Mostly, history writing is taken care of by the most privileged cis het, these have ignored and excluded queer representation. The monument of Jamali Kamali, located in the Mehrauli Archeological Park, must be the monument with the most confirmed and unconfirmed stories attached to it in Delhi.
Photographer Sunil Gupta, however, in his book 'Wish You Were Here: Memoirs of a Gay Life' claims the tomb of Jamali-Kamali to be the only gay historical monument in India.
His book accounts for a very personal journey of coming out. Using a symbolic image in his book, Gupta also points out the verses inscribed on the walls of the Jamali-Kamali mausoleum that calls out for love.
In honour of Manhattan’s 1969 Stonewall Uprising, Pride Month is celebrated each year in June. Along with the celebration of love, Pride Month also recognises the long history and the ongoing struggle of the LGBTQIA+ communities. Talking about history, India too has a rich queer history; however, it has often not been included in history-writing.
Digging into the history of Jamali-Kamali
Jamali was a poet and a Sufi Saint who lived through the reigns of Lodhis and the early Mughals. His name was Sheikh Faizullah or Jamal Khan, and he was known to perform miracles and was thus known as Jamali (or glory). He died in 1536. However, the mosque and the tomb were pre-constructed in 1528-29. He is said to die in Gujarat, and his body was brought to Delhi and buried in what is presently known as the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Next to his grave is Kamali’s grave. Navina Jafa, in her book_ Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks, mentions that even Naseem Akhtar, curator in charge of the Islamic Art Section at the National Museum, could not claim Kamali’s existence.
Many stories are told about the tomb of Jamali-Kamali. Some believe both of them to be brothers. At the same time, another story is that of Kamali being the wife of Jamali. However, the tomb’s structure represents a man being buried. However, the Indian queer community sees this tomb as a ray of hope for queer history, which had been ignored.
Karen Chase’s work on the tomb further tries to legitimate this claim. Chase writes that the verses inscribed are of love. In Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India, Chase cites the verse:
In the plump dusk, I hear a peacock screech eye marks on my lover’s neck Kamali, let’s go to the lake to moisten our love scars.
I will wash mud from your muscled legs._
My secrets rest in the wedding hut.
I visit another man as the moon circles down.
Come my protégé, my Kamali to bed. I will show you moves of a new planet as no astrologer could.
Many historians, however, deny the claim of Jamali-Kamali being lovers and point out that the verses written are for God. Sufis wrote poetry to express their love and longing of the heart to God.
Wherever they speak of Thy immense forgiveness, people’s sin is not weighed there against (a grain of) barley (very true in view of the immensity of Divine forgiveness, our sins are of little consequence)
Oh Thou whose mercy won the game from wrath,
And whose Kindness ordered rage to depart
Though historically, the story of Jamali-Kamali being lovers is not proven. However, it is undeniable that queer history is native to India and did exist. The temples of Khajuraho and Konark are living proof of it. Hindu mythology features countless stories of gender fluidity. Barapullah, near Delhi’s Nizamuddin Railway Station, built by Jehangir’s chief eunuch, and Zatalli’s work accounts for queer history from medieval India.
Queer History Today
History was written by cis het men who often appropriated queer history, taking away their narratives. However, a lot has changed today, and people have fought for their voices to be heard.
In an attempt to archive queer history, The Indian Queer Project was started. Juno Felecia M, project lead, says, “history has been majorly written by cisgender people, and many feminist movements were started and led by trans people, commonly known figures are that of cisgender women…people do not remember who began these moments rather they remember the iconic figures and that is one of the reasons why this project started.” There is a lack of archiving of the oral history of the queer people authentically. Even if the account has been written, the question that one needs to ask is- “who is recording the history?” points out Juno.
The project was thus started to bridge the existing gap in Indian queer history writing and include intersectionality within the queer representation.
“Even though there are Bollywood movies and shows about queer people. But the representation does not include queer people into it. These movies and shows are written, directed, and acted by cis-gendered heterosexual people who monetise the story of the community but showcase no solidarity with them when needed,” says Juno. The way the script is written or the actors who play the queer role take away the queer narrative and box it through a heteronormative lens. In such a scenario, it becomes crucial for the community to visibilise itself by compiling and making queer history accessible to people at large, shares Juno.
In a long way
Projects like The Indian Queer Project creates a community that can pool resources, knowledge and a shared experience of queer history in one place. These people, as Juno recalls, are teens, young adults, and professionals who constantly try to claim their space through their works.
In a way, Gupta’s claim for the tomb of Jamali-Kamali as the only gay monument also started a discussion on queer history, followed by Chase’s work on the same. Regardless of his claim being proven historically, it allowed a step ahead for the community to claim their spaces, which had long been denied.