A Princessís Pilgrimage to Mecca

By Dr Syed Amir
Bethesda, MD

It may sound incredible, but none of the Muslim
rulers of India starting from Sultan Qutb-uddin Aibak (1206-1210 AD) to Bahadur
Shah Zaffar (1837-1857 AD) ever performed the Hajj. There were good reasons for
this dereliction. For an absolute monarch, any prolonged absence from his
capital and powerbase would have meant certain dethronement. Furthermore, the
journey was long and perilous, and travel conditions in Hejaz were unsafe and
arduous. There were no paved roads and Bedouins were marauding the desert,
robbing and murdering pilgrims
The Mogul rulers, nevertheless, were fond of sending
off their courtiers who were in disfavor to perform Hajj; this clever maneuver
was designed to get rid of them. The pilgrims mostly did not return, having
perished at the hands of highway robbers, from harsh travel conditions or even
pestilence. The only reference we find of Hajj is in the sixteenth century
chronicles and relates to Gulbadan Begum, daughter of Emperor Babur, who
embarked on the religious pilgrimage in 1575 with the blessings of her nephew,
Emperor Akbar. She survived the hardships, including a shipwreck, and returned
to Agra seven years later, having covered 3,000 miles.
So it was an unprecedented event when the ruler of the
princely state of Bhopal in central India, Nawab Sikandar Begum, in the year
1863, one-and-a-half century ago, set out on the pilgrimage to Mecca. A devout,
practicing Muslim, she was also an enlightened leader, much ahead of her time.
She did not believe that women were required to observed purdah and abandoned it
herself. In her days (1844-186, Bhopal was one of the best administered
princely states in India. It also had an interesting history. It was the only
princely state ruled by four successive females, since there were no male heirs.
Sikandar Begum, often dubbed as ďfearsome,Ē is credited with lending crucial
help in the restoration of Delhiís historic Jama Musjid to Muslims. The mosque
had been locked down, following the insurgency against the British in 1857, and
was in a decrepit, dilapidated state. It is said that she personally washed and
cleaned the floors of the historic monument before it was reopened for prayers.

The journey to Mecca needed meticulous planning. The
fascinating details of these preparations and enormous difficulties she
encountered in the performance of Hajj were recounted by the Begum herself in an
unpublished Urdu manuscript, which was rendered into English in 1870 by the wife
of a British colonial officer.
Hejaz at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled
by the hereditary Sharifs drawn from the Hashemite family, descendents of the
prophet. Some of the details of the journey have also been excerpted in the
book, Begums of Bhopal, authored by Begumís great, great grandson, Shahar Yar
Khan, who served as Pakistanís top diplomat in the eighties and nineties.
Bhopalís royal party comprised 1,500 people, including
Sikandar Begumís 64-year-old mother, the chief of the army, a number of
religious leaders, numerous servants, doctors, cooks, cleaners, soldiers and
legal advisors. Since the supply of food and groceries was not assured, they
loaded sufficient supplies to last them for months. Three ships, one steamer and
a sailing boat were chartered to carry the pilgrims from Bombay to Jeddah.
On arrival at Jeddah, Sikandar Begum was received with
apposite enthusiasm by the Turkish Governor and the ruling Sharif with the
traditional gun salutes. From then on, it appears, the situation went downhill.
Much of the trouble was caused by the impoverishment of, lawlessness and rampant
crime in Hejaz. The era of abundant oil wealth that has transformed the face of
Saudi Arabia was a century or so in the future. The Begum soon learnt that
Bedouins had broken into her safe boxes and were liberally helping themselves to
her money and valuables. Custom officers proved equally grasping, demanding
exorbitant custom duties on woolen shawls the Begum had brought from India as
gifts for dignitaries.
The journey from Jeddah to Mecca, so unremarkable these
days, was a dangerous undertaking. The news that a wealthy Indian princess, with
enormous stockpile of money and jewels, was travelling provided a great
temptation for the robbers to attack and plunder. Although the princely caravan
was well protected by Ottoman and Arab soldiers, besides the guards drawn from
Bhopal army, it regularly came under gunfire from surrounding hills. The
situation was not helped by the habit, long entrenched, of Quadsia Begum,
Sikandar Begumís mother, of showering money from her camelís back. The Bedouins,
attracted by her ostentation, nearly succeeded in kidnapping her for ransom. She
was ultimately rescued, but with much difficulty.
As the party arrived at Mecca, it got embroiled in a
nasty dispute, based in differing cultural practices. Sikandar Begum obliged to
pay a courtesy call on the Sharif, was treated to some 50 dishes of unappetizing
local cuisine that had been sitting for a long time. The food was cold and
stale, but she was advised that if she did not partake, the Sharif would be
gravely offended. So, she ate, albeit, unwillingly. Another problem was the
daily gatherings of a large number of unruly beggars outside her house,
especially at dinner time, all expecting to be fed.
Fortunately, the Hajj was completed without much problem. She,
however, was advised to shelve her plans to visit Medina, because the journey
was too perilous. Sikandar Begum safely returned to Bhopal after an absence of
nearly a year. However, the harrowing details of her journey might serve to make
todayís pilgrims to the holy sites appreciate the peaceful and orderly
environment that prevails today.