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The last Begum of Malerkotla

Recalling the life and times of Begum Munawwar-ul-Nisa and her last wish

The last Begum of Malerkotla

The ‘kirpan’ and letters of appeal to Aurangzeb.

Madhvi Kataria

Begum Munawwar-ul-Nisa, the fourth wife of Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan of Malerkotla and the last heir of Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, passed away on October 27 this year. The name of Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan is written in golden letters in the annals of Sikh history, as he was the only Muslim king who was a voice of profound sanity and protested against the barbaric bricking alive of the young Sahibzadas of Guru Gobind Singh. Not only that, he also appealed to Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to spare the lives of the Sahibzadas — Zorawar Singh (aged 7) and Fateh Singh (aged 5) — in the court of the Subedar of Sirhind, Wazir Khan. On learning this, Guru Gobind Singh blessed the Nawab and the people of Malerkotla with a promise that the Muslim community of Malerkotla would never be harmed. The Guru gave the Nawab a kirpan, reverently termed ‘Sri Sahib’, which is kept as a treasure in Mubarak Manzil Palace.

The writer with the Begum of Malerkotla.

Long before I visited Malerkotla for the first time, the place had already cast a spell on me with its rich history, captivating culture and being a unique beacon of communal brotherhood. Carved out of Sangrur as the 23rd district of Punjab on May 14, 2021, its last surviving Begum, Munawwar-ul-Nisa, carried forward the glorious legacy of benevolent inter-religious dynamics. A princess of the erstwhile Tonk riyasat of Rajasthan, she got married to Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan in 1948. When he was bringing his young and beautiful bride to his riyasat, Nawab Iftikhar’s baraat was hosted en route at Patiala. Her friendship with Maharani Mohinder Kaur of Patiala stood the test of time.

As per the royal customs, the Begum observed strict purdah, recited namaz five times a day and accompanied Nawab sahib on shikar. She had once travelled to England on a joint passport in her name and the Nawab’s. Otherwise, she rarely appeared in public, preferring to confine herself to the palace precincts. While Nawab sahib was twice elected MLA, Begum had no interest in politics. After his demise in 1982, her life underwent a catastrophic change.

The Nawab had not sired progeny with any of his four wives, including Begum Munawwar-ul-Nisa. There were disputes over property with the second Begum, Yusuf Zamman. Many properties were allegedly usurped by relatives and real estate sharks and there were numerous cases in courts, leaving her distraught. To survive, she sold off properties, assets and other valuables over the years but still debts accrued, reducing her life to near penury. Personal staff were pruned to a bare minimum and Mehmood, a descendent of the old khadims of the royal family, who was still studying in college, took it upon himself to be the Begum’s caretaker after the Nawab’s death. 

Begum used to relish kofta, biryani and kebabs which Mehmood used to cook for her. She was also fond of sher-o-shayari and often recited couplets of Ghalib and was adept at aptly quoting her favourite poets as per the situation. Begum had become rather quiet after the Nawab’s demise, battling adversity without any support from relatives. She sought refuge in poetry, literature and religion.

An Urdu magazine, ‘Mashriqi Dulhan’, published from Delhi, remained her favourite till her last years. Sufferance, forbearance and stoicism came to manifest her persona. Circumstances had forced her to meet lawyers and public for various matters. The reluctant Begum relented only after she got convinced of her status as the Rajmata of Malerkotla and the obligations thereof.

I had learnt from media reports about the ‘last wish’ of Begum Munawwar-ul-Nisa about seeing the 150-year-old Mubarak Manzil Palace being restored to its pristine glory and conserved as a heritage museum, library and study centre for Urdu, Persian and Arabic languages. She had donated the palace to the Punjab government and the notification of the takeover and other terms and conditions had already been issued by the Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. She had been promised Rs 3 crore for her personal upkeep, and retaining a portion of the palace till her lifetime.

Reportedly, some of this amount received was used for paying salaries of her personal staff, redeeming debts, settling property disputes and organising langars during Moharram. Some amount is pending with the government for release, according to her caretaker. 

After I joined as the Deputy Commissioner of Malerkotla in November 2021, this project was on my list of top priorities along with the conservation of other heritage buildings. I contacted the Aga Khan Foundation, tasked with conservation of the palace, as well as the Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. The status was found to be comatose. I was very keen to get it going and made efforts to resolve the bureaucratic issues, besides making a strong pitch to the Punjab Governor during his visit to the Kuka memorial in Malerkotla district. His response was encouraging though I could not follow it up as I was transferred soon.

I remember my first and only meeting with Begum. On the first day of the New Year 2021, I had called on the centenarian Begum. I landed at her abode with a bouquet of roses and immediately struck a rapport with the petite Begum, attired in salwar kameez with a white shawl wrapped around her head. Her tenderness and royal grace had remained intact despite a life steeped in intense vulnerability. The Begum also had a remarkable memory. She could effortlessly recall details of the years gone by.

She loved feeding birds. Of the many peacocks in the palace-in-ruins, her favourite ‘Moti’, used to call out and she would exclaim, “Moti, tu aa gaya?” and feed him. There were eight to 10 cats who kept her company and she used to affectionately feed them milk, even at night. As I conversed with her in Hindustani, peppered liberally with Urdu, she also communicated quite spiritedly. At one point, she held my hand, looked straight into my eyes, and said with deep affection and anticipation, “Agar aap ne meri khwahish poori nahi ki, toh aap se ladai karoongi.” Now that she has left this mortal world, I wonder if broken promises are akin to broken mirrors and those who cling to them are left  grappling with fractured images of themselves.

A few months before her death, she had travelled to Fatehgarh Sahib where she was honoured by the SGPC and the Diwan Todar Mal Virasat Foundation. She had taken along the ‘Sri Sahib’ for darshan by the Sikh devotees and reiterated her message of abiding communitarianism and everlasting peace and fraternity among all.

— The writer is a retired IAS officer

#Guru Gobind Singh #Malerkotla #Sahibzadas #Sikhs

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