The formidable female leaders who shaped the Indian city of Bhopal

We follow the stories of four begums who ruled the second-largest Muslim state in pre-independence India

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Guns ignite revolutions — but a lone pistol shot fired accidentally by an eight-year-old during a royal hunting expedition forever changed the course of history in the former princely state of Bhopal in India.

The bullet felled Nawab Nazar Muhammad Khan, then aged 28, who had ruled the kingdom of Bhopal for a mere three years. Out of fear of male claimants and other usurpers, his wife, the formidable Qudsia Begum, did not waste any time and declared herself regent at her husband’s funeral. Her infant daughter would be her heir, she proclaimed as she cast aside her veil in the presence of a gaggle of hopeful successors.

Qudsia was the first of four gutsy sword-wielding women who ruled the second-largest Muslim state in pre-independence India. They were able administrators, hunters, polo players, and accomplished archers and lancers. Between 1819 and 1926, the four begums built a rich legacy of grand palaces, mosques, hospitals, educational institutions and a syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture.

Bhopal is a lake city, cupped in the embrace of verdant hills. Photo: Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

Today, Bhopal, the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in the heart of India, has an air of time-frayed grandeur that clings to its vast crumbling palaces, snow-white mosques and the gleaming, sensitively restored Jehan Numa Palace, now a hotel. The city’s turbulent history has the makings of a period potboiler — a tale of feisty battle-scarred women rulers, the first of whom was the Gond tribal queen Rani Kamlapati, who enjoyed the combat sport of wrestling and rode into battle with other female soldiers.

Our on-foot search for Bhopal’s indomitable queens starts at the ruins of Kamlapati’s 18th-century lakeshore palace. According to an imaginative tribal legend, the queen would emerge from the building on moonlit nights to float down the lake on a giant lotus flower, while 500 maidens rowed boats alongside her.

Renowned for her beauty and brawn, Kamlapati enlisted the help of an Afghan soldier, Dost Mohammed Khan, to avenge the murder of her husband, a tribal warlord who had been poisoned to death by his nephew. She gifted the Afghan buccaneer the then village of Bhojapal, as a reward for leading an army and killing her treacherous nephew. After the rani’s death by suicide, the dynasty of Khan followed, but it was the begums who scintillated and left behind a legacy that is visible to this day.

Viewed against the backdrop of its warrior begums, the lake city of Bhopal, cupped in the embrace of verdant hills, takes on an intriguing hue. We stand in the old city centre, surveying the panoply of ageing palaces built by the begums, flanked by a higgledy-piggledy collection of shops and assaulted by the creaks and groans of swirling traffic.

Our storyteller-guide, Sikander Malik, relates how Sikandar Jehan Begum, like her mother, the first begum, was made of tempered steel. When two months pregnant, she survived an assassination attempt (some say by her husband) and fled to stay with her mother for seven years, only to return to rule when her husband succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver.

The begum proved during her reign that she was as capable as any man and indulged in traditionally male pursuits such as hunting and archery. She personally visited the villages of her domain to see if her agrarian reforms were working and founded the Victoria School to empower young women.

A portrait of the last begum in the lobby of the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel. Photo: Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

After Sikandar Jehan’s demise, Nawab Shah Jahan Begum took over the reins, but unlike her grandmother and mother, she was more inclined to poetry than masculine pursuits. Yet, she ruled for 33 years and set up telegraph, railway, irrigation and postal infrastructure. She completed the pearl-white Moti Masjid that was started by her mother. The last female ruler, Nawab Sultan Jehan Begum, pioneered education reforms but abdicated in favour of her son, Nawab Muhammad Hamidullah Khan, who died in 1960.

All the begums were visionary builders. We gaze at their architectural legacy through the blurred veil of the past, as delicate as the ones the begums sometimes wore when meeting foreign dignitaries. Gohar Mahal, a synthesis of Hindu-Islamic architecture, and Shaukat Mahal, designed by a French architect, were both commissioned by Qudsia. The once graceful Sadar Manzil had a spectacular Durbar Hall where the begums interacted with dignitaries of state. The humongous Indo-Saracenic 120-room Taj Mahal palace was built during the reign of Nawab Shah Jahan and took 13 years to complete — an event that was followed by three years of joyous celebrations. The majestic red stone Taj-ul-Masjid, too, was commissioned by Nawab Shah Jahan and the last begum continued construction on the mosque.

The majestic red-stone Taj-ul-Masjid was commissioned by Nawab Shah Jahan Begum. Photo: Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

We take a break from our historic forays to revel in the beauty of the 100-room Jehan Numa Palace Hotel, where the past stalks us like a friendly ghost. Built in 1890 by Gen Obaidullah Khan, commander-in-chief of the erstwhile Bhopal State Force and the second son of the last begum, the palace was imaginatively restored by the begum’s grandsons Nadir and the late Yawar Rashid. A new portrait gallery with royal memorabilia dating back to the time when Bhopal was a princely state adorns the walls of this alluring palace, a mix of British colonial, Italian renaissance and classical Greek architecture.

Blushing red bougainvillaea trails over its immaculate white facade, yawning courtyards are studded with old trees, with white wrought-iron chairs and benches and even a 100-year-old mango tree providing a restful retreat. The palace hotel, which has spacious period-style rooms, a spa and swish restaurants, jealously nurtures its identity as a former royal abode.

Under the Mango Tree is a terrace restaurant redolent with the flavours of royal Bhopali cuisine concocted from the hand-written recipes of the begums of yore. And history is brought alive with the sight of a former royal or two riding their thoroughbreds on the track encircling the palace or in the royal paddock. The pedigreed horses are of a piece with the antique-strewn palace, where a large portrait of the last begum stares sternly down at you in the marbled lobby, an ever-present reminder that this is a city shaped by gutsy female rulers.

Updated: December 13, 2022, 10:50 AM
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