The Indian Christian Bourbons and the Muslim Begums of Bhopal

    Years ago, during one of my journeys to India, I came across this interesting story and, after long and arduous research and working with the historian Marie Stravlo, I’ve finally finished my last historical novel, The Indian Kings of France, the fascinating story of the Bourbons of Bhopal.

    During the reign of Akbar, between 1557 and 1559, a European named Jean Philippe of Bourbon arrived at the court of Delhi. A Frenchman that claimed to belong to one of the noblest families of that kingdom. He told how Turkish pirates captured him during a voyage and sold as a slave to Egypt. This happened in 1541, when he was only fifteen years old. Once in Egypt, his charm and qualities won him the favour of the ruler. He joined the army. This was the beginning of the adventure that was to take him to India. His refined manners and charisma enchanted emperor Akbar. He was offered a position in his army and appointed Master of the Artillery. Full of honour and wealth, Prince Jean Philippe of Bourbon died in Agra. Two children born to the Emperor’s Christian wife’s sister survived him.

Princess Joanna, wife of Sebastian

      In gratitude for his loyal service, Emperor Akbar had granted Jean Philippe lands in Shergar. He was made Rajah of a small independent state loyal to the imperial crown. The eldest son, Alexander, became the favourite of Emperor Jahangir and was appointed hereditary governor of the Begums’ Palace.

      The Bourbons maintained their position at the imperial court until the invasion of India by Nadir Shah. Then, with the permission of the Moghul emperor, they went into exile in their fiefdom of Shergar. Francis II of Bourbon was the last of the dynasty to serve the Moghuls. He was the Superintendent of the Imperial Palace.

Prince Bonaventure II

     In 1778, the Maharaja of Narwar attacked Shergar and killed Rajah Francis II of Bourbon and his family. Only his son Prince Sebastian and his grandson Prince Balthazar survived, as they were not in Shergar on that fateful day.

       A few years later, in 1795, father and son travelled to Bhopal. Once again, Christian princes entered the service of a Muslim royal family. It was the beginning of a relationship of service and loyalty that would last for several generations. The bond was constantly renewed.

       On 15 October 1812, Bhopal was besieged by the combined armies of Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia of Gwalior and Bhagoli Bhonsla, Raja of Nagpur. The combined army numbered over 82,000 men. On that fateful day, the siege of Bhopal began. It lasted for nine months!

Such was the close relationship between these descendants of the French Bourbons and the ruling family that when Begum Qudsia became the first Muslim princess to become regent to her young daughter, Begum Sikander, in 1819 and rule an Indian sovereign state, she made Prince Balthazar of Bourbon, known as Shazad Masih, her dewan.

Painting of Bonaventure I jpg

      In those days, had it not been for Prince Baltazhar’s love for the memory of Nawab Nazar and his The Bourbons could have ruled another kingdom, but loyalty always comes first, and no personal ambition can supersede it. In 1821, an elderly Prince Balthazar married the daughter of a British army officer, Isabella Johnston.        The Begum took an immediate liking to Isabella. Upon meeting her, she bestowed upon her the title of Surkar Dulan. Isabella soon became the favourite lady of the Begum’s court, and both she and Begum Sikander enjoyed her company and wise counsel daily. So much so, that after their marriage, Prince Balthazar only saw the queen in matters relating to the government of the state. His wife had now assumed the role of confidante and personal advisor, a role she would continue to play until her death.

      In 1829, the Christian chief minister of Bhopal died. He was 57. He was undoubtedly the victim of poisoning by his enemies, but he did leave behind a daughter, Princess Juliana, and an unborn son, Prince Sebastian of Bourbon (Mehrban Masihl), who was born in 1830.

       In 1838, Nawab Jahangir had an assassination attempt on his wife, Begum Sikander, and her unborn child. She was devoted to him. But despite Begum Qudsia’s many protests to the British, Jahangir continued his unpopular rule. He became as dissolute as Nawab Ghous, spending most of his time in the company of courtesans. Lancelot Wilkinson continued to support him until his death in 1941, never questioning his misrule and decadence. When Sikander Begum heard of her estranged husband’s illness, she forgave him. She was as magnanimous as her mother had been. She returned to Bhopal with her six-year-old daughter. She spent a week by his side, nursing him as he lay on the verge of death.

Balthazar I of Bourbon – I

       Attempts by Jahangir’s father to persuade the British to allow him to succeed to the throne fell on deaf ears. After consultations between the Governor General, the Political Agent, and the Resident, it was decided that the baby Princess Shajehan would be the next ruler. Her uncle Faujdar, who had accidentally shot Nawab Nazar as a boy, would be the regent.  The Begums tried to persuade the British to restore them to power. But they were rebuffed.  Amir’s failed attempt to seize the throne by force resulted in him being taken prisoner for life by the British.

       On 11 April 1845, Prince Sebastian and Princess Isabella accompanied the two Begums and Princess Shajehan on their triumphal return to the capital. They were greeted with the most tumultuous welcome the city had ever seen. They were returning home after seven years.

       On 27 July 1847, the British proclaimed Begum Sikander sole regent for her nine-year-old daughter. History was about to repeat itself. The new Regent would prove to be an astonishingly talented and dynamic ruler, who admired her mother’s tenacity and strength of character, without which she would not be in power, and thus remained very respectful of her throughout her reign.  Prince Sebastian was 17 when the British appointed Sikander Begum as sole regent and my mother wanted to groom me for service to the state. Mother had learnt Urdu, which I also spoke. We spent most of our time in the company of the royal family. She adopted their costume: a pair of silk trousers, tight around the calves, a beautiful waistcoat of pure silk, carefully fitted like a little petticoat under a long shirt, and a piece of fine muslin for a headdress, which hung over the neck and shoulders and fell down the back in a variety of elegant undulating folds, as was the taste of the beautiful ladies of the court. She was extremely socially active and became the most important person in the kingdom after the Begums. Many sought her opinions and advice, including the British Resident.

Princess ISabella de Bourbon at the time of her marriage

        In 1948, Prince Sebastian married Joanna Bernard, who was to be known at court as Sardar Bahoo. The Begum was appointed commander of the cavalry. The marriage was a success. They had five children, the eldest being Prince Bonaventure. At the age of 25, Prince Sebastian was appointed Prime Minister in 1857. His arrival at the Dewanship was to come at one of the most difficult times in our history, when a major political crisis broke out across the sub-continent in what would become known as the Sepoy Mutiny. The Mughal Empire would come to an end when, after a bloody conflict, the British triumphed and sent the 82-year-old Bahadur Shah II into exile in Burma, banishing the Imperial family from India forever.

       A French traveller arrived at Court at the beginning of the rainy season in 1867. He stayed at the court for several months as a guest of the royal family. He was very surprised to see a family of French descent, related to the French royal family, in such a position of power. He was astonished when Princess Isabella told him the history of the family since Jean Philippe’s arrival in India and how the family had arrived in Bhopal where they now owned important fiefs, had great wealth and were among the highest vassals of the Crown. On his return to France, he wrote some very interesting books: India and its Native Princes and The Son of the Constable of France.

Princess isabella of Bourbon with H.H.Nawab Shah Jehan Begum and her mother H.H.Begum Sikander in red wedding saris.(Courtesy the Alazi Collection)

        On 30 November 1868, Begum Sikander died at the age of fifty and Prince Sebastian resigned as Prime Minister, believing that the new Nawab Begum should be free to choose who she wanted in her government. His son, Bonaventura II of Bourbon (Inayat Masih), became head of the family. He was led by the formidable Princess Isabella. The close relationship between the Christian Bourbons and the ruling family of Bhopal remained intact despite the political turmoil in the kingdom.

      In 1881, Qudsia Begum died at the age of eighty-two and her death cast a shadow of deep mourning over the state as her former subjects had deeply loved and revered her. On 5 August 1882, Princess Isabella died at the age of eighty. Within a year, two legends of Bhopal’s history had passed, and Prince Bonaventura would be the last Bourbon to hold a position of influence at court.

Princess Isaballe Bourbon with Son Prince

        After that, the family began to lose influence and decadence and the head of the family today is a lawyer, Prince Balthazar IV of Bourbon-Bhopal, who has reorganised his house as a branch of the European Bourbons with the aim of keeping alive the fascinating history of the Bourbons of India.

        It is remarkable that a Christian family should be so powerful in a Muslim kingdom. As the French traveller in his book states: “I am proud that a branch of the Bourbons has been raised to such an exalted position that they are only inferior to the ruling family. At the same time, they have remained faithful to the name, the customs, and the religion of their ancestors”.

          Carlos Mundy is author of The Indian Kings of France: The fascinating story of the Bourbons of Bhopal

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