British Library, BHOPAL: Sultan Jahan Begum, Begum of Bhopal (1858-1930), photograph taken in the 1870s. Image Credit: British Library.

By Catherine Capel

Sultan Jahan Begum was the fourth and last female ruler of Bhopal, a principality in Malwa in Central India, ruling from 1901 until 1926.

She ascended to the throne as Begum, the royal title adopted by all four ruling women of Bhopal, on the 4th July 1901, at the age of forty-three, after spending thirty-three years as the heir apparent.

She was married to Ahmad Ali Khan, known by his title as Sultan Doulah, and together they had five children, three sons and two daughters.

Although she inherited the throne from her mother with no disputes concerning the legality of her succession, she did not have the full support of her court. The two factions were split between those who supported Sultan Jahan and those who still supported her mother, Shahjehan Begum.

However, the quick nature with which her rule was recognised and cemented resulted in little resistance from any opposition.

During her reign, Sultan Jahan was known for her reformative rule particularly when it came to politics and female education. She used her personal funds to begin the financial recovery for Bhopal, appointed new advisors and confidantes whilst ousting the older corrupt officials, and oversaw stately records.

She was the founder of the All-India Muslim Ladies Conference in 1914 and the All-India Muslim Ladies Association in 1918. Here they discussed social issues which impacted on women such as marriage rights and the practicing of pardah.

In 1926, Sultan Jahan was faced with organising succession and her favour lay with her youngest surviving son, Hamidullah, over her eldest grandson. She released a proclamation of five points as to why her son should be appointed heir, the first of which denoted her right to choose who succeeded her as the current ruler.

Her choice of heir caused tensions within her court and government, and she set off to England where, with the support of King George V, she successfully lobbied for her son to recognised as next in line. On the 29th April 1926 she abdicated her rule and she died four years later.    

Recommended Reading

Angma Dey Jhala, Courtly Indian Women in Late Imperial India (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016)

M. Reza Pirbhai, Reconsidering Islam in a South Asian Context (Leiden: Brill, 2009)   

Shaharyar M. Khan, The Begums of Bhopal: A Dynasty of Women Rulers in Raj India (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).

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