A Walk to Remember Women in History through Redfort & Salimgarh Fort
The lines which immediately come to my mind after going through various narratives of Delhi as a city are,
Kitne imtehaan ka shehr Dilli
Ek itmeenaan ka sheher Dilli
Sahapedia , an online interactive encyclopedia on the arts, culture and history of India , organised an attempt to Remember Women in History with a walk through the well known Red Fort and a lesser known Salimgarh Fort. Swarnima Bhattacharya, the walk leader, brought alive narratives of many enterprising queens and feisty princesses. The vast grounds of Red Fort seem to be whispering numerous tales of female jealousy and conspiracy, of eloquent women who were great patrons of art and architecture, of women who not only produced heirs to the throne but also were brilliant minds themselves. The magnificence of Redfort and its inhabitants was reduced by the massive plunders it went through and spelled well in the couplet.
Raunde hain misle naksh-e-qadam
Aiye umre raftan chod Gaye tu kahan mujhe
O, destiny, where have you left me to be trodden upon by succeeding generations.
After entry from Lahore gate and passing through Chatta Chowk or the covered bazar , you get transported to the Mughal era. The sound of bangles, trinkets make headway, ruffling of Zari and Resham appears familiar, soft sounds of sale transactions can still be heard. This bazaar is said to be unique to Mughal architecture where merchants sold their wares to the nobility residing within the fort. The proximity of bazar to the fort spoke that women of Mughal nobility were certainly very enterprising. Later during the walk it was mentioned by Swarnima that Jodha Bai owned a ship called Rahimi and carried overseas trade. It speaks of the massive business she ran.The Naqqar Khana or Naubat Khana comes next where drum and music was played six times a day. The path then leads to the famed and most frequented Diwane Aam and Diwane Khas which leaves you in wonder at the excellent craftsmanship despite the building being brutally ravaged.
Standing in front of Rang Mahal or the Palace of Colours, well thumbed pages of history loom before our eyes. The female protagonists of multi racial multi cultural societies come alive suddenly. In the harem of Rang Mahal resided the queen mothers, king's wives, daughters, courtesans, older female relatives, wet nurses and many helpers and servants. The harem was ruled firmly by the queen in charge and followed strict rules of administration and hierarchy. The Urdubegis or female security guards of harem had mastery in art of warfare and were quite forceful. Hamida Banu one of the Urdubegis is credited for suppressing the revolt of Bahadur Shah 1, son of Aurangzeb. This gives an insight into how strong these women were.Shahzadi Gulbadan Begum , who authored Humayun Nama - the life history of Humayun, showcased her great story telling skills. Such elaborate was the administration and upkeep of the harem that it had acknowledgements coming from rulers in form of titular honours. Akbar's mother Hamida Begum was called Mariyam Makani, Jahan Ara was bestowed the title of Padshah Begum.
Among all queens, Nur Jahan who was born as Mehrunissa finds a special mention as she was the most powerful and influential of all. She had access to royal seal and coinage in her name, a privilege never bestowed on any queen earlier. In fact she is said to be the real ruler and even held court independently. She commissioned the beautiful tomb of her father Itmad-du-Daulah in Agra with intricate pietra dura work.
She is said to have persuaded her niece Arjumand Banu Begum later known as Mumtaz Mahal to marry Shahjahan. There is a palace named Mumtaz Mahal in the fort complex which now houses a museum.
After Mumtaz Mahal's death her eldest daughter Jahanara Begum took her mother’s place at court and was constantly by her father's side. She is most famously credited for designing a part of Chandni Chowk and a Sarai which houses the present day State Bank of India. She had inclination towards Sufism and penned the biography of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti titled Munis-ul-Arwah. She was an able administrator and brokered many deals between the king and traders. She is said to be instrumental in war of Succession, where Aurangzeb successfully ascended the throne.
The lady behind Jahan Ara's Education was Sati-Al-Nissa who tutored her extensively in Quran and Persian Literature. She polished the lessons around etiquette, medicine, calligraphy.
Roshanara Begum, sister of Jahan Ara was equally brilliant and a mastermind behind her brothers succession to throne. She had access to confidential information which led to foiling the plot of Aurangzeb's death. However she hosted many male friends and harboured jealousy for Jahan Ara which led to stripping of power from her eventually.
Zebunissa the eldest and favourite daughter of Aurangzeb had to spend life in imprisonment as her attempts of critical commentary on Quran wasn't taken well by him. Her foray into poetry with a pen name of Makhfi (hidden one) which were compiled in Diwan-I-Makhfi also angered her father. She is also said to have facilitated the escape of Shivaji in a fruit basket. She was well versed in Persian, Arabic, Urdu and had also learned Mathematics, Astronomy, philosophy. She certainly was extremely intelligent and fiercely independent.
Hafiza Mariam , Zebunissa's teacher deserves a mention, as under her tutelage the princess memorised Quran in three years and became a Hafiza. She also taught Zebunissa Arabic which she learnt well in time. Miyabai another tutor of Zebunissa gave lessons in Mathematics and Astronomy.
A Portuguese lady, Thomazia Martins is mentioned as the person in charge of the diet of harem women.
Apart from the women from nobility, women courtesans Akbarabadi Begum and Fatehpuri Begum got mosques built after them immortalising their contributions to society.
These stories hold you in awe as you encounter enriching experiences with different facets of women in history. They were powerful, privileged but had many responsibilities towards the household, society and yet left their unique cultural imprints. Sahapedia' s wonderful initiative and Swarnima Bhattacharya's flawless narration made the women from history walk through the fort's corridors with a fresh lease of life.