Down memory lane | History & Culture

The lady who left an Emperor enthralled in Delhi

Lal Bangla, a landmark of the Delhi Golf Club, has undergone repairs and one is tempted to relate the story of the vivacious Lal Kanwar, the courtesan supposed to be buried there. Jahandar Shah’s concubine, as she is known in history, held centre-stage in Delhi, Agra and Lahore during the one-year rule of that frivolous emperor in 1712. He ascended the throne after a battle of succession following the death of Bahadur Shah I, Aurangzeb’s son and successor.

Lal Kunwar was the daughter of Khasuriat Khan, a descendant of Mian Tansen, and captivated Jahandar Shah, who was more than double her age. She had wit, charm, coquetishness and skill in dancing. . Her family was one of singers, drummers and fiddlers (Kalawant) and earned its livelihood as such.

It is said that when Jahandar Shah first heard her sing, he got so charmed by her voice that he carried her in his arms to an inside room, where he asked her to sing again and again, staying on till the wee hours, for he was convinced that he had found a mehbooba (beloved) at last.

The infatuation grew and eventually Lal Kunwar was brought to the Red Fort. She was given the exalted tittle of ‘Imtiaz Mahal’ and her brother Niamat Khan Kalawant appointed Governor of Multan. The appointment was cancelled when the Wazir asked him to supply 1,000 sarangis in lieu of the governorship and he could not comply with the demand.

In Delhi, Lal Kunwar and the Emperor would go out incognito to worship at various shrines and bathe at the tank attached to the mazar of Hazrat Nasiruddin Chirag Delhi, for the blessing of the saint for the birth of a son and heir.

At Lahore, the two held festivals of light thrice a month, resulting in a big increase in the price of oil, so much so that even scholars of Persian thought it worthwhile to sell oil and reap a windfall (Parhein Farsi bachen tel/Yah dekho qudrat ke khel). The saying couldn’t have applied more aptly. At Lahore the emperor had to flee after a battle and Lal Kanwar found shelter in what was once the palace of Dara Shikoh.

After losing another battle at Agra, Jahandar Shah and Lal Kunwar escaped in a bullock cart, begging their meals all the way to Delhi. Nobody recognised them for they were almost in rags. Many took them for roadside performers, and at Mathura an attempt was made by a gang of ruffians to carry away Lal Kunwar, but the ex-dancing girl was able to fool them and make good her escape.

Their follies and foibles were cut short in Delhi when Farrukhseyer overthrew Jahandar Shah in 1712 with the help of the Sayyid brothers and imprisoned his uncle in Salimgarh, where Lal Kunwar also joined him. Here the ousted emperor was murdered and his consort forced to pass her days in the widows’ quarters of the Red Fort. Jahandar Shah was buried in a vault in Humayun’s Tomb but it is not known how and why an imposing memorial was built for Lal Kunwar, and by whom?

Most of the stories about her love life were passed on to posterity by Donna Juliana, a Portuguese lady. That she was beautiful and much sought after by men before her romance with Jahandar Shah is beyond doubt. Also beyond doubt is her love for the clownish emperor who doted on her till his dying day, vowing that no bathroom used by Lal Kunwar could stink.

Standing before the Lal Bangla who can imagine that it is the mausoleum of a courtesan who rose to become empress of India? It was only for a few months that the swish of Begum Imtiaz Mahal’s gharara turned many heads in the Red Fort where the Rang Mahal was the focus of merry-making every evening. It is a far cry from there to the Lal Bangla you will agree. However, it is said Shah Alam’s mother is also buried there. She too was named Lal Kunwar. It was perhaps for her that the imposing edifice was later erected to enclose the existing tomb of the senior Lal Kanwar who died unsung and unlamented in Suhaghpura, where Mughal emperor’s wives and concubines stayed put even long after their husband’s death. The show at the Red Fort however, vividly brings alive her memory though few remember her less flamboyant namesake.

The author is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 1:26:34 PM |

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