Exploring Bhopal Through The Eyes Of Its Illustrious Begums

One city, four begums, and a hundred years—a heritage walk through the neighbourhoods of Madhya Pradesh’s capital city tells the tale of an epic royal reign that will live on through the ages.

On a fine February morning in 1922, when a rather worn-out Prince of Wales—Edward VIII—arrived at the main train station in Bhopal, the bitingly cold weather was abated by the warm welcome awaiting him. As bejewelled state elephants gracefully queued up, along with a smart cavalry, the then Begum of Bhopal—Nawab Begum Sultan Jahan—received him with an august group of chiefs and nobles. This was just the beginning of an impressively grand affair.

Nawab Begum Sultan Jahan with the Prince of Wales.

A four-day royal tour of the city was meticulously chalked out that included shikaar (hunting) safaris and polo matches. And the magnificent Sadar Manzil palace was turned into a splendid spectacle with gold arches, ornamented thrones in turquoise blue (Bhopal’s royal colour), and gold-embroidered carpets on marble floors. Popular local lore has it that an awestruck prince told the begum that he felt as if he had stepped into the world of The Arabian Nights!

A little over a century later, I felt the same as I walked through the picture-gallery museum at Jehan Numa Palace on my maiden visit to the city. And there, amidst several  framed archival images of the royal family on display in the colonnaded corridor, I even manage to encounter the Prince of Wales, sitting proudly next to the burqa-clad begum in the gorgeous Durbar Hall in a sepia-toned photograph. I briefly smile at him, admitting our common appreciation for this enchanting erstwhile princely state. But soon, my attention shifts to the begum—cloaked in a light-blue veil from head to toe, sitting in the middle of a court, full of men, making her presence felt through a sense of authority and absolute panache. Ah, female fortitude at its finest!

The Golden Reign
“She may not have been intimidatingly tall, or brawny, like how rulers were expected to look like back then, but she surely knew how to get work done,” smiles history scholar and experience curator Sikander Malik, my guide for a heritage tour of the city. He tells me Sultan Jahan was the last of the four begums that reigned over Bhopal for 107 years (between 1819 AD and 1926 AD) of its 241-year history!

The saying—uneasy lies the head that wears the crown—is apt for these remarkable women who defied the patriarchal norms of the time to rule Bhopal for over a century. “Their coming to power was a result of tough circumstances and political gambits. The first one, Qudsia Begum, I feel, is the path-breaker for all the good things that happened to us Bhopalis,” remarks Malik. When the young reigning ruler Nawab Nazar Muhammad Khan died unexpectedly in a freak accident, his then 19-year-old widow, Qudsia, declared her infant daughter as the rightful heir at the nawab’s soyem (mourning ceremony).

Despite uproar from other male candidates for the throne, she took charge as regent until her daughter came of age. Bhopal owes many monuments and cultural customs to its ruling begums, who succeeded each other for four generations. From investing in the railway and waterworks systems and ordering the construction of Bhopal’s Jama Masjid, two Jain mandirs, and several ghats, to setting the trend of whether or not to wear purdah (veil), playing polo, and even commanding their armies—they set the template for generations after them. While their personalities ranged from formidable to artistic, they worked for the social good of their people, investing in the infrastructure that stands tall even today.

Shahjahan Begum in her regal glory.

Malik narrates that Qudsia’s daughter, Sikandar Begum, would often disguise herself as a fakeeran (beggar) and roam through the streets alone to make sure nobody slept on an empty stomach or without a roof over their head. The third-in-line empress Shahjahan Begum, was more liberal and artistic in nature. Malik lovingly calls her Sarkar Amman (Sir Mother), just like her granddaughters did, and speaks of how she left a mark in the fields of architecture, music, poetry, and the arts. Her rule was followed by the 25-year-long reign of the last begum, Sultan Jahan, who showed a deep commitment to education and women’s health reforms.

Having heard so much about these great accomplishments, I set out on a tour of the Old City with Malik, eager to witness the architectural gems, traditional crafts, and rich culinary heritage that these remarkable women had left behind.

Scenic setting of the Jehan Numa Palace.
Aerial view of Iqbal Maidan.

Architectural Time Travel
As Malik and I drive out of the Jehan Numa Palace’s porte-cochère, past the Raja Bhoj Setu suspension bridge that runs over Bada Talab, our first stop was the Iqbal Maidan. “Whatever you see in Bhopal today, is made by these women,” said Malik. “Right from its stately buildings and railway tracks to libraries and hospitals, the men who ruled have hardly anything to do with them.” The expansive square with a Khirni tree in the middle, is flanked by a series of age-old palaces—featuring architectural aspects belonging to Hindu, Islamic, and European styles—many initiated by the begums. Today, most buildings that ring the maidan (ground) have fallen into a state of dilapidation, but the square still manages to exude an old-world charm.

The Raja Bhoj Setu (bridge) runs across the waters of the Bada Talab (Big Lake).
Lush gardens surround the grand Gauhar Mahal.

The first monument to catch my eye is the regal Gauhar Mahal. It’s a sight that takes my breath away. Built by Qudsia in 1821, this charming, three-storey, salmon-pink structure, made of stone, wood, and adobe bricks, was designed by a French architect. And, thus, features post-Renaissance and Gothic influences. Overlooking a pretty lake, its paved pathways and exquisite interiors make this one of the city’s most popular attractions.

A stone’s throw away is the unusual Shaukat Mahal: an 1830s palace boasting meticulously-carved arches and roof turrets. I’m told that it was constructed as a wedding present and future home for Sikander Begum. Its gorgeous, one-of-a-kind architecture, a melange of Indo-Islamic and French styles, seems apt for the celebratory occasion! But how was such a unique building conceived? It seems that the French courtiers who resided here at the time, known as the Bourbons of Bhopal, played a significant role in the design.

I’m tempted to take a closer look at these palaces, but it’s time to move. As we leave Iqbal Maidan, I’m surrounded by crumbling buildings and bustling lanes cramped with small stores, rickshaws, and street vendors. Shahjahan Begum was credited with creating this part of the Old City, known as Shahjahanabad, once home to serais (guest houses), homes, and bazaars. The area also had a terraced lake at the centre. We venture further on, making our way into the narrow alleys of the nearby Lakherapura locality to see the local karigars (artisans) who have managed to keep the indigenous craft of zari-zardozi alive over the years. “Bhopal may have big lakes but, unfortunately, dyes don’t stay put on the fabric when mixed with the water found here. Hence, printing wasn’t a feasible option when it came to expanding in the field of textiles. So, the begums gave this ancient craft a huge push by educating and motivating the karigars. That’s how Bhopal got its famous zari-zardozi embroidery.” Malik’s words fill me with a deeper appreciation of the artwork as I run my fingers over the intricate designs on an embroidered velvet batua (pouch) at a nearby store.

The largest mosque in India, Taj-ul-Masajid stands tall as a proud testament to the artistic ethos of Shahjahan Begum of Bhopal.

Finishing our tour of the area, we arrive at the most ambitious project of the third begum—the imposing Taj-ul-Masajid. Shahjahan Begum, went by the pen name ‘Tajvar’ to publish her poems. Hence, every creation of hers—Urdu books, poetry collections, her very own Taj Mahal (an extravagant complex of 120 rooms built over a course of 13 years, from 1871 to 1884), and, of course, the Taj-ul-Masajid mosque—has the word ‘Taj’ in it.

Intricately designed interiors of Taj-ul-Masajid.

Literally translating to the ‘Crown Among All Mosques’, it’s a beautiful amalgamation of the feminine designs of Delhi’s Jama Masjid and the boldness of Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid. The imposing façade in pink sandstone with three massive domes gleams as I stand before it and the golden sun shines bright behind its two 18-storey-high minarets. Inside, the main prayer hall has intricately carved arches, metal jali windows, and giant chandeliers. A reflection of the begum’s love for detailing, symmetry, and tranquil environs! As the sun sets and the sky blurs into a dramatic mix of azure and pale orange, I linger in the courtyard to think about the women behind all this magnificence.

Tempting nihari dish.

The Legacy That Lives On
On our way back to the hotel, we stop at the Odean Hotel in Ibrahimpura. It’s packed with diners! Operating since 1957, it’s famous for its local dishes like the melt-in-mouth pasande (succulent meat kebabs in curry) and nihari (slow-cooked mutton curry). Bhopali cuisine, Malik tells me, was birthed in the royal kitchens over centuries; each begum introduced special recipes and culinary traditions that were passed down through the ages.

Dinner feast at Jehan Numa Palace.

“When it comes to food, Bhopalis love the earthy-folksy flavours of their local produce, along with tastes from foreign influences: think Lucknowi galouti kebabs, Rampuri chawal (ghee-flavoured rice), or Bhopali sheermal (local bread that looks like a baguette!). So, when you bite into a Bhopali dish, at first, the taste is very mild, and then there’s a sudden burst of flavours,” says Malik. I think about that back at Jehan Numa Palace, when I’m served over 20 different dishes for dinner, several of which are 100-year-old recipes, carefully preserved by the royal khansamas (cooks). As I relish each preparation, I send a silent thanks to the extraordinary begums whose influence on its food, culture, people, and more made Bhopal the fascinating city it is today.

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