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
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Decoding the symbolic threads and badges of one of India’s oldest cavalry units

The untold story of The President’s Bodyguard.

The national emblem of India; an open parachute and crossed lances – this triad of symbols representing the nation, excellence in training and valor respectively are held together by an elite title in the Indian army – The President’s Bodyguard (PBG).

The PBG badge is worn by one of the oldest cavalry units in the India army. In 1773, Governor Warren Hastings, former Governor General of India, handpicked 50 troopers. Before independence, this unit was referred to by many titles including Troops of Horse Guards and Governor General’s Body Guards (GGBG). In 1950, the unit was named The President’s Bodyguard and can be seen embroidered in the curved maroon shoulder titles on their current uniforms.

The President’s Bodyguard’s uniform adorns itself with proud colours and symbols of its 245 year-old-legacy. Dating back to 1980, the ceremonial uniform consists of a bright red long coat with gold girdles and white breeches, a blue and gold ceremonial turban with a distinctive fan and Napoleon Boots with spurs. Each member of the mounted unit carries a special 3-meter-long bamboo cavalry lance, decorated by a red and white pennant. A sheathed cavalry sabre is carried in in the side of the saddle of each trooper.

While common perception is that the PBG mainly have ceremonial duties such as that of being the President’s escort during Republic Day parade, the fact is that the members of the PBG are highly trained. Handpicked by the President’s Secretariat from mainstream armored regiments, the unit assigns a task force regularly for Siachen and UN peace keeping operations. Moreover, the cavalry members are trained combat parachutists – thus decorating the PBG uniform with a scarlet Para Wings badge that signifies that these troopers are a part of the airborne battalion of the India Army.

Since their foundation, the President’s Guard has won many battle honors. In 1811, they won their first battle honor ‘Java’. In 1824, they sailed over Kalla Pani for the first Burmese War and earned the second battle honour ‘Ava’. The battle of Maharajapore in 1843 won them their third battle honor. Consequently, the PBG fought in the main battles of the First Sikh War and earned four battle honours. Post-independence, the PBG served the country in the 1962 Indo-China war and the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

The PBG, one of the senior most regiments of the Indian Army, is a unique unit. While the uniform is befitting of its traditional and ceremonial role, the badges that augment those threads, tell the story of its impressive history and victories.

How have they managed to maintain their customs for more than 2 centuries? A National Geographic exclusive captures the PBG’s untold story. The documentary series showcases the discipline that goes into making the ceremonial protectors of the supreme commander of the Indian Armed Forces.

Play

The National Geographic exclusive is a landmark in television and is being celebrated by the #untoldstory contest. The contest will give 5 lucky winners an exclusive pass to the pre-screening of the documentary with the Hon’ble President of India at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. You can also nominate someone you think deserves to be a part of the screening. Follow #UntoldStory on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to participate.

This article was produced by Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic and not by the Scroll editorial team.