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RAZIA SULTANA (1205–1240)


Razia was ruler of Delhi. She was born in 1205, the daughter of Iltutmish, the third Sultan of the Slave Dynasty, and thus belonged to the Turkish Seljuk ancestry. She was the only woman ever to occupy the throne of Delhi, for a period of three years and six months. Minhajuddin, a historian whom she appointed to head the Madrasa-i-Nasiriya which became a centre of learning in her reign, described her as ‘a great sovereign, sagacious, just, beneficent, the patron of the learned, a dispenser of justice, the cherisher of her subjects, and of warlike talent and endowed with all the admirable attributes and qualifications necessary for Kings.’ Iltutmish gave an excellent education to his daughter and nominated her formally as his successor, as none of her brothers had the strength of character to rule the turbulent Delhi court. She was well versed in the Koran and had a fair knowledge of several other sciences, writing Persian verses under the pen name ‘Shirin’. Nevertheless, the Turkish nobles and governors who held the real power attempted to advance the claims of one of her brothers, only to be foiled by his extreme weakness of character.

Perhaps thinking Razia could be bullied into submission, they let her ascend the throne. Her tolerance of Hinduism would later bring her criticism from Muslim historians. She established schools, academies, centers for research, and public libraries that included the works of ancient philosophers along with the Quran and the Traditions of Muhammad. Hindu works in the sciences, philosophy, astronomy, and literature were reportedly studied in schools and colleges. She refused to be addressed as Sultana because it meant ‘wife or mistress of a sultan’. She would answer only to the title ‘Sultan’.

The main source of Razia’s strength was her army and her populist attitude. She gave proof of her courage when she single-handedly routed the rebels who rose against her. She cast aside the veil in the second year of her reign, dressed in red robes, and gave audience to the people every Friday near the Jama Masjid. Soon she curbed the power of her rebels. The administrative Council of Forty held strong orthodox opinions, which meant that in their minds to be ruled by a woman was extremely humiliating. Razia tried to prove them wrong by excelling in every manner as a ruler and governor. She miscalculated in showing favour to an Abyssinian slave, Yaqut, perhaps in an attempt to break the Turkish stranglehold, and this provoked the governors of Lahore to rebel against her. She fought bravely but in the end was captured by the Turks, and her brother Bahram Shah was given the throne. Razia, though imprisoned in the fort of Tabarhindah, did not give in. She played upon the aggrieved sensibilities of her captor Altuniya, who felt he had not been adequately rewarded for his part in the rebellion, and offered to marry him in return for assistance against the Turks. Balban, Iltutmish’s son-in-law, routed their joint forces in battle. Raziya and her husband fled from the field but were robbed and murdered by some Hindu landlords in 1240. Her body was recovered from the plunderers and lies buried in a part of old Delhi known as Bulbuli Khana in an unpretentious mausoleum. Unfortunately, her successors appear to have considered her an embarrassment, for Firoz Shah Tughlaq omitted her name from the list of sultans that was prepared during his reign.

Reena Jain
 
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