Where stones speak | History & Culture

A bastion of women nawabs

The erstwhile princely state of Bhopal has many distinctions

As the Mughal Empire started disintegrating after the death of Aurangzeb, many local chiefs and governors declared independence. Many others, finding the empire weakened, seized land and carved an empire for themselves. One of these was an Afghan-origin soldier named Dost Mohammad Khan who captured the Gond kingdom of Jagdishpur and established his hold over it. His new capital, near present-day Bhopal, was called Islamnagar, and he set about fortifying it. The foundation of a fort named Fatehgarh was laid in 1723 on the northern bank of the Upper Lake. Dost Mohammad Khan named it after his wife Fateh Bibi.

It is said that the idea of this fort was conceived by both of them during a shikar (hunting) expedition, and Dost Mohammad selected the site on that very moonlit night. Remains of the fortification wall can be seen from a neighbourhood mosque. Despite fierce attacks by enemies inside and outside, Bhopal managed to hold on to its own even after Dost Mohammed’s death and became famous as ‘Bhopal state’ which had the distinction of being ruled for 100 years by women nawabs.

Though Bhopal is no longer a state, it still has the distinction of hosting both India’s biggest mosque and the world’s smallest mosque!

The Dhai Seedhi ki Masjid (mosque of two and a half steps) is one of the city’s highest points which offers a commanding view of the city.

As the construction of Fatehgarh fort progressed, the mosque was built as a makeshift structure for the guards to pray. The mosque has stayed intact, albeit many recent additions have been made to increase capacity.

The bastion itself stands strong and resolute, as during the days when it must have withstood enemy attacks. The holes in the turret walls of the tiny mosque were built for positioning guns. They are a reminder of the constant danger the soldiers faced even while performing prayers.

A tale of two mosques

Daniel McCrohan of ‘Lonely Planet’ paced the floor of the mosque and estimated its interior area to be 16 sq. m, which makes it smaller than the 25-sq. m structure built in 2002 at Naberezhnye Chelny, Russia, in honour of those who fought Ivan the Terrible. The mosque is plain inside, the two and half steps leading to the prayer hall giving the monument its name. The corresponding bastion on the other side of the wall has a water tank in it.

Fatehgarh fort no longer exists except for its walls. It has been replaced by a medical college instead.

The construction of Taj-ul-Masajid (the crown of mosques) was started by Nawab Shah Jahan Begum (1838-1901) in the 19th century and continued by her daughter Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum. It remained incomplete for long due to a paucity of funds but construction was resumed in 1971 due to the efforts of two Muslim clerics — Maulana Syed Hashmat Ali and Allama Mohammad Imran Khan Nadwi Azhari — and completed in 1985.

Most people mistakenly assume that Jama Masjid of Delhi is the largest mosque of the country; in fact, it is the Taj-ul-Masajid with an interior area of 4,00,000 sq. m and seating capacity of 1,75,000 people.

A flight of steps leads to a lofty gateway, clearly inspired by Fatehpur Sikri’s Buland Darwaza.

Like Delhi’s Jama Masjid, it is built of red sandstone, with two lofty 206-feet-high octagonal minarets soaring from each end, and crowned by three beautiful marble domes. As in all mosques, there is a huge tank for ablution before prayers and a big courtyard to take on the overspill of the faithful during congregational prayers.

Eleven beautiful mihrabs, with the central one set in the western wall of the mosque inside the main hall, denote the qibla (the direction of Kaaba in Mecca) for the prayers. As a madarsa runs here during the day, I found many young children in their kurta pyjamas and topis running around the courtyard trying to reach their classes in time. It is situated on the side of a lake, Motia Talab, which adds to its out-of-the-world charm.

From the nearby Taj Mahal, a palace complex built by Nawab Shah Jahan Begum, I saw a reflection of the mosque and it inspired a sense of piety and devotion, as I’m sure it was meant to.

Rana Safvi is a historian, author and blogger documenting India’s syncretic culture.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 12:02:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/a-bastion-of-women-nawabs/article18956440.ece

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