I enjoy walking in Bhopal’s old city. It is not just the tourist spots, like Taj-ul Masjid, the biggest mosque in Asia. Ienjoy the side streets and buildings sometimes overlooked. One is the Maji Mamola Masjid, one of three built by Bhopal’s first woman ‘ruler’.
In summer heat, before the monsoon sweeps the dust from the street, I watched, read the sign, and reflected on my readings of Bhopals history. Why this building stayed in my memory I am unsure. Perhaps, as a historian, I know ghost from history reappear benign and malevolent.
At Independence Bhopal was a largely Muslim state of around 70,000 in seven thousand square kilometers, and famous for mosques, locals tell conflicting histories. Some tell of a successful integration of non Muslims to build Nehru’s dream of a religiously integrated India, more probably one must revisit the unofficial reign of Mamola Bai, consort to Yar, and for 50 years the power behind the throne, the first of five unofficial women Nawab Begum, she is a testament to positively shape a man’s world.
In 1947, distant religious slogans echoes first from Calcutta, of death to Muslims or Alluha Akhbar and now as 2015 sees a shift in India’s politics I wonder if the ghosts of Bhopal also offer us guidance.
When the more powerful British, Marhatta and Mughal warlords slogged it out, Manji Saheba (Revered Mother), as she was known, maintained a just subservient and vassal state. When her husband died, Mahji Mamola headed a 5000 strong army against the half brothers who claimed the throne. She appointed ruler her husband’s oldest 11 year old son, Faiz Mohammad Khan, born to another of Khans wives. Known for her charity, kindness to the poor and respected as just and fair, she consolidated Bhopal’s fragile authority in a time of social upheaval.
As Major William Bough wrote of her:
“From the account given of her conduct, under the most trying circumstance, it seems difficult to pronounce whether she was most remarkable for the humanity of her disposition, or the excellence of her judgment. She was beloved and respected by all. Her memory is still cherished by the natives, both Hindu and Mahomedan, of Bhopal, and it is consoling to observe, in the example of her life, that, even amid scenes of violence and crime, goodness and virtue, when combined with spirit and sense, maintain that superiority which belongs alone to the higher qualities of human nature; and which, without these, can be permanently conferred by neither title nor station.”
Perhaps her greatest honour came from Pir Ghous Ahmed Shah Gailani, a diret descendant of the Muslim saint, Pir Abdul Qader al-Gailani, who declared her to be Rabia Basri,the second, ensuring the title formerly attested in the Mughal court.
Who was Mamola Bai?
A war prize of matchless beauty, Mamola Bai, soon became Dost Mohammad Khan favourite consort, known for exceptional character. That she was reputed a Brahmin Rajput princess, though a Muslim convert, was welcomed by neighboring Hindu rulers and she encouraged harmony between the Muslim elite and Hindu locals. Her devotion to the integrity of her step sons rule impressed the Pathans, from whom the Khans descend.
When the traitor Wasl Mohommad Khan, conspired against Faiz Mohommad Khan, sceded almost half of Bhopal to the Peshwars, who then appeased, did not give authority to the traitor. In an act of great kindness, Mamola Bai assisted Wasils widow and daughter, Saleha.
She herself led a force on horseback to occupy Raisen Fort. After defeating the Moghul force she diplomatic use emissaries and gifts persuaded the Moghul emperor to formerly assign Raisen to Bhopal.
Vassal first to the Nizam and then the Mahattas. Her far sighted welcoming of General Thomas Goddard, as he forced his troups through harassing Hindu and Muslim opponents, stood against public opinion. Aware of British growing influence in Bengal, Bombay, Oudh and the south and by securely billeting them in Raisen fort she ensured her kingdoms future security after her death. In 1778, indolent Hayat, her second step son, was Bhopals fourth Nawab, Warren Hastings was Britian’s first Governor General in India, Britain and France were struggling for India’s heartland. Britains East India Company was attempting to link India’s East and West while suppressing the Mahattas.
So revered was Mamola Bai that fearing she would succumb to illness, Muslim saint Shah Ali Shah prayed for seven days in seclusion, himself dying while Mamola Bai recovered. To this day, Shah Ali Shahs Island tomb is a pilgrimage site in Bhopal Lake.
Critics suggest Mamola knew her reclusive step son Faiz Mohommad Khan uninterested in politics, giving herself real power. Faiz became revered as saintly. interested in politics and his successor Hayat was unwilling or incapable. Perhaps another blot on her rule came from her fourth adopted son the Brahmin Chottey Khan known for his ruthlessness. However, after the 1762 death of chief administrator Bijjeh Ram Bhopal saw the violent death of three ministers and the city overrun by the Peshawrs who Mamola Bai wisely bought off with territory and tribute.
in 1776. Mamola Bai adopted four Hindu boys (a tribal Gond, two Aheer, and a Brahmin) converting them to Islam. Whether this was an attempt to show to Muslim subjects her devotion to Islam, Chottey Khans, improvement of administration, modern taxation, facilities and life style was tainted by his aggressive and ruthlessness. Chottey was appointed minister 17 years later he gave Bhopal needed stability.
Although extending diplomatic and trade ties with Gwalior, Indore and Baroda, better administering mosques and modeled the artistic life to mirror Delhi and Hyderabad, Chootey’s heavy handedness saw Bhopal again threatened. First by the maneuverings of Seleha, daughter of the traitor Wasl Mohommad Khan, who then married Nawab Faiz Mohamad Khan. On his death, the Bahu Begum, as she was known, refused to accept her husband’s bother, Hayat. Defiant of the woman who raised her, she ran a second court at nearby Islamnagar taunting her former in-laws to defend family honour. This was the same year Mamla controversially showed hospitality to the British. Hayat had even offered to stand down to pacify her for the good of the kingdom.
During the authority of Chottey, she then taunted Dost’s grandson, Shareef Mohomad Khan, to attack this non family usurper: “If I were a man, I would never allow this Brahmin slave to rule over the family of Dost Mohomad Khan.” She failed to finance a rebellion and later Shareef was defeated in the Battle of Phanda that stained Chottets character for its gorey arrogance that disturbed the Nawab Hayat and showed the aging Momola Bai was losing her grip on power. Afterward, Chottey astutely bought off the ferocious Pindaras, a group of Muslim Maurauder’s, ensuring Bhopals peace.
In 1794 Chottey died, two tears before Mamola Bai. She was buried in Grinnor Fort.
I am reminded of the feuding Kaarava’s and Pandava’s families from the Mahabharata. Then, remembering the Khans were Muslim, think of early wars that followed te death of Mohammad that fractured Islam into Shia and Sunni.
Without Mamola Bais guidance, dissent , decline and intrigue followed. Fortunately, the Peshwars were already in decline that the farsighted British alliance would later help.
With all this turbulence, it is amazing to see an artistic heritage that flowered into a city of regular concerts, tribal dance displays, the Tribal Museum as well as 200 hectares displaying India’s diverse tribal life. While tigers and bears do not roam a few kilometers from the city edge as they did in 1947, Madhya Pradesh boasts jungle reserves, such as Pench, where ‘lived’ Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli, Baloo and Sher Khan.
I would like to see her as a reflective woman in difficult times, and yet recognise she must have been a woman of action of strong character and action.
Concerned that extremists destroyed girl schools in Pakistan, Urdu poet and journalist,Muslim Saleem reflected on his childhood in Bhopal, praising Mamola Bai and future women who shaped Bhopal.
“These enlightened (lady) rulers turned Bhopal State into a modern, prosperous, welfare state. They all spoke fluent Persian and Urdu and had learnt some English as well. They established a large number of schools, both for boys and girls, and provided free education. Nawab Sultan Jehan Begum made generous donations to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan for the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University and had the distinction of being its first Chancellor. After her death her son, Nawab Hameedullah Khan, who had graduated from Aligarh, was chosen as the Chancellor. Had those ladies not been educated, had they not encouraged education, both for boys and girls, I would probably have been no more than a kharkar, a cobbler or stone breaker.
Without the encouragement mothers can give, many children, even boys, would drop out of school, leading to an even higher rate of illiteracy. How then could we possibly progress as a nation? You are not only holding back women, you are holding back the nation.”