Mysteries Of The East: A Veiled Indian Princess Greets & Entertains The Playboy Prince Of the British Empire!
Who Exercises Life & Death Authority
Over Men & Beneath Whose Mysterious Veil
Not Even The Favored Prince Of Wales
Was Allowed To Peep
There was one privilege which the Prince of Wales desired more than any other during his recent tour of India, but which he could obtain.
That was to see the face behind the veil of the mysterious Begum of Bhopal, the veiled woman ruler of a great Indian Principality.
They say that the young Prince was sorely tempted to slyly pull aside the veil of the woman ruler, but he was warned by his English advisers of the terrible consequences that might ensue from such an act, both to himself and the British power in India. That simple and natural act of youthful curiosity might have entailed the deepest curses that a fanatical priesthood could utter, a world wide campaign of terrorism, and perhaps a terrible war.
Every privilege that could be offered to the popular young heir to the British throne had been his. Every honor that could be paid him had been given freely. Every treasure that the vast land of India could produce had been laid at his feet. Every enjoyment that the country could offer was his.
The white elephants had been placed at his disposal. He had been invited to enter the holy of holies of the great temple of Benares. He had been entertained by the most beautiful, sacred dancing girls of India, whose performances are ordinarily reserved for the innermost circle of the priesthood. He had been requested by the great Princes of India to his pockets with priceless diamonds and rubies.
But he could not see behind the veil of the Begum of Bhopal. There he came up against an impenetrable wall of superstition and fanaticism.
The Begum of Bhopal is perhaps the most extraordinary figure in the modern world. She is the only woman ruler in India and in all Asia. In a land where ordinary women have scarcely the right to look at a man, she exercises absolute powers of life and death over all human beings.
On every side her country is surrounded by States where men are rulers and where only men can hold office in the ruler’s service.
An extraordinary combination of events was necessary to put a woman on the Begum’s throne, and extraordinary methods are necessary to keep her there. She must pass her entire life veiled. No man must see her face from birth to death. She exercises all the function of government thus veiled. She sits in judgment, pronounces sentences of execution, commands armies and makes speeches without raising her veil.
It is even whispered that her husband never sees her face, but in Bhopal it is punishable with death to discuss this subject.
English travelers report that the sound of her voice coming from behind the veil produces a much deeper impression on her hearers than a voice from an uncovered face would do. This is thought to explain some of the strange power exercised by her and her ancestresses.
What would happen if any man saw her face? This again is part of the mystery that envelops her. Some Hindus think that death and ruin would fall on the mortals who beheld her uncovered features. Others think that her great and wonderful power would come to an end, but the inhabitants of her dominions believe that in either case ruin would fall upon them.
During his tour of India, the Prince of Wales paid a very ceremonious visit of state to the Begum of Bhopal in her capital of Bhopal. The Begum, clad in a costume of white silk and silver, with veil to match, met him at the station and escorted him to the Royal palace, which she had placed at his disposal. An escort of the Begum’s bodyguard mounted soldiers wearing chain armor of medieval design and carrying great curved scimitars, accompanied them to the palace.
Two hours later the Prince, in full uniform, accompanied by a great staff of brilliantly uniformed officers, returned the visit of the Begum at her chief residence – the Sardar Manzil Palace in Bhopal.
It was here that a ceremony of mingled mystery and splendor occurred. Within a white and sunny courtyard, set with scarlet and gold carpets for the feet of the Royal participants, and cooled by iridescent showers of scented spray from exquisite fountains, the entire gorgeously dressed Court of Bhopal gathered in honor of the Begum and the Prince.
Nowhere throughout the Prince’s tour was seen such profusion of rich silk and golden embroidery. Amid all this splendor the slight, womanly figure of the veiled Begum was the overpowering point of attraction.
The Begum then presided as a ‘Durbar,’ in honor of the Prince. The Indian ruler and the British heir apparent swore eternal loyalty and devotion to one another, ate salt, broke bread and drank wine together.
Again and again the Begum addressed the Prince in long and flowery speeches, but always the voice came from beneath the heavy veil and had an inhuman sound. Every white man present knew that the young Prince’s greatest curiosity was to know what kind of human being that veil concealed.
At the back of the brilliantly uniformed courtiers near the Begum’s throne stood a huge figure, draped in black, with face veiled. His mighty arms rested upon an enormous naked sword, sharpened to a razor edge. He was the Royal executioner.
At a word from the veiled Begum any human being in her dominions could have been dragged before the executioner and beheaded on the spot, in front of the whole Court.
As one Englishman present at the Durbar remarked:
‘It is all like a page from The Arabian Nights.’
It is through an extraordinary series of events that the ruler of Bhopal happens to be a woman. The founder of her family was a very fierce Afghan chief, Dost Mohammed Khan, who fought for the Great Mogul, the Mohammedan Emperor who ruled a large part of India from the city of Delhi.
Dost Mohammed Khan was a general in the service of Aurungzebe, the last of the Great Moguls who maintained anything like the power of his predecessors. The Great Moguls lost their power before the English invaded India. Dost Mohammed Khan established an independent state of his own in Bhopal.
The present Begum is eighth in descent from Dost Mohammed Khan, who died early in eighteenth century. Male rulers reigned in Bhopal down to the time of Nazar Mohammed, who lived early in the nineteenth century.
Nazar Mohammed had a favorite daughter, Sikander Begum, and no sons. He was an absolute despot and fixed the conditions on which the throne should pass simply at his own pleasure. He planned that his daughter should marry one of his nephews, and that they should rule jointly. Before this marriage occurred Nazar Mohammed found that his nephew was conspiring to take the throne. The nephew was pursued and killed.
The Prince then married his daughter to another nephew, and this couple actually inherited the throne and began joint rule together. One child was born to them, a daughter, who was known as Jehan Begum, and became in time the mother of the present Begum.
Although Mohammedan Princes have as many wives as they please, it was decided that the Begum of Bhopal must be the only wife. It was honor enough for any man to be the husband of the descendant of Dost Mohammed Khan and of Nazar Mohammed.
This was a source of dissatisfaction to the Nawab, as the husband of Sikander Begum was called. He held that it was irreligious and against the wishes of the Prophet to pay so much honor to a woman. He separated from his wife and shortly afterward died very suddenly.
After this Nawab died suddenly his followers announced that he had made a will, leaving his throne not to his daughter by the Begum, but to his son by an unofficial wife, in accordance with the laws of the Koran. These followers and the obscure heir were promptly suppressed by the Begum.
Sikander Begum ruled very firmly and successfully for many years. The prosperity of the country convinced the inhabitants that a woman’s rule was a good thing for them. The fact that she always appeared veiled and that they never became familiar with her face helped to increase the awe and reverence with which they regarded her.
The Begum was always accompanied in public by eight astrologers of high reputation, whom she consulted before giving any decision. The people were thus assured that she received direct approval from heaven concerning her acts and that they could not be improved upon.
Sikander Begum was succeeded by her only daughter, Jehan Begum. As a ruler she repeated the success her mother had achieved and strengthened the conviction of the people that they were happiest under a woman’s rule.
Sikandar Begum flanked by her Minister, Maulvi Jamaluddin (left) and Army Chief, Mattu Khan.+
Strange to say, Jehan Begum, in turn, had no sons, but only a daughter. It is said that sons were born, but that they died. Events appear always to have favored the continuation of female rule in Bhopal.
Sultan Shahjahan Begum, Begum of Bhopal
The second Jehan Begum, the present ruler, came to the throne in 1901, and again proved the ability of a woman to govern an Oriental State successfully. Her exact title is ‘Her Highness Nawab Shah Jehan Begum,’ and she possesses ‘the Grand Cross of the Star of India,’ the highest honor given by England to anybody in India.
It is impossible to say definitely whether the ruler of Bhopal is a woman because there is a law to the effect or because there have only been daughters in the family for three generations.
The inhabitants of Bhopal believe firmly that it is the will of Heaven that they should always be ruled by a woman, and any departure from this ancient custom is likely to cause a revolution.