The Begums of Bengal were powerful royal women who exerted salutary influence upon the Nawabs of Murshidabad and their administration. Some of them, like Mir Jafar’s wife Munni Begum, even befriended the British rulers
The Begums of Bengal, the very title paints a picture of their untold wealth, unimaginable luxury, and their natural oriental vice, to the readers.
When we say Begums of Bengal, we are talking about some of the celebrated ladies of the royal house of Murshidabad during the 18th century.
They adorned the homes of the ruling Nawabs of Murshidabad and exerted salutary influence upon the Nawabs and their administration.
The Nawab Begums virtually ruled the kingdoms from behind the curtains.
They also witnessed the downfall of independent Muslim kingdoms of Bengal by a handful of Europeans at Plassey and their life-sketches may bring out the reasons behind the decline.
After the rule of Bengal was passed onto the East India Company, some of these once mighty Begums had to kneel before the foreign lords and beg for mercy, even though they had summoned this foreign power to satisfy their own interests earlier.
Zinat un-Nisa: The Mighty Begum of Bengal
Zinat un-Nisa was the only daughter of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, who was better known as Nawab Zafar Khan.
Zafar Khan became the independent ruler of Bengal in 1713 and under his prudent management Bengal rose to the highest degree of prosperity.
Zinat-Un-Nisa was married to Shuja Khan, by origin a Turk of the Afshar clan.
At that time, Quli Khan was holding minor offices in Deccan.
The newlywed couple started to live with Quli Khan as Shuja was appointed as the Diwan of Bengal.
Shuja soon became involved in differences with his father-in-law and found life at the court of Murshid Quli to be unpleasant.
Zinat-un-Nisa with all her beauty and virtues, failed to reclaim him.
Shuja's hostile attitude towards her father and his indifference towards her alienated Zinat's heart from her husband.
She left him and started living in Murshidabad with her son, Sarfaraz.
Murshid Quli Khan formed the desire of raising his grandson Sarfaraz to the throne around 1725 as he was feeling that death was near.
He accordingly wrote to his agents at the court of Delhi to secure his sovereign's sanction.
Shuja Khan heard of this and took counsel with Haji Ahmed and Alivardi Khan, and set out from Cuttack to secure the patents of Bengal and Orissa in his own name.
Quli Khan died in 1725.
Shuja received the important patents from Delhi and proclaimed himself the lawful Subahdar of Bengal and Orissa as soon as he arrived at Murshidabad.
Sarfaraz was enraged at this and wanted to oppose his father.
But Zinat could foresee that her husband was already an old man and he would not be able to keep Sarfaraz out of his throne for long.
She also made Sarfaraz understand that he should be happy with the Diwanship of Bengal for time being.
She even forgave her husband as soon as he expressed his regrets about what he had done to her and Sarfaraz.
Zinat insisted on her being recognised as the sole heiress to the government and estate of late Quli Khan.
She was highly respected by Alivardi Khan and his companions even after having lost her son in a sanguinary battle against Alivardi Khan.
Even though Zinat found it difficult to survive, she kept herself calm.
Alivardi even wrote an emotional letter to her saying it was written in the books of fate, he did regret for his action and he would never fail to show respect towards her until the last breath of his life.
Alivardi then ascended the throne of Murshidabad and married off his three daughters – Ghaseti Begum, Maimuna Begum and Amina Begum – to Nawazish Muhammad, Sayyid Ahmad and Zain-Un-din Ahmad respectively.
They were given the governorship of three different provinces of his kingdom.
Nawazish Muhammad, the governor of Deccan, persuaded Zinat un-Nisa to become his adoptive mother.
Zinat was vested with absolute control of his whole household and his province.
She adopted Aga Baba, the concubine son of Sarfaraz Khan, who was born on the same day Sarfaraz died.
She was treated with utmost respect by Nawazish Muhammad and his wife Ghaseti.
It is however unclear how long she lived or when she died.
This royal lady was buried near the ruins of Murshidabad Palace which exists till date.
Ghaseti Begum: The Begum of Motijheel
Ghaseti Begum, originally named Mehar un-Nisa, was the eldest daughter of Nawab Alivardi Khan.
Ghaseti was popularly known as Chhuti Begum because her husband, Nawazish Muhammad Khan was known as Chhuta Nawab.
Later, she came to be called the Begum of Motijheel owing her residence in the Motijheel (Lake of pearls).
She was the aunt of Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daula, the last independent Nawab of Bengal.
She apparently hated him and secretly conspired against him with the help of Mir Jafar, Omi Chand and Jagat Seth.
This conspiracy ultimately led to the Battle of Plassey which brought downfall of Nawab Siraj ud-Daula and the foundation of British Empire in India.
Ghaseti retired herself to Motiheel after her husband died in 1755.
She feared that Siraj would not only maltreat her, but also rob her of her property.
The clash between Ghaseti and Siraj began when the Nawab ordered his aunt to send him the severed head of Mir Nazir Ali who had stained the honor of the royal family.
Ghaseti loved Nazir Ali and could not carry out the order.
Nawab Alivardi tried to reconcile them by any means but his efforts went in vain.
Siraj captured the castle of Motijheel and forced Ghaseti Begum leave the castle as soon as Nawab Alivardi died.
She demanded that her lover Nazir Ali should also be allowed to leave safely and Siraj readily agreed.
But she was immediately thrown into confinement upon her arrival to the harem of the Nawab. Her property was seized by the state.
Siraj removed every possible enemy from his path of being the sole master of his country and court.
But while doing this, he actually alienated several grandees of his court, Mir Jafar was one of them.
Mir Jafar was actually Siraj's most influential people at his court.
He even swore on Quran to stand by Siraj in case of any trouble.
But he did not keep his words.
The English had been allies with Ghaseti Begum.
She secretly conspired against Siraj with Mir Jafar and Omi Chand to overthrow him with the help of the English.
They thought the English were the only power that could stand against Siraj.
Most of the material assistance was provided by Ghaseti Begum.
This conspiracy resulted in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 which decided the fate of Bengal in favor of the English and the rise of Mir Jafar.
But Ghaseti could not get what she wanted. She was imprisoned in the Jinjira Palace by Mir Jafar.
Miran, the son of Mir Jafar, felt that Ghaseti Begum was dangerous for them even in imprisonment.
It is believed that she was drowned in the Buriganga River on a dark night in 1760.
Lutfunnisa Begum: The wife of Nawab Siraj ud-Daula
Lutfunnisa was the wife of Nawab Siraj ud-Daula and primary consort of Bengal's last independent Nawab.
She was originally named Raj Kunwar, a Hindu slave girl in the service of Siraj ud-Daula's mother, Amina Begum.
Her manners and beauty attracted the young Nawab.
At his request, Amina Begum gave away Raj Kunwar to Siraj, who married her and later named her Lutfunnisa Begum.
They had a daughter named Zohra Begum.
Lutfunnisa was the constant companion of Siraj ud-Daula in his fortune and in his adversity.
After the defeat in the Battle of Plassey, when both fortune and mankind turned their back on him, Siraj decided to escape alone.
But Lutfunnisa begged him to let her accompany him.
Siraj tried to convince her that this was temporary and he would be back soon with a stronger force to recover his kingdom.
But she could not be persuaded to change her mind.
On the dead night of June 25, 1757, Siraj ud-Daula escaped from the city.
He was accompanied by his devoted wife and young daughter.
They had to go without foods for three straight days.
After Siraj was captured and killed under the orders of Mir Jafar, Lutfunnisa and her daughter were confined in Murshidabad before they were sent to Dhaka in 1758 and confined in the Jinjira Palace on the Buriganga River for seven years.
Mir Jafar and his son Miran proposed on several occasions to marry Lutfunnisa.
The dignified and virtuous woman rejected them every time.
Misfortune never left her till her last breath.
Her daughter, Zohra Begum was married to Mir Asad Ali Khan.
First, her son-in-law died, and then her daughter died in 1974, leaving four granddaughters in her guardianship.
She raised them with the pension she got from the British government.
She died in November 1790 and was buried at Khushbagh beside her husband.
Her lifelong devotion towards her husband and family remains a lesson for all.
Munni Begum: The Mother of the Company
Munni Begum was the wife of Mir Jafar.
The life of Munni Begum is as eventful as that of the contemporary Begum Samru – the celebrated Princess of Sardhana.
She was born and bred in poverty, yet rose to the exalted position of the Regent of Bengal and a trusted friend of the great Governor-General Warren Hastings.
As a child, she was sold to Bishu, a slave-girl belonging to Sammen Ali Khan.
She was taught the art of dancing in Delhi and her fame as a dancer soon spread far and near.
Mir Jafar first met Munni at the wedding of his step brother, Ikram ud-Daula, where Munni came with the dancing group that was hired for a fee of Rs10,000.
Munni then continued to practice the dancing trade in Murshidabad.
Her beauty and talent soon conquered Mir Jafar's heart and he took her into his harem.
Munni's cleverness and sincere love for her master soon raised her to the position of Principal Begum of Mir Jafar's harem.
This let her gain possession of all the wealth Mir Jafar took from the Hirajheel palace of Nawab Siraj ud-Daula.
Mir Jafar and Munni had two sons, Najm ud-Daula and Saif ud-Daula.
After Mir Jafar passed away in 1765, Munni bribed the chiefs of the English company in order to secure succession for her sons.
The Council at Calcutta raised Munni Begum's 15-year old son, Najm ud-Daula, to the throne.
Both her sons died young in 1766 and 1770 respectively.
During their reigns, Munni enjoyed preeminence and controlled the household.
But as soon as her sons died, Babu Begum came to the scene and Munni's authority came to an end.
Munni Begum had a faithful friendship with Warren Hastings, and he stood by her during her crisis.
Hastings even wrote a letter to the court on behalf of Munni which allowed her to retain the dignity of a princess and receive a monthly allowance of Rs12,000.
Munni Begum was the first of few ruling ladies to whom separate allowances were assigned.
She was entitled 'The mother of the Company' in 1767 when Lord Clive came to her and said, "It is true that I cannot restore the late Nawab to life, but I declare with utmost sincerity of heart that I consider myself and all the English gentlemen to be your Highness's children and that we regard you as our mother."
A woman of much sense and spirit, she was haughty and overbearing in character, but steadfast and faithful, never forsaking a friend or a dependent.
She never failed to achieve whatever she undertook.
She died on January 10, 1813, leaving behind personal property worth over 15 lakh rupees.
On the evening of January 14, 1814, to commemorate her death, the flag was hoisted half-mast from the ramparts of Fort William.
All the references of names, characters and stories have been taken from 'Begums of Bengal: Mainly based on State Records' by Brajendra Nath Banerjee