The rise and fall of Delhi’s only female monarch

For several months, her face was veiled/ — her sword’s ray flashed, lightning-like, from behind the screen./ Since the sword remained in the sheath,/ Many rebellions were left unchecked./With a royal blow, she tore away the veil;/ She showed her face’s sun from behind the screen./ The [lioness] showed so much force/that brave men bent low before her. — Amir Khusrau

In the narrow lanes of Old Delhi near Turkman Gate is the grave of Delhi’s only female monarch. Its approach is difficult to find as it is hidden by shops and houses. After entering from Turkman Gate and traversing the narrow lanes of Pahari Bhojla till Bulbuli Khana, you’ll see a stone plaque put up by the Archaeological Survey of India.

It is marked as Sultan Razia’s grave. Inside there are two stone graves, popularly known as Rajji Shajji (Razia and Shazia). No one knows who lies in the second grave. A small mosque in which prayers are held is well maintained. The imam lives in a porta-cabin next to the graves.

The chosen one

This is where South Asia’s first female monarch lies. Razia was the daughter of the third Delhi Sultan, Iltutmish, and his favourite wife Terken Khatun. As Razia’s brother Nasiruddin Mahmud, who was Sultan Iltutmish’s eldest son and successor to the throne, had died fighting the Mongols, the Sultan designated his daughter as his heir. According to historian Minhaj-us-Siraj, the Sultan considered Razia equal to 20 of his sons in ability.

From childhood, Iltutmish and his trusted slave Malik Yaqut, the Abyssinian, had trained Razia in the art of warfare, horsemanship, diplomacy, and administration. However, after Iltutmish’s death, the powerful clique of Turkish nobles ignored his will and ensured that Ruknuddin Firoz, another son of the Sultan, occupied the throne. He was a debauch, and soon the people of Delhi were in despair.

Razia then dressed in the red clothes of a plaintiff and revealed herself to the congregation that had gathered for Friday prayers in the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque and appealed for justice. The people reposed their faith in her and she was elevated to the throne as Delhi’s fifth Sultan. Ruknuddin was imprisoned and executed.

Razia refused to call herself Razia Sultan as the word Sultan as a suffix was used for consorts and princesses. She was a monarch, and so Sultan had to be added as a prefix to her name.

Razia stamped her authority by having coins struck in her name. Later she adopted the title of Nusrat Amir-ul-Mu’minin (helper of commander of faithful, that is, Caliph).

Sultan Razia ruled wisely for four years (1236-1240). According to Ibn Battuta: “She rode on horseback as men ride, armed with a bow and quiver, and surrounded with courtiers. She did not veil her face.” She also shrugged off her feminine clothes and donned the robes, tunic, and turban of a man. Yet we see that patriarchy thrived; Minhaj-us-Siraj writes in 1400 AD: “She was endowed with all the qualities befitting a king, but she was not born of the right sex.”

Sultan Razia appointed Malik Yaqut as Amir-e-Akhur or commander of the horses. This was taken as an affront by the Turkish nobles as until then they had held all the important posts. That the Sultan had a mind of her own was not taken kindly by them.

Stories of romance between Razia and Malik Yaqut are to my mind fabricated by later historians as they don’t find mention in Minhaj-us-Siraj’s works. Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) writes that there were suspicions of intimacy between Razia and Malik Yaqut, but perhaps her trust in someone who was her mentor and perhaps father figure had been misconstrued. Independent women carving their own destinies have always been suspect.

Marriage and death

Later, Malik Altunia, the governor of Tabarhind (Bhatinda), rose against Razia and she went to battle against him. The Turkish nobles in her army mutinied, Malik Yaqut was killed, and Sultan Razia herself captured.

The rebellious nobles and defeated army returned to Delhi and raised her brother Bahram Shah to the throne of Delhi in April, 1240 AD. Meanwhile Altunia, disappointed at being deprived of any reward for his rebellion, offered his hand in marriage to Razia and she accepted it.

Razia and Altunia’s army attacked Bahram Shah in September-October 1240. But their combined army was defeated and Razia was killed.

Today there are conflicting stories about her tomb, with some saying it is in Kaithal. However, since land records are normally correct, I go by an entry in Tabaqat-e-Nasiri by Minhaj-us-Siraj, who, when enumerating the names of 18 villages included in the city of Firozabad, writes: “Eighteen places were included in this town... [and] Bulbuli Khana, the land of the tomb of Sultan Razia.”

Ibn Battuta confirms it: “A small shrine was erected over her grave, which is visited by pilgrims, and is considered a place of sanctity. It is situated on the banks of the Jumna, about a parasang from Delhi.”

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