The phrase “powerful women of Medieval India” either conjures the image of the queen of the Delhi Sultanate, Razia Sultana, who braved enormous opposition from Shamsi nobles and effectively ruled Delhi for three years, or the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan – an able administrator, but also a poet par excellence and a fashionista.

The hegemony of north Indian history is so strong in public memory, that examples of Avant-garde women from other parts of India are completely obscured. One such example is of the talented harem of the kingdom of Malwa, the members of which enjoyed greater status and wealth than the male nobility in the kingdom.

Ghiyas-ud-din Khalji (1469-1500 AD), the second Khalji king of the kingdom of Malwa in Central India, renounced his sword early in his reign, in favour of his son, Nasir-ud-din Khalji. As prince Nasir fought his father’s battles, king Ghiyas found time for other pursuits, one of which was maintaining a unique and invincible harem in the subcontinent.

Mughal emperor Jahangir, in his Jahangirnama, gives the exaggerated figure of 15,000 women in Ghiyas’ seraglio. He further adds that each woman in the harem was either trained in a particular craft according to her aptitude and talent, or was appointed to some high position at the court of Malwa. Ferishta, in his Tarikh-i-Ferishta, adds that many women in Ghiyas’ harem were taught wrestling and the art of warfare. The majority of the king’s personal bodyguard came from two groups of femme fatales; the Turki band consisting of 500 Turkish women who excelled in the art of archery and the Habiwush band, which had 500 Abyssinian women equipped with swords, shields and firearms. Dressed in “male attire”, these women were a formidable force in Medieval India.

Ghiyas Shahi on a hunting expedition
Ghiyas Shahi on a hunting expedition

Ghiyas established a madrassa at Sarangpur in Madhya Pradesh, to educate the women of his harem. His harem included schoolmistresses, who would teach the other women of the harem, along with women who were proficient in reading and reciting the Quran. Only women with the keenest intellect were to join king Ghiyas at his meals every day, in order to discuss matters of theology and philosophy.

Nizam-ud-din Ahmed, in his Tabaqat-i-Akbari, narrates that the capital of Malwa, Mandu was renamed Shadiabad, or City of Joy by Ghiyas. The fortress was mostly populated by women. Several intelligent women in the harem supervised various imperial karkhanas or factories and markets in the capital. The smartest lot of the harem, was entrusted with the responsibility of auditing the accounts of the state. The seraglio also consisted of musicians, dancers and embroiderers.

On his many hunting expeditions, Ghiyas would take along expert huntswomen, who hunted alongside the Sultan. In return for their services, all the women in the harem, were paid equally – a daily wage of 2 silver tankas and 2 mans of grain.

Ghiyas Shahi fishing
Ghiyas Shahi fishing

In his Nimatnama, a unique illustrated manuscript on cookery and gastronomy, commissioned by Ghiyas-ud-din, the only man depicted in the miniature paintings is the Sultan himself. All the other characters in the paintings are women from his illustrious harem. The Sultan is depicted hunting with huntswomen, surrounded by his female bodyguards while holding court and so on.

The woman with the highest authority in Ghiyas’ harem was his chief queen, Rani Khurshid. Daughter of the Raja of Beglana, Rani Khurshid, was the de facto head of the state of Malwa, and according to Ferishta, “bore the deepest love for the Sultan”. But Rani Khurshid’s influence at the court of Malwa was viewed with suspicion and she was often portrayed as the scheming temptress, especially when she nominated Ghiyas’ younger son, Shujat as the heir apparent, opposed to Ghiyas’ elder son, Nasir. Much later, Nur Jahan would be regarded with equal suspicion for her proximity to power.

Undoubtedly, Ghiyas’ powerful seraglio was envied by many a male nobles at the court and Ghiyas’ own reputation became that of a lecherous Sultan who “only enjoyed the company of young virgins”. Instead of being remembered in the Persian chronicles as a Sultan who brought out the best in his harem by educating and training them, he is remembered as the Sultan who was on an undying quest for the ideal female beauty. Questions were raised on his merits as a king, even though his long reign of 31 years was the only period the kingdom of Malwa ever witnessed a protracted period of peace.

It is not surprising that medieval Indian chroniclers could not understand and appreciate Ghiyas’ distinguished harem. In an era that treated women as second-class human beings, educated women would have certainly been misfits. This may be why when Ghiyas’ son, after he murdered his father and wrested the reins of Malwa for himself, executed most of the women from his father’s seraglio. Weak rulers are often threatened by empowered women.

Ghiyath Shahi seated on a stool in a garden is being offered a dish, possibly of samosas. A cook is frying them over a stove, while another is placing them on a round dish. Opaque watercolour. Sultanate style. Title of Work: The Ni'matnama-i Nasir al-Din Shah. A manuscript on Indian cookery and the preparation of sweetmeats, spices etc., 1495-1505. Source: British Library/ Wikimedia Commons CC BY
Ghiyath Shahi seated on a stool in a garden is being offered a dish, possibly of samosas. A cook is frying them over a stove, while another is placing them on a round dish. Opaque watercolour. Sultanate style. Title of Work: The Ni'matnama-i Nasir al-Din Shah. A manuscript on Indian cookery and the preparation of sweetmeats, spices etc., 1495-1505. Source: British Library/ Wikimedia Commons CC BY