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Book Review: ‘A Princess’s Pilgrimage: Nawab Sikandar Begum’s A Pilgrimage to Mecca’

By Raeesa Usmani

Title: A Princess’s Pilgrimage: Nawab Sikandar Begum’s A Pilgrimage to Mecca
Author: Nawab Sikandar Begum; Editor: Siobhan Lambert-Hurley
Publisher: Women Unlimited (an associate of Kali for Women), 2007 

Nawab Sikandar Begum’s A Pilgrimage to Mecca is a travelogue written on the Hajj pilgrimage in the nineteenth century. Nawab Sikandar Begum (1816-1868) governed Bhopal, a princely state situated in Central India, as the sovereign ruler from 1844 to 1868.

The Hajj is the most sacred and mandatory pilgrimage for every Muslim adherent. Sikandar Begum, therefore, as a faithful Muslim, set off for hajj in the year 1863. She accomplished her pilgrimage during 1863-1864. As a part of their hajj rites, pilgrims greet and meet their relatives, friends, neighbours, and acquaintances, seeking forgiveness before setting off on the journey. Following this tradition, upon informing her British ally, Lady Durand and Colonel (later Major General) Durand, she was asked to record her impressions of the journey and the pilgrimage site, Mecca. The travelogue, A Pilgrimage to Mecca, was hence written upon the request of the Durands. Mecca, located in Arabia, is the most pious place for Muslims around the globe. However, it forbids entry of any non-Muslim in its territory since the beginning. Thus, it was an exotic and mysterious site for Westerners and hence the Durands’ request.

Sikandar Begum penned her experiences in Urdu, which was later translated into English by Mrs. Emma Laura Willoughby Osborne in 1869. This pilgrimage-travelogue was first published in English, posthumously in 1870. It was published with the title, A Princess’s Pilgrimage: Nawab Sikandar Begum’s A Pilgrimage to Mecca. The original Urdu script of the travelogue was procured in the royal archives of Bhopal for many years. The translator, Mrs. Osborne, obtained it from the royal archives. The original Urdu script is currently not available or possibly missing. Her book is counted as the first account written on the hajj pilgrimage by any ruler from India. She has also been celebrated as the first Muslim ruler from India, who ventured on the hajj pilgrimage in the nineteenth century. Before her, no Indian ruler could undertake the hajj pilgrimage as the journey was very long and dangerous at that time. Sikandar Begum was accompanied by her mother – Nawab Kudsiah Begum, uncle Nawab Mian Faujadar Mahomed Khan, and Dr. Charles Thompson, a surgeon of Bhopal Political Agency, who had been deputed to escort Sikandar Begum until Jeddah.

The current edition of the travelogue was published in 2007, by Women Unlimited (an associate of Kali for Women). Siobhan Lambert-Hurley has edited this edition. Lambert-Hurley has provided an acutely informative and scholarly introduction and an afterword to this edition. The introduction examines Sikandar Begum’s account of pilgrimage while exploring its genesis. The introduction and afterword further investigates what the narrative offers about Sikandar Begum’s narration and the genre of ‘travel writing’ by South Asian Muslim women travelers. Two appendices, which helps the reader in understanding certain rituals performed during the hajj, follows the narrative. Appendix 1 provides information about the Holy mosque including information about the Umrah (pilgrimage), whereas Appendix 2 depicts detailed information about the rituals of Toaf. The text also provides a brief description of the journey’s expenses as well as data of its participants, that is, Sikandar Begum’s entourage.

The narrative is written in an exuberant style. It represents her as a candid person. Sikandar Begum was a self-reliant ruler, who rejected the veil. Her narrative demonstrates her insightful and detailed observations of Arabia, its inhabitants, various aspects of the country’s tradition, custom, manners, and lifestyle.

The account is written in nineteen chapters, where only chapter numbers are given. Sikandar Begum sailed from Bombay with her attendants and fellow pilgrims, reached Jeddah on 24 January, 1864. She went with a shipload of presents to be donated in the Holy cities. However, her kindness and fortune of carrying gifts puts her in the most undesirable condition. Upon her arrival at the Jeddah port, few trunks of her luggage were broken down on the port. The Turkish custom officials charged high taxes on her stuff. Her accommodation was not arranged properly in the city. She deals with all these unexpected and sudden troubles with the custom authorities.

Sikandar Begum’s account is partly filled with the official correspondence between Pasha, Sherif of Mecca and Jeddah cities, and herself. Her letters mainly discuss the complexities she had to undergo because of Turkish custom officers; her dealings, arrangement of formal visits and customary communications, regarding her being escorted safely and securely in the city; her tentative dwelling arrangements and the problems she had faced because of an unfamiliar language as an Indian pilgrim. Her account includes her uneasiness about bizarre customs and traditions of the cities, which even made her lonely and frustrated at times. Sikandar Begum’s narration describes nineteenth century Arabia, its life and inhabitants in a comprehensive manner. Several passages are exclusively devoted to present accurate, detailed, and minute observations as well as impressions of the cities of Mecca and Jeddah.

A Mughal Commander, named Sardar Dost Mohammad Khan, established Bhopal as a fiefdom in the seventeenth century, a quasi-independent region in Central India. After the Anglo-Bhopal Treaty in 1818, Bhopal became a princely state in colonial India. Since its very establishment, Bhopal witnessed politically powerful and able Muslim women as administrators. Their governance of the region has left a remarkable and long-lasting imprint on Bhopal. The Afghani background, traditions, customs, exceptional initiative of becoming a full-fledged female ruler, rejecting the veil, active participation in political matters, including ethnical and linguistic reforms, made the women rulers of Bhopal take pride in their Afghani lineage. Sikandar Begum brilliantly incorporates these perceptions in her account, which have been well-reflected in the narration. As a monarch, she not only demands reverence from her subjects, but also expects the same from the Arabian natives and officials.

Sikandar Begum’s narrative comments on wide-ranging areas, including diverse social practices, traditions, religious celebrations, festivals, weather of the cities, diet, and architecture of the cities, attire of inhabitants as well as the pilgrims who came from distant places around the world, the slave market, filthy streets, scarcity of water for poor pilgrims, biased behaviour of the officials towards poor Indian pilgrims, prevailing corruption among the government officials of Arabia, among other things. She also mentions her liking for the sweets of Jeddah, along with her amazement while looking at the windmills, which were not yet introduced in India. She was deeply influenced by British life and culture, which is vividly visible in her comparison of native Arabs and Turks with British people. Her narrative provides important information on the perilous routes and the dangers that pilgrims would encounter en route. The accounts of the elite zenana of Mecca and Jeddah, which is otherwise inaccessible for a male pilgrim or traveler, make her narrative even more informative and interesting.

Sikandar Begum cancelled her visit to Medina on safety grounds. The narrative, however, does not reflect the spiritual impacts of the sacred land and rituals upon her, of her religious offerings as a Muslim pilgrim. Therefore, in a way, her account does not share the common characteristic of many pilgrimage accounts, where the pilgrims reflect on the spiritual impact while observing hajj rites. Often many pilgrims have written about their feelings of amazement and wonder, while confronting the Ka’ba, on the first sighting.

The account provides Sikandar Begum’s minute, insightful, and very often critical observations of her journey, the places she visited, and the people she met during her stay in Arabia. It is very interesting to read the translator’s commentary on the text. In the Translator’s Preface, justifying her endeavors to translate this account, Mrs. Osborne writes that this pilgrimage site has been visited by a few travellers from Europe and more importantly, “this is the first account written by a lady traveller from the East on her visit to Mecca” in her knowledge. She adds that this would be a different experience for the readers, specifically Europeans, of viewing Arabia from the viewpoint of a loyal oriental British subject.

Sikandar Begum’s account is an important document that records the pilgrimage of a remarkable female Muslim Nawab of India in the nineteenth century. The travelogue is a comprehensive and critical record that documents nineteenth century Arabia as comprehensively as possible. Her account seems to take a step ahead in bridging gender gaps in the area of travel writing. Many women pilgrims from South Asia later went to Mecca and wrote about their journeys, but these journeys have been facilitated by the advent of modern conveyance.

Raeesa Usmani is a Teaching Assistant at the Department of Biotechnology, Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat, Gujarat, India. A Gold Medalist in M. A. in English Literature and Language at Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat, she received her M. Phil degree on Travel Writing. She is currently working for a doctorate. She has published poems and research papers in journals and has presented papers in national and international conferences. Her areas of interest include Travel Writing, Applied Linguistics, English Language Teaching, Gender Studies, Translation Studies, and Partition Literature.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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