HARKING BACK: Dazzling Rani of Punjab that was Gulbahar Begum

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Feb 5, 2017

If you have this habit of finding stories in monuments past, even among graves, then those at Miani Sahib provide an excellent example of how amazing snippets of history continue to live in them.

My dear friend Khalid Mahmood, affectionately called Khalidi, is a past master of such stories, and is a person always worth consulting. Never once has he disappointed. Just last week he wandered off towards Mozang and came up with a photograph of a small insignificant tomb. Tucked away in a corner of the Miani Sahib graveyard, at a place called Bagh Gul Begum, is the tomb of Rani Gul Begum, one of the two Muslim wives of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. It was in its day in the middle of a beautiful garden, only to be overtaken by the land-grabbing mafia that is Lahore today.

The first Muslim wife of the maharajah was the famous Mohran Bai, who outraged Muslims by spending her first nights with Ranjit Singh on top of the minaret of the mosque of Wazir Khan. An alleged curse saw the maharajah become very ill and all the Hindu ‘pandits’, Sikh ‘granthis’ and Muslim ‘mullahs’ of Lahore collected and declared that the curse of the Muslim saint Syed Muhammad Ishaq Guzrani, known popularly as Hazrat Miran Shah, whose grave is within the mosque premises, was upon them both. Soothsayers predicted their deaths.

Mohran Bai immediately became religious, renamed herself Mai Mohran, and built a mosque next to her ‘haveli’ in Pappar Mandi off Shahalami Gate as a sign of repentance. Amazingly, when she died she was buried next to the grave of Hazrat Tahir Bandagi in Miani Sahib, just near where Rani Gulbahar Begum was finally to be buried. The maharajah, from that point onwards, for as long as he lived, offered every Thursday free food to the poor at this place in repentance.


But Gul Begum of Amritsar was a completely different person. She belonged to an established and sophisticated Amritsar Kashmiri family of dancers and musicians. In those days such families coached the rich in etiquette. It was at a function arranged for the maharajah that he saw her for the first time. So taken aback was he by her beauty that he ordered her to meet him, and one account by Sohan Lal tells us, most probably based on hearsay, that ‘he could barely speak as be blushed and proposed marriage there and then’. What followed certainly needs narration.

This proposal posed problems for the Sikh priests of Amritsar’s Harmandir Sahib, who decided to impose a set of conditions, they being that he first sweep the entire Sikh holy shrine, pay a huge fine and promise not to marry another Muslim woman. The ‘smitten’ crafty ruler wanting his way, immediately agreed to these conditions but only if they allowed the girl to remain a Muslim. But then that was not the end of the matter.

Gul Begum, no pushover that she was, imposed two conditions of her own on the maharajah. The first was a relatively easy one for she wanted him to provide a ‘haveli’ for her parents so they could meet her every day. That ‘haveli’ was an excellent one between Rang Mahal and the ‘haveli’ of Mian Khan. Its exact location is in the Rang Mahal Bazaar in the Kashmiri Gate area. The ‘haveli’ today houses a girl’s school and the area is still called Haveli Gul Begum.

The second condition was the more interesting, if ‘testing’ is not a better word. She wanted the maharaja to walk bare-footed from Lahore to Amritsar with his marriage procession to prove to her that he really loved her. The maharajah immediately agreed. One description tells us of workers leveling the then muddy track of stones and ditches for the maharajah to walk all the way without injuring his bare feet.

The procession proceeded from Lahore Fort at sunrise and by the evening it had reached Amritsar. There, as one account narrates, Gul Begum washed the maharajah’s feet with rose water, kissed them and promised to devote her life to him. From then onwards she was his best counsel. According to the account of Khushwant Singh as given in his famous ‘A History of the Sikhs’, the maharajah’s choice of Gul Begum was predicted by Mohran Bai, who predicted that the glow in his eyes when he first saw Gul Begum told her that one day, come what may, he would marry her.

Once back in the Lahore Fort, Gul Begum was renamed, by decree, as Rani Gulbahar Begum and was given a ‘jagir’. She was allocated a special place in court, and to the shock of everyone she sat there with her head uncovered. But then no one dared ask the maharajah. Another account states that once Fakir Azizuddin, the maharajah’s foreign minister and a renowned physician, diplomatically approached the Rani on the subject, to which she politely replied: “In the presence of my ruler, I have nothing to hide”.

After the death of Mai Mohran, the maharajah became much closer to Rani Gulbahar Begum. She rode with him, always bare-headed, on his elephant. She advised him very wisely and when he fell ill, she was the one who looked after him day and night. The Hungarian physician of the maharajah, Dr. Martin Honigberger, writes in his book that Rani Gulbahar Begum was the only one who really cared, and often would not sleep for days. Sadly, they did not have any off-spring, after all the maharajah was 51 years old when they married.

When the maharajah died she walked up to the funeral pyre to offer ‘sati’. At this point she was advised that ‘sati’ was not allowed in Islam. The dialogue offered by a British scholar of this incident was that a Muslim courtier informed her that “life is in Allah’s hands, not in the outcome of your husband’s life”.

So it was that she went into living a lonely life. When the British took over in 1849, she was given a pension of Rs1,205 a month, which in those days was a huge amount. She built an excellent garden, which area is still called ‘Bagh Gul Begum’ in Mozang, very near where she lies buried. She had adopted a son named Sardar Khan, who looked after her in her old age. After her death in 1866 he inherited her entire estate. The old ‘haveli’ in the walled city, as well as of two building in Bagh Gul Begum, are owned by the ancestors of Sardar Khan.

One very moving dialogue offered by a British scholar is that when British officials asked her why she wanted to commit ‘sati’ when she was a Muslim, not a Hindu, she is alleged to have said: “If my ruler could walk from Lahore to Amritsar for me, this was the least I could do for him”.


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