A walk with Rana Safvi in the Walled City brought to life the battles of Delhi’s first female Islamic ruler, Sultan Raziya. And along the way emerged more treasures.
No ornamentation, no decoration—it could have been a mound of carefully placed stones, anything except the tomb of a ruler. The only female Islamic ruler of Delhi sultanate Raziya Sultan rests here in Bulbuli Khana with her sister Shazia, lost in time in the narrow alleys of the Walled City called Dilli.
“The first female Muslim ruler of South Asia, not just Delhi,” explains historian Rana Safvi, who is leading us on a walk through time. With a Master’s degree in medieval history from Aligarh Muslim University, Safvi’s writings and work are rooted in Ganga- Jamuni tehzeeb. “I try to cover stories which have not been heard or talked about a lot. By combining present-day situations with historical anecdotes, I feel we will be able to preserve our heritage,” says the lady who has also authored a book titled, Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, The First City of Delhi.
Our walk begins from the noisy Turkman gate. Rickshaws, autorickshaws, tempos and cycles honk. It’s difficult to believe that Sufi saint Shams-ul-Arifeen Shah Turkman Bayaban used to live here because he found it peaceful. Bayaban means wilderness, now there’s another kind though. The Holy Trinity Church Primary School lies right behind the gate. What an amalgam of the old and new the city is.
We move forward, crossing another old mosque. The inscription said it was built in 1687 AD by Sualeh Bahadur, son of Husain Sultan (reference: Mohammeden And Hindu Movements Of Delhi (Shahjahanabad), 1916 AD, Volume II).
Goats, chickens, curious onlookers, burqa-clad women, the walk takes us through the chaotic Pahari Bhojla. While we bow our heads to the Sufi saint at his dargah in Gali Wajeer Baig, Mohalla Kabristaan, a child from the neighbouring building keeps trying to attract our attention. We wave to the curious one before moving on.
A few more turns, and we are climbing up the steps of another ancient mosque—the Kalan or big mosque. Only the exterior is a remnant of the era it was built in – 1381 AD. Eyes on the Persian inscription at the main entrance, we climb up, past a huge goat sitting on the steps. The mosque was built by Khan Jahan Shah, a minister in the court of Feroz Shah Tughlaq. It is evening and young boys are busy flying kites on the neighbouring terrace. A flock of pigeons flies in the distance. It is kabootar baazi time. There is life beyond smartphones and laptops, children still have fun on bicycles and one is bold enough to introduce himself.
More turns and then we reach a dead end, standing in front of a stone plaque indicating the monument is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. I expect to see a spellbinding beautifully carved structure. But this is just a basic brick and mortar enclosure. Two tombs under the open sky, enclosed from all sides by narrow buildings with small windows; it is disappointing. The graves of Raziya and her sister Shazia, known as Rajji Shajji, lie forgotten. There are no inscriptions on either one. Two pigeons and a kite fill the small patch of sky.
Daughter of the third Sultan of Delhi Iltutmish and his favourite wife Terken Khatun, Razia ruled from 1236-40. No ceremonial coronation, no joy for the ruler who was surrounded by jealous nobles in a patriarchal society. “Historian Minhaj-us-Siraj wrote in 1400 AD that she was endowed with all the qualities befitting a king, but she was not born of the right sex. Since childhood, she had been trained in warfare, diplomacy, horsemanship by Iltutmish and Malik Yaqut, an Abyssian slave and her mentor. She had been declared as heir by Sultan when his elder son Nasiruddin Mahmud died fighting the Mongols,” says Safvi.
Our conversation is interrupted. The enclosure houses a small mosque and this square piece of land comes alive only at prayer times. The young Imam, who lives in a porta-cabin there, asks us to step out as it is time for azaan. Welcomed by a shopkeeper in the neighbourhood, he listened to our chatter. He has been living there for over 50 years, knows nothing about the monarch. “Sometimes school students and an odd tourist come,” he says nonchalantly.
Why does history choose to forget Raziya, the sultan who came from a slave dynasty, the only female Muslim ruler? Is the 1983 movie, Kamal Amrohi’s Raziya Sultan¸ an apt representation of the monarch? The questions were popping out fast. “Independent women, who are much ahead of their times, have always been prone to such tales. Historians have not found any mention of the romance between Raziya and Malik Yaqut. Ibn Battuta (1304-68) does write that there were suspicions of intimacy between Raziya and Yaqut, but she wore a crown of thorns. Perhaps trust on her mentor Malik Yaqut could have been construed as intimacy,” says Safvi.
Tracing the Sultan’s life, the powerful Turkish nobles ignored Iltutmish’s will and enthroned the other son Ruknuddin Firoz. Ruknuddin’s debauchery proved to be fatal. “During the Friday prayers in the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, dressed in red clothes of a plaintiff, Raziya appealed and the exhausted public accepted her as Delhi’s fifth Sultan. Ruknuddin was executed,” the talk continues.
Was she a good ruler? The history expert says, “Yes. She built schools, research centres and public libraries. Holy books, philosophy, science, astronomy, literature, everything was taught in her reign. Raziya wanted to be called Sultan Raziya and not Raziya Sultan. The word Sultan as a suffix was used for consorts and princesses, while as a monarch, Sultan had to be added as a prefix.” But it was a patriarchal society and the Sultan had problems. “According to Ibn Battuta, she rode on horseback, armed with a bow and quiver and did not veil her face. She appointed Malik Yaqut as Amir-e-Akhur or commander of the horses. This infuriated the Turkish nobles.”
It is time for namaaz. We are allowed in, as long as we sit in silence. I was trying to imagine the monarch in a man’s attire—robes, tunic, turban—and an infuriated court. The only woman from Mamluk dynasty who sat on the emperor’s throne, she got coins minted with her title, ‘Pillar of Women, Queen of the Times, Sultan Raziya, daughter of Shamsuddin Iltumish’. It was on November 10, 1236, that she took on the official title of Jalâlat-ud-Dîn Raziyâ.
Rebellion rose to the surface. Her childhood friend Malik Altunia, the governor of Tabarhind (Bhatinda), joined hands with her brother Bahram Shah and attacked her. Malik Yaqut was killed, and Raziya captured. The nobles enthroned her brother Bahram Shah in Delhi in April 1240 AD. Altunia, disappointed at not being rewarded, married Raziya. Together, they attacked Bahram Shah in September-October 1240. But they were not meant to be in the power seat of Delhi. Raziya was killed. And that was the end of South Asia’s first female Islamic ruler.
The right place
Sultan Raziya seemed to attract a lot of controversies, in death as in life. As she died near Kaithal, some say her grave is there, others claim it’s in Tonk, Rajasthan. But Safvi goes by an entry in Tabaqat-e-Nasiri by Minhaj-us-Siraj, as land entries are normally correct. Safvi quotes from that, “Eighteen places were included in this town… [and] Bulbuli Khana, the land of the tomb of Sultan Raziya.” And then reconfirms this with Ibn Battuta’s writings, “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.”
Slow steps lead us back, past some metal jewellery shops. We stop to buy the delectable nan khatai from a streetside vendor and reach Turkman gate where more tales of massacres and heroism lie.
This article was first published in the Patriot.