Love is foolish | a love story from AD 1236, Delhi

It is Valentine’s Day, and the town is decked up in red ribbons, heart-shaped balloons, and teddy bears. Are you part of the crowd that laps up all the love in the air and whispers sweet nothings in the ears of their sweethearts? Or of the cynical other half, that frowns at these excesses of pink fluffiness? Either way, I think you’d all agree that even the sanest and the wisest among us – when in love – have turned wobbly-kneed, blank-headed, and downright foolish. Take the case of the queen herself!

What queen, you say? I am talking of the very first queen of India, Sultan Razia. How could a wise woman like her be so foolish when it came to matters of the heart! But let me begin this tragic love story right at the start….

The year is AD 1236. Sultan Iltutmish lies on his death-bed. He has been a very able ruler, captured lands far and wide, and made the Delhi Sultanate a seat of power and prosperity. He is worried, however, that his sons are incapable of taking his place as lord of an empire he has struggled so hard to build. So he nominates his wise  daughter Razia as successor instead, and dies. With Iltutmish’s death start umpteen intrigues and power struggles, much like the politics of today, only bloodier! First the nobility frown at the idea of a woman ruler, so they place on the throne her brother Ruknuddin. The brother, as expected by the dead father, whiles away his time in the company of nautch girls. The city is neglected, the citizens enraged.The nobility soon realize that the erstwhile king was right! So the brother is put to death in a matter of 6 months, and the sister reluctantly elevated to the throne of Delhi.

Now Razia is exactly what her father would have wished. A shrewd administrator. An able warrior. A politician who manages to appease the populace and play the rebellious nobles against one another. A surprisingly secular ruler for the times. All in all, a very wise queen. She leads wars and fearlessly abandons the purdah. She seems to be destined for great things….but something goes wrong. She falls in love. That too, with an Abyssinian slave!

This is a love story fraught with trouble from the start. A woman of pure Turkish blood, liaising with a slave! The jealous Turkish nobles will have none of it. And when she shows her favoritism towards her  slave Yaqut by making him in-charge of the royal stables, the nobles are enraged. Rebellions start erupting in various quarters of the empire. Altuniya – a childhood friend of Razia’s, who according to some sources is also in love with her-leads the angry nobles to fight a battle against the queen and her lover. In this momentous battle, Yaqut is killed, Razia taken prisoner and eventually forced to marry Altuniya, and Delhi loses its first and only queen as her brother Muizuddin usurps the throne. Razia, ironically aided by her new husband, makes one final attempt to take Delhi…she is defeated. They both then flee the capital, fall into the hands of robbers, and are killed. Delhi goes back to dealing with incompetent rulers for another 20 odd years…

All for a foolish love story.

Movie poster of the 1983 Bollywood film Razia Sultan, starring Hema Malini and Dharmendra

Afterthought: Have you seen the queen’s dilapidated grave in Old Delhi? Check it out here.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Farah Yameen says:

    This data is a later addition into the story of Razia, appropriated by Kamal Amrohi into a love story. Minhaj-us-Siraj, Razi’a first historian and her contemporary mentions nothing of a liaison with Yaqut. It was interpolated half a century later into the story of Razia by the historian Isami as a censure upon Razia and the manner in which she interacted with her male courtiers. Yaqub had been a sore thorn not because of his affair with Razia. Razia came from a dynasty of slaves who became kings by marrying their master’s daughters. The primary reason for Razia’s downfall was a very ordinary reason as far as royal history goes. Bairam Shah, Razia’s half brother laid claim to the throne and waged a war. Much betrayal and treason followed, much like any other scuffle for the throne. The story of Altuniya too is far more complicated. There was jealousy – yes. But it was the desire of the throne – not Razia. They later got married to lead a war together against Bairam shah and were defeated. Yaqut and Razia did not die together as the film suggests. Yaqut had been beheaded by the nobles long before Raziya lost the war. Unfortunately history has made Razia into some accidental queen too weak to rise above her ‘feminine frailties’. And Kamal Amrohi has treated several feet of celluloid to a disgraceful story
    Also, Razia wasn’t the ‘first’ queen of ‘India’. Our historical narrative tends to think of India as north India and any part thereof as India. Many queens ruled before her. Over smaller territory perhaps but nevertheless on what is today Indian land (didda the queen of Kashmir is one example). The concept of India hadn’t been born then but if the a female ruler on Indian land is to be considered an Indian queen Razia had many predecessors.
    And cheers for the venture. Razia’s tomb (well one of the many contended ones) lies neglected in Bulbuli Khana Turkman Gate Old Delhi. One sad end of a brilliant but short life. Get a tour there. And have good food at Sitaram Bazar

    1. wanderfool says:

      Thank you, Farah. Glad to have a learned opinion on the subject here!

      You are right about there being a lot of controversy around the subject of whether or not Razia and Yaqut were lovers. And I really wouldn’t be surprised if this was a fib created by later historians. Even Wikipedia suggests differing viewpoints… The book that I was just reading- “The Tarikh-i-Mubarakshahi”, an account written about a couple of centuries after Razia, subtly hints at a love affair by calling them “constant companions”, but does not damn them outright. History cannot be back and white of course, and in the varying shades of grey in between, people have looked for and added their own bit of color.

      Unfortunately I haven’t seen the movie…will make it a point to watch it, but I know what to expect now! Killing them both in a war is like cutting away half the story. Yes, I’ve seen Razia’s speculated grave near Turkman gate… quite a sad state it is in.

      About the ‘first queen’ bit, this view probably got popular as Razia was the first and only ‘Sultan’ of Delhi. And Delhi having been an important center of politics in British times, North India often started to be looked upon as “India” in a very generic sense. Even history books of our childhood laid much more stress on North Indian history than other regional histories. I was reading an account by a British officer (unfortunately I forget the name of the book), where he says “Raziyat was the only Queen of India until our own Queen Victoria assumed the title of Empress”. But in any case, let’s leave the semantics aside, one thing I have seen all accounts agree upon is that she was indeed a brilliant and wise ruler.

      Lastly, loved the explanation of why Abyssinian slaves were looked down upon- had not come across that. Thank you. And that sets me thinking…people don’t change! Be it differences during Sultanate times or apartheid later on. Sigh…

  2. Farah Yameen says:

    I forgot to mention why Yaqut (and I spelt it wrong) was a sore thorn. He was an Abyssinian slave. The Turkish slaves did not like someone that dark as their equal. And Razia was out of her depth trying to induce dark nobles (and promoting lower ranking ones) into the clan to do away with the immense powers that the core forty nobles (the chalissa).

  3. think i belong to the fluffy-pink goofy sort coz your post actually gave me goose-bumps

    1. wanderfool says:

      Really! Thanks a lot, rashmenon 🙂

  4. debajyoti says:

    didn’t know the story of Razia Sultan. this is a strange story. and saw her grave. it doesn’t look good.

    1. wanderfool says:

      Yes, though it is a speculated grave, it still deserves much more respect than what it’s getting now. It took me a while to find it through the narrow alleys, and when I did I was taken aback by the decrepit enclosure between private houses.

  5. delli sree says:

    Good information about the Razia sultan
    But I have a doubt about the name DELHI.when &why it is changed from INDRAPRASTANAM to DELHI? Is there any queen having name Delhi begum?

    1. wanderfool says:

      Well I can only say there are so many mysteries about Delhi that have been buried with the sands of time…

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