Long-lost 19th-century travelogue sheds new light on Indian ruler’s historic Hajj

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Sikandar Begum with her prime minister, left, and second minister. The photo was published in "A Pilgrimage to Mecca" (1870). (The Asiatic Society of Bombay via AN)
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Sikandar Begum ruled the princely state of Bhopal from 1844 to 1868. The photo was published in "A Pilgrimage to Mecca" (1870). (The Asiatic Society of Bombay via AN)
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Updated 02 August 2020

Long-lost 19th-century travelogue sheds new light on Indian ruler’s historic Hajj

  • One of the most interesting aspects of Sikandar Begum’s account is her open criticism of Ottoman governance in Makkah
  • Imprecise library records obscured access to the original Urdu manuscript for decades

WARSAW: History recently came to life in a manuscript with royal stamps discovered in the archives of SOAS University of London. The historic find? A tantalizing insight into the journey of the first ruler from the Indian subcontinent to set out for Hajj.

In November 1863, the ruler of the princely state of Bhopal, Sikandar Begum, began the sacred pilgrimage many other sovereigns of her time could not make for fear of losing power — in the 19th century, sea travel from India to Makkah meant long months of absence from the throne. Unlike them, Sikandar was safe. Her Hajj included a mission to compile a travelogue for those who guaranteed her reign.

Bhopal had gained independence from the declining Mughal Empire under Dost Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun warrior who, in the early 18th century, founded the Muslim state in today’s Madhya Pradesh. Under British rule, for more than a century the country was led by four women. Sikandar, who ruled from 1844 to 1868, was the most reform-oriented of them. She reorganized the army, appointed a consultative assembly and invested in free education for girls. She was also the first Indian ruler to replace Persian with vernacular Urdu as the official language.

In late January, SOAS librarians came across a title recorded in their archives’ catalogue as “‘Journal of a trip to Mecca’ by Skandar Baigam, Ra’isah’ of Bhopal. Bound manuscript in Urdu. Written at the suggestion of Major-General Sir Henry Marion Durand, 1883.”

“I was really intrigued that such a beautifully bound-in-silk manuscript with obvious royal stamps in its colophon could be linked to such an opaque and short library record,” SOAS Special Collections curator Dominique Akhoun-Schwarb told Arab News.

“It quickly became obvious that there was a bit more story and depth behind the note ‘written at the suggestion of Major-General Sir Henry Durand,’ when the author was a queen herself, a pioneer, since she was the first Indian ruler to have performed the Hajj and authored an account of her pilgrimage.”

The imprecise note had for decades obscured access to the text for researchers. A deformed transliteration of Sikandar’s name had compounded the issue.

Until the chance discovery a few months ago, all scholarship on the Bhopal ruler’s pilgrimage had to rely on two translations of the text as the original Urdu version had been missing for some 150 years. One was the abridgment of Sikandar’s account in Persian, compiled by her daughter, Shah Jahan Begum. The other one, “A Pilgrimage to Mecca, was an English translation by Emma Laura Willoughby-Osborne, wife of a British political agent in Bhopal, which was published in 1870, two years after Sikandar’s death. The two texts are quite different.

In the English version, Sikandar quotes a letter she received from Durand, the British colonial administrator mentioned in the SOAS record, and his wife: “He was anxious to hear what my impressions of Arabia generally, and of Mecca, in particular, might be. I replied that when I returned to Bhopal from the pilgrimage, I would comply with their request, and the present narrative is the result of that promise.”

The letter is nowhere to be found in the Persian text.

A preliminary reading by Arab News of the Urdu manuscript, which has been digitized by SOAS, reveals that Durand’s letter is mentioned in the very first pages of the text. The correspondence and accuracy of other parts, however, are not immediately obvious.

In the preface to “A Pilgrimage to Mecca,” Osborne said that the Urdu manuscript consisted of “rough notes” demanding some arrangement. According to Dr. Piotr Bachtin, from the Department of Iranian Studies of the University of Warsaw, who studied female pilgrimage of the era and translated the Persian version of Sikandar’s account, the English translator’s note immediately raises questions regarding Osborne’s interference in the text.

Osborne’s assurance that the only license she had allowed herself had been the “occasional transposition of a paragraph” seems to be an understatement. It appears that the text was heavily edited. Bachtin suggested that Sikandar might have been a “reporter” entrusted with a specific task and became an “incidental informer” in the service of the British Empire.

The most interesting aspect of the travelogue, which the manuscript may verify, was Sikandar’s political involvement with and open criticism of Ottoman governance in Makkah. One of the most prominent instances of Sikandar’s criticism is the following:

“The Sultan of Turkey gives thirty lakhs of rupees a year for the expenses incurred in keeping up the holy places at Mecca and Medina. But there is neither cleanliness in the city, nor are there any good arrangements made within the precincts of the shrines,” Sikandar wrote, adding that had the money been given to her, she would have made arrangements for a state of order and cleanliness. “I, in a few days, would effect a complete reformation!”

Sikandar’s political commentary is completely missing from the Persian version of her text. “Only in the English translation did she openly criticize both the Pasha and the Sharif of Makkah, going as far as to say that she would have managed Makkah better herself!” Bachtin said, “However, we must remember that her book was commissioned by Sir Henry Marion Durand. For me, this paradoxical dynamic is particularly interesting.”

With the original manuscript now available to researchers, further study should soon reveal how much of the Hajj account was informed by the colonial circumstances Sikandar faced at home, and to what extent it was guided by her own ambitions to be a modern and reformist Muslim ruler.

Exclusive: St. Kitts & Nevis PM aims to ‘cement ties with the Middle East’

Updated 14 August 2020

Exclusive: St. Kitts & Nevis PM aims to ‘cement ties with the Middle East’

  • Prime Minister Timothy Harris emphasizes ‘enduring appeal’ of Saint Kitts and Nevis amid a global pandemic
  • Dual-island nation has announced a discount in the amount needed to secure citizenship for a limited period

DUBAI: After the turmoil and tedium of the last few months, a distant island getaway is probably what tops most people’s dreams. One Caribbean destination, surrounded by sparkling sand and turquoise waters, is intent on using its natural landscapes to nurse people back to normality — and build commercial bridges to the Middle East in the process.

In an interview via Zoom with Arab News, Prime Minister Timothy Harris noted with satisfaction that his country was home to a number of individuals from the Middle East, including the GCC countries. But his ambitions are clearly much bigger than that.

Harris, who was re-elected to a second term as prime minister of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis on June 5, says he will continue to deepen the dual-island nation’s relations with the GCC region.

“We intend to open an embassy soon in the UAE,” he told Arab News. “This will further cement our ties to the Middle East region and to the UAE specifically.”

With their relative affluence and large expatriate populations, GCC countries constitute a key part of the catchment area of the Citizenship by Investment (CBI) program of St. Kitts and Nevis.

“What the CBI program offers applicants is the advantage of mobility,” said Harris, adding: “In the context of St. Kitts and Nevis, it also offers citizenship in a nation that is democratic, peaceful and safe.”

(Full Arab News interview with Prime Minister Timothy Harris)

His government is also counting on efficient processing of citizenship applications to help it stand out in a crowded field.

Amid the coronavirus disease pandemic, some, particularly for those hailing from troubled countries in the Middle East, see a silver lining: A discount on the citizenship of St. Kitts and Nevis.

Harris has announced a time-limited reduction in the contribution required to secure citizenship. The government of St. Kitts and Nevis has decided to temporarily reduce the family minimum contribution by $45,000 to $150,000. However, the minimum contribution for a single applicant remains at $150,000.

Basseterre, capital of St. Kitts and Nevis. (Supplied)
A single applicant seeking economic citizenship normally contributes at least $150,000, while the cost for a family of up to four comes to $195,000. But from July 7 until the end of this year, families of up to four people will be able to secure citizenship of St. Kitts and Nevis at the discounted rate.
The decision was influenced by the global fallout of the COVID-19 crisis and the efforts of the Harris government to find creative ways to stabilize the economy and put it back on the path to the growth rates it had enjoyed over five years preceding the pandemic.

Harris is upfront about his objectives. “This limited-time offer will provide the resources to help us successfully fight COVID-19 and enhance the safety nets for those who have lost their jobs or income as a consequence," he said.

(St. Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris talking about his country's COVID-19 response)

“The CBI program is crucial to our growth and development. The effects of COVID-19 have also destabilized our economy. Without the CBI program we would have been in serious danger.”

The St. Kitts and Nevis CBI program grants citizenship to individuals of high net worth and their families, who get visa-free access to 156 countries, including EU member states and the UK.

Migrate World Ltd is one of the authorized representatives for the CBI program for the Middle East and Africa. Speaking to Arab News in May, Moe Alhaj, CEO of Migrate World Ltd, said: “There’s been a notable increase — of around 40 percent — in applicants from the Arab world during the pandemic.

“The individuals that the program caters to in the Middle East are largely from Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia.” The CBI program does not accept applicants from Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

(St. Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris talking about his country's citizenship program)

During the pandemic, CBI officials say, the program has witnessed a 40 percent increase in applicants from families hailing from the Arab world. Arab News could not independently verify the figure.

What is undeniable is that while the coronavirus crisis continues to ravage countries across the globe, particularly those in North America, the Caribbean region has largely been spared high caseloads.

The total population of residents in the Caribbean is just under 45 million. As of July 27, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections stood at 91,907. The nations with the highest number of cases are the Dominican Republic with 64,156; French Guiana with 7,332; Haiti with 7,315 cases and Puerto Rico with 5,416. 

Aerial view of Black Rocks Beach on St. Kitts. (Supplied)

St. Kitts and Nevis had one of the lowest numbers. By May 19 all of the 16 cases on its two islands had recovered, although one new case was announced on July 4. There have been no deaths. The islands went into lockdown on March 31 when just eight cases had been declared. It was then extended until April 18 and then again to April 25.

“We began an aggressive public education campaign in our schools and workplaces, security forces and health-care workers early on,” Harris told Arab News. “As cases rose, we were at a high level of alertness and citizens and residents complied, so we were able to stop the spread efficiently.”

The CBI program was launched in St. Kitts and Nevis in 1984 as a way to assist the island’s economy, which had suffered due to the collapse of the sugar industry, and to stimulate foreign direct investment inflows.



- 53,821 = Population of St. Kitts & Nevis

- 92.5% African

- 3% Mixed

- 2.1% White

- 1.5% East Indian

“Clearly, size does matter and being a small nation state with limited resources, we had to find unique ways of bringing in investment that would help the country thrive from year to year,” Harris told Arab News.

“While COVID-19 has placed the world under enormous strain, St. Kitts and Nevis’s record to date of zero hospitalizations and zero fatalities from the disease underlines the character and enduring appeal of our great country.”

With alluring beaches, laid back Caribbean lifestyle and faraway location, the offer is hard to refuse — if one’s pockets are deep enough.


Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor