At the foot of this hill, in the midst of a lush garden, is the beautiful tomb of Mah Laqa Chanda, an 18th century poet and courtesan.

Features Photo Essay Friday, April 15, 2016 - 14:30

The vicinity of the Maula Ali hill in Hyderabad is replete with stories and buildings that are centuries old. Also known as Koh-e-Sharif, the hill has been revered as sacred right from the Qutb Shahi era. It is home to a shrine dedicated to Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Hazrat Ali, who is believed to protect Hyderabad. At the foot of this hill, in the midst of a lush garden, is the beautiful tomb of Mah Laqa Chanda, an 18th century poet and courtesan, and the first woman to publish an anthology of her poems in Urdu.

Born as Chanda Bibi, Mah Laqa was raised by her sister and her husband Nawab Ruknudowla, Prime Minister to Hyderabad’s second Nizam. They were particular that she receive the best possible education; she was taught music, poetry, horse-riding and archery. She started performing in the Nizam’s court when she was very young, and soon became a famous singer, dancer and courtesan whose admirers ranged from commoners to Hyderabadi aristocrats and British officers. She enjoyed the status of a senior noble or omrah during the second and third Nizams’ reigns, traveled in a palanquin, had her own guards and drummers, and was given extensive lands, including the garden in which her tomb stands.

Mah Laqa was a truly extraordinary lady. Just into her twenties, she wrote a Diwan, or a collection of poems in Urdu. She was the first female poet ever to achieve this. While in the midst of a dance performance, she presented the book to Captain John Malcolm of the British East India Company - it now sits in the British Library in London. She was a trusted aide of the second Nizam, and often advised him on important matters of policy. Since she was also an accomplished archer, she accompanied him on many military as well as hunting expeditions. When the Nizam’s army returned victorious after one such battle, he conferred the title Mah Laqa (face of the moon) on her. Her contributions to art and literature were significant - among other things, she sponsored a library, commissioned a detailed history of the Deccan and helped educate hundreds of young women. The naqqarkhana of Maula Ali, a pavilion where drummers sat and played, is said to have been built by her as well.

While pregnant with Mah Laqa, her mother, herself a renowned courtesan, visited the holy shrine of Maula Ali. It was a long climb to the top, and the lady started bleeding and almost had a miscarriage. However, after being blessed with incense and sacred threads from the shrine, she miraculously got back to normal, and eventually delivered a healthy baby. It is fitting, therefore, that in death, Mah Laqa rests at the base of the very same hill, alongside her mother.

The tomb is built in a fusion of Mughal and Rajasthani styles, and the garden around it is designed in the char-bagh style. Seen in various Mughal era tombs in India, the layout symbolises paradise. A mosque and a stepwell are also found in the complex. Mah Laqa had the tomb built for her mother, and asked to be buried next to her after her own death, which happened in 1824. The tomb lay neglected until 2011, when it underwent a restoration funded by the US Ambassador's fund for cultural preservation and was thrown open to public.

 

Poet, courtesan, singer, dancer, warrior, thinker - Mah Laqa wasn’t a woman you could capture in a single label. She is relevant even today not only because she still inspires poets and artists, but also because she shattered stereotypes and made enormous contributions to the world around her. She is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring women the Deccan, or indeed India has seen.

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