Sultan Razia: The First and Only Female Royal of Delhi
On the eve of October 1240, two armies faced one another ready for battle. This was a last-ditch effort by Sultan Razia to recapture her throne which had been usurped by her brother. Razia was the first and only female monarch of the Delhi Sultanate . It’s easy to see parallels between the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Hatshepsut, and the Indian Sultan. Though their lives were separated by centuries, their struggle against a patriarchal society was very similar. While Razia reigned for only four years, Hatshepsut ruled for more than twenty. Despite Razia’s short reign, she was able to leave a significant impact upon Indian history.
Forging the Future Female Sultan
Razia was the only daughter born to the third and greatest Delhi sultan, Iltutmish, and his favorite wife, Terken Khatun. Iltutmish celebrated her birth with great pomp and ceremony, going so far as to hold grand festivals. Women of the era were taught to be submissive to men. A contemporary 13 th century Persian historian, Minhaj-i-Siraj, sums up the atmosphere when he said: “A queen’s rule went against the ideal social order created by God, in which women were supposed to be subordinate to men”.
From childhood, Razia was trained in the art of warfare, horsemanship, diplomacy and administration. Her training was supervised by her father Iltutmish and Malik Yaqut, an Abyssinian slave. Initially, Iltutmish was training his daughter to be a queen, who would be able to stand proudly by her husband. That meant Razia spent most of her time in the company of her father, maintaining very little contact with the women of the harem, meaning that she had little opportunity to learn the customary behavior befitting a woman at that time and place. Razia never inculcated the timid and reserved manner of women around her.
Razia’s training was supervised by her father Sultan Iltutmish. (Avani Kamal / Google Arts & Culture )
In 1229, Iltutmish’s eldest son, Nasir-ud-din Mahmud, died while fighting against the Mongols. This caused a dilemma for Iltutmish, who didn’t believe his other sons were worthy of being Sultan, while he saw more potential in Razia. So, he decided to test them. Before leaving on his Gwalior campaign, he left Razia and his son, Rukn-ud-din Firoz, in charge of the administration of Delhi. Upon his return he was impressed with how his daughter had managed the affairs of state in his absence. His son, on the other hand, had spent most of his time seeking pleasure. It was at this moment that Iltutmish decided to break with tradition and named Razia as his heir apparent, much to the dismay of the nobility.
The ancient Egyptian Hatshepsut had also been very close to her father, who had valued her highly for her bright mind. She possessed more capabilities than his son, but she could not inherit the throne. Power was supposed to pass to the male heir, to maintain Maat (universal order). Thus, despite her potential, she only got power after she was married off to the future Pharaoh, her half-brother, Thutmose II. Razia’s father broke tradition and did what Hatshepsut’s could not; he named his daughter as his heir, capable of ruling independently of any man.
Razia’s Ascension to the Throne
Razia’s ascension to the throne was not smooth. When Sultan Iltutmish passed away on 29 th April 1236, the nobility were not enamored with the idea of a female ruler. They therefore elevated her brother, Rukn-ud-din Firoz, as the new Sultan, much to Razia’s disappointment. However, Firoz’s reign was short-lived, as he abandoned his duties in the pursuit of personal pleasure and debauchery, causing considerable outrage among the people.
Razia had not given up her right to the throne. One Friday, dressed in red clothes (the color of protest), she stood before the congregation that had gathered in Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque for the Friday prayers. Standing in front of her people she appealed for justice, reminding them of her father’s prosperous reign and that he had named her as his heir. The people and army rallied behind her and thus, on the 19 th of November 1236, Razia deposed her brother and seized the throne. Rukn-ud-din Firoz and his mother were both executed as a result. She was crowned in November 1236 and was given the title Jalalat-al-din Razia Sultan .
The story of Razia was the subject of the 1983 movie starring Hema Malini and Dharmendra. ( Live History India )
Dressing for Success: Unveiling Delhi’s Only Female Monarch
When she took the throne, Razia still wore a veil and kept out of public sight. This caused many problems, as the 13 th century poet Amir Khusro wrote:
“For several months, her face was veiled/ her sword’s ray flashed, lightening-like, from behind the screen/ Since the sword remained in the sheath/ Many rebellions were left unchecked/ With a royal blow, she tore away the veil/ She showed her face’s sun from behind the screen/ The [lioness] showed so much force/ that brave men bent low before her…”
One feature that is similar in the reigns of both Razia and Hatshepsut, was their willingness to give up female attire and adopt the clothing of their male counterparts. When they gained power, neither of them wished for others to think that they were second to anyone. Razia knew that ruling an empire while hidden behind a veil was impossible and she would have been unable to address the issues of her kingdom head on. It may have been more a need than a personal choice, but it opened her up to criticism from the nobility.
Minhaj-i-Siraj was a noted authority on the history of the Delhi Sultanate or Slave dynasty. In his work, Tabaquat-i-Nasiri, he wrote about Razia’s rule. Before delving into his writing, it is necessary to remember that a person is a product of his time and he lived in a patriarchal society where men were taught that they were superior to women. Even though he acknowledges Razia’s ability, it is hard for him to accept a female ruler:
“She was a great monarch, wise, just, generous, benefactor to her realm, dispenser of justice, protector of her people and leader of her armies; and endowed with all the admirable attributes and qualifications necessary for a king. Her only tragic flaw was that she was born a woman .”
Although her four years as Sultan have not been well documented, we do know that her reign was prosperous and peaceful. Razia ordered the construction of roads linking villages and cities. She even abolished the Jazia Tax, which was collected from the Hindus. She even had coins struck in her name. Razia established schools, academies, public libraries and research centers.
Beginning of the End: Shaking Things Up
Razia was an independent woman, never afraid to speak her mind or do as she saw fit. The one threat that she wanted to extinguish was the growing power of the nobility and a way of doing it was to promote non-Turks to important positions. Of all the things she did, nothing caused more problems then the appointment of Malik Yakut as Amir-e-Akhur (Commander of the horses), a position only given to Mamluk nobility.
It is around this time that rumors of romance between Razia and Yakut start to spread. There is no mention of such a relationship in the writings of Minhaj-i-Siraj, however their relationship is mentioned by later historians. Whether or not the rumors were true, they were enough to fuel the flame of rebellion against Razia. Sultan Razia may have been in a powerful position, but she lacked the freedom that most male rulers had. Any decision she made, would have been subject to great scrutiny. Hatshepsut suffered the same fate; particularly when she favored her architect Senenmut above other nobility. Powerful women have always been seen as a threat, whether they ruled a thousand years ago, a hundred, or even today. Rana Safvi says “ Independent women carving their own destinies have always been suspect.”
While the 14 th century traveler Ibn Batuta mentions that the tomb of Sultan Razia in Old Delhi attracted pilgrims who sought blessings from it, today it is largely neglected. ( Kaiser Tufail / CC BY 3.0 )
The leader of the revolt was Malik Ikhtiar-ud-din Altunia, governor of Bathinda, one of Razia’s closest childhood friends. He planned to help her brother, Muiz-ud-din Bahram, take possession of the Delhi throne. Razia faced the threat head on, fighting valiantly. Unfortunately, it was all in vain. She was defeated and imprisoned at the Qila Mubarak in Bhatinda, while Yaqut was killed in battle. During her imprisonment she was treated royally. Altunia was in love with her, claiming that the rumors of her relationship with Yakut triggered his rebellion.
“The Flower That Blooms in Adversity Is the Most Rare and Beautiful of All”
Razia’s confinement did not last long. She married Altunia and rallied him to her cause. Therefore, in October 1240, they marched on Delhi trying to reclaim Razia’s lost kingdom, but once more she was defeated and forced to flee. Exactly how Razia met her end is unclear, as there are many different stories regarding her death. One claims that Razia and her husband were captured by Hindu Jats, who robbed and killed them. While the more widely believed theory is that her brother Bahram had them executed. Razia was only 35 years old at the time of her death.
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Sultan Razia may have been a woman ahead of her time, but her achievements cannot be forgotten. She made a lasting impression in the minds of the people and her legacy continues to this day, inspiring others to follow in her footsteps.
Top image: Sultan Razia never gave up her rightful place as heir. One Friday, dressed in red, the color of protest, she visited Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque to appeal to her people for justice. Source: kharchenkoirina / Adobe Stock
Safvi, Rana. The rise and fall of Delhi’s only female monarch. The Hindu . Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-rise-and-fall-of-delhis-only-female-monarch/article19525480.ece
Adhikari, Shona. Razia Sultan: The first Empress of India and the confusion over her burial site. The Asian Age . Available at: https://www.asianage.com/india/all-india/080819/razia-sultan-the-first-empress-of-india-and-the-confusion-over-her-burial-site.html
Pezarkar, Leora. The Story of Raziyat-ud-din Sultan. Available at: https://www.livehistoryindia.com/herstory/2017/10/14/the-story-of-raziyat-ud-din---razia-sultan
Tillotson, Giles. 2019. Delhi Darshan: The History and Monuments of India’s Capital . India: Penguin Random House.
Pillai, Manu S. 2018. Rebel Sultans . New Delhi, India: Juggernaut Books
Brothers constantly failing and yet the nobility preferred this to be subject to a woman, truly these beggars were choosers.