The Story of a Pilgrimage to Hijaz


Sultan Jahan Begum (1858‒1930), also known as Sultan Kaikhusrau Jahan Begum, was the last of four women nawabs (governors) who ruled the princely state of Bhopal during the British Raj. First established in central India in 1724, Bhopal was an independent state before it became a British protectorate in 1818. The state merged with independent India in 1949 and is now part of Madhya Pradesh. The rule of the begums, as this era of women rulers in Bhopal came to be known, started with Qudsia Begum in 1819, and ushered in a period of peace and coexistence between Muslims and Sikhs. Sultan Jahan Begum was a reformist ruler known for her work to advance public health and women’s education. A devout Muslim, she embarked in 1903‒4 on a hajj (pilgrimage) journey to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Hijaz, a region in western Arabia that was at the time under Ottoman rule. This narrative, entitled The Story of a Pilgrimage to Hijaz, recounts the events of that journey, which first took the begum and her entourage by land to Bombay (present-day Mumbai), before they boarded a steamer that took them via Aden and Jiddah to the port of Yanbu on the Red Sea. From there, the party travelled on camels under Turkish military protection to Medina and further to Mecca. Although the ascetic Sultan Jahan was not the first begum among the Bhopal royals to perform hajj (her grandmother Sikander Jahan Begum was the first to do so), she came back to lavish celebrations in her capital, where relics she brought with her from the holy cities were exhibited for the public to see and minarets were decorated and lit in her honor. Written in a straightforward style, her memoir is divided into “two books.” The first contains geographic descriptions of Arabia, with accounts on the foundation of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, while the second deals with the official correspondence, events, and incidents relating to the journey. Sultan Jahan Begum kept a detailed record of the names of the people she met, the value of currencies she used, and the shrines and other historical monuments she visited in the birthplace of Islam, making her book of historical value. Many of the monuments she mentioned have now been lost due to the expansion of the two holy mosques and the state policy against the veneration of shrines.

Last updated: February 18, 2016