Over a decade has passed since the glamorous Turkish princess who adopted Hyderabad State as her home and its culture as her own died in London, at the age of 92. Her Imperial Highness Princess Durre-i-Shahwar, Princess of Berar, was born in one of the royal palaces in Istanbul in the year 1914. Her father, Caliph Abdul Majid II, was the crown prince, but never ascended the Ottoman throne. Kemal Ataturk declared Turkey a republic in 1922, deposing the reigning Sultan Abdul Vahid, Mehmet VI. In fear for his life, he fled Istanbul in a British warship. Prince Abdul Majid II, a cousin, was proclaimed the Caliph, a ceremonial position with no governing powers.
The new Caliphate was also short lived. Kemal Ataturk abolished it in 1924, fearing that the Muslim world, using that link, might continue to intrude in the internal affairs of Turkey. His vision was to transform the country into a modern, secular, democratic state, fashioned on the European model. Desperate pleas from some Indian leaders – Maulana Mohammad Ali, Maulana Shaukat Ali and Agha Khan III – to preserve the Caliphate for the sake of Islam were ineffective. On the 3rd of March, 1924, the last Caliph was woken up in the middle of the night in the ornate Dolmabahce Palace and directed to pack and leave by 5 o’clock in the morning. He was never to return to the land of his ancestors.
‘The abolition of the Caliphate affected some centuries-old religious practices. For the first time since it was converted into a mosque in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet Fatih (the conqueror), the Friday sermon at Hagia Sofia made no mention of a reigning Caliph. Lord Kinross, the British historian and author of one of the most authoritative biographies of Mustafa Kemal, noted in his book that Kemal was prescient in his assessment that “the abolition of the Caliphate would cause little [long-term] disturbance, whether at home or abroad.” He proved to be right.
Caliph Abdul Majid was sent into exile, without the Government providing him and his family with any means of sustenance. The family settled in Nice, France. However, their situation got so desperate that some Muslim organizations appealed to the broader Islamic world for help. On the persuasion of Maulana Shaukat Ali, it so happened that Mir Osman Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the richest man in the world at the time, granted him a stipend of 300 pounds per month for life. The deposed Caliph was a highly cultivated man, could speak several languages, was a poet and a gifted painter. Now with some stability in their lives, he and his family moved into comfortable accommodation at the French Rivera.
Abdul Majid had only one child, a daughter, Khadija Durre-i-Shahvar, who was 18 years old, spoke fluent English, French and Turkish, and was known for her beauty, literary and artistic talents. Both King Fouad I of Egypt and Reza Shah I of Persia reportedly sought her as the bride for their sons. Again, Maulana Shaukat Ali succeeded in persuading the Nizam to seek her for his eldest son and heir, Prince Azam Jah. In addition, he proposed the marriage of his younger son, Prince Moazzam Jah, to the Caliph’s niece, Princess Nilofer. After some tough bargaining related to the amount of Mehar, he consented.
The marriages were solemnized by the ex-Caliph himself in a simple ceremony on November 12, 1931, in Nice. Interestingly, the Nizam who never travelled outside India all his life, did not attend the weddings of his two sons. Author John Zubrzycki in his captivating book, The Last Nizam, recounted that after the frugal civil ceremony, “a much more lavish religious ceremony took place, officiated by the ex-Caliph before beturbaned Oriental dignitaries arrayed in white and wearing scimitars of gold studded with diamonds.”
The two princes and their new brides boarded a ship on their way back to India and were enthusiastically received by a rapturous crowd as they disembarked at Bombay port, from whence the party took the ceremonial royal train to Hyderabad. The Nizam who had never gone to receive even the Viceroy broke the tradition and welcomed his sons and their brides at the railway station. A day of celebrations and jubilation followed and a holiday was declared in Hyderabad city. The British Government conferred titles of Prince and Princess of Berar on Azam Jah and his spouse. Ironically, the Nizam had no control over the territory of Berar.
The ex-Caliph Abdul Majid and many others, including the Nizam, had been worried how the two princesses, especially Durre-i-Shahwar, would adjust to the unfamiliar environment in Hyderabad, so different from what they had known in Europe. However, Durre-i-Shahwar promptly adapted herself to the conservative culture and age-old traditions of Hyderabadi society and the rigid customs punctiliously followed in the Nizam’s household. She learnt to speak fluent Urdu and was always dressed in elegant saris. The Nizam was immensely proud of his senior daughter-in-law developed much affection for her.
The Princess of Berar initiated a number of projects for the welfare of women in Hyderabad and was especially concerned about their health and education, as they had been largely confined in their homes. A glimpse into her life in Hyderabad can be gleaned from the writings of Dr. Halide Edib. She was a Turkish intellectual who participated in the independence struggle alongside Kemal Ataturk in the aftermath of World War I. In January 1935, she was invited by Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari, the renowned nationalist leader and physician, to visit India and give a series of lectures at various cities. In her travelogue, Inside India, authored after she returned, she recounted many details of her visit to various institutions and people she met. In Hyderabad she met Princess Durre-i-Shahwar and recorded her impressions as follows: “When I met the princess, she was not wearing any makeup or jewelry, and was clad in a simple sari. She has striking facial features, which reminded me of her ancestor of long ago, Sultan Mohammad the Conqueror. She speaks both Urdu and English fluently. In her company, I had become completely oblivious that she was Turkish, until she addressed her infant, lovely son in Turkish.”
The princess was frequently invited to address women’s gatherings designed to promote education and bring them out of homes so that they might work as professionals on a par with men. She inaugurated the first airport in the state and established the Durre-i-Shahwar children’s and women’s hospital in the old city. After the extinction of the state of Hyderabad, the princess spent much of her time in London, but kept ties with the city where she had spent most of her life. Her last visit to Hyderabad was just two years before her death in 2006.
Sadly, the princess did not lead an entirely charmed life. Her marriage with Prince Azam Jah soon unraveled since they had been brought up very differently; the hobbies and predilections of the prince were not entirely wholesome, prompting the Nizam to bypass him in succession in favour of his grandson, Prince Mukarram Jah. However, Durre-i-Shawar loved her father-in-law, the Nizam, and that love endured into his twilight years when he had lost his power and majesty. During his final days in early 1967, only two people stayed by his side day and night, his doctor and his daughter-in-law, Princess Durre-i-Shahwar.