By Rafi Adeen, Contributing Editor, The Rahnuma Daily (therahnuma.com)
Hyderabad (Rahnuma): Born as Chanda Bibi on 7 April 1768 in Aurangabad, Her father was Bahadur Khan, who served as a Mansabdar (military official) at Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah’s court. Khan migrated from Delhi to Hyderabad Deccan where he met and married Raj Kunwar.
Chanda Bibi was adopted by Kunwar’s childless sister Mehtaab Ma who was the favored courtesan, almost a regular consort of Nawab Rukn-ud-Daula, a Prime Minister of Nizam of Hyderabad.
Nawab Rukn-ud-Daula took a personal interest in Chanda Bibi’s training and provided her with the best teachers. While growing up, she had access to a well-endowed library and was exposed to the vibrant culture of Hyderabad. By the time she was 14, she excelled in horse riding and archery.
It was second Nizam Mir Nizam Ali Khan who conferred her the title “Mah Laqa Bai” – meaning “Visage of the Moon”.
Mir Nizam ‘Ali Khan relied heavily on the wisdom of Mah Laqa Bai for official matters such as state policy, and she was also given the rank of a senior umrah (Noble). This status granted her land, honorary guards, a noble’s palanquin, and drummers to announce her arrival.
She accompanied the Nizam II in three wars; dressed in male attire, she was noted for bow and javelin skills in the wars. Her presence in a hunting scene also references her own skill in hunting. She even traveled with a pair of cheetahs.
Mah Laqa was influenced by the literary work of mystic poet Siraj Aurangabadi and learned poetry from Nawab Mir Alam who later became the Prime Minister of Hyderabad State.
Her first language was Urdu, She became the first woman poet to author a diwan, a complete collection of Urdu ghazals. The collection, named Gulzar-e-Mahlaqa, comprises 39 ghazals, and each ghazal consists of 5 couplets.
Mah Laqa Bai was initially introduced to Nizam II by Arastu Jah, a Noble who later became the Prime Minister of Hyderabad to influence the Nizam II and wanted to be aware of his herem, it was under Arastu Jah patronage Mah Laqa began her career as a poet and upon Arastu Jah initiative her collection of poetry was published in the form of Devan in 1798 AD
Her popularity in reading poetry made her the first poetess of the region to participate and present her poetries in a mushaira (poetic symposium) which was earlier reserved for men.
She established a cultural center in which 300 girls were trained by her along with other masters. Maha Laqa’s library contains manuscripts and books on poetry along with the arts and the science collections.
She sponsored and supervised the publication of Mahnama, a historical book about the revival period of Hyderabad State. Although Mah Laqa practiced Islam, she was influenced by the understanding of Hindu books and philosophy.
Mah Laqa Bai is also known to have contributed an amount of ₹1 crore for the education of girl children, an enormous fortune back in her day.
This was not all. Mah Laqa Chanda Bai was known to host an annual 7-day Cultural fest of sorts – termed as ‘urs’ or fairs. At these Fairs, she invited men of literary repute, ascetics, artisans for an exchange of ideas. The fairs, held at Bagh Lingampally (Hyderabad) would be sponsored by her.
In 1792, she constructed a walled compound near a hillock in Moula-Ali, Hyderabad, where she held mushairas frequently. Inside the compound also lies the tomb of her mother built-in 1792.
After her death in 1824, Mah Laqa Bai was buried next to her mother in the tomb at the Moula Ali area of Hyderabad. In the same complex there exist other structures she commissioned: a Ashur-khana ; the Naqqar Khana of Maula Ali – a pavilion where drummers sat and played; a baoli (Well) also exists in the same complex constructed by her.
When she died in 1824 and bequeathed her properties that included land, gold, silver and diamond-studded jewelry to homeless women.
Part of her estate (jagir) was also given to the present-day Osmania University. In fact, half a kilometer from the University lies a Stepwell built by Mah Laqa
Her residence which was located in Nampally, Hyderabad, today had been converted into a Government-aided girls degree college.
Unfortunately, today her mausoleum lies neglected in Hyderabad. This is especially sad since Mah Laqa Bai stood for protecting Hyderabad, its culture and heritage throughout her life.
In 2010, her memorial in Hyderabad, which houses her tomb, was restored using funds donated by the Federal government of the United States, with a year-long renovation project done by the Center for Deccan Studies, yet the mausoleum is surrounded by garbage that welcomes visitors as they enter.
Moreover, the site is frequented by trouble-makers, which makes it an unsafe place to visit.
195 years after her death, is it fair that the only memory left behind by a figure of valor and beauty be completely neglected by the authorities?
Here’s hoping someone takes notice and restores the magnificent legacy of Mah Laqa Bai to the heights she deserves.
Rafi Adeen is a Contributing Editor for The Rahnuma Daily (theRahnuma.com), the online English daily edition of The Rahnuma-E-Deccan Daily (ReDD), India’s oldest Urdu daily print newspaper. Established in 1921, ReDD is ranked by the INA (Indian Newspaper Association) as among the top five most widely circulated Urdu newspapers in India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org