Sultan Ali Adil Shah I of Bijapur was a man who lived a rich and eventful life. A devout Muslim, he was also the adoptive son of the Hindu ruler of Vijayanagara, though this did not preclude war between their forces in 1565. A patron of the arts, it was in his reign that Bijapur produced the Nujum al-Ulum—an illustrated Persian manuscript featuring everything from cow-headed angels to scholarly expositions on halwas and sherbet. He commanded 80,000 cavalrymen, but never forgot to also carry along his books when leading them into battle. Hundreds of ships sailed the seas bearing his flag, meanwhile, and poets in faraway ports had heard enough about the sultan to sing his praises. Endearingly, Ali also had specific tastes when it came to his diet—he consumed, it is reported, at least 12 eggs a day for breakfast.
Around 1580, Ali met his maker, albeit in circumstances that matched his colourful life. There were two “handsome eunuchs who had for a long time excited his perverse attention". One evening, when the sultan made them a proposition, they returned his advances by drawing their daggers. While it is likely that a political assassination was later rewritten to embarrass Ali as a “sodomite", the result was that Bijapur was left in the doldrums. Ali had no son, so it was his young nephew who came to the throne. For the next many years, power slid from one grandee to the next—two of whom met predictably violent ends—before stability returned after the heir came of age. But, in this time of chaos, there was also a woman who rose to prominence, one who would electrify not only the Deccan but also the Mughals in faraway Agra.
It was on the eve of that 1565 battle against Vijayanagara that Chand Bibi was given in marriage to Ali by her father, Hussain Nizam Shah I of Ahmednagar. Barely in her teens, she was at best an instrument of politics at this juncture. But her family circumstances—where her father allowed her mother considerable influence—had shaped her personality, and Chand Bibi would never be relegated to the background. Notwithstanding her husband’s rumoured glances at eunuchs, her relationship with him was rewarding. She joined him on his campaigns, and was entrusted with matters of state when the couple sat in durbar. A sitar player who also enjoyed outdoor sports, she and Ali met as intellectual equals—she spoke, for instance, about five languages.
With Ali murdered, however, Chand Bibi was pushed more fully into the limelight. She remained at first in Bijapur, navigating endless intrigue to protect the interests of her husband’s heir. She ousted one nobleman who seized power, but the next outsmarted her and threw her in prison. From jail, the resourceful Chand Bibi conspired with another faction, whose leader soon rode to her rescue. But for all this, she had no future in Bijapur—the heir was not her son, and, with Ali dead, she became an outsider. Rivalries with her own paternal kingdom of Ahmednagar resumed, and Chand Bibi’s loyalties were questioned on more than one occasion. So when a Bijapur princess was given in marriage to Ahmednagar as part of a tenuous political alliance, the begum “escorted" the bride to her homeland. And there she spent her future, till she was enshrined as one of the Deccan’s tragic heroines.
Ahmednagar in the 1580s was a political nightmare. Chand Bibi’s brother had imprisoned their mother, later trying to murder his son by setting the boy’s bedroom on fire. His courtiers called him deewana (madman), frowning at his affection for a slave. A third sibling rebelled and fled to the Mughal court—by 1591, he would succeed in his designs and install himself as sultan in Ahmednagar. But he came across as ungrateful to Emperor Akbar for the latter’s generosity when he was in exile, and, by refusing to recognize the Great Mughal as his suzerain, gave Agra an excuse to turn its attention to the conquest of the Deccan. As a Mughal account puts it, Chand Bibi’s brother “should have increased his devotion and gratitude". But the “wine of success robbed him of his senses", and for this he would have to be punished.
As it happened, the Mughals were only able to come to Ahmednagar in 1595, by which time the man was dead, the court was in turmoil, and Chand Bibi was again in the fray. Balancing factions with one hand, she raised the other to defend her city. When the Mughals placed mines and breached the fort, Chand Bibi, “clad in armor…with a drawn sword in her hand, dashed forward" with her men. The Mughals were repulsed. When negotiating the subsequent truce, they formally honoured her with the regnal title “Chand Sultan", but their generals were not entirely pleased with this formidable princess. “You, like a eunuch, are keeping a woman in the fort," they admonished her nobles, while their own leader was “the son of His Majesty the Emperor…Do you imagine that the crows and kites of the Deccan…can cope with the descendant of Timur?"
In the end, they could not. Chand Bibi tried and failed repeatedly to push the Mughals out of the Deccan. In 1599, when the enemy returned to Ahmednagar, various vested interests within the fort lunged at each other’s throats. Fighting battles within and without, the begum decided to sue for peace. And, for this, she was murdered—not by the invader, but by insiders. “The excitable and turbulent soldiers of Ahmednagar, forgetting all the noble devotion which Queen Chand had always shown," rushed into her palace. Breaking into her private chambers, they left her in a pool of blood. And so died, as one historian put it, “Chand Bibi, one of the noblest characters in the History of India."
But while she went down in tragedy, there was still some justice in the end for the begum. When the Mughals took Ahmednagar soon after Chand Bibi’s death, one of their first acts was to hang the men who had assassinated this princess: daughter of the Nizam Shah, widow of the Adil Shah, but, in the end, remembered and celebrated in her own right as “Her Highness the Bilqis of the Age".
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015)and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai