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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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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