July 2, 2011

Sultana's Last Abode


Standing at the Turkoman Gate, we hailed a cycle rickshaw to take us to the curiously named Bulbul-i-Khana locality inside the convoluted labyrinths of Old Delhi. “Where exactly?” the rickshaw-wallah asked us. “Razia’s grave,” I replied. Pedalling laboriously for several minutes in the April heat, he abruptly stopped for what seemed like a breather. “There, into that street .… ask anyone,” puffed the rickshaw-wallah. Looking at the width of the street that branched off, we understood why he could go no further. Feeling odd – and a bit guilty, I may add – at having arrived like colonial bara sahibs, we rewarded the wretched rickshaw-wallah handsomely and strode off to pay homage to the fabled Razia Sultana.

I, along with my wife, had been soaking up Delhi’s history for the whole of the previous week and, had seen just about every landmark that we had read about in our school days. When we expressed our desire to visit Razia’s grave, hardly anyone could help with its location, which was a surprise. Though a famous film starring Hema Malini as the vivacious Sultana and, even comic books featuring Razia have been popular in Delhi, there weren’t many who seemed interested in her forlorn after-life.

We asked a chai-wallah if he could help us with the way to the gravesite. “It’s up there on Bhojla Pahari, not far from here,” he replied casually, while his clients looked at us questioningly. As we headed into the shabby cobblestone street, we noticed that it was getting claustrophobic and not even two persons could walk abreast without a nudge. Not sure if we were at the right place, we rechecked with some passer-by, who said that we were not only on track, we were actually at our destination, as he pointed at the grilled iron gate on the dead end of the street. The surroundings could not have been much different from our own Inner City in Lahore, with rickety conjoined houses putting good neighbourliness to severe test, live electric wires taking dreadful dips in every terrace and, rubbish heaps mocking at slothful babus of the municipality. The sub-continental street scene came full circle when a pye-dog soaked in sewerage slithered past us, having had a cool dip in the open sewers. Something must have gone very wrong for Razia to have ended up where she was, we wondered.
 
Our schoolbooks never told us that Razia was enamoured to the keeper of her horses, an Abyssinian slave by the name of Jalal-ud-din Yaqut. The chauvinistic Turki nobility known as the ‘Group of Forty,’ already incensed at having to bow to a woman in court, was aghast at seeing Yaqut promoted from the Amir al-Khayl (Superintendent of Stables) to the powerful position of Amir al-Umara (Superintendent of Nobles). Palace intrigue, thick with spying and plotting, soon implicated the unmarried Razia and Yaqut in a frivolous bit of intimacy. Yaqut was reported to have helped Razia clamber into her saddle, rather ardently. While she trotted off with a gratifying smile that eventful day, little did she know that the long knives were out.

A revolt by the Governor of Lahore in 1240 AD was put down bloodlessly, but shortly afterwards, Razia was confronted with a more ominous threat from Malik Altuniya, the Governor of Bhatinda. Razia led a force to confront the rebel governor, but was routed soon after her arrival. Her favourite Yaqut was killed in battle, while Razia herself was imprisoned in the very fortress she had come to reduce. Thereafter, in a twist right out of Indian cinema, her captor Altuniya found himself irresistibly captivated by Razia’s charms – she was about thirty, we are told – and the two promptly got married! Altuniya then led the combined force to Delhi to wrest his bride’s sultanate from her brother Muiz-ud-din, who had usurped it in the prevalent brotherly fashion while she was away campaigning.

Standing on the little Bhojla Pahari, which is more of high ground than a hillock, we looked around at the dense jungle of brick and concrete that is Old Delhi today. It took our mind’s eye to visualise that over seven and a half centuries earlier, this place was a wooded jungle on the floodplains of Yamuna; the imperial court was a further ten miles south at Rai Pithaura – the first of seven Delhis – then just 60 years old. We imagined Muiz-ud-din marching past where we stood, to square off with his new brother-in-law, as far north from the capital as he possibly could. Though Razia was more experienced in battle craft, she was constrained to defer leadership of the force to her husband, who was not quite equal to the task this time, as it turned out. After a resounding defeat, Altuniya and Razia fled westwards from the battlefield near Karnal, but after a day’s march which saw bulk desertions, they were cut down by local Hindu Jats at Kaithal. It was 14 October 1240, almost four years into Razia’s rule as the first Muslim woman ruler of Hindustan.

Reaching the iron gate at the dead end of the street, our eyes fell on two unremarkable graves in a small open courtyard. Were it not for the Archaeological Survey of India plaque which gave the details, we could well have been looking for some domed mausoleum hidden from view, elsewhere.
 
Mounted on a foot-high plinth, both graves are dressed in crude stone blocks. Of the two graves, one is said to belong to Razia’s sister Shazia but in the absence of tombstones, guesswork is fair game. The possibility of Altuniya resting in the company of his wife is not altogether improbable, I thought. A couple of platters full of bajra ensure that pigeons liven up, what might otherwise qualify as the most pitiful resting place of any monarch that I have seen.

With nothing more to see, nor any caretaker to talk to, we left the place rather cheerlessly. As we were winding down the street, a shrill voice called out, “aye bhai sahib.” Looking back, we spotted a middle-aged man with paan stained teeth, beckoning us to stay as he had not been able to offer his hospitality. Sensing it to be the usual attempt at extorting money, we continued, only to be chased by the man who kept insisting that we see the adjoining dargah and mosque. The whole situation started to become tense as he grabbed my arm and almost dragged me to a halt. My wife too was worried that one shrill whistle by the charlatan could draw out a dozen thugs rushing from the warrens and alleys. Before things got nasty, I jerked the fellow aside and we shuffled out of the street as fast as we could.

How on earth did Razia come to be buried in the horrid corner of Bulbul-i-Khana, if the grave is actually hers, that is? To complicate matters, there is a tomb in Kaithal also attributed to Razia. To answer the question, one can only speculate, based on the circumstances in which Razia died. If indeed Hindu Jats had killed her (there may have been a tacit nod from the top), the new Sultan would have put up a pretence of a decent burial and, would have hastily brought his sister’s remains back to Delhi. Bhojla Pahari is said to have been the place where Razia’s purported patron saint, Hazrat Shah Turkoman Bayabani, used to sit during meditation. This location may have been chosen by Muiz-ud-din in the belief that the saint’s blessings might comfort his tormented sister’s soul; that it was out of the way for any would-be sympathisers from the capital, was just as well. In the event, the saint died shortly afterwards and is buried not too far from the gate named after him.

As for the tomb at Kaithal, it could have been built by a later ruler over the site of Razia’s temporary burial. There being no tombstone or memorial tablet at Kaithal does not help matters much.

That Razia’s grave could yet emerge somewhere in Pakistan, some day, would be no surprise. In fact, discovery of Razia’s burial chamber in Kasur has already made news in some Urdu dailies, but we shall leave that for another story!

 
© M KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 3 July, 2011.