ committee — headed by V.P. Singh and including J.P.N. Tripathi, both former Lucknow University teachers — kept digging into the district museum archives.
Finally, they discovered a survey map, drawn in 1823, that showed a Mahua Dabar in Basti tehsil of the then Gorakhpur district.
“When the place existed till 1823, how did it disappear from the sketches, maps, gazettes and other government papers published by the district administration after 1857?” the committee’s report asks, confirming the massacre.
The panel says at least 20 weavers’ families from Bengal had settled in Mahua Dabar in the 1830s. “First, the people of Mahua Dabar had ruthlessly murdered Englishmen, cut off their heads and dismembered their bodies and thrown them into Manorama river. The British rulers reacted with a fury that is unmatched in history,” the historians have said.
Their report, handed in last December, was sent to the Union human resource development and culture ministries for an official stamp on the findings.
A team from Lucknow University’s archaeology department had planned to excavate the areas lying just beyond the agricultural fields. But the human resource development ministry, after an inspection, has decided not to dig up the place but to erect a memorial.
Mazhar Azad, a writer in Basti, said: “One just has to go to the site to feel the eerie presence of a dead town. A thousand muted voices seem to be whispering to you. We are grateful to Abdul Latif saab that he kept shuttling between Mumbai and Basti for 14 long years to see his mission through.”