Tawaifs- who once were celebrated as an integral part of Shahjahanabad's (Old Delhi) culture have now been reduced to lost memories and sights, hidden behind lost times. The last remaining symbols of Twaifs- their mansions, now lie only as the ruins of past.
Not many know, but Tawaifs (courtesans) as we perceive them today did not have the same connotation in medieval times. A Tawaif was a cultured woman, well versed in poetry. She could seduce the minds of those who see her by her adab (charms) and delicacy. Tawaifs were great dancers and, as Prof. Lata Singh, JNU, mentions, were one of the first women who could read and write, as their clientele were of the highest stature and literate.
Red Fort that governed Delhi was located in the middle of Shahjahanabad, surrounded by an empty courtyard. Nobles who came second to the emperor built their mansions just beyond those courtyards. Further down were the Havelis of merchants. Shahjahanabad was, therefore, a hub of elites, and Tawaifs were the ones who pleased them. Tawaifs thus could not be located in secluded corners and were given apartments on the rooftops of the Havelis. Gaurav Sharma, a storyteller who conducts heritage walks around Old Delhi on Tawaif culture, says that it was during this phase that the apartmentalization of Delhi had begun.
What we today know as a kotha actually meant the first storey of a building where Tawaifs were settled. Sharma also explains why calling these kothas brothels is a misrepresentation as it further encourages the misunderstanding of Tawaif culture. The term that represents kothas correctly is a bordello. A bordello was a big establishment, claims Sharma. It had maids, cooks, and servants who could look after the needs of Tawaifs. Musicians and poets were also part of it, who, along with Tawaifs, also enjoyed a luxurious life. Because of the poetic culture, the lane of Tawaifs was called Bazar-e-Husn (market of beauty).
Though Tawaifs enjoyed a luxurious life, they did not hold enough power to have their own Havelis. But as we all have seen in history, exceptions always make room.
Begam Sumru, the tawaif who commanded an army
The Haveli of Begum Samru, rather a mansion, is one of a kind! Begum Samru, born as Farzana, a short-heighted lady, made her way from a Tawaif to become the chief power behind the Mughal court. Sharma claims that Tawaifs were well aware that they could only be in business for as long as they were young. Being used to the luxurious lifestyle, they preferred to settle with a wealthy man to continue their lavish lifestyle even as they aged.
Walter Reinhardt, an Austrian mercenary who commanded a private cavalary, was a regular visitor of Farzana. Sharma also shares that Reinhardt’s complexion was darkened due to the scorching heat of Delhi. His friends mocked him and called him ‘somber.’ Soon, Reinhardt acquired Le Somber’s title, which was Indianised, and became Samru over time. Farzana, who had settled with Sombre, was also known as the wife of Samru or Begum Samru.
Soon after her husband’s death, Begum Samru, accustomed to the culture of negotiation and commanding bordello, took over Sombre’s army. Experience in negotiation came in handy as she now broke deals with men on behalf of her husband’s regiment.
When the Sikhs invaded, the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II sought help from her. She was later rewarded with a Haveli of her own and was titled Farznad-i-Aziza (most beloved daughter [of the emperor]). The Haveli she had received was more of a mansion. Begum Samru, claims Sharma, converted to Christianity so she could easily assert her power over the European soldiers. After her death, her Haveli was turned into Delhi Bank and now stands as the Bhagirath Palace in the lanes of Old Delhi.
Mubarak Begum, a tawaif who has a mosque named after her
Another exception is Mubarak Begum. Mahruttun Mubarak ul-Nissa Begum, popularly known as Mubarak Begum, is the only Tawaif to have her mosque erected. She was the 13th wife of Sir David Ochterlony.
Ochterlony was known to have adopted the Mughal culture and was thus called the ‘White Mughal.’ With the power and stature that he enjoyed, he was able to commission his Begum a Mosque. The mosque now stands in the middle of Chawri Bazar by the name of Masjid Mubarak Begum.
These accounts so far paint a different image of what one perceives of a Tawaif. It thus intrigues one to know what may have happened to the Tawaifbaazi (culture of Tawaif) that it is now looked down upon?
“Every group has a hierarchy. So did the Tawaifs,” says Sharma. At the apex were the rakhael (keeps of the Nawabs), who were known to spend time with Nawabs while having witty conversations. Neither pleased men sexually or physically/ They were to seduce their minds—the mind of those who could afford their luxurious lives.
Then what was to happen to the non-elite class?
At the far end of Chawri Bazar lived women who danced the ‘pallu slip’ artform, exposing their bodies. It was later known as the mujra. These women remained at the lowest of the hierarchy, pleasing men physically.
“When the British came to India, they came here without wives. They soon became regular customers of these women across the hierarchy. However, they could not distinguish between these categories. Being monetary sound allowed them to settle with the women. However, these women never received the status of a wife. They were known as the nautch girls (came from the word “naach,” or dance),” says Sharma.
The status of Tawaifs, as says Sharma, had declined due to the confusion created by the British, who treated women across all the categories as dancing girls or mistresses.
This affected the Tawaifbaazi so much that despite the plaque that reads in bold under the central dome of the shrine of Mubarak Masjid- the Masjid is called ‘Prostitute’s Mosque’ (or Randi Ki Masjidin colloquial language).
With the degradation of Tawaif’s status, the once-grand mansions and Havelis now remain neglected. Today, the Bhagirath Palace of Begum Samru no longer reflects her status. It has now transitioned into an electronic market selling lights that overshadow the power of Tawaifs of Old Delhi.