(Published in She The People, June 22 2018)
When Ali Adil Shah was murdered in 1580, Chand Bibi proved herself more than just his widow. Described as ‘one of the greatest women that India has produced’, this was a lady of extraordinary personality. Portraits of her show her hawking, and she could play the sitar, paint as a pastime and speak a reported five languages. Evidently, she did not care very much for purdah and established rules of feminine etiquette for, we are told, she frequently ‘accompanied her husband in his campaigns and rode by his side to battle. During times of peace a large portion of the public affairs were entrusted to her, and she gave audiences and transacted business in open durbar. She was beloved by all, not only for her daring, but also for her justice and firmness.’ As regent now for the dead Adil Shah’s heir, however, Chand Bibi had to rely on others, and to aid her in her work, she appointed a trusted nobleman. This grandee, however, soon ‘grew intoxicated with power’ to the extent of being rude to the queen. Quickly, she ‘turned her thoughts to his destruction’. In the plot that inevitably resulted, the man ended up jumping over the walls of the fort into the swamp below. He was fished out, beheaded and replaced.
The officer that followed also rapidly proved himself a headache for Chand Bibi – in the events that followed the queen was imprisoned briefly, released, challenged at court, and generally diminished by the men around her till she decided to return to her maternal home. The rest of her career was to play out in the kingdom where she was born, and not in Bijapur where she first arrived as a bride. The Ahmadnagar to which Chand Bibi returned, however, was a dynastic nightmare. Its ruler, the Nizam Shah, had been murdered in his bath, and the culprit was his own son. In fairness to the son, it was the father who had first tried to kill him by trying to set his bedroom on fire. Then, having succeeded to the throne, the young prince decided to grow swollen-headed, surrounding himself with drunks and alcoholics, and generally creating such trouble that he too was quickly sent to the grave. Chand Bibi, one historian notes gloomily, ‘had hoped to find peace in her old home, but she found the home more convulsed with faction and more distracted’ than the place she had left. Several Nizam Shahs rose to the throne and fell just as rapidly, till between 1591 and 1595, Ahmadnagar witnessed the reign of a ruler who had spent years in exile at the court of Emperor Akbar—a conqueror who had already set his eyes on seizing the Deccan for the Mughals.
In 1595 when this ruler died, the Mughals formally commenced their conquest in the south. It was Chand Bibi who made a real effort now to rally Ahmadnagar’s nobility around the throne and to persuade them to put aside all differences in this hour of crisis. ‘Her Highness the Bilqis of the Age,’ a contemporary records, even sent emissaries to the Adil Shah and the Qutb Shah of Golconda ‘informing them of the strength of the enemy and the pitiable condition of the inmates of the citadel,’ seeking their aid. Then, as the Mughals laid siege to Ahmadnagar, Chand Bibi readied herself to fight. When the invaders succeeded in bringing down a portion of the fort walls, it was she, ‘clad in armour . . . with a drawn sword in her hand, [who] dashed forward to defend the breach’. Even as her men fired at the Mughals from above to slow them down, she from ‘early morning until sundown . . . remained in the breach, encouraging her soldiers and endeavouring to repair the damage’. The invaders, despite a furious, bloody attack to take the city, were repulsed. Though relieved, conditions on Chand Bibi’s side were not promising either – perhaps for want of enough ammunition, at one point she is even said to have had opened her treasury and had cannon balls made of gold and silver!
As intelligence arrived that reinforcements from Golconda and Bijapur were on their way, the Mughals decided to seek a truce. While hereafter, the invaders declared, they would refer to the brave queen not as Begum but as Chand Sultan, the title was mere flattery: as one Mughal general sniggered to his interlocutors in Ahmadnagar during the negotiations, ‘You, like a eunuch, are keeping a woman in the fort in the hope that she will come to your aid . . . This man [the Mughal prince leading the siege] is the son of His Majesty the Emperor . . . at whose court many kings do service. Do you imagine that the crows and kites of the Deccan, who squat like ants or locusts over a few spiders, can cope with the descendant of Timur . . .?’ Chand Bibi’s nobles did not betray her, of course, though some territory had to be ceded. An uneasy peace prevailed, but all involved were aware that as soon as an opportunity arose, there would once again rise the scepter of war. As Ibrahim Adil Shah, her nephew, warned, ‘the enemy was still at their doors’.
Unfortunately, Ahmadnagar was still in no mood to end its quarrels, even as the shadow of destruction loomed over the city. Disputes over rival candidates for the throne, backed by rival lords, resumed, and Chand Bibi was resented for her influence. Exploiting these weaknesses, the Mughals began to destroy the Nizam Shahi state by inflicting a thousand cuts – Nasik was taken one day, and then Lohgarh, and in this way over half a dozen forts were lost one after the other. When in 1597 Chand Bibi combined with the Adil Shah and the Qutb Shah of Golconda and a joint attack was mounted against the Mughals, the allies lost. An effort at home was made, meanwhile, to eject the queen from power, and civil war began to tear Ahmadnagar to pieces, even as the Mughals prepared for their final assault. In 1599 the imperial forces arrived outside Ahmadnagar again, and Chand Bibi had to take a tough decision: should she fight, while also fighting her own nobles with the other hand, or should she come to terms with the imperial army? After all, as someone had remarked, ‘The enemy’s force is double that of the Dakhan . . . It is absurd for a few drops of rain to claim an equality with the infinite ocean, or the insignificant motes to imagine themselves equal to sun-beams.’
She chose, therefore, to make peace with the Mughals – and this was to be the cause of her death. As one narrator puts it:
Hamid Khan, one of the principal officers in the fort, and the head of [an] opposite faction, came to know of this, and at once ran into the streets exclaiming that the Queen wished to betray the people. The excitable and turbulent soldiers of Ahmednagar, forgetting all the noble devotion which Queen Chand had always shown, at once assembled in front of the palace. Headed by Hamid Khan they rushed inside, sword in hand, and not finding the Queen in the audience hall, they broke open the private apartment. There they were confronted by this courageous woman who was undismayed, though she saw that the end had come. Too excited to listen to her, the crowds rushed on, and Hamid Khan cut her down, and so died Chand Bibi, one of the noblest characters in the History of India.
The assassination was pointless, though, for not only had Ahmadnagar lost a resourceful and capable leader, but the fort was going to fall anyway – learning from the mistakes of the past, the Mughals were determined to bombard their way into the city on this occasion. ‘A scene of indiscriminate slaughter then took place, the treasury was pillaged, and the young King . . . was taken and sent to the Emperor Akbar.’ In due course, the Nizam Shah was placed in Gwalior Fort, far in the north, where he died a captive of the Mughals, in absolute obscurity. Formally, the kingdom of Ahmadnagar came to an end, the only consolation perhaps being that out of respect for its fallen queen, the Mughals sentenced her assassin to death. The end was upon the rulers of the Deccan, but even the invaders recognized that Chand Bibi was a worthy foe, one who deserved only acclaim.