When Yar Mohammad Khan, the Nawab of Bhopal, died in 1742, he left behind Mamola Bai and another wife, Asmat Begum, as well as his children by the latter. Mamola Bai (1715-1795) was childless, but took care of Faiz Mohammad Khan and the other sons of Asmat Begum so lovingly that they called her Manji. Manji Mamola became de facto ruler of Bhopal. Sometimes recognised as the first woman ruler of Bhopal, she ruled the state for 50 years.

In her later years, when Manji Mamola fell ill, legend has it that Shah Ali Shah, a saint, heard this news and, believing that Mamola Bai could do much more good for the people of Bhopal than he could, decided to give 10 years of his life to her. He is said to have taken a bath and put on a Kafan (a dress Muslims wear when buried). Soon after, he passed away. Manji Mamola recovered and died about 10 years after this incident. The saint’s dargah or burial ground is known as Shah Ali Shah’s Takia in Bhopal’s Big Lake or Bada Talab. Due to an increase in water levels after the creation of Bhadbhada Dam, water surrounded this place and it is now an island. Many devotees visit this dargah and in the summer, sometimes, water levels decrease, making it easier for people to walk to this sacred place and offer prayers.

At the time Salvador Bourbon came to Manji Mamola, in 1785, Bhopal needed allies to counter the British forces.

Mamola Bai had keen political and administrative acumen. She realised the fast-growing influence of the British and was the first to offer a hand of friendship to Salvador. Much like the Scindias bestowing upon Jean Baptiste Filose, also a Frenchman, the position of General in the army of Gwalior, Mamola Bai offered Salvador the position of General in the Bhopal State army, as well as gifted him land to ensure that he would reside in Bhopal State. In addition, she also bestowed upon Salvador a Muslim name, Inayat Masih, to pacify the orthodox Pathans and suggested that Salvador would adopt Muslim ways of living in Bhopal. Thus, Salvador took service under Manji Mamola. In 1786, Salvador married Miss Thome. Slowly adapting to the Bhopali style of living, Salvador and his cousin Pedro gave up their way of dressing and started wearing Bhopali garb, though they did not convert to Islam. They eventually became the leading figures of the Bhopal court. Pedro, who had been given the Muslim name Imdad Masih, continued to live in Icchawar and died in 1833, leaving behind his son Anthony (also named Khairat Masih, born in 1734). Pedro’s wife was known as Madam Bourbon. Khairat Masih was married to Louisa Bourbon (maiden name Frances) and appointed as Commander of the Cavalry of Bhopal. Like other Bourbons, he served the Bhopal State with much loyalty, particularly when confronted with mutiny.

During his time at the Bhopal court, a Hindu lady and her son sought the help of Salvador Bourbon. She had been a mistress of Diwan Chote Khan. Salvador Bourbon was not only a brilliant strategist, and a highly educated man with a good family history, but also an honourable man with a kind heart. He adopted the lady’s son as his own to save the lady from being killed by Chote Khan. This boy was called Bertram when he was young and later on was called Balthazar. Ram Babu Saksena also confirms that there is uncertainty about Balthazar’s real name as the name Bertram appears in the writings from time to time.

National Archival documentation also confirms that Balthazar Bourbon was the son of a previous mistress of Diwan Chote Khan. Manji Mamola Bai trusted Salvador Bourbon. He remained in her services as Tehsildar and Thanedar until her death in 1795.

After the death of Manji Mamola, Diwan Chote Khan had a quarrel with Salvador and managed to kill his former mistress. Salvador had to leave Bhopal with her son Bertram, whom he adopted as Balthazar Bourbon or Shahzad Masih. Chote Khan died in 1795, and Wazir Mohammad Khan became the official ruler of Bhopal, even though he never assumed the title of Nawab. Wazir Mohammad Khan invited Salvador back to Bhopal to become Commander-in-Chief. In 1796, Salvador Bourbon (Inayat Masih) thus returned to Bhopal with his family. The father and son alliance of Wazir Mohammad Khan and his son Nazar Mohammad Khan with Inayat Masih and his son Balthazar Bourbon won many battles together. Their joint trials in a context of external adversity highlighted the character and loyalty of the Bourbons and strengthened a steady friendship between the Bourbons and the Nawabs and Begums of Bhopal.

In 1800, Salvador had been granted a jagir of two villages. Two descendants of the Bourbon family, Balthazar Bourbon and thereafter his son Sebastian Bourbon, became Prime Ministers to the Begums of Bhopal. The fleur-de-lis is part of the royal coat of arms of the Bhopal royal family, as a tribute to the service of this branch of the Bourbon family. The Bourbons were said to be the most influential family in Bhopal and were counted as one of the wealthiest families in the city.

In one of their most memorable victories, Balthazar Bourbon and his father Salvador played a major role in the 1812 Siege of Bhopal. Nazar Mohammad Khan closed all the gates of Bhopal, including Fategarh Fort, for nine months, to secure the city from a Maratha army coalition of Nagpur and Gwalior. The British East India Company refused to help Bhopal, as they did not trust the Wazir. Salvador was aware that the Marathas outnumbered the Bhopalis and defeat was imminent. The Bhopal army of about 2,500 men comprised around 600 Pathans along with Sheikhs, Syeds, and Sikhs and were outnumbered by the 80,000 Marathas. With the Bhopal city gates closed, there was no food for the residents. Bathazar jumped into the lake multiple times with a mushuks (leather bag) to bring food for the people. He swam across the lake to bring food and water from some faithful Rajput zamidars (landlords). According to my mother, Magdaline Bourbon, Hindus and Christians fought side by side with Nazar Mohammad Khan to save Bhopal.

In this tense time of war, Bhopali women played a very important role.

Zeenat Begum, wife of Ghous Mohammad Khan (5th Nawab of Bhopal, 1807), led Hindu and Muslim women to fight against the Marathas. These women came out in full force, helped throw boiling water on the enemy, and even prepared bombs. They also helped fill gunpowder in the shells and fire cannons. The women’s brigade was responsible for the supply of food and water. Women wore men’s battle armour and stood on the wall of the fort to show the Marathas that they had enough manpower to fight. Surprisingly, the enemies withdrew and Bhopal was saved. Wazir Mohammad Khan praised the role of women and their bravery. My mother often used to say that there is something in the water of Bhopal Lake that makes women very brave.

Excerpted with permission from The Bourbons and Begums of Bhopal, Indira Iyengar, Niyogi Books.