HISTORY REVISTED

Thinker, tailor, soldier, spy: The extraordinary women of Ghiyas-ud-din Khalji's harem

Only women with the keenest intellect were to join the king at his meals every day, in order to discuss matters of theology and philosophy.

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
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.