From fugitive to Nawab

Parvez Mahmood on the rise of Dost Muhammad Khan - from impulsive, violent youth to founder of the Bhopal state

From fugitive to Nawab
There are few laurels that have escaped the reach of the rulers of the State of Bhopal. Spread over 18,000 square kilometres, it was the second-largest Muslim-ruled state in India and was honoured with a 19 gun salute under the British Raj. It was progressive in that for 107 years between 1819 and 1926, it was ruled by women, now famously called the Begums of Bhopal. They were the only women rulers of a state who appeared with their face uncovered and remain role models for progressive Muslims. Bhopal’s ruler Sultan Jahan Begum was the founder Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and served from 1920 to 1930. She was followed by her son Nawab Hamidullah, who was chancellor till 1935. Nawab Hamidullah was close to Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal. Allama Iqbal stayed in Bhopal on four separate occasions and some of his poems were written there. He also wrote a poem dedicated to the Nawab Hamidullah Khan, who had awarded the Allama with a lifetime pension of Rs. 500/- per month, a princely sum in those days. In addition, the state rulers have actively contributed to cricket in India as well as in Pakistan. One daughter of Hamidullah Khan was the wife of Indian cricket captain Nawab Iftekhar Ali Khan Pataudi and mother of another Indian cricket team captain Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi; the other, the elder daughter, migrated to Pakistan and is the mother of Shahryar Khan – a senior diplomat and retired Foreign Secretary, who served multiple tenures as Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).

Bhopal State has contributed to the Muslim causes and enjoyed great respect that might appear to run counter to its conception by a hot-headed soldier of fortune, who had to flee Tirah Valley in the modern-day FATA area of Pakistan, under adverse circumstances. Throughout his life, he remained a dangerous enemy and a treacherous ally. This daredevil was Dost Muhammad Khan, an Orakzai Pashtun, the founding Nawab of Bhopal. This is the story of his career. The main sources for this article are the accounts of his life written by his eminent descendents.

Dost Muhammad wrote that he gained consciousness when nibbled upon by the jackals. He opened his water bottle to take a swig but heard a rival Mughal nobleman in pain, also trying to keep the jackals at bay

Orakzai, literally ‘the lost son’, is a tribe that is settled in the Tirah valley, besides some other parts of FATA in Pakistan. The valley, always defended valiantly and defiantly by its Afridi, Orakzai and Shinwari inhabitants, fought off British expeditions in 1855, 1868, 1869, 1891 and 1897. The area continues to present a challenge to Pakistani attempts to bring it under state control.

Dost Muhammad was born in Tirah valley in 1657. Ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 feet in height with many mountain passes at higher levels, the valley offers little support for sustained subsistence – a circumstance which in the past forced its inhabitants to indulge in kidnapping, smuggling and looting. It also served as a source of fighting men for the Mughal army. Little is known about the early life of Dost Muhammad in this mountainous redoubt. However, given the continuing trends in the area, one can guess that he would have had training with arms and reading the Quran.

Tomb of Dost Muhammad Khan

In his mid-twenties, he was engaged to Mehraj Bibi, an attractive girl from a neighbouring clan. By now Dost Muhammad had started betraying a character that was too rough and aggressive even by the standards of that time in that area. The family decided to break the engagement and betroth the girl to another cousin. An angry Dost Muhammad acted in a manner that justified his elders’ views and the way he was to act in his entire future life. He murdered his cousin, the prospective groom of his ex. Now a fugitive from tribal justice, he was ostracised by his family. He found it prudent to run away to central India, where he knew that many of the Pakhtuns were profitably employed as soldiers by various state and imperial armies.

Dost Muhammad reached the village of Jalalabad near Muzaffarnagar, about 100 kilometres north of Delhi. The area had pleasant weather with rich alluvial soil and had been attracting Afghan settlers for a long time He was welcomed by the family of Jalal Khan, the Mughal mansabdar of Jalalabad’s suburb Lohari, and treated as part of his family. The exact time of his arrival here is not determined but was between 1696 and 1703.

The explosive temperament of Dost Muhammad flared up soon and he didn’t even have much regard for his current benefactor at that time. During a birthday celebration, he picked up a quarrel over a woman with one of the sons of Jalal Khan, who attacked Dost Muhammad with an arrow. In retaliation, Dost killed the son with a dagger and fled to Delhi. At Karnal, while waiting in front of a bakery to steal some food, he was recognised by a mullah who had taught him the Quran in Tirah. Mullah Jamali of Kashgar had left the area and had founded a madrassah in Delhi. Dost Muhammad spent about an year in Delhi under Mullah Jamali’s shelter, after which he decided to join the Mughal army. The Mullah helped him financially by giving him a horse and five gold coins.

In 1703, Dost Muhammad accompanied a Mughal force that was sent to the Bundelkhand region to quell a rebellion. Dost Muhammad, who was made a commander of some troops, was injured in the fight but was able to kill and behead the rebel leader, whose severed head he delivered to the Delhi court. Aurangzeb awarded him suitably and assigned him to an important position in the restive Malwa province. Soon, however, Aurangzeb died and a war of succession broke out between his sons. Dost Muhammad was wooed by the rival claimants to the throne but he stayed neutral.

In the ensuing anarchy, Dost Muhammad gathered a small band of mercenaries and formed an armed group. He primarily provided protection services to various Rajas and chieftains including Raja Reshb Das of Sitamau, Mohammad Farooq of Bhilsa, Diye Bahadur of Malwa and Raja Anand Singh Solanki of Mangalgarh. He would betray or fight against each one of them.

Sultan Shah Jahan, Begum of Bhopal

His first employment in Malwa was for Farooq of Bhilsa, whom he left to work for the Raja of Sitamau. In his absence, Farooq confiscated the property of Dost Muhammad. Subsequently, when Dost had gathered sufficient power, he killed Farooq for this treachery and took over the state of Bhilsa.

The dowager mother of Raja Anand of Mangalgarh took a great liking to Dost Muhammad and appointed him Mukhtar – guardian – after the death of the Raja. She called him her son. Dost was enamoured of Kunwar Sardar Bai, the daughter of the Raja, and married her in 1708. She converted to Islam and was named Fatah Bibi. Dost thus joined the ranks of Indian royalty, paving his way to independent power. He was to marry several other women but Fatah Bibi remained his favourite wife. She provided him with financial support whenever he ran into trouble. He was to operate his mercenary business for several years out of Mangalgarh. When the dowager mother died, Dost Muhammad hid the jewels that she had entrusted him with – and used them to further his hold over neighbouring lands.

In 1709, he took a lease on Berasia, a small rented estate near Mangalgarh that was under the authority a Delhi-based Mughal fief-holder but suffered from anarchy and lawlessness due to regular attacks from highwaymen and plunderers. The lease involved an annual payment of 30,000 rupees, which Dost Muhammad was able to pay with the help of his wife Fatah Bibi. Having no faith in his local companions, he left Fatah Bibi in charge of the estate and went back to Tirah valley to bring over his kinsmen. Khan’s father, his new wife Mehraj Bibi (the girl he was engaged to all those years ago in Tirah!), his five brothers and around 50 tribesmen arrived in Berasia in 1712 with the intent of subjugating the area. Of his five brothers, Sher, Alif, Shah and Mir Ahmad would die fighting for him. Only Aqil lived to serve as first dewan of Bhopal till his natural death. The Pakhtuns who had accompanied him would later come to be known as ‘Barru-kat’ – reed cutters – because they made their huts with thatched reeds. These families subsequently became highly prominent and influential in the area.

Dost Muhammad then ran into conflict with the neighbouring Rajput state of Parason. During Holi, the Rajputs asked for and got a truce. Dost Muhammad, never one to believe in such niceties, agreed but attacked the Rajputs during the truce. He killed a great many people including the state chief, appropriated their women, children and property, and annexed the territories to his fiefdom.

Dost Muhammad followed these exploits by a yet more brutal and daring adventure. In 1715, he ran into conflict with the Rajput state of Jagdhespur. He tricked them by a call for peace negotiations on the banks of the Thal river. During the meeting, his troops attacked the enemy on a pre-decided signal and indulged in great slaughter. He killed each Rajput soldier that his troops got hold of. The bodies of the slain troops were thrown in the river, turning its water red. The river is known since then as Halali – the river of slaughter. Dost Muhammad took all women and children as slaves. He also took control of Jagdeshpur estate, renamed it Islamnagar, strengthened its fort and made it his headquarters.

He then set about expanding his state over surrounding lands and acquired many small towns and villages in Malwa. His cousin Diler Khan had acquired the neighbouring estate of Kurwai. He came over to discuss joint operations with Dost Muhammad. During negotiations, the discussion turned heated and Dost killed his cousin to avoid any trouble in the future.

Alarmed by the anarchy in the south, the Sayyid brothers, the power behind the Emperor Farrukhsiyar, sent a Mughal force to establish order. Dost Muhammad sided with the rebel Rajputs. His troops, however, fled the battle and he was himself severely injured. In the diary that he maintained, Dost Muhammad wrote that he gained consciousness when nibbled upon by the jackals. He opened his water bottle to take a swig but heard a rival Mughal nobleman in pain, also trying to keep the jackals at bay. He offered his water to the Mughal, who was none other than Syed Hassan Ali Khan Barha, the younger of the powerful Sayyid brothers.

Hassan Ali took him back to Delhi and, on recuperating, let him go back to Mangalgarh with gold coins and a band of horses. The Nizam of Hyderabad, being an adversary of the Sayyid brothers, would later punish Dost Muhammad because of his closeness with the brothers.

Then another opportunity came his way. The area around present-day Bhopal town was inhabited by Bhil and Gond people who belonged to the Adhivasi or indigenous Indian tribes. There was some quarrel between the tribes and Dost Muhammad was hired by Rani Kamlapati of the Gonds. He defeated the Rani’s opponents and annexed their territory to the Rani’s state. In lieu, the Rani gave him the town of Bhopal, then a village of about 1,000 people on the banks of a lake. He remained loyal to the Rani till she committed suicide – some say to protect her honour due to advances of Dost Muhammad, who was smitten by her beauty. Later, he murdered Kamlapati’s son, annexed the lands and slew all Gonds who rebelled against him.

It was here that Dost Muhammad established capital of his state. It is said that he decided to build a fort here during a hunting trip with his wife and named it Fatahgarh after her. Dost Muhammad also named the Bhopal ensign as ‘Fatah Nishan’ after his wife. The foundation of the fort was laid on the 30h of August 1723 and was eventually expanded to encircle the village of Bhopal. In the course of its life, the fort never fell to an enemy, and as late as 1880, the city was mainly confined to this fort.

In late 1723, the Nizam of Hyderabad laid siege to Bhopal to punish Dost Muhammad. Faced with a much larger force, Dost sued for peace. He had to surrender part of his State, including the Islamnagar fort, to the Nizam. He also agreed to pay one million rupees as tribute and sent his son and heir Yar Muhammad Khan to Hyderabad as a hostage – where he stayed till his father’s death six years later.

Dost Muhammad had transformed from being a mercenary to a statesman and spent his remaining years on consolidating his immense state. He encouraged several scholars, hakims and artists to settle in Bhopal. He acknowledged Mughal authority by sending expensive gifts and flattering letters to the Mughal Emperor. Emperor Farrukhsiyar conferred on him the title Nawab Diler Jung, probably on the recommendation of the Sayyid Brothers. Dost Muhammad also prevented the Maratha invasions by regularly paying them chauth (tribute). In his final years, Khan sought inspiration from Sufi mystics and saints, veering towards spiritualism. He and the other ‘Pathans’ who settled in Bhopal during his reign brought Pakhtun and Islamic influences to the culture and architecture of Bhopal.

Dost Muhammad died in 1729 and is buried next to Fatah Bibi in Fatahgarh fort. He died with thirty wounds on his body that bore testimony to his turbulent, violent life. The State that he founded endured, first under Hyderabad’s suzerainty till 1818 and then under British protectorate. Its name became synonymous with culture and education, burying the violent past of its energetic founder.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: