Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam which consist of series of rituals taking place in and around Mecca over a period of 5-6 days.For over fourteen hundred years,every devout and able Muslim embarks on this journey atleast once in their lifetime.
“Very few women broke out of the domestic circle in the 19th century to venture into the wider world as self acknowledged travellers ” L.K Worleys
This article throws light on one such Hajj expedition undertaken by Nawab Sikandar Begum of Bhopal.
Born in 1816, Nawab Sikandar Begum ruled Bhopal from 1844 to 1868. On 1284 Hijri [1863-4 CE], she embarked on her spiritual journey to Mecca making her the first Indian Ruler to perform Hajj.
Despite being practicing muslim, not every ruler made these kind of expeditions in those days. The danger associated with the voyage, ongoing diseases and imperialism of the colonial powers debarred them from performing Hajj.
But Begum Sikandar, who was pious, five time punctual in her prayers decided to perform Hajj as her religious obligation.
Nawab Sikandar Begum’s Hajj journey began in November 1863 with a retinue of 1500 people (maids and cooks included) and a special train was arranged to take her caravan to Bombay from where they set on their voyage with 3 chartered ships.
An eagle-eyed observer, Sikandar Begum wrote extensively about the holy city of Mecca,its people, the bedouins (nomadic Arab) and the administrative conduct of the Sherifs and the Pashas (governor) of Jeddah. According to Begum Sikandar, the Turks were ineffective guardians of the holy land and the negligence of the Arabs in performing their civic duties left Mecca and Jeddah in shambles. As a pre-reformative ruler, Begum Sikandar felt that a proper drainage system would have been built had she been in charge of the holy cities.
Begum Sikandar’s memoir give very less personal details about the Hajj rituals.
This memoir (later translated and published) was not intended for wider readership. It was written on request of Lady Durand, whose husband Sir H.M Durand was a Political Agent at Nawab Begum Sikandar’s Court.
Two years after Begum’s death, the memoir originally written in Urdu was translated in English and Published in 1870 under the title” A Pilgrimage to Mecca”.
Influenced by Nawab Sikandar Begum, her granddaughter also the Governor of Bhopal, Sultan Jahan Begum journeyed to Mecca in 1903 and performed Hajj. Her Hajj journal is also recorded and entitled “The Story of a Pilgrimage to Hijaz”.
Upon her return, Sultan Jahan Begum proceeded to establish educational institutions for women and introduced the system of ladies prayer rooms in mosque.
Some critics says that their journals were carefully curated to appeal to her intended audience but majority of historians refer the duo as fearless, formidable and pre-reformative rulers.
Views are personal