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What to see in Bhopal, India, with its legacy of Muslim women rulers

What to see in Bhopal, India, with its legacy of Muslim women rulers
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What to see in Bhopal, Indian ‘city of lakes’ with a legacy left by Muslim women rulers including its own Taj Mahal

“Whatever you see in Bhopal is all done by women. From postal networks to railways and stately buildings, men have nothing to do with it,” says Sikandar Malik, my guide to the Indian city, who is exaggerating, but not by much.

“From 1819 to 1926, four women Muslim nawabs (viceroys) ruled over the city with élan and style – promoting art and literature, building schools, colleges and hospitals, and even an exclusive bazaar for women, and promoting a cosmopolitan culture,” says Malik. They also commissioned the aforementioned infrastructure projects.

Bhopal, the “city of lakes”, is the capital of Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s largest states. Most foreigners who have heard of the city associate it only with the gas-leak tragedy of 1984, when as many as 3,780 people died after being exposed to methyl isocyanate that escaped from a Union Carbide India pesticide factory.

The city has moved on, however, and today offers travellers a rich mix of heritage and history.

The begum would dress as Radha and take part in the Hindu Janmashtami [birthday of Lord Krishna] celebrations, such was the religious tolerance of those days

Sikandar Malik, tour guide

Bhopal is fringed by hills and built around artificial lakes constructed more than 1,000 years ago by central Indian ruler Raja Bhoj (the city’s name derives from Bhoj pal, meaning “Bhoj’s dam”).

It was founded in the 18th century by one of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s Afghan soldiers, Dost Mohammed Khan, who took advantage of the chaos that followed Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and established a small kingdom based on what had been just a small village.

Bhopal is known as the city of lakes. Work on a series of artificial lakes began more than 1,000 years ago under Raja Bhoj, the ruler after whom the city is named. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

It wasn’t until the following century, though, that its powerful women began to exert their influence on Bhopal, with successive generations all leaving their mark.

Qudsia Begum ruled from 1819-1837 as regent for her daughter Sikander, Sikander Begum from 1844-1868, the first 16 years of which she was regent for her daughter Shahjehan, Shahjehan Begum from 1868-1901 and Sultan Jahan Begum from 1901-1926. (Begum is the word for a Muslim woman of high rank). Each held the title Nawab Begum of Bhopal. They were subordinate only to the Mughal emperor or, from the mid-19th century onwards, British colonial authorities.

Qudsia Begum was 18 when she seized control after the 1819 assassination of her husband, Nazar Mohammed Khan, the then ruler of Bhopal. She was a rebel and refused to follow the tradition of purdah, under which Muslim women are kept hidden from public view.

Sultan Shahjahan Begum, the Nawab Begum of Bhopal, in 1901. She was instrumental in initiating the construction of one of the largest mosques in India, the Taj Al Masjid. Photo: Getty Images

Qudsia served as a regent for her two-year-old daughter, Sikander, who she declared would become the first fully fledged female ruler of Bhopal. No one dared challenge Qudsia, and Sikander assumed the role in 1844, initially as regent for her own daughter Shahjehan.

Bhopal’s old city is centred on the Iqbal Maidan, an open public space surrounded by palaces and mosques of Hindu, European and Islamic design, one of which is the Gauhar Mahal, built by Qudsia in 1821 as her first home.

Malik, a young biologist turned historian who is passionate about his city and its heritage, leads me through the salmon pink, three-storey mansion.

The Iqbal Maidan in Bhopal is ringed by heritage buildings in a fusion of influences, and in various states of repair. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Built of stone, adobe bricks and timber, it has post-Renaissance and Gothic influences thanks to its French architect, with lake-view pavilions, painted ceilings, courtyards and terraces.

“There were no separate areas for men and women because the ruler was a woman,” Malik explains.

Today the Gauhar Mahal is a venue for craft markets and other public events.

Nearby is the Shaukat Mahal, which looks like a church with its intricately carved arches and roof turrets. Now decrepit, it was built as a home for Sikander in the 1830s as a wedding gift.

It was inspired both by the Jama Masjid in Delhi and the huge Badshahi Mosque of Lahore

Sikandar Malik, tour guide, on the Taj Al Masjid mosque in Bhopal

The design is a fusion of influences, including Indo-Islamic and French, the latter thanks to the Bourbons of Bhopal, the 300 or so French families who lived in the city in the mid-19th century.

“They were descendants of an exiled French noble who served in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court, were wealthy and influential, and had Muslim names,” Malik says. Akbar reigned from 1556 to 1605.

The maidan is named after Mohammad Iqbal, an Urdu poet whose visit to the city in 1931 is remembered in the representation of an eagle – a bird he admired for its courage – that sits forlornly atop a pillar in its centre that bears four brass plates engraved with Iqbal’s poetry.

Beyond the Iqbal Maidan, the rest of the old city, with its crumbling buildings and small tempos (three-wheeled autorickshaws) and rickshaws jostling for space with cows, bears the stamp of Sikander’s daughter Shahjehan.

The capital of her kingdom, Shahjahanabad, was here, featuring bazaars, grain markets, serais (rest houses), residential quarters and an idgah (enclosure for prayer) at its highest point. In the centre was a terraced lake.

Part of the interior of the Taj Al Masjid, one of India’s biggest mosques. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Shahjehan’s greatest project was the building of what remains one of India’s biggest mosques. Construction of the Taj Al Masjid began in her reign and continued under that of her daughter Sultan Jahan.

I approach the mosque – all octagonal minarets and bulbous domes – through a field on which Muslim boys in skullcaps are playing a boisterous game of cricket. Girls are conspicuous by their absence.

In the middle of the mosque’s quadrangle is a sprawling mango tree in full bloom, and around it are the small blue doors of a madrasa – a Muslim religious school in which the Koran and subjects such as mathematics are taught to boys.

The interior of the mosque has marble floors, an arched roof, stocky pillars with Hindu influences, niches and ornate petal designs on the ceilings.

“It was inspired both by the Jama Masjid in Delhi and the huge Badshahi Mosque of Lahore,” Malik says.

The Sadar Manzil, a 19th century durbar hall or public auditorium, in Bhopal that is currently being restored. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

While girls are not allowed into the madrasa, the Taj Al Masjid does have a prayer hall for women, albeit a modest one in comparison with that for men and tucked away on the mezzanine floor behind a jaali (latticed screen). Many mosques do not allow entry to women at all.

Back in Sultan Jahan’s day, women were more involved in religious practices in Bhopal.

“The begum would dress as Radha and take part in the Hindu Janmashtami [birthday of Lord Krishna] celebrations, such was the religious tolerance of those days,” Malik says.

Close to the mosque is the Sadar Manzil, its beautiful exterior obscured by scaffolding as it undergoes restoration. Built around a central courtyard with a fountain, the huge edifice was designed by Shahjehan as a durbar hall – a public auditorium.

On the other side of the Sadar Manzil is her palace, Bhopal’s own Taj Mahal. The extravagant complex of 120 rooms is defined by British, French, Arabic and Hindu influences, and decorated with jharonkas – projecting stone windows – stone pillars and arches.

Bhopal’s own Taj Mahal, which suffered damage when it housed refugees after the partition of British India at independence, and which may be restored and turned into a luxury hotel. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Shahjehan is said to have been so overwhelmed after its completion, in 1884, that she ordered a three-year-long celebration, known as Jasha-e-Taj Mahal.

After India gained independence from Britain, in 1947, the Taj Mahal became home to Sindhi refugees from Pakistan, during which the structure suffered significant damage. Today there are plans to restore the complex and turn it into a luxury hotel.

As the sun begins to dip the crowded lanes of the chowk (bazaar), a 10-minute walk from the Iqbal Maidan, are busy with women in burkas shopping for zardozi embroidery and silver jewellery. Embroidered velvet pouches and bags adorned with beads, the speciality of the city, beckon from shop windows.

Shoppers in Bhopal’s chowk, where traders sell, among other things, beaded embroidery, a speciality of the city. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Lost in thought, I am transported by the narrow lanes to a time when the begums ruled the city and horse-drawn carriages rattled down these thoroughfares, with the sweet smell of jasmine in the air.

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