Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bound Teeth of Begum Hazrat Mahal, Warrior Queen of Oudh: A Guest Post Series by Kristin Hussey, Hunterian Museum, London

Kristin Hussey--Assistant Curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons with responsibility for the Odontological Collection--has kindly agreed to write a series of guest posts for Morbid Anatomy about some of the most curious objects in her collection.

The third post from that series follows; you can view all posts in this series by clicking here.
She has been called one of India’s greatest female warlords- who ruled the kingdom of Oudh (now in modern Uttar Pradesh) in the place of her exiled husband. The Begum Hazrat Mahal (c. 1820-1879; top image) was a major player in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and one of the only major leaders to never surrender to the forces of the British East India Company. She led the rebels to seize Lucknow in the name of her son Prince Birjis Qadra in 1858, but was exiled to Nepal after the British retook the city.
The teeth (middle image) first appear in the catalog of the Museum of the Odontological Society in 1882, leaving 3 years for them to have been presented to the collection. No mention of this gift has yet been found in the Transactions of the Odontological Society, we only know they were a gift from a certain W.A. Roberts. The Society’s interest in the teeth would have been twofold: first that they were, of course, the teeth of a famous person with the 1857 Mutiny having taken place within living memory. But more importantly, dentists at the time were very interested in the dental practice of peoples in the colonies, and particularly in the use of gold dental work. Gold was a material still frequently in use by dentists of the Victorian era to fill cavities and create bridges- although its usefulness was already being challenged by the introduction of an early plastic called gutta percha. The Transactions from the 1870s reveal a particular interest amongst the Society’s members in the use of gold-work in the teeth of ancient Egyptian mummies as well as contemporary people in Imperial India. The practice of binding loose teeth with gold wire was one that fascinated Victorian dentists –particularly because it was a very effective treatment. Indeed several similar specimens of bound teeth were acquired for the Museum in the surrounding years. The Queen of Oudh’s teeth formed a part of the ‘Artificial Work’ display of the Odontological Society’s Museum (bottom image) from 1882 until its loan to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1909.

The question then remains, are these actually the bound teeth of the Hazrat Mahal? As so little is actually known about her life, it is difficult to tell whether she would have had bound teeth- although considering her high position it is certainly possible she could have undergone this type of expensive procedure. But how the donor came by these teeth is still unknown. Was there a trade in relics from the 1857 Mutiny? Perhaps there was money to be made from British tourists interested in having a piece of imperial history? Does the fact that it is never mentioned in the Transactions indicate its authenticity was in doubt? These teeth have yet to give up all their secrets.
  1. Begum Hazrat Maha; Sourced here
  2. Teeth of Begum Hazrat Maha as seen at The Hunterian Museum
  3. The Odontological Society’s Museum, 1900; Hanover Square, London

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