Lost in the pages of history

Forgotten tales

Don’t you need a guide to show you around? You won’t understand the history of this place without a guide,” an old guide tried to explain to the young group of people gathered at Red Fort on Sunday. A young woman from the group politely denied and went ahead to narrate a tale of a different kind. This group had gathered to know the stories of women and servants in the Red Fort and the story of Begum Samru, a dancer who became a ruler of Sardhana, near Meerut.

Annapurna Menon and Akriti Suresh, who have been students of history, had organised a heritage walk, ‘Make Heritage Fun! – Feminist Perspective on Old Delhi’ with GoUNESCO, which works to spread awareness about heritage sites across the world. They also brought focus to the secret doorways and underground passages that were used by servants as they were not to be seen frequently in the public eye.

 “This is not exactly subaltern history as these people were, after all, royal and did have some power at their disposal,” explained Menon. Yet, much is not discussed about them during regular guide tours and heritage walks. Despite being a part of the royal family and now the world heritage site being taken care of by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), their stories have been forgotten, their tombs have crumbled and their palaces have been lost in the unorganised colonies and bazaars that grew around them. “ASI is not doing a good job. Their idea of restoration involves whitewashing. A lot of paintings and inscriptions have been lost due to this,” Suresh shared.

Taking a tour of Red Fort, Suresh explained, “The Red Fort is marked with several jarokhas, a system that Mughals borrowed from the Rajputs. There are two main jharokhas next to the emperor’s seat in ‘Deewan-e-Aam’, from where he addressed the problems of common people. The mother and the main wife of the emperor helped him take decisions from these jharokhas. They were actively involved in politics.” She further explained that the notions of Muslim women as devoid of all power are incorrect.

“In fact, royal women like Nur Jahan and Jahanara are examples of women yielding power in the times of Mughal era. The harem, where the wives, concubines, mothers and sisters of the emperor lived, was not just a place where the royal women lived a lavish life. It used to be a place where many political and economic decisions were taken,” shared Menon. “The royal women used to have their own lands, jagirs. The money generated from these jagirs was used by the royal women for several things. They funded restoration in disaster hit areas, helped in marriages and education of several people, and were patrons of several art forms. Some were also writers and poets. These women did enjoy certain power,” she added.

“In fact, Jahanara was so economically powerful that she funded the entire wedding of her brother, Dara Shikoh. It was not easy for the Western traders and travellers at the time of Shah Jahan to digest the fact that a woman could yield such power. Hence, we come across some accounts by the Western writers that talk about the incestuous relationship between Shah Jahan and his daughter Jahanara, explaining her power. No such account has been written by any Indian author,” says Suresh.

Women like Jahanara, who were childless, were not discriminated against in the Mughal court. Even the sexual lives of women in the harem were not as orthodox as they are considered to be.

“Once Jahanara got burnt and an European doctor was invited to the harem by Shah Jahan. The doctor could examine women through a hole in a sheet. An account by one of the doctor’s assistant shows that women in the harem used to run the doctor’s hand over their breasts and other areas,” said Suresh. These women could make choices of their own. Despite being guarded by eunuchs, who used to be the emperor’s spies, these women took such risks and were sexually experimental, added Suresh.

Another important aspect of the Red Fort was the merging of the public private life. “The Chaar Bagh saw many garden parties and here women were equally allowed as men were. These parties were also a site for many political mergers and decisions. Despite the Mughals being Muslim, opium and alcohol flowed freely and women partook in this too,” explained Menon.

 “Even though the medieval times are considered orthodox and backward, it is interesting to see how these women enjoyed more agency as compared to the ‘modern times’ of British rule. Many such women are not talked about and this alternative history is brushed under the carpet. One such story is of
Begum Samru, who started as a dancer and with her diplomatic attitude ended up becoming the ruler of Sardhana, near Meerut,” Suresh said.

Begum Samru also has a palace in Chandni Chowk. “The proximity of her palace from Red Fort shows how important she was to the royal family. Today her palace, which was adorned by gardens on all sides, has been taken over by the bazaar and her legacy is forgotten.

Despite being marked as a heritage site, very few people in this area know about it,” Menon said.

One page at a time, Menon and Suresh are trying to revive these lost stories. “This is her story, not history,” Menon added.

The heritage walk –‘Make Heritage Fun! – Feminist Perspective on Old Delhi’ will be conducted on October 1.

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