Power in Education: How Bhopal's Local Architecture Can Help Empower Its Women

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

Author: Celine Chung is an amazing artist and photographer and is interested in issues relating to women’s rights

Celine and the MSK ladies out on an Architectural Exposure Trip in Bhopal


The issue of women’s rights, education, and power is prevalent in many of the world’s changing societies. In a case study of two architectural monuments in Bhopal, India, the influence of the Begum women on the Shaukat Mahal and the Gohar Mahal are considered. Through learning the history of these monuments, a group of local Bhopal women grew to understand their culture and history in a new light. This research discusses how women’s history and accomplishments have been erased or rewritten, particularly by the Indian government, and how that erasure affects the attitudes and self-understanding of women in Bhopal today. Literature and statistics on sexual assault in India and a photo novella project from Peru are also considered in terms of literacy, education, and empowerment among women. Ultimately, historical and cultural materials need to include women’s narratives as well as men’s.

In Bhopal, there once stood a ruling female empire that today’s women can only dream of. The under-studied history of the Begums not only makes up a significant part in the city’s history and development, but the history also features female leadership, something that Bhopal and many parts of the nation historically lack. Regardless, evidence of such history still stands in Bhopal today, in part in the form of local architecture.

In 1742, Yar Mohammad Khan, the Nawab, or governor, of Bhopal, died, leaving behind his wife, Mamola Bai (1715–1795). Since the couple did not have children, Mamola became the de facto ruler of Bhopal. Mamola was revered during her 50-year reign. According to legend, when Mamola became ill, saint Shah Ali Shah gave Mamola 10 years of his life so that she would be able to continue leading the city. Soon after the ritual, the saint passed away. The island burial ground of Shah Ali Shah is now a pilgrimage site.

In 1785, Salvador Bourbon, a French royal, came to Manji Mamola when the Bhopal government was searching for allies to counter British forces. Mamola was known for her keen political insight and, after gauging the kind of influence the British had, immediately befriended Salvador. She also bestowed him the position of General in the Bhopal State Army and gifted him land so that he would remain in the Bhopal State. However, not everyone was pleased with Salvador’s presence in Bhopal. Thus, Mamola gave Salvador a Muslim name, Inaya Masih. In doing so, Mamola was able to pacify orthodox Pathans by suggesting that Salvador would adapt to Muslim ways of life. Salvador and his cousin Pedro later became leading figures of the Bhopal court. For generations, the Bourbon family served the Bhopal state.

During his time in Bhopal, Salvador was well known as a highly educated member of the state and as an honorable, warm-hearted person. A Hindu woman came to Salvador to save her son from being killed by Diwan Chote Khan, his father. Salvador willingly took the child in and gave him a new name: Balthazar Bourbon, or his Muslim name, Shahzad Masih. Balthazar’s son, Sebastian Bourbon, became Prime Minister to Begums of Bhopal (Iyengar, 2018).

Soon after the Bourbons were introduced to Bhopal’s royal court, Qudsia Begum would establish a strong line of constructive female rulers. After the death of her husband, Qudsia Begum became the ruler of Bhopal; for the next 107 years, the political power of the city rested in the four generations of Begum women leaders (Khan, 2000). After she was appointed ruler, Qudsia began the construction of the Shaukat Mahal. The Bourbon family contributed to its design; thus, there is a heavy French influence in the architecture. The Shaukat Mahal was first built as Balthazar Bourbon’s palace. Sebastian Bourbon’s wife, Madan Dulhan, lived in women’s wing of the palace, also known as Zeenat Mahal. The Bourbon and Begum families continued to have the most work done to the women’s wing.

Due to its distinct Indo-French architecture, the Shaukat Mahal stood out from the Mughal-style architecture of the buildings that surrounded it. A well-known example of a Mughal-style building is the Taj Mahal, located in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. The Taj Mahal is famous for its majestic white domes and arched entrances, both typical features of Mughal buildings. Furthermore, Mughal architecture usually has one central corner. The Shaukat Mahal, on the other hand, has two. The arches are also more triangular in shape, evidencing French Romanesque style. Several fleur de lis engravings can be found on the buildings of the Shaukat Mahal, especially on the Zeenat Mahal. The symbol, which served as the royal coat of arms of the Bhopal royal family, was used by French monarchs since the 12th century and can also represent the Holy Trinity in the Catholic Church (Ostlund, 2019). Additionally, there are chapel-like structures perched on the roofs of the buildings. These structures served as a symbol of the Catholic church within a ruling Muslim community. The planning that went into the Shaukat proved to not only be stylistic, but also strategic. Past the gate and in the middle of a small courtyard is a triangular fountain. The Bourbons and Begums used this fountain as a cooling system for relief from the city’s heat. There is also a secret tunnel that leads to the Upper Lake. The tunnel is used as an emergency escape route for women living in the Zeenat Mahal. However, the women would also use the tunnel to leave the building unnoticed and go for a swim.

Two streets across from the Shaukat Mahal and right beside the Upper Lake stands the Gohar Mahal. Although now used for tourism, exhibitions, cultural events, and fairs, the Gohar Mahal was built in 1820 by Nazar Muhammad Khan, the Nawab of Bhopal at the time, for his wife, Qudsia Begum. The building got its name from Qudsia’s birth name, Gohar Ara Begum. The Gohar Mahal acted as a residential and working place with no separate or designated parts for men and women (as the female ruler at the time of building, Qudsia did not see the need for divide). During the latter half of her life, Qudsia Begum lived in the Gohar Mahal while her daughter, Sikander Begum, ruled Bhopal.

The architecture of the Gohar Mahal contains Hindu and Mughal influences. The structure is three stories tall, and its entrance faces southeast. The positioning of the entrance follows Vastu Shastra, a traditional Hindu form of architecture that incorporates intense planning and science rather than superstition in order to help produce the best home (Prasad). The use of mud to put pieces of the buildings together is native to South India, and the building’s faded red exterior also speaks to Mughal influence. Lastly, one of the Gohar Mahal’s defining characteristics is its large courtyard. The purpose of this courtyard was to provide natural light and air exchange throughout the entire palace. A small fountain in the courtyard also created a cooling system similar to that of the Shaukat Mahal.

Although Bhopal has such significant and symbolic architecture relating to the lives and history of women, some women who live in Bhopal for almost their whole lives do not learn about it. During summer 2019, a few members of Mahashakti Seva Kendra (MSK) were brought to see the Shaukat Mahal and Gohar Mahal. MSK is an all-women’s organization that was built to empower victims of a massive gas leak at Bhopal’s Union Carbide plant in December 1984 that killed over 20,000 people. Even after the incident, over half a million people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other harmful chemicals. Since 1992, MSK's founder and president, Indira Iyengar, has been working to support these families affected by the tragic gas leak. MSK has developed non-chemical based natural dye products and has used its profits to assist the affected families. By providing programs that teach their women how to make certain textiles and products and offering employment, MSK thus trains women on how to develop a sense of agency and independence in their lives (Mskonline.org).

The women bubbled with excitement on the day of their visit to the Shaukat Mahal and Gohar Mahal. The small field trip was the first time that they ventured into the city without their sons and husbands. At the Shaukat Mahal, a man walked out of one of the buildings and into the courtyard. He welcomed the women to the Shaukat Mahal and began to share the history of the place in English. During his speech, the man claimed to be one of the descendants of the ruling class of Bhopal that lived in the Shaukat Mahal. He emphasized the role of women in Bhopal’s and the building’s history. However, when he began to translate the history into Hindi for the women to understand, something was off. The women later explained that the man began to joke that, similar to how the Begum women ruled diligently over the city, his wife rules over him, always telling him what to do. For the women, this attitude was strange. After all, in Bhopal, women barely have any agency; today, they have little power compared to the Begums of the 18th century. From that moment on, the women began to doubt the guide’s credibility.

The guide noted another thing: the Shaukat Mahal is falling apart. The building is now considered private property and therefore is ineligible for any funding for restoration. The former palace now houses living quarters, a restaurant, and an inn. The Shaukat Mahal is over 180 years old and represents women’s history and capability in Bhopal. Unfortunately, the crumbling buildings may have limited time before they decay into rubble.

Upon learning of the details and the kind of planning that went into the construction of the Shaukat Mahal and Gohar Mahal, the MSK women were pleasantly surprised by the attention given to the royal women and by the ingenious of Qudsia Begum and the rest of the royal family. Though these women were previously unfamiliar with the Shaukat Mahal, they knew of the Gohar Mahal because of the exhibitions it hosts.

Regardless of the time they had resided in Bhopal, the women were unaware of the rich history of their city. They also shared that the children that get to attend school do not learn about Bhopal’s powerful female rulers and buildings, either. The once-powerful rulers were absent from public education. In India, the federal government oversees the education of the country’s children, including the content of textbooks. The government can also use this power to manipulate information. In 2017, the history on the Mughal empire, a Muslim empire which ruled India for over two centuries, was changed and nearly deleted from many textbooks (“Mughals disappearing”). The Mughal empire is remarkable for several reasons, from its legacy in literature to its great architectural structures; this empire includes both the Shaukat Mahal and the Gohar Mahal. Yet in the state of Madhya Pradesh (of which Bhopal is the capital), officials altered the history of the Sino-Indian War. This war between Chinese and Indian armies ended in Indian defeat, with a loss of nearly 4,000 Indian soldiers and a drop in the nation’s morale. However, the new textbooks claim otherwise: “What famously came to be known as Sino-India war of 1962 was won by India against China” (Menon, 2017). Textbooks with this incomplete history are used in several Madhya Pradesh schools affiliated with the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) of the government of India. The state itself is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is also the party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Thus, as the historical facts of the Gohar Mahal and Shaukat Mahal were deleted from school materials, children had no way to know learn the truth.

Although once ruled by powerful women, India is recorded as the most dangerous country for women due to sexual violence in 2011 and 2018 (Goldsmith & Beresford, 2018). After the gang rape of eight-year old Asifa in 2012, a wave of protests against violence towards women took over India’s cities. Women in India have been victims of all kinds of assault for many years, and they are not always safe in their homes: 95 percent of rapists across all reported cases have been family members (Narayan, 2018).

In a society governed by patriarchy and violence, it is no surprise that there is little to no mention of the Begum women in many school curriculums. In fact, many women in India do not even have access to an education at all. Although the constitution of India claims to provide equal rights for men and women, women lag far behind men at all levels of opportunity. One of the major factors that impact women negatively is poverty—30 percent of people in India live below the poverty line, and women make up 70 percent of that population. Regarding sex crimes, the literacy of women is related to the rate of reporting. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), an Indian government agency, “there exists a positive correlation between the female literacy rate of a state and reported cases of rapes per 100,000, indicative that women are more likely to report crimes with higher levels of education” (Bandyopadhyay, 2018).

There exists a strong correlation between education, empowerment, and subsequent action. More importantly, countless forms of art that have empowered women to take action regarding the problems in their community. An example that combines art, empowerment, and research is the photo novella. Photo novella involves research in which the research subjects are asked to take photographs relating to the topic of research. The process may include photo interviewing, photo eliciting, reflexive photography, and photo-voice.[1]Photo novella may encourage participants to engage in critical thinking and reflection. The images become data when the participants begin to discuss their perspectives on the photos taken (Burke & Evans, 2011).

One example of a successful photo novella project is a 1984 empowerment project based in Peru by the Asociación Perú-Mujer. The organization aimed to encourage illiterate and semi-literate rural women to participate in local health and family planning initiatives in ways that better protected their own health interests. The researchers handed out four different kinds of booklets consisting of a series of simple line drawings with descriptive text that depicted the lives and problems of families in the community; the booklets were designed as coloring books, and each type targeted a different area of the country. The booklets covered the burdensome underbellies of family life: unemployment, living costs, alcoholic partners, domestic violence, housework, and decision making, just to name a few. Despite the distress sparked by these booklets, the participants were able to begin a discussion because they were all so familiar with the problems. The project was also the first time many of the women had access to coloring and reading materials.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. After the experiment, the women reported a greater sense of self-worth. In fact, many used their newly earned sense of confidence to work together and take action in the community. They replaced an incompetent town doctor, helped to move health clinicas closer to homes, and worked to support women living in violent family settings (Wang & Burris, 1994).

Some researchers attribute the success of Perú-Mujer to good use of feminist theory: “Feminist research view women as authorities on their own lives; it enables them to construct their own knowledge about women according to their criteria as women, and to empower themselves through knowledge making” (Wang & Burris, 174). Women must be the focus and source of action. Thus, power must be organized into different kinds. The article targets three different types: the power to (affirmative power, ability to do things), the power with (the ability to work with others toward a common goal), and the power over (the ability to influence or to direct other people or the environment). According to Wang and Burris, “Photo novella attempts to create the conditions in which women can further develop power to, power with, and power over, in order to effect positive changes for health in their individual lives, and in their communities” (174). The positive feedback of photo novella is evidence of the importance of art education and engagement in local institutions in improving the quality of life of not only the women in the community, but also the entire community itself.

The efforts to teach the women of MSK on Bhopal’s local architecture relate to the Perú-Mujer photo novella research because both demonstrate forms of thoughtful education projects that have empowered women to take action in their communities. Upon learning about the Shaukat Mahal and Gohar Mahal, the women of MSK were inspired to educate a promising and conscious younger generation that can sustain their city’s significance on a national and global scale. The protofeminist history of the architecture has pushed these women to develop into critical and active members of society. History is flexible not because it can be manipulated, but because there is always room available to include the narratives of those who have not always received the spotlight.

The women of MSK were amazed with the architecture of Gohar Mahal and Shaukat Mahal. They were unaware of how the construction worked, and that the buildings were physically made. As the guide explained how the buildings were constructed with specific details about each structure, a new perspective opened to some women. One element that was especially interesting, yet surprising to some women, was how some women were in charge of the building process. The idea that women are capable and able to conduct something major became a new concept to the MSK women.

The history of the two architectures continues to appeal to women in MSK, as usually they are told how things are done by their husbands. The husband will tell the wife where everything should be, even the toilet. For example, one member of MSK was absent from the visit, as she had to aid her husband in building their house.

Previously, architecture and buildings did not have much meaning to the women at MSK. Rather than holding symbolic significance, buildings and structures were simply rooms of various sizes and functions. Even if the women had wanted to spend more time to understand why a building was made or what was the meaning behind it, they did not have the resources. Next time they have the opportunity to visit Gohar Mahal and Shaukat Mahal, the women of MSK may look at them with fresh eyes and see what more there is about the history of the place. They now know more of the symbolic meanings and history of the two buildings.

Though the Shaukat Mahal was in bad shape, neither the government nor the people who lived there cared when it was falling apart. Nobody knew the history, thus they could not put any value towards it. Nobody could value or support the heritage. However, the women of MSK now consider it an important part of their culture. They want to go back with their children and introduce the next generation to the culture of their city. In the past, they could not explain this magnificent culture to their children, as they did not know either. However, now that they have access to the knowledge about these historical locations, they wish to share it.

Now, with the knowledge they have, these women want the history of these structures to be integrated into textbooks so that children can learn about the past. Only big leaders of big cities are mentioned in history books; rarely are those in small places, and small palaces are never mentioned. Outside sources for history and other information are hard to access for women and children in Bhopal, thus it is difficult to build understanding. As no one knows the true history, cultivating interest in these places is a challenge.

Although major cities in India continue to fight for women’s rights, India remains a country with one of the lowest track records for women’s rights. This is more severe in smaller cities such as Bhopal. Ironically, in the past, strong and independent women ruled over the palace of Bhopal, yet today, women have no power. The historical events are hidden by the government, so few people really know about the past. To educate and empower the women of Bhopal, as well as in many other minor cities in India, access to accurate materials for education is vital.


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country for women. The Guardian. Retrieved September 2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jun/28/poll-ranks-india-most-dangerous-country-for-women

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1962 and Gandhi wasn’t murdered. Quartz India. Retrieved July 2019 from https://qz.com/india/1054692/in-the-version-of-history-found-in-indias-new-textbooks-china-lost-1962-and-gandhi-wasnt-murdered/

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Examples of empowerment for women in India

● Gender and women empowerment approaches: Interventions through PRIs and SCOs in Northern India (article)

○ PRI: Panchayati Raj Institutions

○ CSO: civil society organizations are organisations not owned or run by the government and include all organizations involved in development interventions.

○ After WWII, world-level institutions of development such as the World Bank (WB), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nation Development Program (UNCO, 2012) began to promote institution building

○ How the meaning and use of the term “gender” has been debated

■ The article states that the origin of the term gender may have been in the 1970s by American and English feminists. The World Bank considers gender a socio-economic variable, and the FAO defines gender as a relationship between men and women in both a physical and perceptual sense. The article argues that the point of debate is to help make the term represent men and women on an equal level. Regardless, world institutions agree that the role of women is often subdued due to social norms.

■ Either husbands or in laws are identified as village representatives by the community. Women were only present in documents, not in person

Women in Politics and Schooling Investments (article)

○ The Indian constitution gives a lot of political power to the 28 states and 7 Union Territories

○ Many politicians originate from elite, upper-caste families

■ Regardless, women representation on state and national level remains low



Celine: What do you remember from the buildings that we saw two days ago?

Pooja: On the main gate [of Shaukat Mahal] there were some iron things, and at the main gate, the year the building was made was written. There was something on the walls that they did not understand. [At Gohar Mahal] there were statues of turtles and elephants. They keep talking about what they saw inside. … So the queen sits inside the thing and people pick it up from both sides.

Celine: Did you ever hear of these two palaces before we went?

Women: No

Pooja: They haven’t heard of Shaukat Mahal, but they heard of Gohar Mahal because of the exhibitions that are held there.

[After the presentation]

Celine: After learning not only about the history but also the innovative structure, how do you feel about [the Shoukat Mahal and Gohar Mahal]?

[Women clap]

Pooja: I was telling them that my grandmother is a Bourbon. They liked the whole idea of how smart those people were with the construction. Earlier, we did not know that. We thought the buildings were just made. There was so much thought put into making the buildings, and that was something really new for us.

Celine: And it is also interesting, because usually women are not in charge of the building process. One of the female ruling Begums would always be in charge of the people on how to make it.

Pooja: In today’s times, the husband will tell you where the toilet be and the husband takes charge. One of the girls is not coming to work because she is getting her house built, so they want to see how she is getting it done.

Celine: Do you now consider these two buildings a big part of your culture?

Pooja: Now next time when they go, they want to take their children and introduce them to the culture of their city. We didn’t know and we didn’t tell our children. But now they want to take all of their children there and explain things to them.

Celine: Did you ever think that architecture was important? Did this change the way you look at any building?

Pooja: There are very small, small rooms inside the buildings, and they want to spend more time and understand why it was made and what was the meaning behind them. Next time, they want to visit these places again to look at them with fresh eyes and see what else there is about the place.

Celine: For the Shaukat Mahal, not only does the government not care, but when it was discovered that the place was falling apart, not a lot of people who lived there cared either.

Pooja: So nobody knew about the history. If people tell or if it is in school, then we would know about the history. Since nobody cared about the place, nobody valued or supported heritage. That was one of the main things. Another thing is that we are so busy in our own day-to-day things that we have no inclination. And even if we knew, one person cannot do anything, and who is going to form that group?

Celine: What I think is that, whoever is in power gets to decide what kind of history the people know; there is always a different person in power, and it is usually not the women who get to decide. But the thing is, even just noting art a little bit, it really helps your brain to help analyze things better and you can notice things better. You can see the world with different eyes.

Pooja: They want [the information] to be integrated in the history books also so that their children also learn. We only learn about the big leaders in the history books, and small places and small palaces are never mentioned. We don’t get all the sources to get to know this. There is no place where we can go and understand. Nobody wants to help and explain the places. They are talking about the guide you mentioned at Shaukat Mahal. He was saying that he was very scared of his wife. And the moment he said that, they knew that he was lying, because nobody is scared of wives. He said things like, “My wife tells me to do things. She tells me to sit down. She tells me to stand.” They knew that whatever he said was all wrong. It is never like that in Indian households.

[1]Photo voice is a process by which people can identify, represent and enhance their community through a specific photographic technique. Images are used to generate questions to members of a community and implicitly push these members to reach some sort of solution (Wang and Burris, 1997).

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