In the heart of Madhya Pradesh’s capital city, Bhopal, resides Taj-ul-Masajid which literally translates to the ‘crown of mosques’. The mosque was intended to be the largest mosque in the country and was based on the design of Delhi’s Jama Masjid. In a town called Woking in England stands a mosque called Shah Jahan.
The common denominator between these three mosques is the name Shah Jahan. The fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Jama Masjid in Delhi and the third female ruler of Bhopal, Shah Jahan Begum built Taj-ul-Masajid of Bhopal. The Bhopal’s matriarch went a step ahead as she also funded the construction of England’s first Mosque in 1889.
In the 19th century when India was a British colony, the princely state of Bhopal had a string of female rulers for roughly 107 years. The city was founded in 1707 by Afghan ruler Dost Muhammad Khan. Surrounded by Rajputs in Rajasthan and Marathas in Maharashtra, Bhopal was a vulnerable state yet the female rulers with their loyal allegiance to the British rule survived the turbulent times.
The female dynasty of Bhopal started with the death of young Nawab Nazar Muhammad Khan. His 18-year-old wife Qudsia Begum decided that the legacy of her family shall continue and declared her 15-month-old daughter Sikandar as the rightful heir of the state. In 1819, Qudsia Begum became the first Muslim female who defied the veil and became the ruler of Bhopal. Her rule was legitimised by the British and the clergy.
Both Qudsia (1819-37) and Sikandar (1847-68) were known to be tough rulers who strengthened Bhopal’s military and trained themselves to fight. However, it was the third matriarch of Bhopal, Shah Jahan Begum who brought in the period of flourishing art and culture just like her male Mughal namesake.
Unlike Qudsia and Sikandar, Shah Jahan was not known for her tough training for battles. Shah Jahan followed the system of veil and was more interested in literature, poetry, and arts.
Interested in Urdu and Persian poetry, Shah Jahan Begum also offered state pensions to poets like Amir Minai, a contemporary of Mirza Ghalib.
Shah Jahan Begum ordered that a dictionary of select terms in Hindustani, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, English, and Turkish was compiled to facilitate translation of literature between these languages. A poet herself, Shah Jahan Begum also patronized a group of female poets. According to Siobhan Lambert-Hurley’s book Muslim women, Reform and Princely Patronage, these gifted women included “Hasanara Begam ‘Namkeen,’ author of a diwan and two prose publications, Munawwar Jahan Begam and Musharraf Jahan Begam, the daughters of Nawab Mustafa Khan ‘Shefta,’ and several others.”
In her book, Siobhan Lambert-Hurley also mentions, “Shah Jahan’s interest in this area was so great that she charged a male poet at her court, Abul Qasim ‘Muhtasham’, to devote himself to collecting an anthology of female poets writing in Persian. Entitled Akhtar-i-taban, it publicized the work of 81 poetesses when it was printed in Bhopal in 1881 in dedication to the ruling Begam.”
Her ambitions for grand architecture is evident from the fact that her daughter Sultan Begum in her biography mentioned that she has lost count of the number of palaces and buildings, her mother made. Some of the prominent buildings that still remain are Taj-ul-Masajid, Taj Mahal, Ali Manzil, and Benazir.
Unlike Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal which is a tomb, Bhopal’s Taj Mahal was a palace for the Begum. Shah Jahan Begum also helped orientalist and scholar Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner in constructing England’s first mosque which is also called the Shah Jahan mosque.
The similarities do not stop here. Just like the Mughal emperor built a planned city named Shahjahanabad, the Begum too built a neighbourhood with the same name. Hurley mentions in her book, “Shah Jahan was also responsible for building an entirely new neighbourhood of homes and offices within her capital that was predictably named Shahjahanabad. Unlike the version at Delhi, however, it was laid out on a uniform plan in-keeping with the latest ideas of town planning in Britain.”
Shah Jahan Begum of Bhopal encouraged female participation in education, religion, and culture. She was responsible for setting up institutions for female education, she reserved areas in mosques for veiled women to pray on special occasions, she also constructed a Pakka bazaar exclusively for women.
Shah Jahan Begum’s daughter Sultan Jahan Begum was the last Begum of Bhopal whose reign ended in 1926. The reign of female rulers in Bhopal broke stereotypes and brought in various reforms in the princely state. Even though women still continue to fight for their rights it should not be forgotten that the Begums did assert their authority in the 19th century and it can be done again.