Tuesday, 17 April 2018

O for Oudh

Oudh was once a princely state located in the Awadh region of northern India. Whilst the place has its origins deeply entrenched in mythology, it also acquired fame and prominence during the medieval and Mughal periods of Indian history. During the time of the British Raj, the state was popular by its name Oudh, but this name gradually became obsolete with disuse. That the princely state of Oudh thereafter merged with the larger region of Awadh was also one of the reasons of the name not being used any more.

Etymology of Oudh

The name Oudh is derived from its most prominent city and capital Ayodhya. In Sanskrit, the name Ayodhya means ‘one that cannot be fought against’ or simply ‘invincible’. The state was formed around Ayodhya and thus got its name Oudh as an adjective, ‘…. of Ayodhya’. This naming is validated in the Atharvaveda which refers to Ayodhya as the ‘invincible city of the gods’.

Oudh, however, was a lesser known name and the place was more popularly known as ‘Awadh’, which is also derived from Ayodhya. From the etymology and name variants over the eras, one can understand the immense importance attached to this city at all times, that the immediate state and province of which Ayodhya was the capital, derived their names from it.

Origin of Oudh in mythology

As stated in the Puranas, the city was created by Manu (progenitor of all mankind in this time-cycle) and handed over to Ikshvaku to rule. Ikshvaku was the first of the Suryavanshi (Solar dynasty) line of Kings and the first King of Aryavarta (northern India). Further details and description of Ayodhya is provided elaborately in the epic Ramayana which bases its story in the city. The region is described in the Ramayana (7th century BC) as the expansive kingdom of Kosala, with Ayodhya as its capital where King Dashrath ruled in the Suryavanshi line of kings as Ikshvaku’s descendants. Ayodhya is famous as Lord Rama (son and successor of King Dashrath) was born there and ruled the kingdom for many years post his return from exile, where he established golden societal laws in endeavour to create the utopian society, ‘Ram-rajya’.

At the end of his reign Lord Rama is said to have divided his kingdom into two, North and South Kosala, with capitals at Sravasti and Kusavati and entrusted them to his two sons to rule. Lord Rama himself entered into the waters of the Sarayu River along with all the inhabitants of the city and ascended to heaven. It is said that after Lord Rama’s ascent to heaven, Ayodhya became desolate and insignificant. A local belief attributes the cause to the mass suicide which made Ayodhya empty.

Ayodhya was revived again by King Vikaramaditya who ruled in 50 BC from Sravasti. Vikramaditya originally hailed from Ujjain and Ayodhya became a populated city once again during his time, though the capital of the kingdom remained at Sravasti. Ayodhya retained its fame as the birthplace of Lord Rama and thus became an important pilgrimage centre for the Hindus. The Brahmanda Purana includes Ayodhya in the list of the seven holiest cities for the Hindus, along with Mathura, Hardwar, Kashi, Kanchi, Dwarka and Avantika. The Buddhists and Jains also hold Ayodhya in great reverence as the Buddha is said to have meditated and preached in Ayodhya, while five Jain Tirthankaras were born in the city.

Ayodhya again saw a rise during the medieval period when the Gahadavalas ruled the region. Though the capital at that time was Kannauj, the empire included the Oudh region. The Gahadavalas were Vaishnavites and thus upheld the cult of Rama as the incarnation of Vishnu. With the widespread rise and popularity of Vaishnavism, Ayodhya was emphasized as an important centre and the seat of Lord Rama.

Oudh during the Mughal period

By the time the Mughals came to rule, the region was called the province of Awadh, and the city of Ayodhya was thriving and an important pilgrim centre. The city by then had also seen a spate of damage and destruction in the wars between the initial Mughals and the local rulers. The (much disputed) Babri Masjid was built at Ayodhya, at the behest of the first Mughal emperor Babur when he invaded the city. It was during the time of the later Mughals that Awadh rose in importance as a province and Ayodhya remained its capital.

Towards the end of the Mughal period, in 1732, Saadat Ali Khan, the subah-governor of Awadh under the Mughals gave himself the title of Padshah (King) and proclaimed independence. He started the famous lineage of the Nawabs of Awadh and they continued their sway and administration over the region till Awadh was annexed by the British in 1856.

Saadat Ali Khan laid the foundation of a new city Faizabad, which was on the outskirts of Ayodhya. Faizabad became the capital during the reign of the third Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daula. The Awadh province being the granary of north India was extremely prosperous and the Nawabs lived a grand and extravagant lifestyle. Awadh was one of the richest provinces of India at that time and was ruled independently. Shuja-ud-Daula was defeated by the British at the Battle of Buxar and had to pay huge compensations to the East India Company, including cessation of parts of his territory.

The fourth Nawab, Asaf-ud-Daula, moved the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775, which laid the foundations of a great city. Lucknow since continued as the capital of Awadh, even in the British period, as well as post-Independence. On a related note, Lucknow traces its origins to the mythological ‘Lakshmanavati’ as a city founded by Rama’s brother Lakshman in the Ramayana times. Later, the town was popularly known as ‘Lakhnauti’ from where the present name Lucknow is derived.

It is during this time that the British started taking serious interest in Awadh. The province is referred to as Oudh, by the British in all their documents and correspondence. The British finally annexed Oudh to their Raj in 1856 through the Doctrine of Lapse, deposing the then Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah. The Nawab was exiled to Calcutta where he built a marvellous palace in the Metiabruz area on the outskirts of the main city. The palace is said to be a miniature model of the Nawab’s palace in Lucknow.

Culture and cuisine of Oudh

Oudh, or Awadh as it was called during the times of the Nawab, was famous for its cultural extravaganza. Poets, singers, musicians and courtesans thronged the court of the Nawabs while ‘shayari’ and ‘ghazal’ flowed in Urdu and Persian through the veins of Awadh. The province soon acquired the famous epithets ‘Shaam-e-Awadh’ (evenings of Awadh) for its beautiful sunsets and evenings and ‘Tehzeeb ki Nagri’ (city of courteousness) for the extra-polite behaviour and exchanges that people exhibited in general. The famous Bollywood movie ‘Umrao Jaan’ is made on the life-story of an extremely popular courtesan of Awadh in the times of the Nawabi, the story of her admirers across Awadh, Faizabad and Lucknow being legendary.

Cuisine was yet another aspect that Awadh was richly famous for. With strong influence of the Mughal kitchens, Awadhi cuisine soon made a signature mark of its own. The bawarchis and rakabdars of Awadh brought about the ‘dum’ style of cooking over a low fire and their regular spread would include delicacies like kebabs, kormas, biriyani, kaalia, nahari-kulcha, zarda, sheermal, taftan, roomali rotis and warqi paranthas. The food was rich not only in its ingredients but also the flavoured spices used in its preparations. Legend has it that Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was accompanied by his cooks in his exile to Calcutta and when the Nawab could no longer afford sufficient mutton for his biriyani, the cooks substituted it with the potatoes they found in Bengal. This new innovation of the Awadhi Biriyani with potatoes still lives on, popular today as the Kolkata Biriyani!

Oudh in the times of Independence

The British soon had annexed the neighbouring provinces, and when post the 1857 rebellion, Delhi fell to them, they exiled the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon. Oudh at that time no longer remained a separate province, but was merged with the United Provinces of Agra and was ruled over by the British Resident Officer.

After independence, the names Oudh and Awadh have remained only in historical records, local culture and conversational references. Lucknow is now referred to as the seat of the erstwhile Oudh or Awadh, having been the capital of the Nawabs of Awadh, but the true Oudh still remains inclusive of both the Nawabi Lucknow and the mythological Ayodhya.


Photo 1: View of the Ram Paida Ghat on the Sarayu, in Ayodhya
Photo credit: Ramnath Bhat, Flickr - Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2: A Nawabi palace converted to La Martinere College by the British, in Lucknow
Photo credit: Kushal Goenka, Flickr

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘O’.


  1. great to know the mythology

    1. Thank you Deepa for reading and commenting. I am glad you liked it!

  2. Some really great insights into the historical city Oudh. I didn't knew anything about it and I am glad to know a bit from your post, Sayan.


    1. Thank you Rohan for reading and commenting. I am truly happy that my post could present new information to you!

  3. This post of you came at this time when I am moving to my Lucknow, or Awadh of today's time. My hometown is very close to Lucknow and to give our son close to the childhood that my husband & I had, we are moving there from Delhi. Even now, Awadh lives there in their local food, culture, people and customs. Ayodhya is also a close by place. I have been there and I have closely seen both the temples and mughal era made buildings. You know Ayodhya still is believed to be ruled by a king who is assumed a devotee of Lord Ram.

    1. Thank you Shipra! I am very happy that as someone from Awadh, you have read and liked my post! Thanks for the extra-helping of information too about the King who still rules Ayodhya.. something that I didn't know hitherto. Wish you a great homecoming in Lucknow and back to Awadh !!

  4. Great to know such facts about Awadh. I didn't know that Umrao jaan was made on the courtesan of Awadh. NIce post, Sayan.

    1. Hey Sayanti.. thank you for reading my post! I am happy that my blog post could provide you with some new information. So next time you watch Umrao Jaan, you know where she hails from !

  5. I loved the history and the description of the rich cuisine of Awadh. So stuff like Dum biriyani has its origin in Awadh is it? And I had really enjoyed the movie Umrao Jan. Great article

    1. Thanks Jai for your comment. Biriyani and Bollywood have been my weakness for long, so I dont let go of any opportunity of mentioning these!


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