Editor’s Note: In this excerpt from ‘The Book of Indian Queens’, Ira Mukhoty charts the rise of Raziya bint Iltutmish (popularly known as Razia Sultan)–whose four-year reign over the Delhi sultanate marked a unique moment in Indian history. Unlike many other queens, she was not a guardian monarch–guarding the throne for her child. But a true heir who seized power from her brothers–ruling unveiled and without apology. Excerpted with permission from ‘The Book of Indian Queens: Stories & Essays,’ published by Aleph Book Company.
Written by: Ira Mukhoty is the author of ‘Daughters of the Sun: Empresses’, ‘Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire’, ‘Heroines: Powerful Indian Women in Myth and History’, ‘Akbar: The Great Mughal, and Song of Draupadi: A Novel’. Living in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, she developed an interest in the evolution of mythology and history, the erasure of women from these histories, and the continuing relevance this has on the status of women in India. She writes rigorously researched narrative histories that are accessible to the lay reader. She lives in Gurgaon with her husband and two daughters.
About the lead image: This is an 18th century Delhi School painting titled ‘Razia Sultan Enjoying an Evening’.
Raziya bint Iltutmish: The rise of a queen
When Iltutmish died in 1236, he had already been ailing for a few months and would have taken measures to ensure a smooth transition of power to his successors. Later biographers like Minhaj-i-Siraj Juzjani have claimed that Iltutmish named Raziya his successor because he is reported to have said: ‘My sons are devoted to the pleasures of youth, and not one of them is qualified to be king. They are unfit to rule the country, and after my death you will find that there is no one more competent to guide the State than my daughter.’
However, no textual evidence exists to back this statement and it is more likely that he promoted his oldest surviving son, Rukn al-Din, whom he appeared to be grooming for leadership, after the death of his first-born son, by giving him the governorship of Lahore. But within months of assuming power and having shifted his residence to the fortified town of Kulukhri, Rukn al-Din was facing revolt from various factions in his court including one from the senior ghulams of the Bandagan and some free amirs of the court.
At the same time, his mother, Shah Terken, used her son’s ascension to settle old scores in the harem and also had one of Rukn al-Din’s half-brothers blinded and put to death. It was when she tried to kill Rukn al-Din’s half-sister, Raziya, whom she saw as a threat to her son’s claim to the throne, that we first hear of the princess who would become the most powerful woman of al-Hind.
Ibn Battuta, writing a century after the event, describes the events that followed Rukn al-Din’s attempt to assassinate Raziya: ‘She presented herself to the army and addressed them from the roof saying, “My brother killed his brother and he now wants to kill me.” Saying this, she reminded them of her father’s time and of his good deeds and benevolence to the people.’ With this claim to the memory of her father, Sultan Iltutmish, Raziya then asked for justice against Rukn al-Din and his mother. The crowds rallied around her, they stormed the palace and ‘he [Rukn al-Din] was killed in retaliation for his brother’s death.’ Following this, ‘the army agreed to appoint Raziya as ruler.’
When Raziya ascended the throne of Delhi in this tumultuous manner, she stood alone without a man beside her—no father, husband or son—asking men to revolt on her behalf at a time when affluent Muslim women were not meant to be seen in
public. In the ninth century itself, the Iraqi theologian Al-Jahiz had categorically stated that ‘the only purpose of high walls, stout doors, thick curtains, eunuchs, handmaidens and servants is to protect them [women] and to safeguard the pleasure they give.’
There is very little we know about the physical appearance of Raziya, apart from her gender. Standing on the steps of the kusk-i-firuzi or royal residence, she would have been wearing a tunic with long sleeves and a loose fitting shalwar covering her legs and feet. As it was the month of spring, she may have been wearing bright silks embroidered with gold threads. At this stage of her career we know that she was ‘veiled from the public gaze’, so she would have had a light gauze cloth drawn across the lower half of her face. Her physical features are lost to us since biographers, perfunctory at best even in describing their male subjects, were either silent or censored such details where women were concerned. We do know, however, that she was ethnically Turkish so it is likely that Raziya had the high cheekbones, wind-blown complexion and almond eyes characteristic of the people of the steppes…
In the early years of her reign, she would have needed the weight of her father’s title, but by 1238 Raziya had grown enough in confidence to have the coins minted in her own name: Al-Sultan al-Muazzam Radiyyat al-Din. Cultural historian and writer Alyssa Gabbay notes that ‘she appears both on the coins and in the early histories with the gender-neutral and awe-inspiring sobriquet of Sultan: the king, the leader.’ In her own lifetime, Raziya never opted for the title ‘Sultana’, the queen, an adjunct to the male power, the king.
At some point during her reign, Raziya abandoned purdah. Juzjani tells us that ‘the sultan put aside female dress, and issued from [her] seclusion, and donned the tunic, and assumed the head-dress [of a man], and appeared among the people.’ Raziya’s appearance, though, would not have altered drastically as the Muslim garb for both men and women at the time was fairly similar and modest—a long tunic and loose pants. However, Raziya appeared in public with the quba (ceremonial cloak) and the kulah (pointed Turkish hat). Without her veil ‘when she rode out on an elephant, at the time of mounting it, all people used, openly, to see her.’
The removal of the veil was essential for Raziya to dissociate herself from being simply a female, and as such, ‘naqes al-aql, deficient in intelligence, and therefore more prone to evil than men.’ Without the veil the people could see more clearly the face of kingship, of power and of military strength.
In the sixteenth century, Rani Durgawati dressed as a soldier to fight Akbar’s Mughal troops and six hundred years after Raziya, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi would also abandon feminine garb when she rode into battle against the British colonizers. Both Rani Durgawati and Rani Laxmibai, however, were dowager queens fighting for the rights of their infant sons. Raziya’s claim to being Sultan was her conviction that she was the most capable of her siblings.
Alyssa Gabbay has argued that Raziya was part of a long line of Muslim women, including the Sassanian queens of Boran and Azarmidokht, who discarded their female attire as monarchs. In the subcontinent, however, such examples are rare. Though gender identities are more porous than those in the West, it is usually the men who cross-dress. Arjuna in the Mahabharat dresses as a woman and mistress of dance when he lives disguised as a eunuch in King Matsya’s court as part of the terms of his exile. There is a great tradition of mystics, such as Ramakrishna and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, dressing as women to symbolize the ideal devotee. Indeed, in Sufi mysticism as in Buddhism and Hinduism, the only ‘true male’ or purusha is God, everyone else must approach Him with the humility of a woman.
It is as though a man’s virility is inviolable, sacrosanct and the wearing of women’s clothes is just a game, which never fundamentally challenges that virility; but when a woman wears a man’s clothes a fault line appears in society….
Amir Khusro, the Sufi poet and scholar, born half a century after Raziya, wrote of her:
For three years in which her hand was strong
No one laid a finger on one of her orders.
In the fourth, since the page had turned from her matters
The pen of fate drew a line through her.