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The lesser-known women of Bhopal


The lesser-known women of Bhopal
Yes, yes, we all have heard about the four women rulers of Bhopal and I am not going to bore you with their history. There were others also who played a key role in establishing and stabilising Bhopal State in its times of turbulence.
At the northern end of the Reghat bridge, opposite Gauhar Mahal, is small mosque on the bank of the Upper Lake with delicate minarets. It is called Masjid Maa Ji Sahiba. It is one of the oldest mosques of the Bhopal built somewhere in the middle of the 18th century. Maa ji and Fatah Bibi are the two women, who though did not rule Bhopal state, played a key role in saving it in its early years and saving in from disintegration. Although a lot of written material is available on the four Begums who ruled Bhopal more than a century later, little has been written about Maa Ji and Fatah Bibi. (Aur khan, this little piece is also not going to be of much help and cannot do justice to the two ladies’ contribution).
Maa Ji’s name was Mamola. She has been referred to as ‘Maa Ji Mamola’ or ‘Mamola Bai’ in books and articles. She was wife of the second ruler Yaar Mohammed Khan. There is dispute among historians over her; some say she was daughter of the Rajput raja of Kotah (Kota), others believe she was a Brahmin lady from some parts of north India.
The other lady, Fatah Bibi. was wife of the founder of Bhopal state Dost Mohammed Khan and the fortress he built, Fatehgarh, was named after her.
‘Maa Ji’, as she was addressed, was an astute woman. Soon after marrying Yaar Mohammed Khan, she took control of the crucial affairs of the state from behind the purdah. She apparently knew how succession struggles often led to disintegration of kingdoms in the past and was determined to prevent it nascent Bhopal. So when Yaar Mohammed Khan died, there was an inevitable confrontation over who would succeed him. His clan was large and there were several claimants to the title. His step-brother Sultan Mohammed Khan, backed by some clanspeople, attempted to claim the throne. They seized the Fatahgarh Fort and started efforts to get the backing of neighbouring Marathas states. Undaunted by the fact that she was a woman in an ordodox Muslim state and did not even belong to the clan, Maa Ji Mamola stayed put. She proclaimed Faiz Mohammed Khan, son of Yaar Mohammed, aged 11, as the Nawab.
Mamola Bai faced the revolt from Islamnagar, proclaiming Yar’s 11-year old eldest son Faiz Mohammad Khan as the nawab. She sent Bijjeh Ram as the head of 5000 soldiers to confront the Sultan Mohammad. The confrontation took place around Eidgah Hill in which Sultan and Sadar surrendered to the royal force. They agreed to renounce forever their claims to the title and moved to the neighboring state of Kurwai. Faiz, the stepson of Mamola Bai, however turned out to be more inclined to spirituality and devoted himself to prayer and meditation.
Faiz was an imposing figure, almost seven feet tall with arms stretching down to his knees. As Faiz withdrew increasing behind a veil of devotion, the Dowager Mamola Bai assumed effective governance. Under her, Bhopal signed a treaty with the Peshwa, and with their nod Mamola Bai took over control of Raisen fort from nominal Moghul control.
With the abrogation of power by Mamola Bai and her trusted chief minister Bijjey Ram, the Barru-Kat Pathans started feeling increasingly restless. This might have been due to the fact that both the power holders were outsider Hindus. At the Age of 46, the revered saintly Faiz Mohammad Khan died of dropsy on 12 December 1777, ending his reign of 35 years in which he paid scant interest in the affairs of state. Faiz died childless and was buried near Kamlapati’s palace beside his real mother. He left behind his widow, Saleha Begum, better known as Bahu Begum.
Sensing another crisis of succession, the 62-year old Mamola Bai declared Faiz’s younger brother Hayat Mohammad Khan, as the fourth Nawab of Bhopal. Faiz’s widow, Bahu Begum, refused to accept Hayat’s accession. Supported by the Barru-Kaat Pathans, Bahu Begum regularly ran a parallel government at Islamnagar. The two women headed rival forces vying for power in the state for a long time. In fact, Hayat Mohammad Khan offered to step down to pacify the tempestuous Bahu Begum. Maa Ji Mamola resolved that issue amicably. More about it later.

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