Last Monday, large numbers of people in India remembered the life and legacy of Indira Gandhi on the 31st anniversary of her death. Some celebrated the memory of our slain prime minister, while others debated the ways, good and bad, in which she refashioned this country. Some recalled her triumph in the 1971 war, while others lambasted her for the socialism that romanticized poverty instead of embracing the idea of prosperity (then, of course, there were the trolls on Twitter who rejoiced that they had one more occasion to employ ghastly neologisms like “sickular”). Either way, Indira Gandhi loomed large this last day of last month, and so this column will reverse the date to the 13th of October, travel back over eight centuries, and remember, instead, another remarkable lady who ruled Delhi—and who too was murdered, closing her tale in tragedy.
If Gandhi was the first woman to lead democratic India, Sultan Raziya was the only woman to have occupied Delhi’s throne during the days of the Slave Dynasty. Like Gandhi, Raziya was first noticed as the daughter of a very important man, emperor Iltutmish. He must have been an unusual character in the 13th century, because he seems to have preferred his daughter over profligate sons, recommending her as his heir. There was precedent, his partisans claimed—Khosrow’s daughter Pourandokht had ruled Persia some centuries before in her own right. But the 40 nobles at court would have none of it—in poetry and verse they threatened to defy the imperial decree, and lamented loudly that beloved Raziya was not the emperor’s son. In other words, Raziya was all a monarch ought to be—except she had the wrong genitals. So when the old man died in 1236, they parked on the throne her half-brother.
This heir had the correct genitals, but all the wrong ideas about being king. He squandered his time in the harem, and made the mistake of keeping the chief among his 40 nobles waiting while he made merry with a favourite dancing girl. Six months into his reign, his courtiers reciprocated the sentiment, with the consequence that he was left somewhat diminished above the neck.
Raziya’s star rose and she was installed on the throne in place of her dead brother. Unlike him, she disdained the harem (and the veil) and rode elephants and horses around the city. When someone nudged her towards gentle, submissive femininity, she told them that as sultan she was not a woman but the guardian of her people. The veil never appeared, and she retained her horses, elephants, and “manly” conduct.
Gandhi too was created by her father’s men. But she informed the syndicate she wouldn’t be their cipher, toppled them, split the Congress party, and went on to prevail till slogans like “Indira is India, India is Indira” sounded like a good idea.
Raziya, on the other hand, never managed to survive her noblemen—perhaps she tried to do too much too soon. She abolished unjust taxes, established schools, welcomed the marginalized into the halls of power, and patronized poets and intellectuals, much to the horror of the Turkish elite. So they eventually hit her below the belt. There was a Lord of the Stables who became the sultan’s favourite. Rumour went around that the queen was having an affair with her stable boy, and a scandal was manufactured and transmitted across the empire. It also didn’t help that the protagonist in this love affair, an Abyssinian called Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut, was black.
Eventually in 1240 the nobles instigated a childhood associate of Raziya’s, who was governor of Bhatinda (hopefully a handsomer city in those days) and who had his own designs on Delhi, to rebel against his sultan. Raziya set out atop her elephant and led her armies to contain him. Sadly for her, she lost the battle and found herself under house arrest. But she did manage to turn the tide—by proposing marriage. There are, apparently, songs about their fabled love, though, of course, for both there were more pragmatic considerations to bear in mind than romance—a prisoner queen doesn’t have very many options, while her captor could claim the throne of Delhi by legitimately planting himself in her bedchamber. Having celebrated their wedding (the hated Abyssinian favourite had died sometime earlier), the couple marched on the capital, where the scheming nobles were ready for them.
This battle too Raziya lost, and while she fled, a band of Jats robbed her and her husband and killed them both. Her brother succeeded as emperor—till the nobles decided his head too looked better on a spike. Raziya lies today somewhere in the old city in an unremarkable tomb, surrounded by illegal constructions and tailor shops, though of course some feel she is buried elsewhere and this is not her tomb at all. Her resting place is essentially a little mound, with another next to it housing the remains of a sister (nobody of historical significance). Some locals know the story of the woman, but the yard where Raziya lies is primarily home to a board installed by the Archaeological Survey of India, and to itinerant beggars.
Indira Gandhi’s memorial, on the other hand, is well-maintained, though this year, because of a bird flu crisis, she too had few visitors.
Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history.