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Opinion | Khunza Humayun: A woman ahead of her time

Khunza Humayun was a remarkable woman, and while she was never a Devadasi, she was in every sense extraordinary

A painting circa.1800 depicts Chand Bibi, out hawking. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A painting circa.1800 depicts Chand Bibi, out hawking. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1565, after what is popularly called the Battle of Talikota, Husain Nizam Shah returned victorious from Vijayanagar to his court in Ahmednagar. There had been horrific bloodshed—ending with the enemy’s head on a spear—and much gold and silver had been gained. But Husain seemed not destined to savour his victory: That very year, he would die, and while some held alcoholic excess to be the cause of his end, at least one Portuguese chronicler decided it was poison, not drink, that took the Nizam Shah to his grave. Deccan politics was dangerous to begin with, and in this instance, it was the ruler’s own wife blamed for his death. She was a Devadasi turned begum, wrote the European historian, and to plant her own son on the throne, instead of a rival’s, she decided to take the life of the man who made her his queen.

Khunza Humayun was a remarkable woman, and while she was never a Devadasi, she was in every sense extraordinary. Aftabi’s Tarif-i Husain Shah Padshah-i Dakan, a eulogy commissioned around the time of the king’s death, is full of praise for his queen. Indeed, alongside beautiful paintings (including one where she appears in her husband’s lap), this unusual text describes vividly Khunza’s loveliness and physical voluptuousness. Other sources present her actual ancestry—she was descended from a ruler of Baghdad, though a fall from power meant scions like her father joined hordes of other Persians seeking employment and a future in India. Here he joined the court of the Nizam Shah—a Muslim king with Brahmin forbears—and before long Khunza was married to Husain.

Few women appear in retellings of the history of the Deccan, and if there is a queen who shines, it is usually Khunza’s daughter, Chand Bibi. At the end of the 16th century she bravely resisted the Mughals, and her tragic assassination enshrined her as a romantic heroine. Khunza, however, did not die at the end of a sword: her power was thwarted and restrained, and death in prison years later did not quite attract glamorous poems. And so she was forgotten, even her form and face crudely painted over in many of those miniature paintings. If Chand Bibi was celebrated even by the Mughals for her valour, Khunza came to be resented by her own son and many others. There was no place for an inconvenient woman like her, and what survives is in bits and pieces, her fall from influence obscuring her fame forever.

Even in her husband’s day, Khunza appears to have had some say in politics. One poem, in fact, ascribes an insult to her as the provocation for Husain’s war against Vijayanagar. Of course, the battle in 1565 followed generations of strife and had various causes, but it is telling that the Fath Nama-i Nizam Shah cites, in the words of scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “a potentially sexually loaded" reference to the queen as rousing the fury of her husband. The sultans of the Deccan often traded insults with Vijayanagar, but in this instance a line was crossed: in an inflammatory letter demanding tribute from Husain, the ruler of Vijayanagar, listed, besides diamonds and rubies, the anklets of the begum. Disgusted and furious, Husain the “lion" was roused against the “pig" to whom he delivered death.

In any case, leaving literary bombast aside, the death of Husain in 1565 enthroned Khunza’s son in Ahmednagar. The boy was fated for instability and eventual murder, but for the next six years power was in the hands of his mother. She governed with the aid of trusted men—there was a eunuch and there were her brothers. She sat in court and gave orders, proving strong enough to ensure her commands were obeyed. She even went into battle—including against Chand Bibi’s husband who ruled a principality next door—and showed herself generally unafraid. It wasn’t like the men around her saw this as admirable: a coup was thwarted in 1567. Her own son was involved, but chickening out in the last minute, he told his mother about the plot. For the time being, Khunza prevailed.

Powerful women like her, however, always had to tread with care. In the 13th century, the empress of Delhi, Razia Sultan, was murdered by men of her own court, and Khunza’s daughter too was betrayed by those she thought she could trust—though war with the Mughals raged, Chand Bibi’s assassin was not an invader but an insider. Khunza too, therefore, had to be on her guard, but after half a decade at the helm when the nobility decided to terminate her “petticoat government", her downfall was confirmed. Khunza’s foreign policy had proved a disaster—alliances were destabilized by impetuous demands, and those inclined to support her left her side in disapproval. Then there was the internal politics of the realm: there was an African faction, a Persian faction, and a local faction, all of them perpetually at loggerheads.

By 1571 the Nizam Shah was ostensibly liberated from the hold of his mother so that he could start making mistakes of his own (which include trying to kill his son in due course) and earn the epithet deewana, or madman. Khunza, abandoned by the men she had raised to power and wealth, was imprisoned and spent the rest of her days in oblivion. Such an unhappy fate her relations elsewhere too endured—the Mughal emperor Akbar’s regent, Bairam Khan, was a family member, though assassination meant that he too was remembered with some poetic regret. Khunza, however, wasted away with time, written out of history, disfigured in works of art her husband lovingly had made. Only a few fragments remain of her tale, and like so many women in the past, she finally went to the grave while history continued to be written for—and by—unforgiving men.

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

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