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Sex Slavery

In the preceding pages it has been seen how women and children were special targets for enslavement throughout the medieval period, that is, during Muslim invasions and Muslim rule. Captive children of both sexes grew up as Muslims and served the sultans, nobles and men of means in various captives. Enslavement of young women was also due to many reasons; their being sex objects was the primary consideration and hence concentration on their captivity.

Psychology regarding Sex

Islam originated in the Arabian peninsula which is by and large stony and sandy. There is no luxuriant herbage, there are no lofty trees or winding rivers. Muhammad used to say that ‘three things gladden the eye of the gazer: green fields, running water, and fair faces.’1 Since green fields and running water were denied to the medieval Arab, he concentrated on deriving comfort and society mainly in fair faces. This phenomenon became prominent in the course of Islamic history throughout the world.

In the campaigns launched by Muslims, it was easy to capture women, more so after their menfolk had been massacred. The Prophet’s one great aim was propagation of his religion and as Margoliouth observes, ‘Abu Bakr (the chief campaigner for Muhammad’s creed) probably was aware that women are more amenable to conversion than men  slaves than freemen, persons in distress than persons in prosperity and affluence.’2 Women slaves turned concubines could increase Muslim population by leaps and bounds when captured in large numbers.3 Hence there was particular keenness on enslaving women from the very beginning of Islam.

This was also encouraged by the injunctions of the Quran. Muslims are allowed four wives besides they are allowed to cohabit with any of their female slaves. Surah iv:3 says, ‘Then marry what seem to be good to you of women’; Surah iv:29, ‘Take what your right hand possesses of young women’, and Surah xxxiii:49, ‘Verily we make lawful for thee what thy right hand possesses out of the booty God hath granted thee.’ Muslims are allowed to take possession of married women if they are slaves. Surah iv:28 declares, ‘Unlawful for you are  married women, save such as your right hand possesses’, that is, female slaves captured in war. Manucci’s observation on the seventeenth century India is significant in this regard. He says that ‘all Muhammadans are fond of women, who are their principal relaxation and almost their only pleasure’4

From the teachings of the Quran quoted above, it will be seen that while Muhammad restricted the number of lawful wives, he did not restrict the number of slave girls and concubines.5 All female slaves taken as plunder in war are the lawful property of their master, and the master has power to take to himself any female slave married or single. T.P. Hughes adds that ‘there is absolutely no limit to the number of slave girls with whom a Muhammadan may cohabit, and it is the consecration of this illimitable indulgence which so popularizes the Muhammadan religion amongst uncivilized nations, and so popularizes slavery in the Muslim religion’.6

Then there was the life and thought of the Prophet himself. Muslims try to imitate, as far as possible, the life-style of Muhammad. He is the model, the paradigm of every pious Muslim.7 There is nothing unusual in this phenomenon. The followers of Mahavira, Buddha, Christ or Guru Govind Singh live, as far as in them lies, the life that their Masters lived. Their teaching was mostly oral but their words were lovingly collected by devoted men as guides to their own personal conduct. So did the followers of Muhammad collect the hadises and tried to imitate his way of life. Company of women had a very important place in Muhammad’s life. William Muir writes that ‘Aisha used to say: ‘the Prophet loved three things-women, scents, and food; he had his heart’s desire of the two first, but not of the last’.8 This is put by Margoliouth as ‘the three things about which he cared were scent, women, and prayer ’9 According to these aphorisms and sayings attributed to the Prophet, the place of women was prominent in his mind, a preoccupancy in his psyche.10 It is well-known that his matrimonial affairs gave him the means of establishing a princely harem.

Besides the urge of following in his ways, Muhammad’s idea of Paradise inspired the Muslims even more in craving for the company of women. The Paradise in the Quran provided ‘Rest and passive enjoyment; verdant gardens watered by murmuring rivulets, wherein the believers  repose (quaffing) aromatic wine such as the Arabs loved from goblets placed before them or handed round in silver cups replendent as glass by beautiful youths  ‘Verily! for the Pious is a blissful abode; Gardens and Vineyards, and damsels with swelling bosoms, of an equal age, and a full cup ’ These damsels of Paradise are introduced as ‘lovely large-eyed girls resembling Pearls bidden in their shells, a reward for that which the faithful have wrought  ‘Verily! we have created them (the houries) of a rare creation; We have made them virgins, fascinating, of an equal age’.’11

Abode in such a Paradise of ‘carnal image’, says Gibbon, was the reward of the faithful in the next world. In this world Muhammad encouraged the Muslims to take slave women without restraint. From very ‘early period Muhammad admitted slave girls to be lawful concubines, besides ordinary wives. Bond-women with whom cohabitation is thus permitted are here specified by the same phrase as was afterwards used for female slaves taken captive in war, or obtained by purchase, viz. ‘that which your right hand possesses.’  (It was) an inducement to fight in the hope of capturing women who would then be lawful concubines.’12 Margoliouth working with the same scriptural source materials, also avers that ‘It was then [early years of publicity of Islam] too, that coveting the goods and wives (possessed by Unbelievers) was avowed without discouragement from the Prophet.’13

Special interest in Sex

In brief, the climatic conditions of Arabia the birth-place of Islam, Muhammad’s life-style as a model for Muslims, and injunctions in the Quran and the Hadis, determined Muslim psychology about women. Islam permits polygamy with unbelievable liberality. A man can have four wives at any point of time, that is, if he chooses to have a fifth one, he can divorce one of the already at hand and keep the number within the legal limits of four. Besides, he can have as many slave girls or concubines as he pleases. It is related in the Hadis that Muhammad said that ‘when the servant of God marries, he perfects half his religion  Consequently in Islam, even the ascetic orders are rather married than single.’14 In Islam there is provision for temporary marriage (muta), multi-marriages, divorce, remarriage of widows, concubinage - in short, there is freedom from all inhibitions and reservations in matters of sex. The insistence is on everybody marrying and celibacy is frowned upon. According to a tradition derived from Ibn Abbas and quoted by Ibn S’ad, popularly known as Katib al-Waqidi the Prophet’s biographer, Muhammad said that ‘in my ummah, he is the best who has the largest number of wives.’15

It has been repeatedly said Musalmans are allowed by the Quran and the Hadis to have four wives. The aphorisms and maxims current about this phenomenon indicate that all wives could not have been procured in the normal way; some would have been purchased, some others captured. One aphorism says, ‘One quarrels with you, two are sure to involve you in their quarrels; when you have three, factions are formed against her you love best; but four find society and occupation among themselves, leaving the husband in peace.’16 According to another, ‘Wives there be four: there’s Bedfellow, Muckheap [dirty], Gadabout [idle] and Queen O’ women. The more the pity that the last is one in a hundred.’17 Yet another says, ‘A man should marry four wives: A Persian to have some one to talk to; a Khurasani woman for his housework; a Hindu for nursing his children; a woman from Mawaraun nahr, or Transoxiana, to have some one to whip as a warning to the other three.’18 The mention of so many nationalities in the sayings show that obtaining wives and concubines through all kinds of means - capture, purchase, enslavement - was in vogue among medieval Muslims.

In later times, this encouragement to polygamy was taken advantage of by Muslim conquerors. That Muhammad restricted the number of lawful wives but did not restrict the number of slave concubines, came handy to Musalmans. He ‘thus left upon the minds of his followers the inevitable impression that an unrestricted polygamy was the higher state ’19 Hazrat Umar, the second Caliph, was the first to allow instant divorce (by the pronouncement of talaq, talaq, talaq, three times) called talaq-i-bidat (innovative form of divorce), ‘to meet an extraordinary situation brought on by wars of conquests’. Those wars brought in such an influx of women that constant divorce became necessary to falicitate quick acquisition of fresh spouses by divorcing the old ones. ‘Victory over an enemy would seem to have been consummated only when the enemy’s daughter was introduced into the conqueror’s harem’20 - a precept so enthusiastically practised by Muslim conquerors and rulers in India.

It is therefore no wonder that from the day the Muslim invaders marched into India to the time when their political power declined, women were systematically captured and enslaved throughout the length and breadth of the country. Two instances pertaining to two extreme points of time would suffice as examples. When Muhammad bin Qasim mounted his attack on Debal in 712, all males of the age of seventeen and upwards were put to the sword and their women and children were enslaved.21 And after the Third Battle of Panipat (1761), ‘the unhappy prisoners were paraded in long lines, given a little parched grain and a drink of water, and beheaded  and the women and children who survived were driven off as slaves - twenty-two thousand, many of them of the highest rank in the land, says the Siyar-ut-Mutakhirin.’22

These two instances have been chosen from two points of time on either extremity of Muslim rule in India. And now onwards this pattern of mentioning only two examples, one from the earlier period and the other from the later, will be adhered to. There are reasons for adopting this model. Persian chroniclers were not scientific historians. They often give isolated and disjointed bits of information. This characteristic is also found in their references to issues pertaining to our area of study. For example, while most of the chroniclers give detailed information about the enslavement of women in times of war, only a few like Abul Fazl and emperor Jahangir write about how they were captured, lifted or seduced by nobles and officers in times of peace. Of the women captured in war, some were appropriated by the king, many were presented by the king to the nobles, and many others were sold. But all writers do not give satisfactory information on all these points for the whole of the medieval period. Ibn Battuta gives details of ‘presentation’ ceremonies of slave captives in the time of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, and Bernier and Manucci in the time of Jahangir and Shahjahan. Detailed account of the Slave Markets and prices of slave girls are mainly given by the fourteenth century chronicler Ziyauddin Barani, although some others also refer to them but only casually. Many writers, especially European travellers, describe the treatment meted out to slave girls and girls turned concubines, but the accounts of Pelsaert and Manucci are the most detailed. Many women from Hindu rulers’ families were forcibly married by Muslim kings throughout the medieval period and yet only Shams Siraj Afif narrates in detail of the marriage of Firoz Shah’s mother to Malik Rajjab, a cousin of the king, and emperor Jahangir tells how he demanded daughters of Hindu kings.

In this background, it would be an unremitting task both in volume and repetition to give all anecdotes, facts and figures of enslavement and concubinage of captive women in the central and provincial kingdoms and independent Muslim states found mentioned in the chronicles. This would only lead to repetition resulting in the book becoming bulky. Therefore, two examples - one from the Sultanate period and the other from the Moghul times - would be enough as samples of the system that prevailed throughout. These will suffice to being out the panorama of Muslim indulgence in sex slavery in the medieval period.

The special interest of Muslims in sex slavery was universal and widespread and a plethora of evidence is available in contemporary Persian chronicles. In fact, Muslim historians derive extra delight in narrating anecdotes and stating facts about Muslim indulgence in sex and allied activities. Two incidents from the lives of the first two Sultans, Qutbuddin Aibak and Shamsuddin Iltutmish, may be mentioned here as examples.

On the arrival of Qutbuddin Aibak at Karman (situated between Kabul and Bannu), Tajuddin Yaldoz received him with great kindness and honour and gave him his daughter in marriage. A fete was held on the occasion and poetical descriptions in Hasan Nizami’s Taj-ul-Maasir follow – ‘of stars, female beauty, cup-bearers, curls, cheeks, eyes, lips, mouths, stature, elegance, cups, wine, singers, guitars, barbets, trumpets, flutes, drums, of the morning, and the sun.’23 And again, when Aibak, some years later tried to remove Yaldoz form his kingdom, he marched to Ghazni and occupied the throne. But only for forty days, for during this period he was ‘wholly engaged in revelry’, wine and riot, and the affairs of the country through this constant festivity were neglected, and the ‘Turks of Ghaznin and Muizzi Maliks’ invited Yaldoz back to his capital. Aibak was incapable of opposing him and retired to Delhi.24

The following anecdote is related of Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish. He was greatly enamoured of a Turkish slave girl in his harem, whom he had purchased, and sought her caresses, but was always unable to achieve his object. One day he was seated, having his head anointed with some perfumed oil by the hands of the same slave girl, when he felt some tears fall on his head. On looking up, he found that she was weeping. He inquired of her the cause. She replied, ‘Once I had a brother who had such a bald place on his head as you have, and it reminds me of him.’ On making further inquiries it was found that the slave girl was his own sister. They had both been sold as slaves, in their early childhood, by their half-brothers; and thus had Almighty God saved him from committing a great sin. Badaoni states in his work, ‘I heard this story myself, from the emperor Akbar’s own lips, and the monarch stated that this anecdote had been orally traced to Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban himself.’25

Forcible Marriages

Forcible marriages, euphemistically called matrimonial alliances, were common throughout the medieval period. Only some of them find mention in Muslim chronicles with their bitter details. Here is one example given by Shams Siraj Afif (fourteenth century). The translation from the original in Persian may be summarised as follows. Firoz Shah was born in the year 709 H. (1309 C.E.). His father was named Sipahsalar Rajjab, who was a brother of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq Ghazi. The three brothers, Tughlaq, Rajjab, and Abu Bakr, came from Khurasan to Delhi in the reign of Alauddin (Khalji), and that monarch took all the three in the service of the Court. The Sultan conferred upon Tughlaq the country of Dipalpur. Tughlaq was desirous that his brother Sipahsalar Rajjab should obtain in marriage the daughter of one of the Rais of Dipalpur. He was informed that the daughters of Ranamall Bhatti were very beautiful and accomplished. Tughlaq sent to Ranamall a proposal of marriage. Ranamall refused. Upon this Tughlaq proceeded to the villages (talwandi) belonging to Ranamall and demanded payment of the whole year’s revenue in a lump sum. The Muqaddams and Chaudharis were subjected to coercion. Ranamall’s people were helpless and could do nothing, for those were the days of Alauddin, and no one dared to make an outcry (italics ours). One damsel was brought to Dipalpur. Before her marriage she was called Bibi Naila. On entering the house of Sipahsalar Rajjab she was styled Sultan Bibi Kadbanu. After the lapse of a few years she gave birth to Firoz shah.26 If this could be accomplished by force by a regional officer, there was nothing to stop the king. In the seventeenth century, Jahangir writes in his Memoirs that after the third year of his accession, ‘I demanded in marriage the daughter of Jagat Singh, eldest son of Raja Man Singh (of Amer).’27 Raja Ram Chandra Bundela was defeated, imprisoned, and subsequently released by Jahangir.28 Later on, says Jahangir, ‘I took the daughter of Ram Chandra Bandilah into my service (i.e. married her).’29

The reason for including such cases of ‘royal marriages’ in the study of sex slavery is obvious. The language of the above citations shows that such wives, or such secondary wives, are always mentioned as having been taken into service or included among female servants, or as obtaining glory by entering the king’s harem. This style of language is not used in describing the marriages of Nur Jahan or Mumtaz Mahall. Such wives were no more than concubines. Concubinage was very common among Muslim royalty and nobility. Among the Muslim rulers children born of concubines were considered equal to children by marriage, although this is not explicitly laid down in the Quran. The custom must have asserted itself in the first century of Islam.30 The children of such a union belonged to the master and were therefore free but the status of the concubine was thereby raised only to that of ‘mother of children’.31 As an example, the case of Sultan Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) may be cited. His mother Zeba was originally a Hindu by the name of Hema or Amba. Bahlul Lodi was attracted by her beauty while he was governor of Sarhind. He married her after ascending the throne of Delhi. He had nine sons. Zeba’s son was not the eldest nor was she originally more than a Hindu concubine.32 Although sons of concubines are very freely mentioned without any inhibitions,33 Hindu concubines themselves had little influence on the Muslim psyche. This is evident from the fact that while the mothers of Firoz Tughlaq and Sikandar Lodi were both originally Hindu, their sons became Muslim bigots.

There were some marriages which were not forced, but the wedded women were not accorded due regard even by their own people. In the homes of Muslim ruling classes such women were treated no better than slave girls or concubines. The cases of Rani Ladi and Deval Rani are appropriate examples. Muhammad bin Qasim had captured Rani Ladi, consort of Raja Dahir, during his invasion of Sind. Later on he married her. Thinking that she could wield some influence with her people, he sent her to persuade the people of Alor fort to cooperate with the powerful invader. But ‘the men standing on the top of the ramparts jeered at her saying: ‘You have mixed with the chandals and defiled yourself. You prefer their rule to ours.’ They then began to abuse her.’34 Deval Devi was the daughter of Raja Karan Baghela of Gujarat and his queen Kamala Devi. Kamala Devi was captured in the sack of Gujarat (1299), and married by Alauddin Khalji. According to the Islamic law, kafir women could be married to Muslims even while their husbands were alive,35 for marriage is annulled by captivity.36 Later on her daughter Deval Devi was also captured in another campaign (1308) and brought to Delhi.37 There she was married to Alauddin’s son Khizr Khan who had fallen in love with her.38 After the assassination of Khizr Khan in the politics of succession, she was married by Qutbuddin Mubarak Khalji (1316-20) against her Will.39 With the murder of Qutbuddin at the hands of Khusrau Khan she was taken into the latter’s harem. In short, this princess was treated as nothing more than a chattel or transferable property in the Khalji ruling house.40 Although such ‘wives’ were treated more or less as slave girls or concubines, they sometimes brought with them scores of bandis for service in the harem. The best example for the Sultanate period is to be found in Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s Padmavat. The story of Padmini may be allegorical, but the important fact is that Padmini and her companions and bandis are said to have been carried in 1,600 litters (actually Rajput warriors who rescued Ratan Singh) to the palace of Alauddin Khalji.41 For the Mughals, it has already been said that Akbar had 5,000 women in his harem who in turn had their own entourage of bandis. To the conquering and ruling Mughals there was no dearth of such women.

Distribution of Slave Girls

Marriages brought servants and bandis, but the largest number of slave girls was collected during raids, campaigns and wars throughout the medieval period. We have briefly seen the achievements of Muslims in this regard from the time of Muhammad bin Qasim onwards. It was a consistent policy to kill all males, especially those capable of bearing arms, and enslave their hapless women.42 Al Biladuri writes that ‘the governors (who succeeded Qasim) continued to kill the enemy, taking whatever they could acquire ’43 Most of the captives were distributed among nobles and soldiers. Two examples of this custom may be given, one from the Sultanate and the other form the Mughal period.

Muhammad bin Tughlaq became notorious for enslaving women and his reputation in this regard spread far and wide. Ibn Battuta who visited India during his reign and stayed at the Court for a long time writes: ‘At (one) time there arrived in Delhi some female infidel captives, ten of whom the Vazir sent to me. I gave one of them to the man who had brought them to me  My companion took three girls, and - I do not know what happened to the rest.’44 On the large scale distribution of girl slaves on the occasion of Muslim festivals like Id, he writes: ‘First of all, daughters of Kafir (Hindu) Rajas captured during the course of the year, come and sing and dance. Thereafter they are bestowed upon Amirs and important foreigners. After this daughters of other Kafirs dance and sing  The Sultan gives them to his brothers, relatives, sons of Maliks etc. On the second day the durbar is held in a similar fashion after Asr. Female singers are brought out  the Sultan distributes them among the Mameluke Amirs ’45 Thousands of non-Muslim women were distributed in the above manner in later years.46

Shahjahan attacked the Portuguese in Hugli in 1632, and captured many women. One such was Maria de Taides ‘one of the sisters living in the palace of king Sahajahan.’47 Maria de Taides was later married to Ali Mardan Khan.48 One Thomazia Martins also had been taken captive during the fall of Hugli. Many more like these were distributed among the nobles.

Jauhar during attack

How did the Indian women react to such a desperate situation? When Sindh lay prostrate before the armies of Muhammad bin Qasim, ‘Raja Dahir’s sister Bai collected all the women in the fort (of Rawar) and addressed them thus: ‘It is certain that we cannot escape the clutches of these Chandals and cow-eaters  As there is no hope of safety and liberty, let us collect fire-wood and cotton and oil (and) burn ourselves to ashes, and thus quickly meet our husbands (in the next world). Whoever is inclined to go and ask mercy of the enemy, let her go  But all of them were of one mind, and so they entered a house and set fire to it, and were soon burnt to ashes.’49 Thereafter, throughout the medieval period, as soon as it was certain that there had been a defeat and the men had been killed, women perished in the fire of Jauhar (jiva har, taking of life). In some cases it was practised by Muslim women also,50 because of the influence of Hindu practice. The Jauhar at Chittor during Akbar’s invasion may be mentioned as an instance in the Mughal period. On the night of 23 February 1568, Rajput commander Jaimal’s death had so discouraged the people of Chittor that they resolved to perform the rite of Jauhar. Flames broke out at various places in the fortress and the ladies were consumed in them. The Jauhar took place in the house of Patta who belonged to the Sisodia clan, in the house of Rathors of whom Sahib Khan was the chief, and the Chauhans whose chief was Aissar Das. ‘As many as three hundred women were burnt in the destructive fire.’51

But all were not that brave or lucky to escape capture in this manner. During Jujhar Singh Bundela’s resistance in Orcha in the time of Shahjahan, many women were captured and treated most cruelly. Jujhar Singh abandoned his fort of Chauragarh and hastened towards the Deccan. He put to death several of his women whose horses had foundered. The remaining ones made for Golkunda (December, 1634) but were taken by surprise. They had not the time to perform the full rites of Jauhar, but stabbed a number of women. The Mughals picked up the wounded women and made away with them.52 It was in this fashion that women used to be captured and distributed for service in the harems of the Muslim elite.

Behaviour of Stave Girls

Slave girls may be divided under three categories on the basis of their character and conduct. One set comprised of the ambitious, cunning and crafty who tried to wield influence in the harem. Just the opposite were the simple, docile and submissive. In between were those who were keen to exercise ascendancy but through beauty and tact; they were otherwise loyal and lovable.

During the very beginning of Muslim rule in India the domineering and intriguing figure of Shah Turkan attracts our attention. According to Minhaj Siraj, the author of the contemporary chronicle Tabqat-i-Nasiri, ‘Shah Turkan was a Turkish hand-maid, and the head [woman] of all the Sultan’s (Iltutmish’s) haram.’53 She manipulated to prefix the title of Khudawand-i-Jahan to her name and rise to the position of ‘the greatest [of the ladies] of the sublime haram, and her place of residence was the royal palace’.54 She used to confer lavish presents upon the nobles of the court in order to win support for her son for the throne. She caused royal orders and decrees to be issued in her name and tortured many favourite ladies of Iltutmish after his death.55 For the later Mughal period, there is the classic example of Lal Kunwar and her lay-in-waiting Zohra, both concubines of the Mughal emperor Jahandar Shah (1712). Lal Kunwar was a vulgar, thoughtless, dancing girl from the streets.56 She received a large allowance and imitated the style of Nur Jahan, the famous queen of Jahangir.57 ‘All the brothers and relatives  of Lal Kunwar received mansabs of four or five thousand  and were raised to dignity in their tribe.’58 Naturally, talented and learned men were driven away from the court. Zohra was a melon seller and a friend of Lal Kunwar. At the latter’s instance she was called into the harem by Jahandar Shah. She was highly ambitious and scheming like Lal Kunwar. She was, however, shown her place by the servants of Chin Qulich Khan, a retired general of Aurangzeb. The incident is interesting to narrate. Once Zohra was going on an elephant with her retinue, an insolent lot. Chin Qulich also happened to go that way and was met by her equippage. His men stepped aside, but Zohra called out: ‘Thou, Chin Kalich Khan, must surely be the son of some blind father, not to move out of the road.’ These words unhinged the general’s temper, who made a sign to his people to chastise that vulgar woman’s servants. After dealing with her servants and eunuchs, ‘they dragged Zohra herself from the elephant to the ground, and gave her several cuffs and kicks.’59 Arrogant and crafty women like Shah Turkan, Lal Kunwar and Zohra were rather common in the Muslim harems. Nor uncommon were women who were not that uncultured although they were equally unscrupulous. Aurangzeb could imprison his brother Prince Murad through the active cooperation of one of his concubines,60 and Udaipuri-Mahall, a Georgian slave girl and concubine of prince Dara Shukoh, willingly went over to Aurangzeb on the latter’s ascension to power.61

On the other extreme were women of unquestioned fidelity. Akbar was told that because of the practise of monogamy among Christians, fidelity of their women was taken for granted. ‘The extraordinary thing is,’ he said to the Christian Fathers in retort, ‘that it occurs among those of the Brahman (i.e. the Hindu) religion. There are numerous concubines, and many of them are neglected and unappreciated and spend their days unfructuously in the private chamber of chastity, yet in spite of such bitterness of life they are flaming torches of love and fellowship.’ On hearing about such noble souls the seekers after wisdom were filled with surprise in the august assemblage.62 Devotion of such women was well known. Jahangir narrates the story of Lal Kalawant - the singer also know as Miyan Lal63 – ‘who from his childhood had grown up in my father’s service  (He) died in the 65th or 70th year of his age. One of his girls (concubines) ate opium on this event and killed herself. Few women among the Musalmans have shown such fidelity.’64 Rupmati of Sarangpur, because of her love for her paramour Baz Bahadur ‘bravely quaffed the cup of deadly poison and carried her honour to the hidden chambers of annihilation,’65 rather than be captured by Adham Khan. Before her, Deval Rani, though not so lucky, was an equally determined character. Loyalty of Hindu concubines was proverbial, but Muslim ones were not devoid of it. Akbarabadi-Mahall and Fatehpuri-Mahall, shared Shahjahan’s captivity in the Agra Fort and they were present by his beside when he breathed his last in January, 1666. Rana-i-Dil was originally a dancing girl before she became a favourite concubine of Prince Dara Shukoh. After his execution, Aurangzeb desired to possess her, but she refused.66

Extreme cases of shrewish and termagant women on the one hand and those known for sacrifice and devotion on the other were few. Muslim harems mainly contained attractive women with normal behaviour. In medieval times mutilation and castration were common punishments meted out to men in war and peace and their beautiful women were taken into the harems of the elites. Besides, ‘silver bodied damsels with musky tresses’ were purchased in the slave markets of India and abroad. The harems were thus filled with an assortment of beauties from various countries and nationalities, although Indian women predominated. They were renowned for their beauty, delicacy and femininity. From the time of Amir Khusrau, many a poet in medieval India has extolled their beauty and charm. So also have the Europeans. Orme, along with many others, affirms that ‘nature seems to have showered beauty on the fairer sex throughout Hindustan with a more lavish hand than in most other countries.’67 Their faithfulness and devotion matched their charm. In the harem these amenable creatures were an asset and were welcome in ever larger numbers.


Slave girls had two main functions to perform, domestic service and providing sex if and when required. In medieval Muslim society sex slavery and concubinage were almost interchangeable terms. For the polygamous Muslim men of means slave girls and maids were as much in demand as kanchanis or dancing girls, concubines or even free born women. Whether they were purchased in the open market,68 or captured during war, or selected during excursions, or came as maids of brides, in short whatever their channel of entry into the harem, the slave girls kept in the palace of the king or mahals of the nobles were invariably good looking. Their faces determined their place in the harem and in the heart of the master. Their being a little sexy was an additional attractions,69 but those with bad breath and odour in the armpits were avoided as unpleasant smell was repugnant to kissing and caressing.70 They used to be elegantly attired. Their garments were sometimes gifted to them by their masters or mistresses. It was a custom that the princesses did not wear again the dresses they put on once, and gave them away to their bandis.71 Some favourite slave girls were taught to sing and play on musical instruments. Many of them were trained to recite verses, naghmas and ghazals. The habit of speaking elegantly in correct diction and immaculate pronunciation was so familiar to the females of Muslim society that maids too were readily distinguished by their refined language. Placed as they were, they knew how to win the hearts of their masters who gave them lovely and caressing names like Gulab, Champa, Chameli, Nargis, Kesar, Kasturi, Gul-i-Badam, Sosan, Yasmin, Gul-i-Rana, Gul Andam, Gul Anar, Saloni, Madhumati, Sugandhara, Koil, Gulrang, Mehndi, Dil Afroz, Moti, Ketki, Mrig Nain, Kamal Nain, Basanti etc., etc. Elaborating on their ethnic status Manucci adds that ‘All the above names are Hindu, and ordinarily these  are Hindus by race, who had been carried off in infancy from various villages or the houses of different rebel Hindu princes. In spite of their Hindu names, they are however, Mahomedans.’72 As a rule, ‘being kafir is a defect in both ghulam and bandi as by nature the Musalman detests to associate with or keep company of a kafir.’73 Obviously, the number of such converted slave girls was so large that even Hindu names of all of them could not be changed to Islamic ones. For instance, while under Aurangzeb women and children of the Rajputs and Marathas74 were regularly enslaved during raids and invasions, even nobles of lesser note indulged in reckless enslavement throughout. Sidi Yaqut of Janjira or Zanjira (Zanj is used for black African), once took a Maratha fort and seven hundred persons came out. Notwithstanding his word to grant quarter to the garrison ‘he made the children and pretty women slaves, and forcibly converted them to Islam  but the men he put to death.’75

Francisco Pelsaert gives a succinct description of the sex-play of a nobleman in his harem. and the role of slave girls therein. He writes that ‘each night the Amir visits a particular wife, or mahal, and receives a very warm welcome from her and from the slaves (i.e. slave girls), who (are) dressed specially for the occasion  If it is the hot weather, they  rub his body with pounded sandalwood and rosewater. Fans are kept going steadily. Some of the slaves chafe the master’s hand and feet, some sit and sing, or play music and dance, or provide other recreation, the wife sitting near him all the time. Then if one of the pretty slave girls takes his fancy, he calls her to him and enjoys her, his wife not daring to show any signs of displeasure, but dissembling, though she will take it out on the slave girls later on.’76 But the wife could not get rid of her by dismissing or selling her. As per the Islamic law the mistress could quarrel with the husband, could even reproach him, but she could not free a slave girl or get rid of her.77 Manumitting a ghulam or bandi was the privilege of the master only.

But except in exceptional cases, where the maid’s beauty and blandishments so excited the jealousy of the mistress that she treated her severely, a slave girl’s life was not of unmitigated suffering. In this scenario, the bandis were both maids and companions of their mistresses. The mistress in distress poured out her heart to her slave girl and the maid sought the advice of the former regarding her problems. Young and beautiful girls, whether ladies or maids, did wish to be married. And marriage was not shut out for either. A slave girl could be married with the permission of the master. If the master liked a maid, he just took her as his own wife.78 Slave girls could be easily swapped by admiring masters. Prince Aurangzeb readily gave his concubine Chhatar Bai in exchange for Hira Bai with whom he had fallen passionately in love.79 Begums like Mumtaz Mahall and Nur Jahan married off a large number of slave girls to deserving men.80 But all were not so lucky and many of the slave girls had to wait in vain for matrimony. Manucci writes that some of them suffered from insomnia, hallucinations and hysteria, and marriage brought them back to ‘perfect health.’81 Manucci helped many maids to marry.

But all slave girls were not married. They were not captured, purchased or enticed to be married. They were there in the Muslim harems to do service and be enjoyed by the masters. They could be sold, distributed or exchanged. Therefore most of them were unhappy. And they were never a scarce commodity; fresh arrivals or rivals were always replacing old ones. Hence the desire for self-preservation dominated their psyche. A change on the throne meant passing over to a new master, and if and when a ruler or noble lost power, slave girls sought shelter in fending for themselves. An example of this scenario given by us elsewhere pertains to the slave girls in the harem of Saiyyad Abdulla Khan of Saiyyad Brothers fame.82 On the fall of Abdulla Khan from power, ‘when in 1720, the intelligence of his captivity reached Delhi, his women, of whom he had gathered a large number around him, were in dismay: some of noble birth, remained in their places, but a good many made the best of time, and before the arrival of the royal guard (who would have taken them away also in escheat), they seized whatever they could, and disguising themselves with old veils and sheet, they took their departure.’83 This is the version of Khafi Khan. Mir Ghulam Husain Khan, the author of Siyar-ul-Mutakherin, also throws light on some other facets of the situation and therefore he needs to be quoted at some length. ‘The ladies of Abdullah-Khan’s family,’ writes he, ‘far from quitting the house, remained within their own apartments, and covering themselves from head to foot with the veil of decency and modesty, sat weeping in a circle, without anyone offering to move or to escape the dismal scene around them  But some of the inferior females availed themselves of the confusion to carry off whatever came to hand, and stole away in disguise, wearing dirty clothes and common veils. These had disappeared before the government officers thought of taking possession of the palace of the Saiyyads. Some of these women were taken up by the police officers, but others effected their escape  One Abdullah-Khan, of Cashan in Persia, to whom Abdullah-Khan, his old friend and master, had intrusted the care of his seraglio, no sooner heard of the disaster that had befallen his benefactor, entering the sanctuary of the women, seized and carried away whatever persons and effects he chose ’84.

The above narrative correctly depicts the role of men and women slaves in a Muslim harem. Everything went off well in days of prosperity. When misfortune struck, the noble ladies suffered in silence, the ever-exploited slave girls fled without remorse, and the ‘confidant’ men slaves did not miss the opportunity to carry away women and indulge in unbridled sex slavery.’85


Early in the eighteenth century Muslim rule in India set on its path of decline. The harems of royalty and nobility began to suffer from a financial crunch. Many slave girls in these establishments, unable to bear the rigours of penury, left their palaces and mansions and took up quarters in the cities to fend for themselves. Thousands of eunuch guards of the harems also took to the streets when their services were dispensed with or starvation knocked at their doors.86

In their effort to provide means of livelihood for themselves many slave girls adopted the profession of dancing girls and prostitutes and hundreds of eunuchs, thrown out of employment, turned bhands and hijras. Prostitution is practised the world over, hijras are a people peculiar to India. Basically, and historically, they have come down or ‘descended’ from the medieval eunuchs.

A typical and complete hijra was Sultan Qutbuddin Mubarak Khalji (1316-1320). He occasionally dressed himself in female attire, embroidered with laces and adorned with gems, and went about dancing in the houses of the nobles like a typical hijra. Similarly, Hasan Kangu, the ruler of Malabar, often used to come to court (darbar-i-am) dressed in the fashion of females. He bedecked his arms and neck with jewellery and ornaments and used to ask his nobles to treat him to sexual passivity.87 In short, the courts of Qutbuddin and Hasan Kangu presented licence and obscenity of the hijras in utter nakedness.

In the polygamous Muslim society some men possessed a plurality of women leaving many other men to remain unmarried. This led the latter to entice, abduct and enslave girls wherever possible as well as to make love to beardless boys (amrads) and hijras. Thus need combined with perversion contributed to the proliferation of hijras. This is amply reflected in a brief survey of life in Delhi in Muraqqa-i-Dihli (Album of Delhi) written by Dargah Quli Khan who visited the metropolis in 1738-39 and often walked through its streets. Like in the fourteenth, in the eighteenth century also one found in the city of Delhi boys dancing in a world of lecherous sinners soliciting their hearts’ desire. Amrads were as much in demand as courtesans.88 During and after the decline of the Mughal empire, hijras did not remain confined to cities like Delhi or Agra. They spread far and wide but especially where the scions or governors of the Mughals established independent states like in Avadh or Hyderabad. A good number of hijras are found in Lucknow and in Hyderabad, as well as in cities like Bombay where ‘composite culture’ and a respectable presence of Muslims obtains.

These unfortunate hijras, who have continued as a legacy of the Muslim slave system, still play a pernicious and parasitical role in Indian society. Their aggressive demand for benefaction makes them detested. There are many negative aspects of Muslim slave system of which probably the hijra is the worst. But in medieval times hijras were as essential a part of Muslim society as any other section. In Delhi and its environs there are extant a number of mausoleums, called Gumbads, of the Saiyyad and Lodi period. It is an interesting fact that with Bare Khan Ka Gumbad (Dome and Tomb), Chhote Khan Ka Gumbad, Dadi ka Gumbad, and Poti Ka Gumbad, there is also the famous Hijre Ka Gumbad.89


  1. Margoliouth, Muhammad, 149. 

  2. Margoliouth, 97. For role of women in spreading Islam see also Arnold, Preaching of Islam, 234. 

  3. Arnold, 365. 

  4. Manucci, II, 240; also 336-338, 391-93. 467; Lal, The Mughal Harem, 164 and n. 49, 50, 51. 

  5. Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, 464. 

  6. Ibid., 600. 

  7. A devout Muslim Uwayah Qami lived in the valley of Urfa. He told Umar and All that ‘when I learnt that a tooth of the Prophet had been martyred (in the Battle of Uhud) I broke one of mine. Then I thought that perhaps some other tooth of his had been martyred. So, I broke all my teeth  It is only after that that I felt at peace’ (Shykh Fariduddin Attar, Tazkirat-ul-Auliya, trs. into Urdu by Maulana Zubair Afzal Usmani, Delhi, n.d., 16, and quoted by Sita Ram Goel, Islam vis-a-vis Hindu Temples, New Delhi, 1993, 59-60). 

  8. William Muir, Life of Mahomet, 528. 

  9. Margoliouth, 148. Also Gibbon, II, 694. 

  10. Margoliouth, 351-52; also 449-50 writing on the authority of Musnud, iv, 422. 

  11. Quran, Lii.21ff., Lvi.11ff., Lxxviii.31ff. Cited in Muir, 74-75. Hughes, 449. 

  12. Muir, 73-74n.; Hughes, 59. Also Gibbon, II, 678. 

  13. Margoliouth, 149. 

  14. Hughes, 313-14. 

  15. Ram Swarup, Understanding Islam through Hadis, 57 and n. 

  16. Burton, Sindh Revisited, I, 340. 

  17. Bary, 81. 

  18. Ain., I, 327. All these three references have been given in Herklot, Islam in India, 85-86. 

  19. Hughes, 464. 

  20. Margoliouth, 177. 

  21. W. Haig in C.H.I., III, 3; Chachnama Kalichbeg, 82-84. 

  22. H. G. Rawlinson in C.H.I., IV, 424 and n. 

  23. E.D., II. 221. 

  24. Minhaj, 506, 526n. 

  25. Ibid., Reverty in 601n. 

  26. Afif, 36-40. Trs in E.D., III, 271-73. 

  27. Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, I, 144. 

  28. Ibid., 82-83, 87. 

  29. Ibid., 160. 

  30. Hamilton, Hedaya, I, Discourse, XVIII; Schacht, Cambridge History of Islam, II, 144. 

  31. Hitti, The Arabs, 76. 

  32. Ahmad Yadgar, Tarikh-i-Salatin-i-Afghana, Persian Text, 17, 31-34; Farishtah I, 179; Tabqat-i-Akbari, I, 298. For many other references see Lal, Twilight, 162-63. 

  33. Niamatullah, Makhzan-i-Afghani, 51 (6); Tuzuk, I. 20. 

  34. Chachnama, Kalichbeg, 176-77. 

  35. Muir, Life of Mahomet, 365. 

  36. Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, 59; Margoliouth, Mohammed, 407, 461. 

  37. For details see Lai, Khaljis, 234-36. 

  38. Ibid., 264-65. 

  39. Hajiuddabir, Zafarul Valih, 841-44; Farishtah, I, 125. 

  40. Barani, 410-11; Lal, Khaljis, 298-99. 

  41. Lal, Khaljis, 102-110, esp. 103. 

  42. Chachnama, Kalichheg, 83, 155, 161, 173-74; E.D., I, 164, 170-71, 203; Al Biladuri, E.D., I, 123. For massacres of Alauddin Khalji, Khazain-ul-Fatuh, Habib trs, 49. 

  43. Al Biladuri, op.cit. 127. 

  44. Ibn Battuta, 123. 

  45. Ibn Battuta, 63; Hindi tras., in Rizvi, Tughlaq Kalin Bharat part I, Aligarh 1956, 189. 

  46. Afif, 119-20, 180, 265. 

  47. Manucci, I, 202; II, 35; III, 179. 

  48. Saksena, B.P., History of Shahjahan, 89, 112-13, for die Portuguese captives of Hughli and female prisoners of the Bundela ruling family of Orcha. 

  49. Chachnama, Kalichbeg, 153-55; E.D., I, 181. 

  50. Yazdi, Zafar Nama, II, 130-32. Lal, Twilight, 32. 

  51. Akbar Nama, II, 472. 

  52. C.H.I., IV, 195. 

  53. Minhaj, 630;631 and n.4. Futuh-us-Salatin, a historical work by Isami, composed in the 14th century, mentions casually that she was a Hindu slave girl. Mahdi Husain’s acceptance of Isami’s version lacks critical analysis. Futuh, trs. II, 247 and n.2. Also 249. 

  54. Minhaj, 638. 

  55. Nigam, Nobility under the Sultanate of Delhi, 28. 

  56. C.H.I., IV, 328. 

  57. Sarkar in Ibid., 226. 

  58. Khafi Khan, 432-33. 

  59. Siyar-ul-Mutakhrin, 33. 

  60. C.H.I., IV. 215. 

  61. Andre Butenschon, The Life of the Mughal Princess, 39, 194-95. 

  62. A.N., III, 372. 

  63. Ain, I, 681 and n. 

  64. Tuzuk, I, 150. 

  65. A.N., II, 213-14. 

  66. Lal, Mughal Harem, 30. 

  67. Orme’s Fragments, 438. 

  68. Barani, 314-15; Bernier, 426. 

  69. Ashraful Hidayah, VIII, 138. 

  70. Ibid., 137. 

  71. Bernier, 258; Manucci, II, 341. 

  72. Manucci, II, 336-38. 

  73. Ashraf-ul-Hidayah, Deoband, VIII, 138-39. P. Venkateshwar Rao Jr., in his review of Akbar Ahmed’s, BBC BKs/Penguin, From Samarkand to Stornoway living Islam, in the Indian Express Sunday Magazine, June 27, 1993, observes: ‘He (Ahmed) hates Muslim wives whose children have Hindu names.’ But that is the legal position. A Musalman is expected to detest the company of a kafir, in spite of the efforts made for acquiring non-Muslim wives in medieval and modem times. But Ahmed’s aim is, as he himself claims, to show ‘where Muslims are able to live by the ideal and where they are not’. 

  74. Khafi Khan, II, 300, 371. 

  75. ibid., II, 228, 261 ff, 498 ff. 

  76. Pelsaert, 64-65. 

  77. Fatawa-i-Alamgiri, Delhi, III, Kitab-ul-‘Ataq, 1-89; Deoband, XII, 23-98; esp. 15. 

  78. Gulbadan Begum, Humayun Nama, Persian Text, 27, English trs., 112. 

  79. Hamiduddin Khan, Bahadur, Ahkam-i-Alamgiri, 36-38; Lal, Mughal Harem, 158-60. 

  80. Muhammad Hadi, Tatimma-i-Waqiat-i-Jahangiri (or Epilogue to Jahangir’s Memoirs), E.D., VI, 339. 

  81. Manucci, II, 397-98. 

  82. The Mughal Harerm, 198. 

  83. Khafi Khan, Muntakhab-ul-Lubab, text, II, 921 ff. trs. in E.D., VII, 515. 

  84. Mir Ghulam Husain Khan, Siyar-ul-Mutakherin, revised from the translation of Hag Mustafa by Johns Briggs, 1832, and republished Allahabad, 1924, 183. 

  85. Servants formed part of the establishment and so were included in escheat. Ibid., 188. 

  86. Lal, Mughal Harem, 198,199. 

  87. Barani, 396; Afif, 261-62 

  88. Muraqqa-i-Dihli, Persian text and trs. in Urdu by Nurul Hasan Ansari, 129-34, 192-205 respectively. 

  89. Percy Brown, Indian Architecture (Islamic Period) third ed. 28-29; Carr Stephen, Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi, 196-97; Archaeological Survey Report, IV, 67ff. XX, 155-58. Also Lal, Twilight, 230-31 for other references.