May 30, 2007

Sultan Jahan Begum 1901 – 26

On 4 July 1901, Sultan Jahan assumed the title of ruler of Bhopal at the mature age of 43 after serving 33 arduous, harrowing years under Shahjehan as heir apparent. All three preceding Begums had mounted the masnad at a young age – Qudsia was 19 when she became regent of Bhopal, Sikandar was regent of Bhopal at 26, while Shahjehan was titular ruler of Bhopal at the age of seven and full fledged Begum of Bhopal at 30. As she was proclaimed ruler of Bhopal, Sultan Jahan looked older then her 43 years. Immediately after Shahjehan’s death, the British moved quickly to announce her succession as ruler of Bhopal. The Investiture Durbar was held at Saddar manzil of Bhopal, at which Mr Wyndham represented Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, the first assistant to the resident.

As Sultan Jahan took over the states administration, she found that the cupboard was bare. Shajehan and Siddiq’s henchmen had dissipated the finances to the extent that the state was heavily in debt and only 40,000 rupees were left in the treasury. A fighter by nature, Sultan Jahan resolved to put matters right, rolled up her sleeves and began the uphill task of rehabilitation and revival. For over a year Sultan Jahan built up her own team of upright and conscientious officials who helped her put the ship of state back on an even keel.

Sultan Jahan’s first task was to gain confidence of her rural subjects and helping Bhopal recover from Shahjehan’s lax and divisive rule. Sultan Jahan’s visit to the outlying villages was not simply representational tours, but serious attempts at seeking solutions to agrarian problems. The atmosphere was all work and austerity, with long hours spent listening to the plaints of village folks. There was no shikar, polo playing or midnight revelry as in Shahjehan’s days, but an ambiance of rigorous hard work for herself and her staff. She inducted her grown-up sons, Nasrullah and Obaidullah, into the process of governance and administration and even “little Hamid”, her eight-year-old third son, accompanied his mother to be given a taste of royal responsibility.

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May 24, 2007

Taj Mahal Of Bhopal

Believe it or not, apart from a Shahjehan, Bhopal also has a Taj mahal. Taj Mahal palace stretches across the entire northern side of Motia talab with its central courtyards including the grounds of Bab-e-ali. The grounds could also be approached from the west through a highly ornamental three-bayed entrance that is higher in the center with cusped arched opening topped with a pediment. The entrance gate is a strange square structure of “Palladian style” mixed with Islamic elements. Semi-circular arches, circular pillars, pediments and plain fa├žade is punctured centrally with cusped arch opening that appears strangely foreign in the flat elevation. The entire treatment finds a parallel in the basement of the Diwan-e-Aam of Taj Mahal Place. The flat flagstone roof of the gate is supported on iron girders that rest on Lakhuri bricks. The entrance leads to a ground that was used for festivals, ladies club and other occasions. Today it is a cricket stadium with huge interventions in concrete.

The most spectacular constructions of all times is the cascading waters of the three tanks, Motia Talab, Noor Mahal Talab and Hussain Baksh Ki Talaiya, built at descending heights of 15 m each. Kaiser embankment of Motia talab, was also fitted with rails that connected the Taj Mahal to Noor Mahal and on which plied the saloon of the Begum. True to their legendary nature, Bhopalis named the saloon “thela” and the road is still called “thele wali sadak” by the locals! The water tanks were part of the larger water system of Bhopal where the waters harvested went through hammams and chaddars of the palaces around it and watered the charbaghs within. The waters from the natural springs of Jharnewala bagh were transported by canals to Motia talab and after cascading into the Patra nala some distance away joining the larger water system of Betwa and Yamuna near Lalitpur.

Covering the entire north side of Motia Talab, the Taj Mahal Palace was the political center during Nawab Shajehan Begum who stayed here amidst beautiful water bodies and green char-baghs. Inward looking, the interiors consist of residential quarters around large courtyards approachable through five highly embellished double storied gateways that punctuate the external high blank wall. One of them is rectangular, the rest are octagonal. The main entrance way is however towards the east. This seven-storied structure is the grandest entrance to any structure of Bhopal. The forty-five feet clear span done acted as a porch for the alighting of Shahjehan Begum in the purdah and could accommodate the turning of a chariot drawn by seven horses within. The rectangular plan of the palace revolved around a large central rectangular courtyard with its water bodies and charbaghs. The single storied red-sandstone square, colonnade, central piece is sculpted for falling and gushing waters that is enhanced by blue ceramic tiles probably imported from England. South side of the central courtyard opens towards the Motia talab from where the cool winds were directed inside through cooling ducts of the basement of Diwan-e-Aam. The Deewan-e-Aam itself was embellished with mirror works and exquisite stucco work and roofed with stone slabs on timber rafters all polished in black.

Lying in ruins, Taj Mahal palace is now a protected monument and conservation work by the Madhya Pradesh government is under way.

May 21, 2007

Shahjehanabad – The Benazir Palace

The most famous and prominent construction undertaken by Shahjehan Begum was the Taj-Ul-Masjid. When she came to power Bhopal stretched within the fortified limits of Fatehgarh fort towards the west, Sahar-E-Khas towards the east and Bhoja’s fort towards the south. Jehagirabad extension by her father was located across the watery span of Chhota Talab joined to the city by a dyke called Pul Pukhta. 

To this she added Shahjehanabad which, unlike most other towns elsewhere in the country during the nineteenth century, was planned and developed by her as a large fortified addition to the existing town. Sultanjehan Begum writes: “Her Highness’s love for erecting large buildings and palaces was in no way less than that of her great namesake, the Emperor Shajehan of Delhi.” She had three palaces constructed in the mughal style for her personal use. 

The names of these palaces were Ali Manzil, Benazir palace and Taj Mahal Palace.

Benazir was the equivalent of the pleasure pavilion in the garden and was essentially built as her summer palace and a place to accommodate state dignitaries. Lord and Lady Minto stayed here during their visit in 1909. Benazir overlooked the expanding landscape to its east and from it the arrangement of the three water bodies could be seen – the Motia Talab which was the uppermost, the intermediate Noor Mahal Talab and the lowermost the Munshi Hussain Talab.

 The H shaped building enclosed green stepped terraces and gurgling fountains; and a series of steps and plinths descended down to the water. The grounds attached to the palaces were used for ceremonial processions, parades and were also congregation grounds for the subjects. Steps on two sides of the ground provided sitting space for the people during sports. The luxurious ambience and the lacy treatment of the palace is almost akin to the zardozi veil of the burkha that Shajehan Begum so vehemently advocated.

May 18, 2007

Reliance Fresh In Bhopal

What exactly does Reliance Fresh offer? Reliance Fresh stores from outside look like huge vegetable marts with people in red uniforms and the promise of good veggies and fruits at cheaper than market prices. The stores are pretty big with staff that is courteous and helpful. You pick the vegetables yourself, weigh them yourself and you put them in the packet yourself.

After every 4-5 feet there is a polybag dispenser for the vegetables. There is dynamic pricing. As the stuff gets old, the prices of the stuff are reduced and announcements were made about it like Railway Station announcements. Some stuff though was becoming stale but it was being replaced pretty fast. The prices are indeed lower in the store than the market.

The existing players of the vegetable market have started feeling the heat, even before the group has opened any outlet in Bhopal. Following Indore, there were protests in Bhopal too. The local vegetable vendors gathered near Bittan Market in new Bhopal, and took out a protest rally towards the Habibganj police station. The protestors however returned before reaching the police station. An effigy of Mukesh Ambani being carried with the protestors was beaten to the extent that it broke down. The effigy was set to fire after repairing. The protest being completed, the protestors went about their daily work i.e. selling vegetables at the Bittan market haat.

Do the protestors know exactly what they are protesting against? The cities where Reliance Fresh has started operations have seen the vegetable vendors experiencing fall in sales by 40%. Unless the market evolves a fresh (!) approach, the violence would only go up. However, the Indian market has amazingly evolved in the past to counter the threats. Meanwhile, Indore Reliance tried Gandhigiri by distributing 50000 red roses to the fruit and vegetable vendors and other residents.

May 16, 2007


In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, Mark Sappenfield describes the Chattisgarh conflict as more depressing then the conflict of Afghanistan. His reasoning goes like this

In Afghanistan, there remains a fierce pride and strength of will. Perhaps these qualities cause their fair share of trouble, but they also produce an iron defiance in the face of the most terrible atrocities – an unyielding resolution to be unbowed. In the jungles of Dantewada district I saw a people utterly broken. Whereas Afghans looked you directly in the eye, chin resolute, the people at the refugee camp had all but conceded, slump-shouldered and speaking softly, staring at nothing.”

The Hindu taliban of recent years is also the result of this lack of fierce pride and strength of will. How else do you explain the ban on covering the face of girls from a particular community? The ban is in effect at the soaring heat of plains of India reaching 45o Celsius, and many have to move around on their two wheelers in this heat. To add insult to injury, even the police have joined the circus. There logic? The criminals are able to move around freely as their faces are covered. What is worth noting is the police found out the criminals strategy only after the RSS controlled Sindhi panchayat found this practice offensive. Bhopali is confused whether wearing a helmet would also be considered an attempt to hide identity.

Meanwhile the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh is off to London, seeking foreign investment in Madhya Pradesh. Hopefully he has taken permission from the saffron brigade, and they have approved this visit for a select group of politicians, to cool London from the soaring heat of Bhopal. A team of Indian palaeontologists has discovered a nest with 12 dinosaur eggs, the largest in a single nest, in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. No, the saffron brigade has not found any thing objectionable in this yet, neither have they claimed the eggs for themselves till reports last came in.

May 5, 2007

Death Of Shahjehan – Excerpts from Sultan Jahan’s Autobiography

The following excerpt is from the book titled “An Account Of My Life” – an autobiography of Sultan Jahan Begum, the twelfth ruler of Bhopal:
Days passed, and my mother’s condition grew steadily worse. A few days before her death she caused the following pathetic notice to be published:
“If there are any among my subjects who, during the thirty-three years of my reign, have received unmerited punishment at my hands, I ask them, in the name of God, to forgive me”.
The people of Bhopal received this last message from their dying ruler with sorrow and sympathy, and there was not one amongst them who did not pray to God that the burden of her afflictions might be lightened. My own emotion as I read the words I will not attempt to describe. I longed for only one sentence more, “I too forgive the faults of others”, and I read and re-read the message in vein hope that I had overlooked it. With such words to support me I could have gone to my mother, and, having won the forgiveness she could no longer have withheld, I could have cheered the last moments of her life with pent-up love of twenty-seven long years. At last as every day brought worse tidings, my anxiety became more than I could bear, and I determined to go to Taj Mahal, let my enemies put what construction they would upon my visit. I set out with my heart full of misgivings. My husband was even more uneasy, and fearing that his presence might stir my mother to anger, and that her sickness might thereby be aggravated, he did not accompany me.
I took with me only Hamidullah Khan, my youngest son. He was then seven years old, and I know not what were the thoughts that filled his childish mind as he passed, for the first time in his life, beneath the gateway of his grandmother’s palace. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon when we arrived, and the day was intensely hot. Few people were about. I enquired the way from one person after another, and we at length entered the chamber where my mother lay, with a female attendant seated by her side. I approached a few steps and waited, and Hamidullah, in fear and wonder, stood by my side. Her Highness turned her face towards me, but thirteen years of grief and trouble had made some changes in my appearance, and in the subdued light of the sick room she did not recognize me. She asked me who I was, but my fear of her displeasure, and of being sent away from her presence was so great that I made no reply. Again she put the same question, and asked me why did not speak. Still I made no reply, and it was not until the question had been asked a third time, and the attendant spoke my name, that I found my voice, and with clasped hands begged her forgiveness. The fears, which kept me silent, had not been groundless. In a voice in which sorrow and anger were mingled she said, “ Leave me; after my death you may come here” (Hamidullah in a letter to his daughter recalls Shahjehan saying, “Why do you want to hover over my body like vultures? I will soon die and the state will be yours. Let me die in piece”). Seeing I still stood there, she repeated the word even more sternly. This time I did not venture to disobey. It was plain that my presence troubled her, and I returned weeping and with a heavy heart to Sadar Manzil.
Shahjehan died on 6th June 1901, four months after Queen Victoria. She was buried at the Nishat Afzah Garden

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