Most Delhi residents are familiar with the basic history of Red Fort, the red sandstone monument that stands strong at the eastern end of the walled city. It was built in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as the palace of his capital Shahjahanabad, and every Independence Day, the prime minister delivers a speech from its ramparts. Visitors to the monument are regaled with stories of Shah Jahan and the politics of his empire, most of which mention his wife Mumtaz Mahal in passing.

In these retellings, however, there are few mentions of the other wives, concubines, female attendants and eunuchs. Once sequestered in zenanas (ladies’ quarters), they have now been banished to the margins of history, their contributions considered meager or inconsequential.

In fact, the stories behind several of Delhi’s heritage monuments feature powerful women: Humayun’s Tomb, the resting place of emperor Humayun, was built by his wife Haji Begum. The famous Chandni Chowk market of Old Delhi was designed by Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara.

Their presence is everywhere, but their names remain mostly absent.

A map of Shahjahanabad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, two history students, Aakriti Suresh and Anna Menon, tried to address this discrepancy, with a heritage walk around Old Delhi.

“What about the women of Chandni Chowk?” asked Menon. “What about the magnificent roles they played in shaping India’s Mughal history?”

Twenty-one-year old Suresh added: “They were an integral part of the politics, made administrative decisions, maintained their own armies and even planned murders, so why are they just mentioned as wives and agents of pleasure?”

Suresh is a master’s student at Delhi University and Menon is employed with Indiapictures, a curated online gallery of photographs from the Indian Subcontinent, as head of communications.

On a warm Sunday morning in Delhi, a small group of people gathered outside Red Fort’s ticket booth to attend Suresh and Menon’s feminist heritage walk in Old Delhi. The walk was organised in association with GoUNESCO, an initiative supported by the United Nations body which aims to make travel and heritage more engaging.

Aakriti Suresh (extreme left) and Anna Menon conducting the feminist heritage walk.

The walk was brief: its focal point was a zenana within the fort complex. Chatta Chowk, a long passageway right beyond the gate, was significant because women would gather on the balcony, overlooking the market to shop for clothes and trinkets. A few feet away, a smaller apartment contains within it a public restroom.

The group settled down for a 10-minute history lesson on the women who lived within the Red Fort – the significance of their class, the eunuchs who protected them, the sexual freedoms and the constrains they dealt with.

Mumtaz Mahal's zenana within Red Fort. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Also included in the walk was the haveli of Begum Samru, a fiery woman who commanded her own army of mercenaries and eventually become the ruler of Sardhana, a small principality in Meerut.

Samru's haveli at Chandni Chowk. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The building has been converted into a Central Bank of India branch (during British Rule, it housed The Lloyd’s Bank).

The signboard outside Begum Samru's haveli.

While some tombs and structures might not have survived the test of time, there are several monuments in the capital that serve as reminders of the women who fought for their inclusion in history. For those who fancy a heritage walk (or a drive) of their own to see relics of a feminist past, here are some places to visit:

Roshanara Garden

Roshanara was the second daughter of Shah Jahan, an influential woman in her father’s court. After losing Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s daughters Jahanara and Roshanara rose to power and played a major role in the politics surrounding the peacock throne.

Along with making integral political and military decisions, Roshanara also masterminded the murder of her brother Dara Shikoh to enable her favourite brother Aurangzeb to ascend to the throne.

Grave of Roshanara inside the Baradari. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Roshanara Garden in North Delhi is where she lived for a while and where her tomb lies today. At present, Roshnara Bagh is a recreational spot – the gardens are well cared for, although her tomb lies derelict. The spot is better known as the location of the elite Roshanara Club, founded by the British.

Jahanara’s Tomb

Roshanara’s sister Jahanara too enjoyed a position of power and influence. She became the first lady of the court after her mother Mumtaz Mahal’s death, a rarity for daughters in the Mughal era.

The passing of Shah Jahan beside his daughter Jahanara. Painting by Abanindranath Tagore, 1902. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that Shah Jahan consulted her on political matters and favoured her over Roshanara. Her tomb in Nizamuddin is relatively unknown, but has become a gathering spot for women hoping to be emotionally healed by her presence.

Razia Sultan's grave

Barely visited, the tomb of the first female sultan of Delhi, Razia Sultan, is tucked away deep inside Old Delhi. A stone tablet at the entrance to the tomb complex reads: “Earlier known as Rani Saji ka Dargah, this enclosure houses the grave said to be of Sultan Raziya, who succeeded her father Iltutmish.”

Two graves are laid next to each other and while one is believed to be of Razia Sultan, the identity of the second one remains unknown.

Tomb of Razia Sultan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In her book Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions, author Soma Mukherjee describes Razia Sultan as "intelligent and courageous". She writes:

"Though her reign was short but eventful, yet the unparalleled courage and sagacity displayed by her makes her name memorable in history".

Qudsia Bagh

A consort of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, Qudsia Begum (born Udham Bai) entered the royal halls as a dancer and entertainer. The emperor, having taken a liking to her, eventually married her and the son born to them, Ahmad Shah Bahadur, went on to claim the throne after his father’s death. Even though the empire failed in his hands, Qudsia Begum was greatly involved in her son’s ruling decisions. Qudsia Bagh, her personal garden, remains one of the greenest spots in Delhi, and can be found next to her palace near the Red Fort. Qudsia Begum died in prison and part of her palace was destroyed during the 1857 rebellion.

The heavily damaged Shahi mosque of the palace. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Khayr al-Manazil Mosque

A two-storey structure opposite the Purana Qila, Khayr al-Manazil was built by Maham Anaga, a Turkish nurse who took care of Akbar from the time he was a child. Her story would not be out of place in a Game of Thrones episode. It is known that Maham Anaga was an influential woman, who was loved by Akbar and even came to administrate the court as a de facto ruler, with Akbar as the figurehead.

Khayr al-Manazil Mosque. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions, Mukherjee writes: “Maham Anaga from the very beginning was politically ambitious and power crazy. She wanted to exercise her power in the administration of the empire from behind Akbar, making him a sort of puppet in her hands.”

Anaga was the one who phased out military commander Bairam Khan once she realised the amount of administrative control he held.