Vertul Singh, author of the book Bhopalnama- Writing A City writes about the magnificent matriarchy under the queens and begums of Bhopal in a century of anarchy. But the book is much more than just about the women rulers of the city of lakes.

No sociological, political or economic empirical research or analysis will perhaps be able to provide the reasons for the fascinating and trailblazing phenomenon of woman rulers and successful matriarchic succession in the princely state of Bhopal, over a period of more than a hundred years. The era of the Begums of Bhopal continues to attract admiration and curiosity from both the serious scholar of history, as well as the common layman interested in learning about the past. Along with the Begums, the Gond Queens like Rani Kamlapati, Feroz Kunwar and Mardan Kunwar were spectacular rulers. The Begums’ gravitas, administrative and political acumen, their perseverance, their upright Victorian sense of morality under their overarching Quranic sagacity, and at times, their cunning and manipulative capabilities, especially during adversity, can be listed as some of the attributes that must have played a major part in their becoming successful and popular rulers. By the sheer force of their willpower, persistence and awesome personality, the queens and the ‘Begumat’ steered the history of Bhopal, which is simply astounding.

The contribution of the Begums particularly towards education and emancipation of the women of Bhopal is invaluable, in particular that of two Nawab Begums ‒ Sikandar Jahan and her granddaughter, Sultan Jahan.

The inborn maternal instincts of a woman

The ability to nurture and protect, farsightedness and wisdom, calmness and patience under trying conditions, the ability to be an undemanding provider, the insight to compromise rather than risk life and property and many more such qualities of woman’s personality proved to be the building blocks for the future, nineteen-gun salute deserving state of Bhopal. The founding of the Bhopal state has been attributed to two erstwhile queens. Its consolidation thereafter has been largely attributed to the astute statesmanship and wisdom of the first two Begums. Its eventual cultural, social and economic enrichment and development as a civilization and as a well-knit, functioning administrative unit is credited to the last two Begums, who completed the tasks undertaken by their predecessors towards establishing Bhopal as a matriarchal and matrilineal empire. The Rajgond history also chronicles two mighty queens who descended from the family of the Ginnaurgarh rulers, Rani Feroz Kunwar and Rani Mardan Kunwar, who once ruled over the kingdom of Bari near Bhopal. Lore has it that at one point, they became so powerful that they would apply tilak on the forehead of their courtiers with their toes! They had a seal which read Main Kundan Gondi, Rani Bari Infizal.

Artist Impression Mamola Bai

In British history, just like Elizabeth I faced serious opposition and aspersions on her ability to govern because of her being a woman, the Begums of Bhopal must also have, undoubtedly, faced similar hurdles. But ironically, the very traits that are perceived as weaknesses and flaws in a woman’s personality nourished the marrow which made Bhopal state a cohesive, unimpaired and unbroken dynasty for over two centuries.

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Laying the foundation of a city

When the Gond queen of Ginnorgarh tied a rakhi on the future founder of the Bhopal State Dost Mohammed Khan’s wrist in 1720’s, albeit in a rather soap operatic manner, she had already foreseen his inherent qualities as a potential empire builder. Once she had secured her own kingdom with his help, she gifted Dost Mohammed the village of Bhopal, as a symbol of her gratitude.  This was an opportunity for him to kick-start his ambition of becoming a ruler, but Dost, for some reason, continued with Islam Nagar as his capital. It was his wife, the Rajput princess of Mangalgarh, Fatah Bibi, who pointed out to him the strategic and sustainable centrality of Bhopal, the two most important factors that would make it an ideal capital for his newly acquired territories. It was on Fatah Bibi’s tactical advice that Dost Mohammad laid the foundation for the fortification of the city of Bhopal. The fort was aptly named Fatehgarh fort after her. Its ramparts can still be seen near the present Gandhi Medical College and VIP road.

The rise of the Begumat

After Dost Mohammed’s death, Bhopal attracted many rapacious marauders, vying to conquer it. Again it was the saintly Mamola Bai wife of the second Nawab Yar Mohammed Khan, who had the wisdom and foresight to extend warm hospitality to the debilitated army of General Goddard, realizing that the British could potentially play a crucial part in the history of the region.

Ironically, the very traits that are perceived as weaknesses and flaws in a woman’s personality nourished the marrow which made Bhopal state a cohesive, unimpaired and unbroken dynasty for over two centuries.

Nawab Sikandar Jahan

Simultaneously, Mamola also cajoled and negotiated with the powerful Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad to prevent them from usurping her Kingdom. She was the de jure ruler and the regent for her two step sons Faiz Mohammed Khan and Hyat Mohammed Khan for close to fifty years. She can thus be called the first Nawab Begum of the royal house of Bhopal. After her, during the great siege of Bhopal in 1812-13, the second Nawab Begum Qudsia’s perseverance saved the then embryonic Bhopal state from being gobbled up by the Scindias and the Bhonsles. Like her mother Qudsia, the third Begum, Sikander Jahan also shrewdly and presciently used the raw nuances of statecraft to secure for herself and for Bhopal an everlasting support and gratitude of the British Crown, when during the historical first war of independence in 1857 she sheltered a number of British families and missionaries in the Hoshangabad fort.

A period of peace and calm ― which always is the rudiment for the arts and culture to flourish ― followed. It was under the fourth Begum, Shahjahan that Bhopal became a throbbing center of poetry, music and the fine arts. It was Shahjahan’s demenour which made headlines in the British newspaper for all the wrong reasons. She hated her daughter Sultan Jahan and stayed in a ménage à trois with her lover Siddiq Hasan Khan (later her husband) and his wife. Both Sikandar Jahan and Shahjahan almost lost their principalities, when they chose to confront the British misogynists publicly rather than in a more discreet manner.

The contribution of the Begums

But the overwhelming maternal approach towards her subjects was that of the fifth Begum, Sultan Jahan. In her twenty-five-year reign, Sultan Jahan conceived and implemented many ground-breaking administrative reforms, which today are considered a mandatory part of any welfare state, but which were unheard of even in a constitutional monarchy like Great Britain. It is no wonder then that Sultan Jahan was so deeply respected and loved by her subjects that they referred to her as ‘Sarkar Amma’! She fought and won almost a lost battle of succession for her youngest son, the thirteenth and the last Nawab of Bhopal Hamiddullah Khan in 1925, camping in London until the King Emperor capitulated.

Nawab Shahjahan Begum

During their sterling reign, the Begums of Bhopal undertook many general reforms. However, the most conspicuous and tough to implement reforms were the ones related to women’s welfare in a feudatory state, which were unheard of 150 years ago, even in the directly administered regions of colonial India. They were the harbingers of women’s education, emancipation and modern health care.

The contribution of the Begums particularly towards education and emancipation of the women of Bhopal is invaluable, in particular that of two Nawab Begums ‒ Sikandar Jahan and her granddaughter, Sultan Jahan. They fought the deep-rooted misogynistic feudal order, almost a century-and-a-half ago, to lay a strong foundation for the superstructure of education in Bhopal. Despite them being the sovereign rulers, both had to overcome many undercurrents of resistance which came in the way of their endeavour, particularly in the area of education for girls. Even though working under the overall Quranic sagacity and Islamic piety the Begums were not at all fundamentalists. Realising that Hindu girls were not coming in a school opened for girls because of their religious sentiments Sultan Jahan opened a school called Birjisiya Higher Secondary School named after her daughter exclusively for Hindu girls.

The founding of the Bhopal state has been attributed to two erstwhile queens. Its consolidation thereafter has been largely attributed to the astute statesmanship and wisdom of the first two Begums.

Bhopal owes an everlasting debt to the magnificent and unparalleled contribution of these outstanding women rulers who foresaw the future and acted with farsighted plans. In their pursuit of their beliefs and convictions they often sacrificed their own womanly desires and yearnings for the greater cause and good of mankind.

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Other titbits covered in the book

Bhopalnama captures the uniqueness, and often, the unique quirkiness of Bhopal not just in its history, but also in the everyday hubbub, in the pulsating vigour and liveliness of life.

Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum

Anecdotes and events which otherwise would have remained punctuation marks, ignored and languishing in the annals of history, have been meticulously selected from the abundant historical material available. This book is not a pedantic scholarly research on Bhopal, but is a documented manifestation of my love for it.

The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Vertul Singh is a uniformed personnel, first with the Army as a short-service commissioned officer and is now in a senior position with CISF. His other published work include a novel Ek Goona Bekhudi, short stories Bafliaz Ki Kaneez and Sitaaron Pe Daalti Hoon Main Kamand among others. 

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