Nawab Sikander Jahan Begum was born in 1871 in Rampur, in the royal household of her paternal grandfather, Nawab Kalb-e-Ali Khan; or, as he was formidably known by his complete set of titles, His Highness Ali Jah, Farzand-i-Dilpazir-i-Daulat-i-Inglisia, Mukhlis ud-Daula, Nasir ul-Mulk, Amir ul-Umara, Haji Nawab, Sir Kalb Ali Khan Bahadur, Mustaid Jang, Nawab of Rampur. Rampur at the time was a 15 gun-salute princely state of British India.
Kalb-e-Ali Khan was a man of great learning, and a scholar of Arabic and Persian. He did much to improve the standard of education in Rampur by expanding libraries and patronizing scholars from all over the Muslim world. When he was growing up, the young Kalb-e-Ali had the rare privilege of being tutored in poetry by none other than Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. The illustrious poet had been invited to Rampur by his father, Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan, equipped with a house and servants, and given a lofty salary of Rs. 200 per month. Ghalib was deeply impressed by the sher goi aur sher fehmi of the people of Rampur whose expertise in poetry he compared to that of Shiraz and Isfahan.
Rampur ahl-e-nazar ki hai nazar mein wo shahar
Ke jahan hasht bahisht aake huey hain baham
(In the eyes of the discerning, Rampur is a town where paradises have converged ~ Ghalib)
The Nawab of Rampur’s patronage of Ghalib did not stop when the poet passed away in 1870; his widow Umrao Begum and his nephew, Husain Ali Khan, continued to receive a regular stipend. The Nawab also paid for Ghalib’s burial rites and sent a sum of Rs. 600 to settle his debts.
The marriage was a union of opposites. Saadat Wali Khan was a Sunni Pathan from the Khattak clan of Akora Khattak, while Sikander Begum was Shia and Yusufzai, originally from Tora Bora, Afghanistan
Sikander Begum, Kalb-e-Ali’s granddaughter, grew up in Qila-e-Mualla, the Rampur Fort, a stunning 200 room palace complex spanning 300 acres, surrounded by a 50-foot high rampart. The twelve arched darwazay or gates of entry to the fort were designed in different styles and large enough to let elephants pass; the name of each gate signified the area that it led to, ensuring that only relevant people would enter and various tasks accomplished in an efficient manner.
Scattered around the palace grounds were smaller palaces for the different wives of the Nawab. There was also an Imambara, where the family used to congregate for majalis especially during Moharram. Kalb-e-Ali, born Sunni, had chosen to embrace Shi’ism. Thereafter, all his progeny followed Shia beliefs and practices.
Sikander Begum was only 10 years old when she was betrothed to her 14-year old cousin, Malik Mohammad Saadat Wali Khan (nephew of the famed Malik Mohammad Sardar Wali Khan of Bareilly). They were married the following year with all the pomp of a royal wedding. The bride’s dowry consisted of hundreds of acres of land, scores of villages, and dozens of elephants laden with jewelry – as befitted a Rampuri princess.
The marriage was a union of opposites. Saadat Wali Khan was a Sunni Pathan from the Khattak clan of Akora Khattak, while Sikander Begum was Shia and Yusufzai, originally from Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Heredity did affect temperaments, but there were likely other reasons that the match was not ideal (apart from the fact that the bride and groom were children when they married!)
As the story goes, Saadat Wali Khan had injured one of his eyes with a surma silai, a kohl applying stick, when he was younger. Although not blinded, the epithet of Kaanay Nawab, One-Eyed Nawab, maliciously bestowed on him by the rival Dilazak Pathan tribe of Bareilly, stuck for life. The impressionable Sikander Begum may have been revolted by that half blind eye or the demeaning nickname; or she may have taken umbrage to his criticism of her practice of Shia rituals. However, the couple had four children – two sons and two daughters – and managed to lead a dignified life together.
Amma Huzoor, as her children called her, brought all her Rampuri customs to her new home in Bareilly. She was an armchair cook par excellence; she would sit on her ‘throne’ and holler orders to the khansama until the food was cooked to perfection
Amma Huzoor, as her children called her, brought all her Rampuri customs to her new home in Bareilly. She was an armchair cook par excellence; she would sit on her ‘throne’ and holler orders to the khansama until the food was cooked to perfection. Rich Rampuri mutton korma, mutton koftay with just a hint of masala, shallow-fried shaami kabab, doodhiya biryani and habshi halwa were everyday meals. Eid specials included sheer khorma and qimami siwaiyen, the latter being composed of such delicate proportions that even one extra drop of milk or syrup would ‘ruin’ the dish, much to the agony of the old khansama.
The summer months were spent in Rampur, where Sikander Begum’s children would caper about with their cousins and enjoy the monsoon celebrations of the royal household. The Rampuris, owing to their pastoral heritage, engaged intensely with the monsoon. The then Nawab of Rampur, Hamid Ali Khan (a former suitor of Sikander Begum), was fond of organizing musical events at the palace for the family’s entertainment. Romantic chahar bayt or Pathani raag would be performed by professional singers, accompanied by the daf, a large hand drum that was reserved for use during the monsoon. Lively monsoon feasts would be arranged in the mango orchards, swings mounted from the trees for the women and children, and freshly picked mangoes kept cool in ice buckets.
Winter in Bareilly was very pleasant, but Sikander Begum preferred to visit her sister in Lucknow during the cooler months. Sikander Begum was the eldest of three sisters; one of them had died young, having accidentally fallen off a balcony in Rampur Fort. Sikander Begum had taken charge of selecting a groom for her remaining sister, and after a lot of rejections, she settled on Nawab Taqi Ali Khan Sheeshmahal, the son of a prominent Shia family from Lucknow. Thus, her trips to Lucknow were frequent, especially during Muharram.
Sikander Begum’s husband, Saadat Wali Khan – the Kaanay Nawab – died at the age of 32, leaving her a widow at 28. After all her children were married off, she decided to move out of the family home, Laal Kothi, and bought herself a separate house in Bareilly. She took along her retinue of coach drivers, cooks, and 30 or more personal khaadima, attendants, all Syedanis who had accompanied her from Rampur as part of her dowry.
She later developed fine tremors in her hands and could not hold a pen steadily; a stamp was made for her in order to be able to sign and validate documents. The stamp was also often used surreptitiously by her munshi, to make money on the sly.
Sikander Begum had bought a 5-acre a mango orchard in Bareilly, which she called Khaas Bagh, to be used as the family graveyard. She died in 1949, at the then ripe old age of 78, and is buried there.
Shehla Ahmad Khan is a doctor and a genealogy enthusiast based in Lahore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org