The year was 1819. The location, a picnic in Bhopal. Nazar Mohammed Khan, the Nawab of Bhopal was sitting with his infant daughter on his lap when a gunshot rang out, killing the Nawab instantly. Standing nearby with the proverbial smoking gun in his hand was the Nawab’s eight-year-old brother-in-law, his wife’s younger brother. What happened afterwards changed the history of this princely state, called the City of Lakes.
A week after the Nawab’s death, as power brokers jostled to take the crown, Qudsia Begum, the Nawab’s widow, who was all of 19, took off her veil and addressed the public. In a passionate tone, she talked about how she would carry on the legacy of her husband and become the regent to his only daughter, Sikandar Begum, the rightful heir to the throne. And so it came to be that four generations of women — the ‘Begums of Bhopal’ — ruled over this princely state in Central India. This 107-year-old rule was unheard of in pre-Independent India, and all the more unusual because it happened under Muslim rule.
“In that sense, Bhopal is a very feminine city, unlike any other in India,” says Niloufer Rashid Khan, whose great-grandmother was the last Begum of Bhopal, Sultan Jahan. Niloufer, as she prefers to be known, is a textile designer working with the block printers of her state to create clothes that are sold in her family-owned hotel, Jehan Numa Palace. “My ancestors were amazing women,” she says. “Of Turko-Afghan descent. Strong, passionate and able to wield power.”
Photos of the Begums receiving British royalty, conferring with Viceroys and sternly administering justice are scattered through the Jehan Numa Palace. They may be clad in burqas but their ability to steer the state was unquestioned. Which brings up the question in this era of #MeToo and feminine power, what can India and the world learn from the Begums of Bhopal?
“I think the Begums of Bhopal are remarkable in how they wielded power and influenced history,” says local historian Sikander Malik. “They went hunting, played polo, were great orators, and had no problem being tough and able administrators.”
Mention Bhopal today and the world only remembers the gas tragedy that killed and crippled some 16,000 people, by some estimates. Today, the Union Carbide gas plant that exploded on that fateful December night in 1984 still stands, but Bhopal residents want to move beyond the disaster. They talk about Bhopal being the City of Lakes, about its syncretic culture that welcomes Hindus and Muslims, about its ancient history which no other city in India can claim. By which they mean that the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters show the earliest traces of human life in the Indian subcontinent.
Bhimbetka lies an hour outside Bhopal, and is worthy of a trip. Guides stand at the entrance offering to do tours and a first-time visitor is well-advised to use them. There are over a dozen caves, some more interesting than the others. Indian archeologist, V S Wakankar discovered these caves with their striking red rock art paintings that were similar to what were seen in Lascaux, France and Spain. Today, archeologists from all over the world make the trek to these cave shelters, smack dab in the middle of Ratapani Reserve Forest.
After wandering through the caves, I sat quietly in a corner of a rock, trying to imagine how pre-historic humans must have experienced their environment. Two Turkey vultures flew by and sat atop a rocky outcrop. Along came two grey hornbills, delighting me by their playful presence. The silence was calming and the greenery all around soothed my eyes. This is what we have lost in urban India: the sound of silence and the call of hornbills.
On the way back, I stopped at Udaygiri caves, another picturesque rocky outcrop with a variety of giant statues. Had this been in Europe or even Angkorwat, the area would have been full of tourists, standing in line for a glimpse of these ancient statues. Here, I was the only visitor, something I both rued and relished. Udayagiri Caves are an amazing example of third-and-fourth century sculptures. In one cave was a Shivalinga with the face of a woman, long tresses and all. The main cave had a statue of Vishnu as a boar. Along the walls were a unique type of script called ‘shell script’ with its curving, almost Arabic typography. I wandered in and out of the caves, thanks to the helpful caretaker who opened each one for me. The last one was a stunning sculpture of Seshasayee or Vishnu in a reclining position. After spending an hour here, I drove back to Bhopal.
The next day was ancient history of another sort. It was time to go to Sanchi, Buddha’s abode. Also an hour from Bhopal in another direction, Sanchi is home to a famous stupa. Unlike the caves, Sanchi was crowded with local school children who were on a field trip. The sprawling grounds around the stupa are filled with sal, banyan and mango trees with raucously cawing parakeets, mynas, crows and black kites. I wandered around the ruins, trying to decipher the meaning of the inscriptions on the walls. At one time, Sanchi was a thriving Buddhist monastary. Today, it stands forlorn, a remnant of a great religion that originated in India.
Four days in and around Bhopal gave me an understanding of our country’s most ancient region. Bhimbetka is where our humans began their journey into this continent. Sanchi is where Emperor Ashoka commissioned a great stupa to celebrate the faith that transformed him. And Bhopal itself, with its quaint lakes, great food and unique history, was a great place to holiday within India.