The feisty heroines of the Deccan

(Published in the Mirror, July 1 2018)

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In 1571 a scheming coterie of noblemen deep in Maharashtra joined together to unseat from power a woman they had come to resent. The lady in question was Khunza Humayun, a widow of Persian extraction who was once married to the Nizam Shah of Ahmednagar. Himself descended from Brahmins, this man had been instrumental in the destruction of Vijayanagar in 1565 — one composition claimed with typical literary excess that the Raya of Vijayanagar had demanded tribute from the Sultan, which besides diamonds and rubies, listed anklets from Khunza Humayun’s royal feet. Swollen with righteous fury, the Nizam Shah rained fire and death on Vijayanagar, resting only after the Raya’s head was planted on a stake, and treasure from the fallen city couriered to Ahmadnagar where it fell, presumably, into the lap of his avenged queen. When soon the Nizam Shah died, Khunza Humayun became regent for their son, parking herself on a gaddi from which she exercised power for six eventful years.

The begum was by all accounts efficient, praised by court poets for her beauty (her breasts were reportedly like “fresh pomegranates”) and intelligence. Paintings featured her seated beside her late husband, and given the conduct of her equally illustrious daughter, Chand Bibi, it seems unlikely that Khunza Humayun bothered much with purdah and other forms of ceremonious self-seclusion. Instead she planned and witnessed battles, forged alliances, and grew powerful enough for grandees at court to fear her ambition. Ostensibly to rescue her son and heir from this “petticoat government”, the men around the begum got together half a decade into her rule, planting her son in the driving seat, and consigning her to prison. Furthermore, either out of his impetuosity or due to plain old fashioned insecurity, the new Nizam Shah decided to expunge his mother from any record he could find, including having her painted over in those very miniatures her husband and she had commissioned to celebrate their love.

Such an unhappy fate was not unusual in the Deccan in the medieval age, and while there was no dearth of exemplary women, the odds were eternally stacked against them. The begum’s daughter, Chand Bibi, for instance, went to the sultanate of Bijapur as a bride, only to return to Ahmednagar when the nobility there united to check her power (like mother, like daughter, they probably said). When in the closing years of the 1590s the Mughals besieged Ahmednagar, it was Chand Bibi who rose to its defence, at one time astonishing the invaders, it is said, by bombarding them with cannon balls of gold and silver. But in 1599 she was assassinated by a posse of military men on the eve of diplomatic talks with the Mughals—and ironically, it was the invaders who gave her the respect she deserved, so that when they seized Ahmednagar, one of the first things they did was to put to death Chand Bibi’s murderers. It was, of course, little consolation when the heroine of the tale was already in the grave, but it showed that she was special..
Interestingly, shortly before Chand Bibi met this tragic end, there was born in the kingdom a girl who too would play a prominent role in shaping the Deccan. Jijabai is today remembered for making a hero out of her son, Shivaji, but hers was a line with long and intimate connections with the Nizam Shahs of Ahmednagar—some accounts state that it was the Nizam Shah who persuaded her family to marry her to Shivaji’s father in the first place. But while Jijabai is perhaps the bestknown Maratha woman of her age, she was not the first Hindu lady of prominence in the Deccan. The Adil Shahs of Bijapur were descended, for instance, from a Persian warrior of obscure origins and a Maratha woman of aristocratic birth. Their union was less romance and more a political alliance, but soon the lady accumulated power in the royal household—when years later a legitimate grandson proved himself spectacularly incompetent, she had no qualms in having him blinded, replacing him with an illegitimate but superior alternative.

Of course, as in most cases, women were also political commodities for dynastic exchange. The Sultans of the northern Deccan, for instance, were locked in endless feuds and rivalries, a state of affairs cheerfully exploited by Vijayanagar. When at last realisation dawned, and the Sultans decided to unite against their common foe, the alliance was sealed through an exchange of brides—Chand Bibi went from Ahmednagar to Bijapur, her sister to Golconda, and so on, their wombs serving as the glue to tie together the fate of these kingdoms. The ruler of Vijayanagar too, incidentally, owed his magnificence in the southern Deccan not a little to marriage. He was, of course, of illustrious family and brave, but he had begun his career serving a Sultan — it was his return to Vijayanagar and subsequent marriage to the celebrated Krishnadevaraya’s daughter that made him a sturdy claimant for power after that emperor’s death.

When the time came for the conquest of the Deccan, the Mughals too sought women to seal those political bonds which tended to get undone the moment imperial armies had their backs turned. Hayat Baksh Begum in Golconda was the daughter of the Qutb Shah, a woman who had rejected a proposal from the Shah of Iran. She chose to remain in the Deccan, instead, exercising power consecutively through her husband and her son. Such was her influence, in fact, that one traveler ascribed the ascent and subsequent downfall of a minister to nocturnal trysts in her bedchamber. But more seriously, where her son was listless, it was Hayat Baksh Begum who showed herself able to confront challenges—when Aurangzeb brought his armies to the gates of Golconda, it was the dowager who went out to negotiate terms, handing him a Qutb Shahi princess (and much gold) in return for peace. Aurangzeb, of course, used the marriage of his son into the Deccan to have the prince named heir to the throne, but even he was probably surprised that his principal interlocutor was no man but this elderly, formidable woman.

Not all such marital alliances were straightforward, though—earlier in the century, in Akbar’s day, there was pure comedy in Bijapur when a Mughal envoy appeared to collect a princess as part of a similar peace agreement. The Adil Shah at the time bribed the ambassador for years with such generous heaps of money that the latter delayed the handover, enriching himself in the bargain. An infuriated emperor, after nearly five years, then sent a second man, with strict instructions to collect the princess within one night of the embassy’s arrival in Bijapur. The Adil Shah, though, was clever. He delayed the arrival, sending everything from conversationalists to kitchen vessels to the envoy’s camp as distractions. When at last it was impossible to buy any more time, the princess was despatched— only for her to make an attempt to flee. She was captured and wedded to Akbar’s son Daniyal on the banks of the Godavari river, before she had another chance to escape and return to the comforting air of her father’s harem.

As it happened, though, in the end, there was no consolation for those in the Deccan, and history was stacked against them. When Alauddin Khilji first came from the north and opened a new chapter in these lands at the end of the thirteenth century, the only real resistance he faced was at Lasur from a local chieftain and two female Maratha generals who fought, in Isami’s words, “like lionesses”. Now, as the seventeenth century wound to a close, these southern Sultanates were fated for oblivion with no defenders of their own. The only person standing at the cusp of history, looking Aurangzeb straight in the eye with a new plan and a grand vision, was a man called Shivaji, son of Jijabai, another of the Deccan’s revered heroines.