Established by Persianized Turkish slave rulers in the early thirteenth century, the Delhi Sultanate is largely seen as inaugurating the “medieval” period of Indian history. It reflected the general changing nature of Islamic polities in the eastern half of Islamic rule after the decline of the Abbasid caliphate, to a more secular political institution with overall official allegiance to Islam.
Our main source materials for a study of this period are histories that are largely in the nature of Persian court chronicles, histories, and Arabic travel accounts. Most authors of these works were trained in Islamic religious studies. In this regard, though Islam largely deems women a step inferior to men, in certain other ways, it has also provided women with better rights and station than several other religious traditions. With the spread of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula, these ideas took varied and complex forms in contact with different types of patriarchal social formations that offered opportunities for interaction in such a way that by the tenth century, assumption of power by a woman had also become constitutionally valid.
The prevalent theories of kingship in the Sultanate were also conducive to the exercise of female political agency. Despite the overall theoretically subordinate position accorded to women, they still had the right to rule in the early Turkish polities. This allowed a woman to exercise power without the agency of a man, and was derived from a long tradition of politically and socially active females amongst the Turko-Mongol people. This was also a common practice in ancient Iranian society, to which the Persianized Turks were likely exposed. The history of the Turks was also full of examples wherein no theoretical qualification apart from fitness and ability were required of a ruler. Notably the local Indian society too represented a long and continuing tradition of acceptance towards the exercise of power by women.
Gender has long been reinstated as an important tool of historical analysis in the context of India. However, studies that focus on the experiences, potentialities, and meanings related to the office of a queen are yet to develop. This is partly due to the nature of historical sources as we neither have any surviving architectural work commissioned by a queen, nor do we have any pictographic depiction of royal women for this period. However, one also faces the problem of dealing with sources which reflect the views and concerns of the dominating patriarchal elements as none of these was authored by a woman herself.
Dominant studies on the Delhi Sultanate have largely relegated many extraordinary women to the margins of state and political processes. The few studies that have touched upon the theme of royal women have tended to emphasize the romantic orientalist/colonial images of strict exclusion of women from public life, their subjugation within the harem and in society, and their treatment as mere sex objects. This idea has cast a long shadow, creating an emaciated image of queens of the Sultanate period.
Many other studies that have provided information about women’s various roles in the Sultanate, including some powerful royal women, have not yet engaged with the potentialities of the office and position of a queen. Certain communal historical accounts, with their roots in the colonial divisions of Indian past based on the religious affiliations of its ruling elite into Hindu, Muslim, and the British periods, have long portrayed medieval Indian history as a “dark” period, responsible for introducing several evils and reversing the golden achievements of its ancient past. Within this framework royal women are highlighted to represent the unfair and immoral sexual conduct of the Muslim “foreigners.”
Despite the aforementioned baggage that the medieval period carries in terms of perceptions related to the harem and royal women, such studies of the Sultanate have generally received less attention from scholars especially in comparison to the later Mughal period. This has led to their erroneous representation in both modern historical works and popular culture.
The most notable amongst all of the royal women of the Sultanate was the regnant queen Razia (1236–1240), who adopted the gender-neutral title of Sultan. Razia has a unique position in the history of India, as both the only regnant queen of medieval India and woman to sit on the throne of Delhi. The primary account for the reign of Razia is provided by the contemporary historian Juzjani who speaks of Razia in the highest of terms. Razia was a daughter of Sultan Iltutmish from his chief queen, who in all probability was the daughter of the founder of the Delhi Sultanate. By this virtue, the princess always had access to much authority both within the harem and in matters of state. After the death of his designated heir, the Sultan made Razia his heir apparent, owing to her better rulership abilities than her two brothers. At Iltutmish’s death, the “nobles” seated her brother Ruknuddin, who was given to a wasteful life, on the throne. This left effective control over the affairs of the kingdom with his mother Shah Turkan who misused her position to kill Iltutmish’s sons and torment members of the harem. The result of this was a revolt by maliks (commanders), in several parts of the empire. In the meantime, when the queen mother tried to kill Razia, the princess openly became hostile and with the help of the common populace and powerful Turkish “nobles,” she seized the queen and executed Ruknuddin.
Following this, normal functioning of state resumed and Razia deftly tackled her enemies, sowing dissension in their ranks, reorganizing the state administration by distributing important offices to her followers, and elevating the Abyssinian Yakut to the office of amir-i akhur, or the lord of stables, thus inspiring the envy of the Turkish military chiefs. Eventually Razia also decided to do away with the veil and to appear in public view, sometimes riding on an elephant, wearing a head-dress and tunic.
Despite the rising discomfort of Turkish nobles, Razia’s authority remained intact. However when she moved out of the capital to suppress a rebellion, she was captured with the help of the Turkish nobles and Yakut was killed. Not one to give up easily, Razia made a renewed attempt to capture Delhi, after espousing her captor and winning over his support. Yet, having lost the support of the powerful Turkish faction which had helped her come to power, Razia’s side lost. According to Juzjani, she was finally killed after being deserted by her troops.
Later accounts add more colourful, yet less credible, details about her reign, despite not being written even within a century of her rule. Isami, a century later, adds interesting details to conversations that he never witnessed, narrating how Razia’s conduct denigrated from that of a veiled durbar (royal court) in the early part of her reign to the shameful liberties that she started taking in the later part, like physical proximity with Yaqut while mounting the horse. In this narrative Razia was captured within Delhi itself and no mention of her second attempt to regain power exists. Ibn Batutta in the second half of the fourteenth century relates to us the events that he heard circulated in the markets and amongst nobles. Here, more dramatic layers are added and Razia is related as having donned the red garments of an aggrieved person and made a plea to the army to come to power. She gave up female dress and humility at the very outset of her rule and was therefore deposed and married off to a relative of hers, with whom she made a renewed bid for Delhi, but eventually met a disgraceful end. Many such additions can also be found in the seventeenth century account of Firishta. The embellishment of Razia’s history has continued to the present day and her love life still remains a subject of many fabulous fantasies, which has become a part of the popular culture.
It is beyond doubt that Razia proved to be a confident, meticulous, and an able administrator. Her understanding of the dangerous nature of the dominant Turkish slave nobles was largely correct, to counter which, she worked to strengthen the position of the monarchy vis-à-vis the military elite. Militarily she was successful in putting down challenges to her power given her determination to assert the authority of the crown in the eyes of the dissenting nobles. She prevented establishment of the dangerous precedent of giving a strong say to the local governors in the appointment of the Sultan and her political and military wisdom also kept the boundaries of the Delhi Sultanate safe from Mongol invasions, which were pushed back soon after her deposition.
The need to provide justifications to political motives and occurrences meant that while it is unlikely that her gender and transgression of gendered conduct was the reason for her deposition, it was presented as such by the medieval historians. Remarkable as her life and struggles were, Razia cannot be considered as an exception since contrary to the perception that exercise of authority on the part of queens was rare, it appears that the women of the Sultanate did in fact have considerable access to power, which is evident in the few incidental references to them. The fact that the biggest challenge to Razia’s authority had initially come from a woman, the powerful queen Shah Turkan, is in itself quite telling.
The life and career of Shah Turkan (ca.1236) probably best represents the richness and openness of early Turkish polities. Early accounts of her tell us that Turkan was a Turkish slave girl who eventually rose to the position of queen of Iltutmish and finally became the queen mother of the state, despite not being of royal lineage herself. At the accession of her son to the throne, Turkan assumed greater political powers.
Given that in the Persian tradition to which the Turks had been exposed, the divinity of the person of the king could only be passed on through descent; royal women were seen as legitimate carriers of sovereignty. The sources present us with many examples wherein marriage with them was seen as a legitimate way to forge alliances and gain political advantage. Therefore both Iltutmish and his rival’s claim to power rested on their espousal of daughters of the late sultan Qutubuddin Aibak and the powerful noble and regent Aitigin assumed the royal paraphernalia immediately after marrying a daughter of Sultan Iltutmish.
Royal women were seen as important carriers of legitimacy in the power relations envisioned by the dominant patriarchal elements in the political theory of Delhi sultanate. While this in part may be regarded as restrictive, it could also have a liberating influence for women who desired to capitalize on their position to influence the course of politics of the time. Moreover, royal birth, especially from the mother’s side, provided a queen with much bargaining power in terms of authority, as had been the case with Razia. While it was possible for royal women of common birth like Shah Turkan to be elevated to higher positions, it seems that children born out of such relationships did not have much legitimacy as a general rule. Kai Khusrau’s (ca.1287) claim to the throne was overlooked for the reason that he was not born of a queen, as was the claim of a son of Bahlul Lodi (1451–1489). In this regard, queens that descended from royal backgrounds added to the grandeur and image of the state itself. Thus in the effusive introduction that the ambassadors gave of their Indian master on embassies to other rulers, the royal descent of their queens were specially mentioned.
The historical texts, being one of the royal insignias, were an integral part of the propaganda and identity of the state. It is therefore probable that the images of queens and royal women were built upon to strengthen the image of the state, becoming an important part of how the state in itself was envisioned. It is, however, difficult to tell fact from fiction in such instances and to ascertain whether these women were actually as powerful as described. Though it may be argued that these women became pawns in the agenda of the state, it is important to also appreciate that images of queens, and the culture that they created around the court was a central to maintaining the social, political, and cultural stature of the medieval state. The sultanate to a great extent depended on symbols and traditions to create an idea of a powerful state, and queens and royal women were inherently involved in this symbolism. They therefore emerge as important contributors to the overall stability of rule to bolster willful submission to the state’s authority. In this regard, opulent spending on the harem was regarded as politically essential to development of the image of kingship according to the contemporary political theorist Barani.
The description of the feast at the house of Makhduma-i Jahan, the queen mother, by Ibn Batutta suggests a lavish lifestyle of the women of the harem. At the arrival of a noble from a foreign country, the queen mother is described as hosting the women of the visitor, entertaining guests and actively undertaking charitable activities like building lodges for the welfare of travelers. These queens therefore evidently acted as agents of “soft power”and grandeur of the state. Since the roles of queens were not well defined in the contemporary political theories, such traditions and customs had an important role in imparting meanings to medieval queenship in India.
We may also appreciate that the queen mothers seem to have enjoyed a favoured station in the creation of this grand image of the state. While their own images were developed as in the case of Firuz Shah’s (1351–1388) mother, they were further glorified by images of personal regard and service rendered to them by the ruler as in the case of Muhammad bin Tughlaq (ca.1324) and Mubarak Shah (1421–1434). Considering the theoretical allegiance that the Sultanate owed to Islam in which women as mothers are exalted, and the divine image of kingship in the Turkish tradition, such images conferred a certain divinity on these women. The harem of a sultan was therefore referred to as “sacred,” in reflection of his image.
In the context of power enjoyed by royal women in matters of state, the harem does not seem to conform to the ideas of “private”sphere. Most modern historians of medieval India have merely regarded it as a place of seclusion, owing to certain descriptions in the contemporary accounts. However, research reveals that the Sultanate harem had a very political nature, making connections with and within it a powerful thing. Therefore, we come across the reference of the wife of a powerful noble Nizamuddin who paralleled the efforts of her husband in gaining ascendency at court and the state, with her own politics of trying to gain a strong status within the harem. She is described as actively participating in the activities of the harem. Her influence is believed to have reached such heights that she assumed the role of the main manager of these apartments and earned the honorary yet powerful title of Queen Mother.
Since rules of succession were ill defined, the queens and the women of the harem were central in deciding the course of politics and emerge as seminal figures in the power play of the time rather than the powerless characters they were previously believed to be. We have many remarkable examples for this, for example one other queen of Iltutmish, referred to as Malika-i Jahan (Queen of the Universe), was important in the power play of the time. The widowed queen married a powerful noble, to strengthen her position in order to both raise her son to the throne and force the then monarch to release two of her captive sons, displaying remarkable tact and intelligence in the process. Having put her son on the throne, she assumed the title of the Queen mother and shuffled powerful nobles in and out of power to strengthen her status.
Khudawandzada Begum (ca. 1324–1351), the eldest sister of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, also seems to have been a powerful woman who laid a strong claim to the throne for her son after the death of her brother on account of their royal descent. Khudawandzada continued her spirited struggle to put her son on throne even after the accession of Firuz Tughlaq. It is probably symbolic of the high regard that she commanded, that the sultan regularly paid her his tributes, and continued to provide a respectable living for her despite her attempts to take his life. Bibi Masto (ca.1450), the widow of an Islam shah, who led the defense of the fort of Delhi in the fifteenth century against attack by Jaunpuri forces, dressed as a man along with a retinue of female guards in the absence of Sultan Bahlul Lodi also appears to have been a powerful woman. Another example of the kind of political power at the disposal of these women is the queen mother at the time of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, referred to as the Makhduma-i Jahan who was entrusted with the administration of the capital when the sultan was away on a trip. Some of these royal women also maintained a surveillance system of their own for maintaining their power.
The histories of the time use prevalent gender ideas about “the nature of women”to justify many political outcomes, yet the narrative cannot mask the power that these women wielded. Thus while Barani blames the foolishness of the womanly nature of Malika-i Jahan, the widow of JalauddinKhalji (1290–1296), for the victory of his nemesis; what he lets slip unknowingly is the immense power that the lady had at her disposal. Elsewhere he speaks of the foolishness of Sultan Hussain Sharqi of Jaunpur (1456–1476) in ignoring the advice of his nobles and taking an expedition on the advice of his wife Bibi Khonza, a woman. While the narrative speaks unfavorably of the sultan for motives of its own, it is evident that Bibi Khonza had much political power at her disposal to influence a military action.
Evidently these women had much power at their disposal, yet they could not break free of the patriarchal ideology of the structure itself. Many of these women used marriage as a tool to negotiate and further their ambitions, without changing the predominantly male character of the state institutions. Therefore almost always, the female claimants were overlooked for succession, despite the precedents of female monarchs. Thus at the death of Alauddin Khalji, his wife called Mahhaq-mah (ca.1360), made her brother pledge that he would try his best to raise her son to the throne, in competition with his other male heirs. No mention was made of his living daughters in this respect. Similarly, the only way the ambitious aforementioned Khudawandzada Begum could claim power for herself was through the agency of her son. This is especially ironic because their power was not derived from the men related to them, rather they themselves were a source of legitimacy by virtue of their position as royalty. It seems that the earlier tribal elements of Turkish origin were slowly fading away and women were starting to be seen as belonging to the domestic and private sphere. While this gradual change prevented the coronation of more regnant queens after Razia, it could not stop queens from accessing the power that they had traditionally enjoyed. The growth of such ideas does not seem to have been opposed by a male dominated state, whose own interests at keeping power lay in maintaining this gender divide. However it needs to be stressed that the Sultanate allowed for the fashioning and conceptualization of several power equations, and royal women were by no means marginalized in this scheme.