The ‘Tawaifs’ of Shahjahanabad



Did you know that the outfit called the ‘Anarkali’ was named after a dancer, and came to us via the courtesans or tawaifs of the Mughal era? It was given that specific length and silhouette so that it would flare as the dancer whirled.

There was logic to every element of the tawaif culture of the time. No alcohol was allowed at their performances, so opium was smeared on paan leaves instead. As the music and performance peaked, so did the audience! These women were so renowned for their culture and knowledge that families would send their daughters to tawaifs to learn aadaab (politeness) and tehzeeb (refinement).

When the British arrived, most of them without their wives, they understood none of the culture here but revelled in the relative permissiveness. When their settlements took shape and the wives arrived, the tawaifs began to be branded as home-wreckers, prostitutes and contaminants.

From 1857 onwards, as the revolt against the British unfolded, the kothas or bordellos changed shape yet again. They became havens for revolutionaries, and meeting places for freedom fighters. Once again, the tawaifs were ahead of the curve.

An excerpt from the book Red Fort: Remembering The Magnificent Mughals by Debasish Das, traces this journey.

Book cover and author Debasish Das
Book cover and author Debasish Das

French traveller Francois Bernier in his epic ‘Travels in the Mughal Empire, AD 1656-1668’ recalls troupes of singing and dancing girls (titled ‘kenchens’ or ‘the blooming or gilded ones’) were regular features in Shah Jahan’s court. He says, “. . . They were not indeed the prostitutes seen in the bazaars, but those of a more private and respectable class . . . Most of these Kenchens are handsome and well dressed and sing to perfection; and their limbs being extremely supple, they dance with wonderful agility, and are always correct in regard to time.”

In the Mughal era, ‘tawaifs’, like the Geishas of Japan, were considered the authority on etiquette, not just dance. A plethora of writers highlight the many freedoms they enjoyed including an education in Indian arts and literature, an ample income and the rights to property.

In the new city of Shahjahanabad, they mostly resided in the street from Chawri Bazar to Jama Masjid. The street was called ‘bazar-e-husn’ or the ‘market of beauty’. Even today, one can see few remnants of an erstwhile ‘kotha’ or bordello with an ‘atariya’ or balcony on the first floor still intact. On a typical day, the ‘tawaif’ would spend her morning in ‘riyaz’ or music practice. With the hours progressing, her afternoons were spent in chit-chatting with other girls on topics such as inter-kotha rivalries and boasting about important visitors who came last evening. Then, she would venture out to the market and maybe to a temple or mosque. Early evenings were spent in dressing up and grooming. The dancing girls wore long skirts called ‘Anarkali’ (named after the dancer) over figure hugging trousers or ‘chudi-daar’ with numerous folds at the bottom like cloth bangles or ‘chudi’. The skirt was designed to enhance the flare during spins, perhaps inspired by whirling dervishes. Heavily ornamented belts of silk or ‘zari’ and embedded with precious stones were worn around the waist. A tight-fitting top called ‘angarkha’ or ‘limb-keeper’ was worn on the upper body. A dancer would tie hundreds of bells or ‘ghungroos’ around each of her ankles.

As the evening progressed, guests would start arriving at the ‘kotha’ in palanquins. Alcohol was prohibited during the dance sessions, so the street was now full of ‘paan’ or betel sellers who skilfully applied ‘afim’ or opium on the paan-leaves, that gave a high slowly reaching a crescendo with the rising notes of the dancer’s ghungroo and the musician’s tabla. Up on the first floor, a long, rectangular hall with Shahjahani pillars and cusped arches was decked up for the occasion. The girl danced on a beautiful carpet while lamps flickered in elaborately-crafted glass candle-stands and hanging chandeliers. The patrons were seated around the perimeter on a raised cushion or ‘gaddi’ with bolster pillows, while smoking a ‘hookah’ or ‘hubble-bubble’. Tall spittoons or spitting-jars were kept for the paan-chewing guests. The whole of the room was filled with the lingering fragrances of ‘ittar’.

The kothas or bordellos were like finishing schools for the arts, where respectable girls came for etiquette training in ‘aadaab’ (politeness) and ‘tehzeeb’ (refinement). The courtesans were powerful ladies who could pull strings in the echelons of power, by using their contacts and guest-lists.

Portrait Miniature of an Indian Courtesan
Portrait Miniature of an Indian Courtesan|https://art.thewalters.org/

On the ground floor of the ‘kothas’, the raised platforms on both sides of the street also played an important role. They were used as public spaces for gossipers to sit and chat, and for romantics to wait for a beautiful ‘tawaif’ to show her face from her balcony. In the mornings, it was a place for barbers, tea-sellers and ear-cleaners to conduct their businesses, a place for idlers to play chess or smoke hookahs in the afternoons, and finally for the paan-sellers to dish out opium-laden paans in the evenings.

In bringing alive the sophistication of the tawaif culture, none of course can match the actress Rekha and the epic movie Umrao Jaan (1981), where she sings:

Is shaam-e-faroza ke parvaane haazaron hai; in aankhon ki masti ke mastaane hazaaron hain; in aankhon se vaabasta afsaane hazaron hain.

(There are thousands of lovers of this luminous candle; there are thousands intoxicated by the intoxication of these eyes; there are thousands of legends attached to these eyes.)

Lure of the Free Spirited Tawaif

When the British started settling down in Delhi after 1803, their population was heavily skewed in favour of men. Prior to the nineteenth century, the East India Company did not encourage its officers to bring their wives and children to India. Only a handful of British ladies accompanied their husbands to the field posting of India. It was also a company policy to recruit only unmarried men for lower designations for deputation to India. In 1810, Captain Thomas Williamson wrote that there were approximately 250 British women and 4000 men in Bengal. Life in India was a dull affair for the Europeans. Letters took months to come from home. It was an unofficial Company policy for men to adopt ‘semi-permanent’ native wives whom they could even ‘transfer’ to their juniors on their exit. Delhi’s first British Resident Sir David Ochterlony – whom the locals called as ‘Akhtarloni’ – renovated and moved into Dara Shukoh’s library. He had thirteen Indian wives whom he paraded every evening on separate elephants on the Yamuna bank under Red Fort as if to show off who Delhi’s real ruler was. Interestingly, his first and favourite wife Mubarak Begum – a Brahmin dancing girl from Pune who converted to Islam – built a mosque in 1823 that was referred to as ‘Randi ki Masjid’ or the ‘prostitute’s mosque’. It is possible that the mosque was popular with the courtesans or tawaifs of Chawri Bazar, and hence the name. Even the etymology of the word ‘randi’ was believed to be a colloquial reference to ‘tawaifs’, an antiquated term for prostitute that even earlier simply meant “young girl”).

Charles Metcalfe – called ‘Matka Sahib’ by the locals – was said to have fathered children in every part of the city. Obviously for people like them, India was a paradise – far from the conservative society of England. They enjoyed the company of ‘tawaifs’ and called them ‘nautch girls’ (a corruption of the term ‘naach’ or ‘dance’) though every ‘nautch girl’ was not a sophisticated ‘tawaif’.

Painting of Colonel James Skinner’s <em>nautch</em> troupe, c. 1838&nbsp;
Painting of Colonel James Skinner’s nautch troupe, c. 1838 |British Library

The British Memsahib and the Nautch Girl

This began to change over time, when British ladies or memsahibs started arriving in India. Thereafter, the relationship between the British and the locals changed from intimate social bonding to that of master and slaves: where a typical British family in India interacted only with the army of servants posted at their home. The British women were obviously horrified to see their men sunk in the whirlpool of the culture of dancing girls and ‘kothas’. It was a battle for supremacy between the ‘home-maker’, the angelic British Woman and the ‘home-breaker’, the demonic nautch-girl. The free-spirited ‘tawaif’ of the East was akin to a female mutineer, says Flora Annie Steel in ‘The Potter’s Thumb’ (1894), striking a blow to the Memsahib’s home, and by extension to the British Empire. The nautch girl was a contaminant that seeps into the sanctity of the British home, writes Dr. Charn Jagpal, “invading and rupturing not only physical but also cultural boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized”, through her spirited shrill, mocking laughter, through the jingling sounds of her silver ankle bells, and through her unstoppable waves of jasmine attar. In the words of Thomas Metcalfe, the Anglo-Indian home took the analogy of “the front line of a battlefield whose commanding officer [was] its British mistress.”

Christian missionaries also started exerting moral pressure and value-policing per the westernised and ‘civilised’ ideas. Maintaining a middle-class respectability became important, with focus on recreating British values, art, architecture, fashion as well as social practices. The Company now encouraged its officers to bring their British wives to India for their civilising influence against ‘going native’. Children born in India were, after a few years, either sent to isolated British-only boarding schools or back to England, so that they did not assimilate local values and customs. As regarding children born of British men and local women, they were not officially recognised or acknowledged. A class divide based on racism came to the fore, unlike the free mixing of the “White Mughals” in previous centuries. The zeal to show the British as morally superior to Indians resulted in frowning upon the relationships of British men and local women, as well as British women working as prostitutes. Non-European women were allowed to travel to India to work in British-only brothels.

 Sir David Ochterlony, British Resident to the Mughal court  watching a nautch in his house in Delhi (c. 1820)
Sir David Ochterlony, British Resident to the Mughal court watching a nautch in his house in Delhi (c. 1820)|British Library

The Nautch Girl as an Anti-Colonial Rebel

During the anti-colonial events of 1857 and thereafter throughout the nineteenth century, the role of the ‘tawaif’s, or the self-proclaimed ‘daughters of the bazaars’, was to instigate the rebels as well as to give them safe havens to meet and strategize. In the expansive and non-colonized space like the bazaar, where the courtesan reigned supreme, the brightly lit latticed alcoves of the kothas proved to be popular places for political and private discussions, ‘to smoke and talk’, among soldiers and sympathisers. The kotha became a revolutionary space, from the deep recess of which the tawaifs resisted colonial encroachment, where ideas and actions were firmed and fermented. Dr Charn Jagpal quotes Indira Sen describing the kotha as, “a convenient place for an eclectic group of me, including Shias, Sufis, Hindu priests, Pundits, Sikhs, Mullahs, and M.A.’s of the university” to gather and talk.

George William Forrest in his ‘A History of the Indian Mutiny’ (1904) attributes the uprising to the ‘instigation of a courtesan.’ Hazrat Mahal, originally a nautch girl in the court of Wajid Ali Shah put together a female army. In the infamous Cawnpore massacre, writes Robert Montgomery Martin in 1860, that the nautch girls such as Azizun, Adala and Hussaini Khanum associated themselves with the mutineers led by Nana Sahib in butchering of British women and children.

Even after 1857, the kothas continued to be of dual value as a site for entertainment and as well as politics to discuss and debate the events. Many colonial fiction writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Flora Annie Steel use phrases such as ‘taunt from a pair of painted lips’, ‘we of the bazar’, ‘kiss no cowards’ to articulate the burning intent and realism of those times, kept aflame by the influential courtesans.

The ‘tawaifs’ or the dancing women were wealthy people having luxurious houses. But their involvement in the 1857 uprising as well as the zeal to maintain a safe distance from this ‘cultural contagion’ threatening the Anglo-Indian family institution, many were put on lists of properties to be confiscated. The wealthy merchants or ‘lalas’ saw this as god-sent opportunity to possess their properties by branding them as characterless and unworthy and hence tried evicting them by any means. By the late 19th century the distinction between ‘tawaifs’ and prostitutes became so blurred that the former were considered outcasts. The remaining descendants of this beautiful tradition were sent out of the walled city to an area near the Garstin Bastion. The area is now called G.B. Road and is the largest red-light area of Delhi.

Painting of a group of courtesans, 19th century
Painting of a group of courtesans, 19th century|Wikimedia Commons

Famous Tawaifs from the Mughal Reign

During their heyday, it was inevitable that the sharp and witty ‘tawaifs’ won the hearts of princes and emperors too and found themselves wielding enormous power from the zenana. Epic love stories, some with possible fictional overtones, have been woven around Mughal emperors who fell for these commoners. For that, let us revisit their extraordinary stories, in the reverse order.

Man Bai

Bahadur Shah Zafar also fell for a danseuse named Man Bai at an advanced age of 72, whom he married on the Raksha Bandhan day in 1847. He christened her as Akhtar Mahal and ordered a special seal bearing her name.

Noor Bai and Ad Bai

When Nadir Shah occupied the palace-fortress in 1739, he was so enamoured with the beautiful dancing girl Noor Bai that he offered to take her with him back to Persia and offered her half his fortune for it, which she declined – devastated by the bloodbath unleashed by the barbaric Persian. It is said that another dancing girl named Ad Bai often appeared in parties in see-through sheer dresses without wearing any clothes underneath, but her body skilfully painted.

Qudsiya Begum

Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’, who ruled from 1719 to 1748, took a public dancing girl, Udham Bai or Qudsiya Begum, as his wife. She was his favourite wife for a few years, but after his death, her stature reached the zenith due to her proximity with Jawed Khan, the zenana superintendent. Together they ruled the Empire, while her son emperor Ahmed Shah was a mere puppet. She used to conduct the state’s business from behind a screen, while eunuchs and officials passed on petitions in sealed envelopes and waited for her judgements. It is said that on 21 January 1754, she celebrated her birthday at a cost of two crores of rupees, when there was no money even to pay salaries to the standing army.

In Delhi, she laid out a beautiful garden complex adjoining the west bank of Yamuna. A palace, a summer-house, pavilions, and a mosque were set amidst rolling greens of rose and fruit gardens and murmuring waterfalls. Huge gateways punctured its surrounding wall. Today it is no more than a public park with few ruinous buildings of yesteryears, and an Inter-State Bus Terminus occupying most of its original area.

Hirabai and Aurangzeb

Aurangzeb, commonly perceived as a man with strict, religious bent of mind, too fell for a talented dancing girl called Hirabai who was titled ‘Zainabadi Mahal’ (the lady from Zainabad). Niccolao Manucci says Aurangzeb vowed to abstain from alcohol throughout his life after the untimely death of Hirabai. It was said that Hirabai was killed on the orders of Roshanara Begum, who was much worried that her brother had lost his ways with the dancing girl and may not be a serious contender to the throne by defeating Dara. She was sitting on a swing in her gardens when the assassins knifed her to death. Aurangzeb, on the other hand, assumed this to be masterminded by Dara and became much hardened in the years to come.

Jahandar Shah, who ruled from 1712-1713, made a dancing girl, Lal Kunwar, the Empress of the Mughal Empire. Her father was a descendant of Tansen, and her family were professional musicians called ‘kalawants’. During her reign, she was granted an annual allowance of two crores of rupees, and coins were stuck in her name. So enamoured was he that he often agreed to her fanciful ideas of venturing into city markets at night in a buffalo-cart and buying whatever they pleased. When she failed to conceive even after many years, Jahandar and Lal Kunwar followed the ritual of bathing naked in a tank in Mehrauli for forty days! One night, they visited a spirit-seller and got so intoxicated that they passed out. The cart returned to the Red Fort, where Lal Kunwar was carried away to the zenana by the servants, but they did not notice the Emperor lying in the cart. Next morning, he was found in the cart some two miles away from the Red Fort.

Rana Dil and Dara Shukoh

According to Asif Khan Dehlvi, Dara Shukoh too married a dancing girl called Rana Dil who he met singing on the streets. She was a great composer and singer. After Aurangzeb became the Emperor by defeating Dara Shukoh, he invited her to join his zenana. It was said he saw glimpses of his own love Hirabai when he saw Rana Dil. The devout Rana Dil was not inclined to be in the zenana of the bete noir of her husband. She tactfully asked Aurangzeb what was so special in her that the Emperor gave her such a rare honour. Aurangzeb sent the reply that he liked her beautiful hair. She then cut off her hair, became bald and sent the hair on a silver platter. Few days later, Aurangzeb sent another reply that it was in fact her beauty that attracted him. This time, she took out a knife, disfigured her face, and sent back the blood-covered knife, saying that she was sending proof that she was no longer beautiful. When Dara Shukoh was seated on an old female elephant and paraded through every street of Delhi, a faqir, cloaked in black, asked him that, since he often gave away money to the destitute, what can be expected of him today: “O Dara! When you were the master, you always gave me alms, today I know well thou hast naught to give.” Dara tore away the coarse shawl from his body and threw down to the faqir. It was said that when he looked down, he saw a bald faqir with a disfigured face, and he could recognise his beloved Rana Dil. Days later after his execution, people saw a funeral pyre on the banks of Yamuna, upon which sat a bald figure. It was conjectured that it was none other than Rana Dil.

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