November 10, 1819.Nawab Nazar Mohammad Khan of the Kingdom of Bhopal was having a good year. He had recently signed a deal with the East India Company that guaranteed his title as Nawab, and the protection of the British. After years of uncertainty, his legacy as Nawab was secured, and his wife, Qudsia, was pregnant with his second child. It was time for a break and so he took his eight-month-old daughter Sikander to the Islamnagar Fort.
There, his eight-year-old cousin, Faujdar Mohammad Khan, shot him dead, through the forehead. Some say it was an accident, others, a clever ploy of succession. Whatever it was, Bhopal State was thrown into chaos and apprehension. Would-be successors to the throne lined up at Nazar’s funeral – waiting for their moment.
The newly-widowed Qudsia had none of that. She took her veil off, shocking the audience, and, carrying her infant daughter, moved to the centre of the hall. The speech she gave is said to be one of her finest oratory moments – stating that Bhopal could only survive through unity, surrounded as it was by enemies. She then read out the deceased Nawab’s will to the audience. His eldest daughter, Sikander, would be the Queen when she reached maturity; Qudsia being the Regent until then.
It was not the first time a woman would rule Bhopal. From the early days of Bhopal State, the Rajput wife of the first Nawab Yar Mohammad was the ruler in all but name. For the ‘Begum Nawabs’ of Bhopal, power was only partly due to a succession line comprised only of daughters; the Begums had to fight and prevail over many men in order to hold the throne. The effect was that for 157 years of Bhopal’s 241-year-span, women either ruled or held the most power in the region.
By the time Sikander had turned 18, her mother had defied many norms of Islamic governance in India. She was the first female Muslim ruler of an Indian state. From the moment she took power, she strove to make sure she had the teeth to govern in the wild, fading days of Mughal empire in India. She picked up shooting, horse-riding and military tactics – and ensured her daughter was similarly trained. And though her heritage was of a Wahhabi line dating back to an Afghan lineage – she disregarded her purdah after 13 years of rule, a practice her successors would also follow.
When Sikander took the throne, she took things a step further – and picked up martial arts! She married the Nawab Jahangir, with whom she had a strained relationship. He objected to her disavowal of the purdah, even attacking her with a sword she refused to yield. But she was ruler, not him, and she left him to live with her mother.
She inherited an empire in debt – a fact she set out to correct with administrative reforms. She divided the state into manageable chunks, and paid off the entire debt of Rs. 23 Lakhs within six years. She built roads, set up lampposts and modernized the military – just in time for the Revolt of 1857.
Being a bound ally of the East India Company, Bhopal fought against the Sepoys. One of Sikander’s notable orders was the banning of the ‘chapati’ mode of communication that rebels were using to pass discreet messages. Her loyalty won her the title of “Chief of Bengal” and later, the Star of India banner.
If Sikander inherited Qudsia’s skill at military matters, her daughter, Shahjahan Begum, inherited her passion for building. Shahjahan took power in 1868, and in her reign of 49 years, she built the second largest mosque in Asia (the Taj-Ul-Masjid) as well as the Taj Mahal palace in Bhopal. She also partly funded the construction of Britain’s first mosque – itself commissioned by a Hungarian-British Jew named Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner.
She grew a reputation for having made Bhopal a ‘model’ state. Her popularity at home led to a famous portrait done of hers, where she is dressed in the imperial robes of the Star of India, against a living room style backdrop, exuding power and confidence. But this very portrait was satirized in a Calcutta “punch” magazine, where she’s depicted as masculine (with stubble) and as plump, leaning on a map of a fictional (non-existent) kingdom. As a rejoinder to the women’s-rights movements then ongoing in Britain, the text suggests shock that the advocates of women’s rights were not emulating Shahjahan’s model (as depicted).
She was a much-loved ruler, and when she was struck ill with mouth cancer in 1901, her subjects grieved dearly over her. She was a lonely ruler after the death of her husband and had few loved ones except for her granddaughter. She took to wine, and found herself separated from her granddaughter by her daughter – an act that wounded her emotionally. Sultan, her daughter, would succeed her as the Queen in 1901 – but never received her mother’s forgiveness, not even on her deathbed.
Sultan Kaikhusrau Jahan
Sultan took up education as her cause, setting up several schools and colleges – as well as serving as Aligarh University’s first Chancellor. All three generations of the Begums were extremely well-read -considered scholars of the Quran in their own right. Sultan’s contribution to women’s education, as well as the example set by her predecessors, left an example that many women would later follow. They proved that the glass ceiling could be shattered, even in India’s own ‘Wild West’.
In his book on Bhopal’s Begums, Pakistani diplomat Shaharyar M.Khan attributes their success to their gender – stating that women conserved and protected their territories more than male rulers, who were likelier to risk them for added glories. The period of Begum rule marked sensible statecraft – negotiations were sought over war, connections with the emerging powers were made at key junctures and a general sense of long-term planning seems to have prevailed.
The rule of the Begums of Bhopal is a telling period in history, one that is worth studying to observe the differences between patriarchal and matriarchal rule. The educational atmosphere created by Begum Sultan was in some cases more open than that in democratic Bhopal today – Aligarh University, which she helped set up, now bars women from its libraries.
In an age where the glass ceiling is cracked but still persists, we should remember the bold women rulers who smashed right through it in far more violent times.
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