A Tawaif’s Palace| At Chandni Chowk, Delhi

Madhuri Dixit playing the role of a tawaif in the movie Devdas
Madhuri Dixit playing the role of a tawaif in the movie Devdas

Most of you out there must have heard about the tragic tale of Devdas, brought to life on the silver screen multiple times, played across time right from Dilip Kumar to Shah Rukh Khan. In the last version, too, the ‘tawaif’ Chandramukhi was immortalized by the lovely Madhuri Dixit, mesmerising us all with her graceful dances. Wondering why we are discussing a Bollywood flick on this page? Because Devdas, too, was one of the many movies that failed to acknowledge the difference between a ‘tawaif’ and a prostitute. Yup, there’s a big difference.

Etymologically, the term “tawaif” can be seen as the plural form of the Arabic “Taifa”, and as such meant “group”. The tawaifs were female entertainers who excelled in the arts of poetry, music, dancing, singing, and were often considered to be the authority on etiquette. In many ways they may be compared with the Japanese ‘geishas’.

By the 18th century they had become a central element in polite, refined north Indian culture. In fact, it was not uncommon for the noble gentry to send their children to famous tawaifs for training in the arts. In time some of these women were able to accumulate immense wealth and yielded much power in their circles.

Unfortunately, the term slowly become synonymous with a prostitute, and is now not at all a reflection of this once noble institution. For, their sphere of entertainment also included the more erotic variety, and that contributed to their downfall.

Delhi tawaifs preparing for a dance, in 1830s
Delhi tawaifs preparing for a dance, in the 1830s. Photo courtesy: http://chandrakantha.com/articles/tawaif/

Perhaps none other than Begum Samru can personify what the tawaif tradition in reality was. What is remarkable about her story is that she is not remembered only for her beauty but also her exemplary leadership qualities that transformed her from a nautch girl to the ruler of Sardhana in Uttar Pradesh.

Born as Zeb-un-nissa, Begum Samru was also known as Farzana by the locals in the streets of Chawri Bazaar and was one of the most admired Nautch girls in the brothel area of Old Delhi due to her flawless complexion and petite stature. Though her real identity remains controversial, several theories are prevalent. Some believe she was born in 1753 to a courtesan and Asad Khan who was of a Muslim Arab descent, settled in Meerut and later shifted to Delhi in 1760 after his death.  Some argue she was the daughter of Latif Ali Khan who was a nobleman of Arab descent. Still others believe that she was born to a decent Mughal Kashmiri family but was later sold to a European.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is known for certain that in 1767, the beauty of 14-year old Farzana charmed a 45-year old European mercenary soldier named Walter Reinhardt Sombre from Luxemburg who was stationed in Delhi. She then started living with him as his lover. And it was from Sombre that ‘Samru’ was derived and became locally popular.

Portrait of Begam Samru, courtesy Wikipedia
Portrait of Begam Samru, courtesy Wikipedia

Since the times were turbulent, there were various battles in which Farzana, too, would participate. Dressed up like a man, she would ride out with her troops to fight the enemies and soon became well known for her skills on the battlefield.

On Walter Sombre’s death, she took over his seat in Meerut and led the trained mercenary troops consisting mainly of Europeans and Indians. In 1803, after the British rule settled in North India, she retained the position of an independent ruler of Sardhana. Though she converted to Christianity and took over a new name as Joanna, she was still popular as Begum Samru in the area.

In 1806, when Emperor Akbar Shah ascended the Mughal Throne, he gifted Begum Sombre a beautiful and grand Palace in Chandni Chowk. This white palatial mansion was extravagantly decorated with high ceilings, large spacious rooms supported by strong columns and a huge garden surrounding the Palace spreading over half of Chandni Chowk. Owing to the past life of Begum Sombre, the palace was also known as the ‘Chudiwali Haveli’ and described by many as a virtual paradise adorned with fully blossomed fragrant flowers and fringed with cypress trees.

This place has now converted into one of North India’s largest market for electrical goods and is known as the Bhagirath. Not surprisingly, it is difficult for a visitor to imagine this sadly ruined building in its original grandeur.

Nevertheless, do make it a point to check out this place, yet another gem in the Pandora’s Box that our beloved Chandni Chowk is.

The ruined Bhagirath Palace, or Electronics market, at Chandni Chowk (today)
The ruined Bhagirath Palace, or Electronics market, at Chandni ChowkBegum Samru's majestic palace in Chandni Chowk, when gifted to her by Emperor Akbar Shah
Begum Samru’s majestic palace in Chandni Chowk, when gifted to her by Emperor Akbar Shah

(With research and contributions from Sanchita Srivastava, history student at DU and avid writer)

25 Comments Add yours

  1. Naushirvan says:

    Very nice! I like the informative yet informal nature of the article. I look forward to reading more of the kind on your blog.

    1. wanderfool says:

      Thank you very much Naushirvan. I have always been fascinated by this subject…so when Sanchita (the author of this piece) wanted something different to write about, we decided to research a bit about the tawaifs and their downfall. There’s much much more to it of course…we hope to cover more in later articles.

  2. sugandha118 says:

    Lovely…very informative and a point that I often try to make….thank you for giving more information for my argument.
    I remember reading in one of the books that how kotha started to replace the brothel, thus leading to the downfall…

  3. The heading in itself is interesting. I expected to see some real pictures. but the article was nice.

    1. wanderfool says:

      Thank you Shilpi.

    2. wanderfool says:

      The real pictures of the Bhagirath palace, as you can guess, are a sad state of affairs. In fact the market was recently gutted by a fire 😦

  4. mj says:

    Amazing! Excellent!

  5. Akshita says:

    That’s nice…I especially liked your starting part….Can we follow each other?
    My blog is: loveyourdelhi.blogspot.in

  6. Thanks for sharing. A very informative post and educating one. I confess that I was confused about the blurred definition of a tawaif and prostitute.

  7. A fascinating article. I learned lots!

  8. very informative indeed…this post also makes me think how definitions of words change with time!

    1. wanderfool says:

      Thanks a lot. Indeed, and how cultures themselves change in a matter of hundred years!

      1. every day for that matter, culture is shifting like the pollen rains in a petri-dish!

  9. Bhanu Priya Vyas says:

    Hi I am making a documentary on the erstwhile Tawaifs of Old Delhi. Your article is very informative showing that you know about the subject. Could you help me with finding this place in Chandni Chowk, and help a little in the research.
    – Bhanu

    1. wanderfool says:

      Hi Bhanu,
      Here’s an interesting site I found on the subject of tawaifs: http://chandrakantha.com/articles/tawaif/. I hope it will give you a good start on the subject. I do not really know much other than the stories I found on the web, which I hunted after I heard about Begum Samru on a heritage walk. The site is today called Bhagirath Palace, a big electronics market right on the main Chandni Chowk street. This google maps link should help you locate it: http://bit.ly/19VmFiW.
      Please let me know if there’s any other way I can help.
      Best of luck on your documentary!

      1. Bhanu Priya Vyas says:

        Already read that one. Thanks anyway.

    2. medha says:

      I am a delhi lover just like you all. Can you please let me how can I register for this blog and contribute articles to it.

      1. wanderfool says:

        Hi Medha, thanks so much for your interest! Can you please message me on the facebook page https://www.facebook.com/DateWithDelhi, and we can plan something. Looking forward to your message!

  10. Jitaditya says:

    Lovely nostalgic account… one question bothers me… why is it now called “Bhagirath Palace”?… from where did this name come from?

  11. Called to Freedom (Gal 5:13) says:

    Can i please know more details about the building ,especially between the time period of 1857-1947. its urgent if anybody could answer.

  12. Steve Jordan says:

    Its very interesting information in detail. I never get any idea on this. Thanks for the information about Delhi. I have also a blog about Odisha tourist Places and its culture.

    1. wanderfool says:

      Thanks Steve, enjoyed immensely going through the information about Odisha’s heritage

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