“So you refuse the prasad of Captain Baba?” the female devotee’s voice was stern.
I had refused indeed though, honestly, I could definitely do with some of it. I stammered, “Umm…. uhhh… may be I could do with some, but how do I get it?”
“Wait!” She went around Captain Baba’s grave. But she could not find among the offerings left behind by the devotees any prasad which I could “use”. The old man sitting on the parapet wall around the mazaar of Captain Baba had consumed the only usable offering. She seemed a bit dejected when she returned. But she had alternate prasad in her hands when she turned around to face me.
Said she, in her stern voice, “Yeh lo”. And she placed into my outstretched palm one piece of revdi and a small vial of itr. “Yeh raha tumhara prasad. Lo”, she said triumphantly. She stared at me for a few seconds and then walked away.
We were at the grave of Capt F. Wale of British Army in India who raised and commanded the First Sikh Irregular Cavalry. The “prasad” which she had originally offered me was a cigarette.
I was visiting Lucknow on work. I had a couple of hours to spare after business was done and I asked my dear friend, Anshu, to drive me to Captain Baba’s mazaar at Moosa Bagh which lies some 20-25 kilometers outside the city. Anshu, a long-term resident of Lucknow, had never been to the mazaar, though he had vaguely heard about it. Mazaar is Persian for a saint’s grave.
We drive through the Chowk area of old Lucknow then southwards onto Hardoi road. From there a right turn on to Sitapur Road for a bumpy ride driving along for some twenty minutes avoiding cattle, cyclists and local villagers. We pass through a village and a left turn on a dust track takes us to the Moosa Bagh fort, or what remains of the fort. This must have been a handsome fort though with the ravages of time it is reduced to sections of walls and some domes. Anshu parks his car off the dust track and we start walking up to the mazaar. There is a bit of a crowd there with the usual trappings of a small mela. Stalls selling trinkets, juice-wallahs, food stalls. Burqa-clad women and bawling kids. As we get closer to the mazaar we realize that this was not the one we had come seeking. This mazaar is of some sufi saint’s and not Captain Baba’s. A helpful local directs us to our destination which lies right behind this one in a patch of grassy fields.
We walk through the fields-lush with crop grown as fodder for cattle- via a narrow pathway. A hundred meters or so, and we are at Captain Baba’s mazaar.
Lucknow was the capital of Avadh, also known as Oudh. Oudh was regarded as a center for culture in 18th and 19th century. It also played an important role in the first war of independence in 1857. (Remember Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj ke Khiladi”?) After the British under Outram vanquished the Nawaab of Oudh, some of the Nawaab’s troops holed up in the fort of Moosa Bagh which adjoined the residence of Ali Nakki Khan, a minister of the deposed Nawaab. The final assault was on 19th March, 1858. The Oudh forces offered little resistance the British victory here ensured that Oudh was now totally in control. The only remarkable thing about this battle was that Capt F. Wale, who switched sides and fought along the Oudh Nawaab’s army against his own people, the British!
At least this is what common folklore says. There is no documented evidence to support this story. But what is a fact that a regiment of Sikhs was indeed sent to secure the place. Maybe the good Captain, who raised the First Sikh Irregular Cavalry, broke away and joined the Oudh forces. Who knows!
The legend also has it that the Captain was in love with his smokes and he went down fighting, with a cigarette on his lips.
I suppose this whole story of a white sahib fighting on behalf of the Indians against his own people would have made him a hero among the local populace. The cigarette dangling from his lips as he rode his horse charging into the British army, maybe the men of the same First Sikh Irregular Cavalry which he personally raised, added to the charisma. And in death, he became the epitome of sacrifice for the villagers.
Overtime Captain Baba was attributed with all kinds of magical powers. The grave became a mazaar, drawing people from all across his grave.
The grave itself appears unremarkable as we approach it fighting our way through the thick outcrop in the fields. The open-air structure is in urgent need of repairs, the horizontal slab rather loose and cracks among the edges of the vertical walls. The grave is enclosed within a parapet wall and we see a dhoti-clad old man sitting atop it. As Anshu goes around taking shots with his camera, I am left alone with Captain Baba. Not really alone. That old dhoti-clad guy is hanging around on the parapet and there is a constant stream of devotees. Both Hindus and Muslims. They place their offerings on the mazaar, and kneel. Some even break-down overcome by their emotions. Captain Baba does have powers!
The most common offering is a cigarette. The devotee take a cigarette from a pack and offer a lit one to Captain Baba. Of course they do not light the stick in the usual manner- placing the cigarette to their lips. It is lit by holding the cigarette with one hand and with igniting the end with a lit matchstick, in the manner agarbattis are lit for pujas. The cigarette is then stuck into a crevice in the grave. All along its walls, and even between the walls and the horizontal slab. These are not the only offerings, there are the ubiquitous agarbattis and small vials of itr, a very popular offering in this part of the country. The ground around the grave is littered with empty packs of cigarettes and agarbattis.
I see a burly man taking off his chappals and walking into the sanctum sanctorum. He is panting heavily, perhaps he is asthmatic. He has a Malkhan Singh like moustache, narrow above his lips and broadening and thickening as it flows outwards on his cheeks. I assume he is a Muslim. He is followed by a salwaar-kameez clad lady. Must be his wife, I think. Then I notice the thick sindoor mark in her maang. They were a Hindu couple.
I walk up gingerly to him after he had finished his prayers. I am a bit scared of his built. I know that some men in these parts of India are happy to pull out their tamanchas (home-made pistols) and shoot down people just to amuse themselves.
“Namaste”, I say. And I am on a lookout for his tamancha.
He bows a little, touching his right hand to his chest. “Namaste”. I relax.
“I am from South India, and I was curious to see this place after I heard about it.”
“What a place this is!”
“You have been coming here for long?”
“Yes, for fifteen years.”
(You would notice that I was trying to be as Lucknawi as he was.)
After a few exchanges of Achhas and Jees, we get down to business. And he tells me his story.
He has been visiting the mazaar every week for the last fifteen years. Sometimes out of his own volition and often summoned by “Baba” (“bulawaa aata hai unka”). I dare not ask him why Baba summons him, and his wife. There is an additional piece of information he volunteers. The day we were there was the first Thursday after the new moon and it was considered auspicious to visit the place that day. “Aaj Nauchandi hai, aana toh tha hi”, today is Nauchandi, one had to come, he says.
No sooner the couple leaves arrives a woman, alone, carrying a bagful of offerings. She seems to be a regular here going by the greetings and smiles she exchanges with those hovering around. Anshu and I are watching the proceedings and I whisper to him, “What a sacrilege, not only I am not carrying offerings for Captain Baba, I am not even carrying a cigarette for myself. This was indeed strange, I was not carrying my pack of Classic Milds cigarette! And I also made the mistake of uttering this in Hindi.
The woman catches on. “Achha!, Aapko cigarette chahiye?”
I mumble incoherently, “Hmm, haan.. Jee haan.”
“Aap cigarette peetey hain na?”
“Abhi laati hoon”, she offers.
“Na, wahaan ka nahin”, I stutter, pointing to the cigarettes stuck into the grave.
“So you refuse the prasad of Captain Baba?” the female devotee’s voice was stern.
All cigarettes on the grave have been reduced to their stubs, the fresh one has been appropriated by the old man on the parapet wall.
We return home clutching our pieces of revdi and vials of itr. Anshu, who shuns nicotine and I, who have been an ardent devotee of tobacco, return home with happy feelings. I suppose he is happy as he is not in the clutches of the addiction and I am happy that I have found my Guru now, Guru Capt F. Wale!
Jai Ho Kaptaan Saheb!