An Impartial History of the Only Empress of India : Jalalat -al-din Razia Sultan (r. 1236/7-40 C.E.)
Department of Islamic History And Culture,
University of Calcutta
Department of Islamic History And Culture,
University of Calcutta
A Short introduction to Razia Sultan
“ Na woh naummeed thi, na thi woh nadaan
Beti thi toh aabhru bani, phir bani hukumat ki aan
Shamsheer tha khilona, shamsheer thi zabaan
Sakt the aisle, sakt andaaz-e-bayaan
Sirf baaziyon mein nahin, iraadon mein thi jaan
Thi woh taaj ke kabil, tha yeh Faisla-E-Hindustan !
Saalon agey ki soch hai, saalo agey ki dastaan…
Tha wahi ek Sultan !”
Why this article?
The creative direction team of the recently aired And TV Show on the life of Razia Sultan, which, claimed to have done “much research” on her life, in addition to claiming the show to be “historically accurate” introduces the only Empress of India in her own right with the above lines. However, the show, which like most of the audio-visual media of our times, fuses historical drama with love stories to win the hearts of the current youth generation, had many faults. However, most of the youth of our times, who are not familiar with Medieval Indian History, believe the history depicted by historical TV Shows and Movies to be the ultimate answers to their questions on history. Taking advantage of the lack of awareness of people about the History of the subject they are dealing with, film and TV serial makers show history from their own point of view, not only distorting it, but also whitewashing negative characters and showing innocent people to be guilty. This article is only a small attempt at making the people aware of the first Empress of India, the environment she lived in, her rise from the position of a princess to that of a Sultan in spite of the misogyny of her times, her attempts to establish equality and justice and ultimately, her fall due to her lack of diplomacy and her treachery by her favoured nobles. I also intend to throw light on Razia being the first Muslim ruler in India to abolish the jizya, which very few people know about.This article is more an attempt based on research to throw light on thein the incidents Mamluk Period contemporary to Razia’s time, in the simplest way possible. However, I am always open to suggestions and feedback on my point of view, especially from Historians and other people involved in Academia.
|Razia Sultan as seen in school textbooks|
General idea about Razia and the circumstances leading to her rise :
From people to on-screen love stories, the general idea about Razia is of a princess who was the favourite child of her father Sultan Iltutmish, whom the latter trained as a man. She was not only independent, but far ahead of her times. She rose due to her half-brother Ruknuddin Firuz’s oppression of the people, and injustice being meeted out to Razia herself, who now appealed to the people of Delhi to dispense justice to her as well as to themselves. The people then deposed Firuz to place Razia on the throne. However, her fall is attributed in popular perception to the triangular love affair between her, one of the Turkish nobles of her father’s court - Altunia and the Abyssinian slave, Yakut. They attribute the fall of Razia to her over-dependence on Yakut, which aroused the jealousy of Altunia, who then revolted, captured Razia,when she went to defeat him at Tabarhinda (Bhatinda), had Yakut killed and finally released her only on her agreement to marriage. The two then marched on to Delhi to recapture it, as the nobles had by then placed another of Razia’s step-brother Muizuddin Bahram Shah on the throne. They were routed by the newly crowned Sultan’s army, and ultimately killed. The real history, is however, not really so simple.
|An idealised painting of Razia Sultan|
The Real Situation
Razia, has been called by Historian Satish Chandra, “a romantic figure in medieval history”. However, I believe that the circumstances, leading to her rise and fall, was anything but romantic. One of the major questions playing in Iltutmish’s mind in the last few years of his life was the person to whom he would hand-over the administration of the Empire - someone who would make the empire reach new heights, in addition to keeping it intact, after he was gone. Iltutmish’s ablest son - Nasiruddin Mahmud, who was made the governor of Bengal, and the heir to the throne, had died under ‘mysterious circumstances’. His other son, Qutubuddin, was too young to be crowned the Sultan. The succession of Sultans in the period of the Delhi, Sultanate was based not on heredity, but on capability (qabliyat). Nevertheless, Iltutmish’s reign saw the combination of heredity and capability when a succession took place. Iltutmish, therefore with careful consideration, as quoted by Minhaj-us-Siraj Juzjani, nominated his daughter Razia, born of his wife, Qutub Begum, who was the daughter of Qutubuddin Aibak, to the throne in writing, as he spotted in her, “the signs of power and bravery.” Earlier, Razia had already proved her mettle, when she was given the charge of administration of Delhi, when her father was often out campaigning elsewhere. She thus, not only had administrative experience, but exercised authority with great dignity. Iltutmish however, did not consult the ulama while taking his decision, and if anyone questioned his decision, he would reply, “ My sons are devoted to the pleasures of the youth, and not one of them is qualified to be king… After my death you will find that there is none more competent to guide the state than my daughter.” Razia, was trained in martial arts, as a result of which she became an excellent warrior. She was a skilful rider of both horses and elephants. She was given training in both formal education, as well as The Qu’ran. Now, Shah Turkan (Turkan Khatun), a hand-maid of Iltutmish, who later rose to the position of his wife, won over the nobles to her side. Taking advantage of their anti-feminist bias in the field of administration (huqumat), she urged them to crown her son, Ruknuddin Firuz, the Sultan. While the ulama and Iltutmish’s wazir, Nizam-al-mulk Junaidi, as well as the Chihalgani (elite corps of 40 slaves of Iltutmish) refused to accept a woman on the throne of Delhi, they accepted Shah Turkan’s proposal and crowned Ruknuddin on 30th April, 1236 C.E. During this time, Ruknuddin, indulged in hedonism, entrusting the administration of the empire to his mother, Turkan. Little, did they know that the administration would be indirectly controlled by a woman ! She now, sought revenge against all the royal ladies, who had humiliated her in the past. Qutubuddin, the young son of Iltutmish, was blinded under her instructions, as she considered him, to be a political rival. Turkan, also plotted to assassinate Razia. Razia, was also looking for an apt time to hit back. Taking advantage of Ruknuddin’s absence (he had gone to put down rebellions of the nobles against him), Razia immediately went to the Jama Masjid, and after managing to enter it, despite the heavy security, addressed the people, citing the conspiracy against her. She added, “ Here I am, the daughter of his majesty; the crown befits my head. It was I who the king had chosen as his heir-apparent… Since you set the crown on the head of another person against the king’s orders, you have come to grief… [Give the crown to me for a few years to test my ability.] Should I acquit myself as a ruler better than a man, you might keep me on the throne. Should you see things otherwise, you may remove the crown from my head and give it to whomsoever you please.” The people of Delhi, had immense faith in Razia. The nobles too, now decided to support her. The most important supporters of Razia are the iqtadars of Multan, Badaun, Hansi and Lahore. They were also joined by Nizam-al-Mulk Junaidi. Finally, Razia was crowned in November 1236 with the title Jalalat-al-din Razia Sultan or Razia-al-din. She subjected Ruknuddin and Turkan to the judicial system in the state at that time, in which both were found guilty and executed. Razia, was popularly known as ‘The People’s Queen’. She possessed all the qualities necessary to be a Sultan. Razia was therefore, a Sultan, “in her own right. She did not replace a deceased husband or proxy as regent for a son or nephew. She was not a queen, but a crowned king and was therefore styled Sultan and not Sultana. She would only respond to the call by the former title.
Razia Sultan’s Reign
Razia managed to secure her control over the throne, only by keeping the opposition divided. No group of nobles gave her full support. Soon, after her accession, she was opposed by many nobles, such as Malik Alauddin Jani, Malik Saifuddin Kuji, Kabir Khan Ayaz, Malik Izzuddin and Muhammad Salari. She won over some of them, and Nizam-al-Mulk was isolated, and he fled. As said by Minhaj and quoted by Satish Chandra, “ the kingdom became pacified, and the power of the state widely extended. From the territory of Lakhnauti to Debal all the maliks and amirs manifested their obedience and submission.” To establish direct contact with the people, Razia substituted the female attire with that of a man’s comprising a head-dress and a tunic. She appeared in the durbar without a veil, while was also absent while she rode elephants.
Far before Ghiyasuddin Balban, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur or even Sher Shah, Razia realised that without a proper system of roads, she would be able to keep herself informed of the affairs in the remote parts of the empire. She built roads to link up towns and villages. She built small forts at certain points for the guarding the roads. She listened to the complaints and demands of the people. Razia, apart from improving the Dak Chawki system, also built many water tanks.
Razia was reportedly devoted to the cause of her empire and her subjects. There is no record that she made any attempt to remain aloof from them, rather it appears that she preferred to mingle among them.
Razia established schools, academics, centres for research, and public libraries that included works of ancient philosophers along with the Qur’an and the traditions of Muhammad. Hindu works in literature, philosophy, the sciences, and astronomy were reportedly studied in schools and colleges. Billon jittals issued by Razia have been found.
|Jalalat al-Din Radiyya (1236-40), Billon jital, Delhi|
Weight: 3.58 gm., Diameter: 15 mm., Die axis: o'clock
Stylized horseman right /
Four line Arabic legend: al-sultan al-mu'azzam radiyyat al-din bint al-sultan
|Jalalat al-Din Radiyya (1236-40), Billon jital, Delhi|
Weight: 3.70 gm., Diameter: 14-16 mm., Die axis: 11 o'clock
Stylized horseman right /
Four line Arabic legend: al-sultan al-a'zam radiyyat al-dunya wa'al-din
Abolition of the jizya
If you ask any person in India, as to who was the first Muslim ruler to abolish the subject tax (jizya) on the Hindus, he/she will definitely name Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, the Great Mughal. However, very few know, that the foundations of this policy as well as its first implementation was made by Razia herself. Razia, like her father, Iltutmish, realised that the support and loyalty of the Hindus was equally necessary for running the empire. This is why she believed, that the abolition of the jizya would be the first step towards achieving a unity between the Hindus and the Muslims and placing the Hindus on an equal footing with the Muslims. On her announcement of implementing the step, she faced vehement opposition from the nobles, who saw the jizya as an easy source of money for the state and a reminder to the Hindus that the power rested with the Muslims in the state.
Razia explained to the nobles, that for a ruler to consolidate his/her reign it was necessary for the Hindus to identify with the Sultanate. She also wanted the Hindus to participate in the Sultanate administration, which was only possible when they were treated fairly. Thus, she justified the abolition of the jizya, saying that it was the first step towards achieving a Hindu-Muslim unity. Razia, however, was able to implement this policy only for a short while, after which it was again reimposed due to the opposition of the nobles.
Army and Diplomacy
Regarding the Rajputs, Razia wanted to them to be left alone as long as they remained within the Sultanate. She believed that if they were treated fairly and without arrogance, they would respect and support the ruler - once again, a policy which was a part of Akbar’s Rajput Policy. However, Razia’s governors failed to keep under their control both Gwalior and Ranthambhor. She suggested abandoning the fortresses in extreme situations.
Razia could fight both on horseback and foot. She could easily manage her shield and heavy armour, and at the same time was quick in her movements, riding away whenever necessary, in order to save herself. She chose to sit on the top of her elephant, making it possible for her to see her soldiers and for them to see her, while she commanded them. She knew how to use the spear, sword, bows and arrows.
Iltutmish had taught her as to how, she could launch a direct attack on the enemy, but he also taught how as to how, a good warrior, who wants victory, watches the enemy’s movements, strengths and weaknesses before launching an attack. However, he asked her to avoid war in situations, where diplomacy could settle the problem. The army comprised the bodyguards, archers, horsemen and foot soldiers, in addition to volunteers who carried their own weapons and received a share of the booty in return for participation. She increased the number of mounted soldiers in the army. She looked after the payment, condition and equipment of ordinary soldiers. She supervised the daily administration of the army. The army needed to be constantly on the alert, due to rebellions by the Amirs and Hindu kings.
When there was a dangerous uprising by the Shiites against the Sunnis at the Jama Masjid, it was tactfully handled by Razia’s soldiers and the local population, even though many had died. The rebellion was put down and the situation brought under control.
Opposition to Razia
Razia was energetic and brought in many new ideas to benefit the people. However, she was not only far ahead of her times, but lacked the necessary cunning and diplomatic means necessary to implement them. The nobles, while allowing Razia to assume power, believed that since, she was a woman, she would be a puppet in their hands, whereas the actual administration would be controlled by them. “It was apparently Razia’s firmness, and desire to exercise power directly, which was the main cause of the dissatisfaction of the Turkish nobles with her.” She laid aside the female dress and donned the tunic and head-dress of a man. She abandoned the veil, and appeared in the durbar, and rode out on an elephant with her face uncovered (without the purdah). Thus, people could see her openly. These, along with the abolition of the jizya, the integrative treatment towards the Rajputs (abandoning forts in extreme cases) created a huge disappointment and disaffection towards Razia. This situation reached its climax with the coming of Yakut.
The case of Jamaluddin Yakut
Jamaluddin Yakut was a Habshi (Ethiopian) slave who received Razia’s favour due to his calm and dependable nature. Razia, elevated him to the position of Amir-i-Akhur (Superintendent of the royal stables). This post included a control over the royal elephants and horses, which implied that this strategic position was held by someone who was very close to the sovereign. It was so far monopolised by the Turks. However, this, as Satish Chandra asserts was not a part of Razia’s intention to create a bloc of non-Turkish nobles to counter the power of the Turks. This, led the Turkish nobles to take the decision to find some way to depose her. The main conspirators were Malik-i-Kabir Ikhtiyaruddin Aitigin, who some historians say was married to Razia’s sister Shazia Begum.The other chief conspirator was Ghiyasuddin Balban.
Malik Ikhtiyaruddin Mirza Altunia and the hostility with Razia and Yakut : Death of Yakut and Razia’s imprisonment
Malik Ikhtiyauddin Mirza Altunia was one of the prominent nobles under Iltutmish, who was close to Razia and supported her during her accession. Razia too, used to favour him and rewarded him, with the governorship of Tabarhinda (Bhatinda). Taking advantage of his absence and the fact that Yakut was seen with Razia everywhere, as he was the commander of her army and also because Razia used to discuss important affairs of the empire with him to seek his advise, the opposition faction led by Aitigin and Balban informed Altunia of Razia’s intimacy with Yakut and to arouse his jealousy told him that Razia, was in love with Yakut. Some sources allege that before Altunia’s departure for Tabarhinda, he had offered marriage to Razia, but she had refused, and delayed it, sighting the Empire as her first priority. In anger, Altunia, now, agreed to join the rebels to help them depose Razia, and in return was promised a part of the Empire.
“However, there is no reason [for Historians] to believe any personal intimacy between Razia and Yakut. The charge that he used to lift Razia by her arm-pits to her horse [as shown in love-stories on celluloid] is a later addition, which is not mentioned by Razia’s contemporary historians. Also whenever, she went out in public, she rode on an elephant and not a horse. If anyone asks for my opinion, I would not only agree with Satish Chandra, but would say that Razia, favoured Yakut as she knew that, he was the only person she could depend upon both in normal and turbulent times. Yakut too, was extremely loyal to the Sultan, and someone, who would even put his life in stake to safeguard the interests of both Empire and his ruler. The opposition to Razia, was the culmination of the misogyny, anti-feminist bias in areas of administration, as men believed women should be confined to the household (siyasat), Razia’s refusal to be a puppet in the hands of the nobles and her assertion of independence from them and ultimately, her decision to promote a non-Turk to a high position, previously monopolised by the Turks. However, the nobles could not oppose Razia in Delhi, as she enjoyed the support of the majority of the population. So, the rebellions, now came from the provincial areas.
The first rebellion was made by Kabir Khan Ayaz, the iqtadar of Lahore. Razia marched on to Lahore, forced him to submit, and gave him the governorship of Multan. Before reaching Delhi, Razia heard of another rebellion by Altunia, the iqtadar of Tabarhinda (Bhatinda). Both of these people were favoured by Razi, and she had little reason to expect rebellion from them. Nevertheless, she asked Yakut to make preparations for the march against Altunia. Yakut knew that this time, victory would not come easily ——— the army was exhausted, the weather was unbearable and the march could prove to be a disaster. But he decided not to discourage the Sultan. Altunia was still then in touch with the powerful group of nobles at Delhi, who wanted to depose her to gain power for themselves. During the battle, Altunia realised that to defeat Razia, Yakut had to be killed. This would deprive the army of its confidence as they always looked up to him for commands. Altunia’s army managed to overpower and kill him. The army now surrendered to Altunia. This proved to be a terrible setback for Razia. She tried to inspire her forces, but failed and she was imprisoned at the Fort of Tabarhinda.
However, after Razia’s defeat, the nobles totally forgot about their promise to Altunia. Altunia was never given, a share of the empire. Now, another of Razia’s step-brothers, Muizuddin Bahram Shah was crowned the Sultan. He too, was a drunkard and a pleasure-loving person. He acted just in the way, the nobles wanted — remaining a puppet and allowing the nobles to control the administration the way they wanted. He was in some ways similar to Ruknuddin Firuz, the age experienced people’s oppression, and people perceived to be opponents were killed. Aitigin, who was now serving as the Amir, was one day assassinated by the Sultan’s assasins. Meanwhile, in her prison, Razia realised that diplomacy could bring her back, her throne. She summoned Altunia, and explained to him that they now had a common enemy — the nobles at Delhi. Facing resentment at being deprived of his share, he realised that if he came to a compromise with Razia, and if she won her throne back, he could both have Razia and at the same time, be the virtual ruler of Delhi. Razia, thus, succeeded in wining over her captor. There remains a controversy, regarding the person who made the offer of marriage the second time - Razia or Altunia, but what is known is that after their marriage, they recruited an army to win back Delhi. When this new reached Delhi, Bahram Shah decided to get rid of them as Razia’s presence in Delhi was enough to ally the people of Delhi against the then current dispensation as Razia was still loved and respected by the people. Some say it was the army sent by Bahram Shah, while others say that it was the local Hindu dacoits, who defeated the army of Razia and Altunia at Kaithal in current-day Haryana on the 24th Of Rabi-ul-Awwal (October 13, 1240). As Satish Chandra says “ Her subsequent marriage to Altunia, their march on Delhi and their defeat, the melting away of her rapidly recruited soldiers, is a romantic interlude which never had much chance of success. She was murdered by dacoits while in flight.”
The story of the death of Razia after the death of Altunia has two versions —— One says that she fought valiantly on the battlefield until struck by an arrow. The other version as depicted by Ibn Battuta says :
“Razia was defeated and obliged to fly. Pressed by hunger and overcome by fatigue, she addressed herself to a man engaged in cultivating the ground and begged for food. He gave her a bit of bread which she devoured and then was overpowered by sleep. She was dressed in the garment of a man but when the peasant looked at her as she slept he perceived under her upper garment a tunic trimmed with gold and pearls. Seeing (that) she was a woman he killed her, stripped her of valuables, drove away her horse and buried her corpse in the field. He then carried some of the garments to the market to sale. The dealers suspected him an took him before the Magistrate, who caused him to be beaten. The wretch then confessed that he had killed Razia and told his guards where he had buried her. They exhumed her body, washed it and wrapping it in a shroud buried it again in the same place. A small shrine was erected over her grave which is visited by pilgrims and is considered to be a place of sanctity. It is situated on the banks of the Yamuna.”
Controversy regarding Razia’s Tomb
There are three possible sites for the location of Razia’s tomb : (1) At Mohalla Bulbuli Khana, near Turkman Gate at Delhi. I have explored this site which is the only one to be undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India. The A.S.I. plaque at the entrance reads : “Earlier known as Rani Saji Ki Dargah, this enclosure houses the grave said to be of Sultan Raziya who succeeded her father Sultan Iltutmish. She was able and valiant and was in authority in 1236-40 A.D. during which she faced much opposition from her nobles. She died fighting on the 14th October 1240 A.D. at Kaithal in Karnal district in the course of a rebellion spearheaded by her own brother Muizuddin Bahram Shah who succeeded her as Sultan.
Of unpretentious architecture the enclosure preserves on a central platform, two graves of which the identity of the second is not known. Towards the South-Eastern corner are two there unknown graves. There is a mihrab on the western wall of the undimmed mausoleum.” However, despite being maintained by the A.S.I., the tomb complex needs better care.
As far as the identity of the second major tomb is concerned, the caretaker at the complex told me that it was definitely not of Altunia’s, but could be either of Razia’s sister Shazia Begum or Yakut. Some say that Shazia was not married to Aitigin, but stayed with Razia and died with her. This is open to doubt as Shazia is not known to have acquired military training and therefore, could not have accompanied Razia to the battlefield. Even if she was there in the durbar, she must have been behind the purdah. Th tomb, I believe cannot be of Yakut, as he died far before Razia, which also raises the question of the site of location of the Tombs of Altunia and Yakut.
|ASI Plague At the Entrance Of Razia Sultan's Tomb At Delhi|
|The Tomb Complex at Mohalla Bulbuli Khana, near Turkman Gate, Delhi|
The tomb said to be of Razia’s at Kaithal, Haryana which was earlier in a much better condition, now stands dilapidated as the pictures show, with almost no care taken by the state government. The complex at Tonk, Rajasthan, houses two tombs, one on a raised platform and another on the ground, as seen in pictures. The raised one is said to be of Razia’s. If we believe Ibn Battuta’s story,Tonk could be the site for Razia’s tomb.
|The current situation of Razia's Tomb at Kaithal|
|The Tomb Complex at Tonk. The elevated tomb is said to be of Razia's.|
I shall explore the debate about the possible location of Razia’s Tomb in a future article.
Minhaj-us-Siraj Juzjani on Razia
Minaj-us-Siraj Juzjani says, “Razia was endowed with all the qualities befitting a sovereign; she was prudent, benevolent, benefactor to her kingdom, a dispenser of justice, the cherisher of subjects and a great warrior. But of what advantage were all these attributes to her, when she was born a woman ?” The tragic end of Razia, according to modern Historians, demonstrated the growing power of the Chihalgani, who were the real factor behind Razia’s fall. The fall of the Chihalgani would have to wait till the accession of Ghiyasuddin Balban (1266-86).
A Public Figure on Razia
Razia has been a subject on whom many films and TV serials have been made. The latest TV show sponsored by Swastik Productions, had debutant Pankhuri Awasthy in the lead role as Razia Sultan. She told me, “ Razia, unlike the other women of her time, challenged the age old customs and traditions of the Slave Dynasty which considered women inferior and kept them from the matters of politics which was considered strictly to be man’s domain. Women, on the other hand, were reduced to household chores and were confined in the purdah system. Razia under the modern outlook of her father, King Iltutmish, grew up as a rebel and acquired skills like horse-riding and sword fighting. With these qualities along with her innate righteousness and sense of liberty and political understanding, she was deemed to be the most suitable heir to the throne. Razia was always ahead of her times mentally and that’s the change she wanted to bring into the society, which she finally did when she became the Sultan and in the consequent years of her reign.” As far her show is concerned, she says, “Shows like Razia Sultan, spread awareness and educate the people about the rich history of India, apart from being a normal entertainment programme. The story of Razia Sultan unlike other well known rulers of the country was still untold and still unknown to many as it is not majorly and shared in children’s school curriculum. Thus has a lot of educational value attached to it, which I feel is very crucial to the upbringing of children as it is now removed from the cultural and historical richness of this country.”
It would be wrong to deprive Razia of her much-deserved greatness. She introduced many reforms in roads and communication, army, equal treatment to Hindus, and was the first Muslim ruler in India to abolish the jizya. Although, she was far ahead of her times, she lacked able advisors an the diplomacy to implement these ideas. However, there is enough evidence to prove that she was loved and respected by her people. The people’s wish to place her on the throne, sowed the seeds of democracy — that the will of the people was final arbiter in deciding as to who would be the ruler — not in Ancient or Modern India, but in Medieval India. To sum up, Razia was the first democratically elected queen of the future largest democracy.
1. Minhaj-us-Siraj-Juzjani : Tabaqat-i-Nasiri
2. Brijbhushan Jamila : Sultan Raziya : Her Life and Times : A Reappraisal (Manohar Publications, New Delhi : 1990)
3. Chandra Satish : Medieval India : From Sultanat to the Mughals : Delhi Sultanat [1206-1526] (Har- Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi :1997, rpt. 2015)
4. Dasgupta Shahana : Razia : The People’s Queen (Rupa & Co., New Delhi : 2001)
5. Eraly Abraham : The Age of Wrath : A History of the Delhi Sultanate (Penguin Books, India : 2014)
6. Roy, Hemendra Kumar : “Bharater Ekmatra Sultana” in Aitihashik Samagra (Patra Bharati, Kolkata : January, 2014)