Warrior Queens of India 1200-1600 CE
Updated: Mar 26
Extraordinary Odds, Extraordinary Valour
Joyce Salisbury, our speaker on Medieval Queens of India, got me thinking. While women rulers in any age and region are predictably less lauded than their male counterparts, Indian rulers get even less press. I began researching India's early and late medieval period and was astonished at the sheer number of women who ruled, engaged in military strategy and diplomacy, and marched into battle. I hadn't heard of the majority of them. Mata Bhag Kaur. Onake Obavva. Keladi Chennamma. Belawadi Mallamma. Abbakka Chowta. No Nextflix series, no serial books. But the names, as well as their acts of valour, kept rolling on.
I was particularly struck by the warrior queens of the late medieval period (1200-1600 CE). This period saw the Delhi Sultanate upended by the Mughals as well as the arrival of the Europeans. In this time of intense upheaval, internecine conflict, fratricidal assassinations, and court intrigue were commonplace. To thrive as a ruler, let alone a woman ruler, required extraordinary skill and valour.
Here are some of the most memorable warrior queens of this period.
Razia Sultan - first and only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate 1205-1240 CE
Razia Sultan, daughter of Iltutmish, ascended the throne of the Delhi Sultanate in 1236 CE in a sphere dominated by men. Her father chose Razia over her two half-brothers solely on her merit and intelligence. Razia’s ascent to the throne gains immense historical significance not just because of her gender but also because her ancestors were Turkish Seljuk slaves. Thus her rulership was a subversion of existing power structures at many levels.
Razia was raised as a bold, young girl. Alongside her brothers she trained in military skills, professional warfare, and state administration. This was meant to equip her to offer advice and assistance to her husband, a king. Razia had other plans. After her father died, her brother grabbed the throne. He lasted six months before Razia claimed her rightful crown.
As Sultan of Delhi, Razia adopted a gender-neutral attire. She dropped the veil, shocking conservative Muslims. Her first act was to mint coins stamped “Pillar of Women, Queen of the Times, Sultana Razia”. Razia Sultan led her forces to conquer new territories. As one of the few secular Sultans, she established educational institutions where, along with the learning of Qur’an, traditional sciences and literature from all cultures other than Islam were promoted.
All along, Turkish nobles considered a woman Sultan an insult to male warriors and nobles. Rumours began surfacing about an amorous relationship with her Abyssinian slave, Jamaluddin Yaqut. Her childhood friend, Altunia, was enlisted in a plot to displace her. Yaqut was killed in the battle between Razia and Altunia, while Razia was captured and imprisoned at Lila Mubarak in Bathinda. Eventually, Altunia and Razia married. Razia, with her husband’s support, decided to reclaim her kingdom from her brother but had to flee Delhi after defeat. In October 1240, Altunia and Razia were robbed and killed. Razia ruled for just over four years.
In her private time, Razia yearned to weave and write poetry. Indeed she did, under a pseudonym.
Rudrama Devi – monarch ruler of Kakatiya Dynasty, Deccan Plateau (1245-1289)
Rudrama was formally designated as a son through the ancient Putrika ceremony because her father, King Ganapati, had no sons. He appointed Rudrama as his co-regent in her early teens. Rudrama’s first challenge was to repel a Pandya invasion. The Kakatiyas succeeded but not without heavy losses. When the king retreated from public life, he passed control to Rudrama. In 1269, Rudrama was crowned queen. The noblemen, including her own step-brothers, refused to submit to a woman's authority and mounted a rebellion. Rudrama, rallying loyal supporters, crushed them.
Rudrama spent the rest of her rule defending her kingdom from three other major warring powers in southern India. Sieges, battles, and diplomacy – Rudrama excelled at them all. She was also an effective and progressive administrator, opening up higher army ranks to non-aristocrats . . . possibly because the nobles were against her? Whatever, Marco Polo described her as a lady of discretion who ruled with justice and equity. She fortified the Orugallu Fort to protect it from numerous future sieges. Later, even though she had passed on the mantle to her grandson and she herself was ageing, Rudrama led an army to meet a three-pronged attack. She was killed in the ensuing battle. The Katakiya empire would crumble over the following years.
Apparently due to her upbringing in military strategy, Rani Rudrama wasn't a connoisseur of music and art. But she was quite taken by Shiva Tandavam, a tantric dance form. She exercised her military manoeuvres to it and made it part of the training of the royal force.
Warrior queens 1500’s CE
Two warrior queens led the charge against the encroaching Mughal invasion into the South during the 1500’s.
Chand Bibi of Bijapur
In 1565, Chand Bibi, barely in her teens, was given in marriage to Bijapur’s Sultan Ali Adil Shah. She was at best an instrument of politics but her mother had wielded considerable influence which shaped her personality. Chand Bibi joined her husband in his campaigns, his equal by all measures. At her husband’s death in 1580, Chand Bibi navigated endless intrigue to retain her position but accepting the odds against her, she eventually returned to her homeland of Ahmednagar. There she was called upon to defend Ahmednagar against Mughal emperor Akbar -- thrice. She was killed in the third battle by her own companions as a rumours spread that she was joining hands with the Mughals.
Chand Bibi spoke Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Marathi and Kannada. In her downtime, she played the sitar and painted flowers.
Rani Durgavati of Gondwana
Rani Durgavati’s family descended from the Rajput Chandela kings of the Khajurao Temples fame. They had already repelled Mahmud of Ghazni but by the time Durgavati was born in 1524, the Gond indigenous kings had the upper hand. Durgavati was married off to one of the kings. At his death just five years later, she became regent for their five-year old son and heir. In effect, Durgavati ruled Gondwana for 16 years. She was known a moderate and skillful monarch and excelled at both diplomacy and conquest. During her reign, Gondwana fielded an army of 20,000 calvary and 1,000 war elephants. However, the Mughal Empire controlled access to the best horses imported from Central Asia and Gondwana was at a distinct disadvantage. Eventually, she was unable to defend her kingdom from the invasion of the Mughal forces. Rather than admit defeat, she killed herself on June 24, 1564. The Rani of Gondwana fits the emerging pattern of Indian queens of the day. Elite women increasingly claimed the right to rule and did so successfully.
During the last battle, the Rani rode her beloved elephant, Sarman, and died on his back.
Rani Abbakka Chowta of Tuluva
The only woman in history to confront, fight, and repeatedly defeat the Portuguese, Rani Abbakka’s unflagging courage and indomitable spirit are legendary.
Since 700 CE, maritime trade in spices, textiles, and war horses had flourished between India’s western coast and the Arabian Peninsula. Several European powers had tried and failed to discover the sea route to India until the Portuguese Vasco Da Gama reached Calicut in 1498. Within twenty years, the Portuguese built a ring of forts forts in the Indian Ocean region, which, along with superior naval technology, gave them control of all of India’s spice routes. Trading in the hitherto free trade zone of the Indian Ocean now required a paid permit (cartaz) from the Portuguese.
Eventually, the Portuguese came for Ullal – Abbakka’s homeland. It being a matrilinear society, Abbakka had inherited the throne at her father’s death. She had shrugged off a marriage of alliance and was governing to great economic prosperity when the Portuguese arrived. Their attempts at exacting tributes and taxes from Rani Abbakka incensed her and her ships continued to trade with the Arabs despite attacks by the Portuguese. From Mogaveeras and Billava archers to Mappilah oars men, people of all castes and religions found a place in her army and navy.
Three fierce maritime battles ensued, all of in which Abbakka triumphed. Worried, the Portuguese resorted to treachery. In a pre-dawn raid, Portuguese troops backed by an armada of battleships attacked Ullal. Abbakka was returning from the temple and straightaway mounted her horse to charge into battle. Her soldiers managed to set much of the Portuguese armada on fire but Abbakka was caught in the crossfire and breathed her last in captivity.
In folklore, Abbakka is portrayed as dark and good looking, always dressed in a commoner's simple clothes. She was known as a caring queen who worked late into the night dispensing justice. Her two daughters fought equally valiantly alongside her against the Portuguese. In 2015, the Indian Navy acknowledged her naval heroics by naming a patrol vessel after her.
A few words from our speaker, Joyce E. Salisbury.
"India is a land with deep history that almost overwhelms the casual visitor. I discovered this when I traveled several times to India as I took students on Semester at Sea – a ship that houses some 700 college students as we go around the world for a full semester. India, with its various religions, exotic foods, and much diversity is quickly appreciated but needs time to understand what’s going on. This lecture begins to draw on that experience as we take a bird’s-eye view of medieval India to get a sense of the big picture of this wonderful land.
At the heart of understanding is to appreciate the religions of India. I’ll use my years of teaching cross-cultural religions to give a quick survey of Hinduism. Then we will see Islam as the Delhi Sultanate adds to the religious mix. When the Portuguese arrive in the 16th century, they bring a rigorous Catholicism. How did all these religions get along and meld? That’s part of this story.
All good stories have strong protagonists, and for this story I have chosen two Queens of India – a Muslim sultan and an Indian ruler. I’ll tell the stories of Razia and Abbakka to show how they ruled during difficult times and chose both peace and war as their responses. I came to appreciate these women as I wrote my most recent historical works for Great Courses: “Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals” and “10 Women who ruled the Renaissance” for Audible.
I hope this lecture will help you appreciate the history of India and its varied peoples."
Dr. Joyce Salisbury is Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, and has a PhD in Medieval History from Rutgers University in New Jersey. She is an author of more than ten books on history and religion, and has lectured around the world. Join us for her lecture on Tuesday Feb 9, 2021.
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