The mysterious ascent of Salar Jung I from obscurity to power: Read an excerpt from The Magnificent Diwan

  • Drawing on archival research, Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy lays down the life and times of Salar Jung I in The Magnificent Diwan.

  • Dadabhoy also provides a social and political history of Hyderabad, recounting how Salar Jung decisively shaped the city's politics and economics for almost three decades of the latter half of the 19th century.

Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy's The Magnificent Diwan: The Life and Times of Sir Salar Jung I is a biography of the man often referred to as the founder of modern Hyderabad. Through his reforms of the medieval oligarchy, Salar Jung led the city into the modern era. Drawing on archival research, Dadabhoy lays down the life and times of the Diwan, also providing a social and political history of Hyderabad, recounting how Salar Jung decisively shaped the city's politics and economics for almost three decades of the latter half of the 19th century. 

The following is an excerpt from the book's second chapter, 'The Diwan and His Deodi' which discusses the process and intrigue around the selection of a new Diwan, and his deodi, the name given to the tradition, fortified residences of wealthy and noblemen of the 18th and 19th century.

This excerpt from The Magnificent Diwan: The Life and Times of Sir Salar Jung I by Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy has been reproduced here with permission from the publisher, Penguin Random House India.

 The mysterious ascent of Salar Jung I from obscurity to power: Read an excerpt from The Magnificent Diwan

The Magnificent Diwan: The Life and Times of Sir Salar Jung I by Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy.


The palace rumour mill went into overdrive. Rumours were rife as to who the next diwan would be. The press reported that it could be Raja Bal Mukund but also added a caveat that it was not possible to read the nizam’s mind. ‘Whom the Nizam will appoint his Minister no man can tell, but of this every man makes sure that he will disappoint the general expectation.’ The same report also said that it would not be surprising if the partisans of the late diwan made a push to ‘obtain the succession to the office for his nephew Salar Jung, and success is not impossible’. These proved to be prescient words as the course of events showed. Salar Jung was twenty-four at the time, and largely an unknown entity, and it is no surprise that the reports about his abilities were less than sanguine. ‘There is nothing against this young gentleman, which is not a little to say of a man of his years, but to assert that there is any positive excellence upon which any expectation could be built, would be to advance a problem not easy to be solved. We cannot in every man expect to find a Pitt.’

The nizam for his part played his cards very close to his chest, giving no clue as to whom he would appoint to the post. Raja Bal Mukund was at one time a front runner, but there were forces who were strongly advocating the candidature of the young Salar Jung. The fact that Rafi uddin Khan Umdat-ul-Mulk, the eldest son of Fakhr-ud-din Khan Shumsul-Umra II, the premier noble of the realm, had been meeting the nizam for two or three hours every day gave rise to the supposition that he would be appointed to the post. But such hopes were belied. In a sudden and inexplicable turnaround, Rafi-ud-din Khan lost favour with the nizam, who instructed him to come to the durbar only when sent for.

A coterie close to the nizam consisting of Burhan-ud-din, Mama Jamila and Lala Bahadur were using all their influence to secure the appointment of Salar Jung whom they thought would be a puppet in their hands. Burhan-ud-din was an attendant who decided whom the nizam would see, and when. Even the diwan was granted an audience through him, and many official proposals were approved by the nizam on the recommendations of this flunkey. Chandu Lal had often complained to the resident about Burhan-ud-din and his influence on the nizam.

Mama Jamila was a maid-in-waiting. Mamas were often wet nurses or simply maids to royal ladies. They played an important role in palace affairs in Mughal history and later with the Asaf Jahs. The royal children often grew up under their influence and could seldom shake it off. Mama Jamila was an influential figure in court intrigues. She would often announce the nizam’s decision to supplicants, and this included the allotment and cancellation of jagirs. Her word could not be cross-checked because the nizam could only be met by appointment, which usually took two weeks to get, while Mama Jamila met the nizam many times in a day. Often, she was the last one he saw before retiring to bed, and so hers was quite literally the last word. The last of the triumvirate, Lala Bahadur, was the influential daftardar, and it was said that if the three got together to achieve a common aim, there was every chance that they would succeed.

Securing Salar Jung’s appointment was an uphill task. The nizam held Salar Jung’s family responsible for the cession of Berar, and he was not predisposed to appointing another minister from the same family who had ‘done him an injury’. The coterie importuned their sovereign: ‘It is not a Minister, but your prestige [ekbal], which governs. Surajool-Moolk conducted the administration through the subordinate departments. Lala Bahadoor, who did everything, will as before conduct the affairs of the administration for Salar Jung. He is in every respect superior to his uncle.’ Their suggestions were met with disgust, personal reasons being cited for the nizam’s disapproval. The coterie argued that since the post was a sinecure, it may as well be bestowed upon Salar Jung as upon any other person.

The Madras Spectator wrote:

A strong party near the Nizam, at the head of which are these — Burhan-ood-Deen, Mama Jemela and Lala Bahadoor — is putting forth all its energies, all its influence, and all its contrivances to procure the appointment for Salar Jung, the nephew of Suraj-ool-Moolk, a mere youth of under twenty-five years of age. The young gentleman who bears a fair reputation, is reluctant, with a judgement beyond his years, to accept the office, and although the Nizam has expressed strong objection to his employment, on the express ground of his having sustained injury from his relation the late Minister, his party has not relaxed its exertions, and pursue their object with an eagerness unrestrained by any fears of their master’s resentment only to be accounted for by their knowledge of his caprice and the impressible power of repeated solicitations upon his Highness’s mind.

In the end, the coterie had its way. On 31 May 1853, the nizam appointed Salar Jung and Maharaja Narayan Pershad Narender Bahadur, Chandu Lal’s grandson, as diwan and peshkar respectively. The peshkar was an Arabic scholar, and was also fully conversant with Sanskrit, Marathi and Telugu. Also present on the occasion were the resident and the assistant resident, Major Cuthbert Davidson, who would succeed Colonel Low in that post. It was expected that Salar Jung would act under the pupilage of Lala Bahadur, and Narender Pershad would be mentored by Raja Bal Mukund. By all accounts, the decision was the nizam’s own, the resident not being taken into confidence. Before the nizam presented Salar Jung with his khillat, he obtained from Lala Bahadur his pledge and surety for the good conduct of the young diwan.

Writing about his elevation in a letter dated 1 June 1853 to Henry Dighton, Salar Jung observed:

On Monday evening, 30th May, I was unexpectedly ordered by His Highness to attend the Darbar the next day and to bring two surpainches, and also to write to the Resident and ask him to attend at the same time; and without any solicitation on my part or my grandmother’s His Highness was pleased to confer the office of Dewan on me at the Darbar the day before yesterday and that of Peshkar on Rajah Narindher. I should have been quite content to remain in unmolested possession of my uncle’s jaghirs, were it possible, without the cares which such an office would impose upon me, especially in the present critical state of affairs here, but I was advised by friends, European and Native, and with too much appearance of truth to reject the advice, that if I declined the office, myself and my family would be utterly ruined . . . I shall nevertheless, do my best with God’s help to restore some order in the affairs of this country and endeavour to extricate the Government from its embarrassments.

It was rumoured that Lala Bahadur had promised the nizam Rs 13 lakh in two months’ time if he appointed Salar Jung as diwan. Another story was that Salar Jung had agreed to pay the nizam Rs 11 lakh in repayment of a debt taken by his uncle Siraj-ul-Mulk, and Rs 2.25 lakh as thanks for appointing him diwan. Lala Bahadur had been tasked with raising the latter amount for which he was forced to borrow the money from a local moneylender. The Englishman reported that the nizam had demanded Rs 11 lakh as a condition of his appointment.

But these were just rumours. Salar Jung, in a memorandum written ten years after he had become diwan, explained the circumstances under which he obtained his office. After the death of his uncle, Salar Jung tells us that he had neither hopes of obtaining the diwani, nor was he anxious to get it. In any case, he was only twenty-four years old at the time. He also seems anxious to clarify that there was no way he could have lobbied for the position, given the circumstances.

In other countries high appointments may have been conferred on young men, but such an idea as regards myself was far from my thought. However, on the following Saturday, His late Highness agitated the subject of my appointment, and while I was reflecting on the course I should pursue, most of my advisers here, as well as General Low, who was then Resident . . . recommended me to accept the office as a means for upholding the position of my family, which it was thought would otherwise be much impaired. I was therefore constrained to accept the offer, and on the Tuesday following, after the Durbar for the Resident, I was appointed. It will thus be clear from the above that in the space of three days, between Saturday and Tuesday, it was not possible that I could have succeeded by my own endeavours in obtaining the appointment.

It was widely expected that Salar Jung would be a pliable puppet in the hands of the coterie. Observers cautioned against the perils of expecting a person invested with power to refrain from using it. They cited the example of Siraj-ul-Mulk’s father, Munir-ul-Mulk, who was appointed diwan so as to preclude the vacant office from becoming an object of constant competition and intrigue. But the coterie had miscalculated in their choice of Salar Jung. He asserted himself almost from the start, a story which is told in the next chapter.

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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2020 00:53:19 IST