Bhopal’s French Connection

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    You wouldn’t normally associate the mighty House of Bourbons, who once ruled over France and still reign over Spain, with places like Narwar and Icchawar, today non-decrepit small towns in Madhya Pradesh. Or that Jean Phillippe de Bourbon, was Mughal Emperor Akbar’s brother in law, married to Bibi Juliana, a sister of one of Akbar’s Christian wives. Or that this Bibi Juliana served as a lady doctor to Akbar’s Zenana! We get many such fascinating fragments from a distant past in Indira Iyengar’s book, ‘The Bourbons of Bhopal: The Forgotten History’ published by Niyogi Publications.

    The coming in of European mercenaries to India, in the 18th and 19th centuries and personalities like James Skinner, Begum Samru & Claude Martin have been extremely well chronicled by writers. But what remains unexplored is the history of the early Europeans in North India. Attracted by the tolerant policies of Emperor Akbar and Jahangir. The 16th and the 17th centuries saw an influx of Jesuit priests, travellers and traders. The book throws light on some important aspects of this unexplored chapter. This is followed by the account of the journey of the Bourbon family from Delhi, to Bhopal and how they came to be the ‘pillars’ of the Bhopal state, ruled by a succession of powerful female rulers known as the ‘Begums’. The most famous and powerful of the Bourbons of Bhopal was the enigmatic Balthazar de Bourbon (1772-1829) , a minister and adviser to Qudisa Begum, the first Begum of Bhopal. It is Balthazar who helped the Bhopal kingdom survive through its darkest days in the late 18th century, weathering political instability, court intrigues and wars with the Marathas.

    What makes the book an interesting read is that it combines the research from rare Persian and Urdu documents with even rarer family photographs and anecdotes from the author’s mother, a member of the Bourbon family.

    For the last two decades Indira Iyengar , a social activist , has been running the Mahashakti Seva Kendra, in Bhopal, which has helped more than 5000 underprivileged women gain economic self-sufficiency. I spoke to Indira, about the ‘story behind the story’ and she shared her fascinating journey of rediscovery, which started with a quest to locate a missing grave!

    Why did you choose to embark on this project? How was your journey into your family’s past like?

    This project actually began several decades back when I was working on my PhD thesis on ‘The Contribution of the Church in India’. I did extensive research in the Archdiocese archives at Agra and came across Akbar’s farmans, and many other such interesting things. In those days, there were no photo copiers, but I used to take photographs or write down notes, hence, I had a wealth of material on early Christian history in North India.

    At the National Archives of India I found the map of the Grave of Balthazar de Bourbon. I have no words to describe what I felt that time.

    I was also very interested to trace the grave of Balthazar de Bourbon, the most famous of the Bhopal Bourbons, who had served as a pillar of the Bhopal state. Many books mentioned that he is buried in the cemetery at Agra. I went to the cemetery there but was disappointed that Balthazar de Bourbon’s grave was not there. I went to look for it in Bhopal’s Christian Cemetery, but much to my surprise, it was not there as well.

    I went to the National Archives of India in Delhi, and asked to see the papers on the Bourbon family. They were surprised and amused to see me as no one had touched those papers for centuries. They gave me more than 500 documents on the family, most of which were in Persian or Urdu. I had to hire translators, to translate them for me.

    The papers threw very interesting information on the Bourbons, their contributions, the wars they fought, the palaces they built. Then one day, I saw an old map, and I asked the translator, what map is this? He said it is the map of the Grave of Balthazar de Bourbon. My god! I have no words to describe what I felt that time.

    My mother belonged to the Bourbon family and used to tell us lot of stories of the past

    So as per the map, Balthazar de Bourbon was buried in the Muslim graveyard, opposite Bhopal talkies, on Hamida Road in Bhopal. I went to that graveyard and I finally found the grave of Balthazar de Bourbon!

    It is after that, that I began compiling information on the Bourbons, based on the information I had uncovered. Also, my mother, who belonged to the Bourbon family, used to tell us lot of stories of the past. I felt these had to be documented as well. My book goes back centuries, to Akbar’s Christian wife, whose sister married Jean Phillipe de Bourbon [The French prince who arrived in Akbar’s count]

    Coming to Emperor Akbar, since you have also studied the early Christian history, can you share your perspectives on the early Christians in Akbar’s court?

    Akbar was a very liberal, open minded ruler and an astute politician. Though not very well educated, he was very well informed. It is he who invited the Jesuit priests from Goa. He also saw these Christians as allies, as the orthodox Muslims were against him. He granted them land for a Church in Agra, which even today is called Akbar’s Church. This is the reason even Jean Philippe de Bourbon was given the title of a ‘Rajah’ with a jagir.

    I was lucky since I got access to the Archdiocese archives in Agra. The documents there are unbelievable.. there are Akbar’s farmans, Jahangir’s farman and a lot of rare records that throw light in the early Christian communities in North India. More research needs to be done on this.

    So what happens after the fall of the Mughals?

    After Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi, the Bourbons came to their Jagir of Narwar [granted to them by Emperor Akbar] near Gwalior. But the Scindias came and made them prisoners [in 1780]. The British released them and gave them two villages. Salvadore de Bourbon’s [1760-1815] mother asked him to meet this Begum in Bhopal. He came to Bhopal and liked it here and got his family along with him. When they came to Bhopal, they adopted all the Muslim customs and traditions. Salvadore’s son was the famous Balthazar de Bourbon, who was given an administrative post in Bhopal.

    When the Bourbons came to Bhopal, they adopted all the Muslim customs and traditions. They would wear Pajama, Kurtas, and Duppatas even in the church.

    When Qudsia Begum’s husband died [in 1819] there was no male heir. So who was going to rule? Everybody insisted that Balthazar decide who will be the next Nawab, but he gave his support to the widowed Begum. The Begum learnt to rule and Balthazar was the pillar of support behind her. It is he who made the treaty with the British and in fact it is he who signed the treaty with the British. His son Sebastian too played a very important role. There was also the trust factor, the Begums could not trust the Bhopal court factions, but the Bourbons could be trusted.

    With the coming of the Europeans, did the Bourbons not try to get in touch with their kinsmen in Europe, considering the Bourbons were ruling in France as well as Spain.

    No, because for quiet sometime they were here. If they wanted to get in touch with the French, they could have done it during Akbar’s time as well, but for some reason they did not do it. They considered themselves more Indian, than European. Even when they came to Bhopal, they adopted all the local customs. Even in the church, there used to be purdah. And the men and women would sit separately. They would wear pajama-kurtas, and duppatas. The priest used to come from Goa or Agra to say the prayers. So they were very Indianised. In fact, going through the papers and photographs, it was interesting even for me to see, how completely Indianised they were.

    For you what was the most interesting part of going back into your family’s past?

    An interesting character is the Dulhan Sahab [1808-1882], the wife of the Balthazar de Bourbon who was a very strong lady. She was the mentor to the next Begum of Bhopal [Shah Jahan Begum – r.1868 to 1901]. The Begum used to call her ‘Chachi'. I came across letters where Begum refers to her as ‘Meri Pyaari Chachi’. I like her character and I would like to be like her.

    Bhopal has a very strong tradition of powerful women. The Begums ruled Bhopal better than any man. This tradition seeped down in the society. Even all of us girls , since childhood, were taught to ride and to use guns. Even today, the women here in Bhopal are very strong.

    How do you see the Bourbon legacy in Bhopal today?

    It really hurts. There has been a lot of destruction of old buildings and monuments in Bhopal. It needs to be preserved for posterity. Shaukat Mahal, the historic palace of the Bourbons, was demolished by the Municipal corporation in 2015. It could have been repaired and saved. Now Shaukat Mahal, of the Begums is in danger. But we have formed a group of heritage lovers to make sure that this heritage destruction stops. We are even willing to raise funds to restore it.


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