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The House of Arcot

... and `secularism is the oxygen without which India cannot survive', says its heir to KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.


The Prince of Arcot, Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali Azim Jah (second from left), with his family at the Amir Mahal.

IN the heart of Chennai is a mahal which is home to a princely family that traces its lineage from the Second Caliph of Islam, Hazrath Omar Bin-Khattab. Not many residents or visitors to the city, as they hurry through the crowded streets of Royapettah, would be aware that beyond the high crimson walls that enclose the wrought iron gates, lie centuries of history. Enter them and you pass through a driveway, flanked by sheds and outhouses, to a huge building in Indo-Saracenic style.

This is Amir Mahal, the 14-acre residence of His Highness Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali Azim Jah, the eighth Prince of Arcot. More than 300 years ago, his ancestor Zulfikar Ali Khan was summoned from Mecca by Emperor Aurangazeb in order to fight against the Marathas. In the 17th Century when the Marathas were holding sway in the Southern Carnatic from their stronghold at Gingee, Zulfikar Ali Khan came down and inflicted a crushing defeat on the ruler Rajaram.

The delighted Mughal emperor made him the Nawab of the Carnatic under the suzerainty of the Nizam of Hyderabad and thus were sown the beginnings of the House of Arcot. Later holders of the title identified closely with their area of domicile. The cordial interaction between the Nawabs of Arcot and the Hindu inhabitants of the Tamil country generated a climate of mutual tolerance and secularism that is proudly being carried on to this day.

Welcoming you with typical courtesy, the Prince leads you into his study. The dominant thread running though the interview is his passion for promoting Hindu-Muslim unity. "Secularism is the oxygen without which you cannot survive," states Abdul Ali. Few residents of present day Chennai know that the land for the construction of the Kapaleeswarar temple tank was donated by his ancestors. "Every year, on the 10th day of Mohurram, the Hindus allow the Muslims to dip their panjas (the sacred symbol of the hand) in the waters of the tank."

The Arcot House is different from most royal houses in the country as there is no friction between the government and this former ruling family. "We have a very good rapport with the Central and the State governments," says Abdul Ali. His Highness the Prince of Arcot is ranked on par with the Cabinet ministers of the State in the Warrant of Precedence, the Courtesy ranks accorded to officials and non-officials.

"Amir Mahal has been visited by numerous presidents, chief ministers and spiritual leaders," he says proudly.

The Prince is founder-secretary general of "Harmony India" a registered association formed in 1990 to promote communal amity and national integration. Mr. N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, is the president while the other 32 members are drawn from different communities. "The aims of the organisation are to educate people to live in peace, to hold seminars, processions and meetings towards this end and to extend help and advice during riots." The Nawab has recently returned to the mainstream after a period of illness. "Harmony India has not been very active for some time but we hope to reenergise it," he says.

The Prince of Arcot is considered the "First nobleman in the Muslim community of South India". He heads various religious endowments, charitable organisations and educational trusts. The Arcots manage the wakf in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and have developed infrastructural facilities for pilgrims to visit the holy places. "We maintain eight mosques in Tamil Nadu. Many of those who work in our trusts are Hindus," he points out.

The dynasty has had numerous enlightened rulers. Like the house of Tanjore, the Arcot family has integrated perfectly into the Tamil country. Respect for other faiths has been translated into action as can be seen by their contributions to the temples of Srirangam, Tirupati, Tiruvarur, Tirunelveli and Madras.

A cataclysmic upheaval was experienced by the other princely families when the privy purses were abolished in 1971. But the event has not affected the House of Arcot. The enforcement of the Doctrine of Lapse by the British had resulted in their privy purses being abolished in 1855. The splendid Chepauk palace — spread over 121 acres and perhaps the first specimen of Indo-Saracenic architecture in the country — which was the residence of the rulers was taken over by the British. Now the Senate House and other government offices function from the premises.

Abdul Ali came to the title in July 1994 after the death of his father Ghulam Mohammed Abdul Khader. Educated at the Churchpark Presentation Convent and the Madras Christian College High School, the student of history also received coaching in Arabic from private tutors. Abdul Ali, Sheriff of Madras for two terms, was interested in public life from the time he was in his teens.

"It takes courage to speak out about religion," he says. "But I feel the Kazis should educate the people. People go to dargahs and offer prayers, asking for favours from the dead. But this is not right. You can visit dargahs and only ask for the blessings of the Almighty. Just as the Vinayaka Chaturthi procession has become a political one, so has the Meelad-un-nabi ....

"We should not mix politics and religion — it will not work in our country. This `nonsense' about dividing people on religious lines has been going on only for the last four years. At the time of Partition, we (Muslims) chose to live in India. We prefer to live here and die here. India belongs to all of us," he says passionately.

The 70-room Amir Mahal which is home to 600 people (family members, staff and their families) was abuzz with activity as it was getting spruced up for the wedding of the Nawab's sons. (Both of them got married last month). The elder son, Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali, is a talented musician who has scored the music for quite a few Tamil films. (The Prince too is an accomplished singer and pianist.) The younger, Nawabzada Mohammed Naser Ali, is a businessman.

Abdul Ali's wife Sayeeda Begum, a lovely, gracious woman, spends her time in religious and social activities, and takes great interest in the upkeep of the palace.

The drawing room is full of portraits of dignitaries who have visited the mahal. Palanquins and Mughal witness boxes placed at strategic intervals provide an old world charm and a regal touch. Suites of furniture upholstered in brocade, huge porcelain vases, colourful carpets and chandeliers enhance the impact. On the first floor, the Durbar hall is adorned with eight-foot high paintings which are 125 years old.

There is not much of a crunch for funds as the family owns properties and has business interests. But it is the present prince's organisational abilities and pride in his genealogy that has carved an image for the Arcots as they are seen today.

The Prince insists on seeing you off to the car. As you drive out, the old bearded retainer raises his hand in a typical Muslim salute. Just a few yards away from the mahal, the strains of Carnatic music emanate from a small shrine. For a few rarefied moments in the haunting air of dusk, one feels at peace, filled with hope that this microcosm of unity and seamless blending of cultures will find reflections and echoes wherever the two religions exist. One is also filled with pride that a slice of history and heritage is being faithfully preserved amidst the overpowering consumerism of a rapidly growing metropolis.

Rich history

AS we drive past Wallajah road, it would occur to few of us that this arterial road in Chennai, adjoining the Chepauk stadium, is named after one of the most liberal and philanthropic rulers of the Arcot family. Muhammad Ali Wallajah, Nawab of the Carnatic, who ruled from 1749 A.D. to 1795 A.D., was freed from suzerainty and made the independent ruler of the Carnatic by the Mughal emperor in 1765. His reign was a glorious period for the House of Arcot. They controlled a vast territory.

Wallajah was a man endowed with a breadth of vision that manifested itself in the donation of lands for the construction of temples, mosques and churches. The Srirangam temple and the Wallajah Big Mosque in Triplicane owe much to his munificence. Wars supporting the English against the French and Hyder Ali, placed him heavily in debt and he had to surrender much of his territory to the East India Company.

Wallajah was the eighth Nawab of the Carnatic.

Zulfikar Ali Khan who persevered to overthrow the Marathas, was made the first Nawab of the Carnatic in 1690 with control over all the territories south of the Krishna. After a decisive battle, Zulfikar Ali camped on the banks of the Palar — Arai Kattai — and this is thought to have given the family its name. It is alternatively believed to refer to six forests or villages — Aaaru Kaadu. After Zulfikar Ali, his son Daud Khan came to power.

Daud Khan was followed by Saadatullah Khan who moved the court from Gingee to Arcot. Anwaruddin Khan (1744-1749) who was a descendant of the Second Caliph of Islam founded the second dynasty. His successor Wallajah was followed by his son Umdat-ul-Umra, who built the Thousand Lights structure. The next nawab, his nephew Azim-ud-Daula, had to give up much of his powers and territory and became the first titular Nawab of the Carnatic. After him came Azam Jah followed by Ghulam Muhammad Ghouse Khan.

He died without a male heir and the English were quick to implement the Doctrine of Lapse.

Ghouse Khan's uncle Azim Jah who determinedly fought for recognition, became the first Prince of Arcot in 1867. The English bestowed various titles upon him and allotted him a very high rank. This status is protected by the Constitution and so the family continues to retain its privileges and titles. During Azim Jah's time, the British agreed to construct the Amir Mahal as they had taken over the Chepauk Palace in 1859. From 1876, the mahal has been occupied by successive heirs, among them the charitable Ghulam Muhammad Ali Khan. His brother who became the next Prince of Arcot was succeeded by his son, Ghulam Mohammed Abdul Khader, a philanthropist. Many grand receptions were held during his time at Amir Mahal. His son, the present prince, follows the tradition of hospitality. One is sure to find an eclectic gathering at his banquets. A guest one remembers meeting there is Muhammad Ali — the greatest boxer of them all.

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