The forgotten heroines of India

Last Updated: Tue, Mar 08, 2011 06:40 hrs

New Delhi: History has been biased towards women. Some have been put on pedestals and some brushed to the margins of forgetfulness - slipping off the collective consciousness.

Award-winning writer and social activist Bilkees I. Latif's new book "Forgotten" resurrects six brave women who lived and died for India from the crypts of history to the mainstream, putting their names on the women's roll of honour.

India has crowned empresses and feted heroines but no one probably has ever heard of Juliana Diaz da Costa, a Portuguese immigrant in the Mughal court who taught the royal children stories from the Bible and was conferred the honour of crowning the Mughal regent Prince Muhammed Shah or Bahadur Shah 1 in 1719 in her capacity as the "official keeper of the Mughal crown".

The devout foreign widow, who impressed austere Muslim emperor Aurungzeb with her knowledge of herbal medicines, Portuguese interest in India, scriptures and languages, had entrusted the royal 'zenena' (women's quarters) to her care.

She became a part of the household - a confidante and advisor and saw the empire slide into anarchy in its last years after emperor Aurangzeb's death, says Latif in her book.

Awarded the Padma Shri in 2008, Latif is the author of the "Andhra Cookbook", "The Fragrance of Forgotten Years" and "O Dharavi".

In her new book, two unknown women queens of the Deccan, Rudramma Devi and Hayat Bakshi Begum, have been revered for their ability to lead and rule.

A ruler of exceptional courage and statesmanship, Kakatiya king Ganapati Deva's daughter Rani Rudramma Devi, who was later renamed Rudradeva, succeeded her father to the throne of Vijayanagara.

"Although Queen Rudramma's powerful chiefs and army leaders were suspicious of her and doubted her ability, she was able to quell her dissensions within and keep at bay all those who attacked her kingdom," Latif says in her book.

"She defended her kingdom against the Cholas and Yadavs and earned their respect," she adds.

She was credited with building the "thousand-pillar temple" at Hanamkonda on the top of a hill, where she prayed every day to the holy trinity.

Hayat Bakshi Begum was the daughter of Deccan king Quli Qutb Shah and dancer Bhagmati.

Hayat was widowed in her 20s with a son - and later ruled the sultanate of Golconda. A devout Shia Muslim, she ruled the kingdom with courage and intelligence.

"In 1685, when Aurungzeb came with an army and laid siege to the city, she went to the emperor's camp and struck a deal. The siege was called off," Latif said.

Mahlaqa Chanda was one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in Urdu and sponsor a historical chronicle of Mahnama of the period covered by the reign of Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah II and had established a cultural centre for 300 girls.

She was the adopted daughter of Nizam of Hyderabad's Prime Minister Nawab Rukn-ud-Daula.

"Mahlaqa Chanda was the only woman of the period to be given recognition and made a senior member of the 'omrah', the highest nobility and she was frequently consulted by the rulers of the state," Latif says.

Chand Bibi or Chand Sultana of Bijapur was a caring warrior princess, Latif says.

She stood up to fight the invading Mughal army led by emperor Akbar's son Murad in Ahmednagar and managed to restore fragile truce to Bijapur when Deccan was beset by rivalry and intrigues by warring governors.

Chand Sultana was known for her powers of active combat on the battlefield, Latif says.

At the end of her accounts of valour queens from the battlefield and courts of Deccan, chronicler Latif narrates a contemporary Indian story.

"I was sitting down to write one day when I saw my 'ayah' Raheem Bi looking very pensive as she stood near a window gazing out. I saw a tear roll down her cheek."

The tall and statesque Raheem Bi or Radha Bai in her earlier avatar as a Brahmin widow had been victim of dark arts. Sold early to an older man and widowed early, she became Raheem Bi, when a Muslim holy man took her in. And converted her to Islam.

Radha alias Raheem Bi found peace at the writer's home. Until one day, when she decided to go back to her village to build herself a cottage with flowers.

"I could picture her as the 'mataji' (mother) of the village...telling each one what to do in her bossy way," Latif says.

"Forgotten" has been published by Penguin-India.

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