The empress’s world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The way to what is believed to be Razia Sultan’s grave winds through a crisscross of alleys so narrow that you cannot even see the sun.
That is what makes these Old Delhi lanes so invitingly cool on scorching summer afternoons. To reach the complex, hemmed in by homes and shops, you have to walk up the Pahari Bhojla hill and meander through the secluded neighbourhood of Bulbuli Khana—you are unlikely to spot a bulbul these days. It’s so quiet that these lanes do not appear to belong to the overexcited world of the Walled City. You reach a dead end, where an iron gate opens into a small courtyard with two stone tombs. One of them is said to be the grave of India’s first woman emperor.
She is the subject of the television series Razia Sultan, which has been airing on the &TV channel since March 2015. In true soap opera fashion, each episode ends on a climactic note to keep the suspense going. A search for “Razia Sultan” on Google Images throws up pictures of Pankhuri Awasthy, who plays the young Razia on screen. The serial, which has already completed 100 episodes, has become a viewing ritual in many households.
In Old Delhi, apartment blocks lay siege to Razia Sultan’s tomb, like an encroaching army. The cramped neighbourhood surrounding it offers a glimpse of life in this Muslim-dominated locality of skilled artisans, one where some say women step out only for weddings or shopping, certainly not to explore the complex that is considered to be the last home of an empress.
In the 1980s, the original single-storey constructions here were replaced by multi-unit apartment buildings. The Delhi Walla knocks on one door. A young woman, dressed in salwar kameez, appears at the head of the staircase. “I dropped out after X (class),” says 20-year-old Ilma, parting only with her first name. She prefers to stay at home, she adds nonchalantly. Her father runs a “visa-passport consultancy”, her mother is a housewife, and her brother works at a car tyre dealership. She says she watches Razia Sultan on TV every night, but no, she has never been to the tomb that is just 100m from her home. “There is a mosque inside,” she says. “We women are not permitted to enter.”
Is this true? A few months ago, I had come across a middle-aged British woman in the complex, her eyes closed. The mosque is nothing more than a recessed arch built on the western wall of the monument. The mosque’s imam, who supplements his income by giving lessons in the Quran to children, says there is no ban on the entry of women. But, he says, women from the area never visit the tomb, possibly because only men are allowed to offer prayers at the mosque.
In any case, you would be hard-pressed to find Razia’s tomb on any tourist map. Only the odd inquisitive traveller seeks directions to it.
Razia Sultan’s story goes back more than 700 years, when this area was dense forest. She rode atop an elephant; fought on the battlefield; gave her heart to a slave; exchanged vows with a rebel; and was killed defending her crown in what is now Haryana. The mausoleum is a let-down—an insignificant stone mound for the first woman monarch of the Delhi Sultanate. Not even a covered dome to shelter the empress from the elements.
Periodically, there are reports of her “real grave” having been discovered elsewhere. The Archaeological Survey of India remains somewhat ambivalent. The official stone slab at Bulbuli Khana says, “Razia Sultan is believed to be buried here.” And nobody knows who is buried in the second grave.
Around it, the sweatshop-like establishments of skilled artisans are very often on the same street as their homes. Mohammed Sualeheen, who fashions handmade leather pouches, cufflinks and pendants for export, regularly watches the serial with his family, but prefers the 1983 movie that was based on Bulbuli Khana’s most famous resident. The Hema Malini-starrer Razia Sultan was directed by Kamal Amrohi, the man who immortalized courtesans in the classic Pakeezah. Mr Sualeheen remembers buying a balcony ticket for 5 rupees at the Shiela cinema hall in Paharganj.
Mr Sualeheen believes there is a secret corridor under the streets of Bulbuli Khana leading directly to Razia Sultan’s tomb. He has heard that the passage is inhabited by snakes and scorpions.
Unexpectedly, you come across word-of-mouth stories about the afterlife of the queen. Sualeheen’s kaarigar (artisan), Mohammed Shameem, even claims to have seen her. Mr Shameem works, eats and sleeps at the shop, like many of the other artisans in the area. One night, he says, he woke from deep sleep to an invisible force commanding him to walk to Razia’s mausoleum. There, the empress lay atop her grave, her face veiled by a yellow silk cloth.
Accounts of ghosts are not uncommon among people who live so close to the dead. Certainly, this part of the Walled City abounds in unknown tombs. One locality is simply called Mohalla Qabrastan (neighbourhood of the graveyard).
Mirza Shakir Baig, a motorcycle spare parts dealer who lives near Razia’s tomb, speaks of a female ghost trying to throttle him. Only the chanting of a Quranic verse, he maintains, saved his life. Asif Iqbal, the owner of Quran Mahal Publications, whose one-room office is a few steps from the mausoleum, is more sanguine. He says the local ghosts usually keep to themselves.
There is no shortage of tales. Some say the grave next to Razia’s is that of her father, emperor lltutmish, who is actually buried in an ornate marble grave in the distant Qutub Minar complex in south Delhi.
I knock at the door of Mohammed Zaheer, a retired tailor who grew up playing cricket and “gend pitthu” in the courtyard that houses the tombs.
His wife has left their home here because “it is so cramped”. His three daughters, raised in Bulbuli Khana, are married; two of them are working. Mr Zaheer spends the day with his wife at their east Delhi home, but still returns every night to his old house. “I sleep soundly only in this mohalla (locality).”
Razia’s ghost is just around the corner