Freedom, She Ruled

The Rani of Bilehra was an unlikely champion of emancipation

Zehra Naqvi Updated: Jul 16, 2019 16:42:47 IST
Freedom, She Ruled Illustration by Atri

White light fills the room  as I open my eyes and stare groggily at the unfamiliar surroundings—a huge room with lime-washed walls, high ceilings with ornate arches and my bed, which sags a bit in the middle because it is a palang—with cloth strips stretched across and wound tightly at the edges. And then I remember: I am inside the mahalsara, the women’s palace, in the heart of the Qila of Mahmudabad, a living fort in the Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh.

My family and I are guests of Raja Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan. We will be spending two days here, participating in the mourning rituals of Muharram, one of the most prominent, and sacred, cultural observances by Mahmudabad’s royal family.

The palace is divided into two distinct sections—the zenana, the women’s section, and the mardana, the men’s area. In pre- and newly independent India, the women of the Raja’s family were confined within the zenana, where no men except close family members were allowed. The wings still remain distinct—my six-year-old son, Hasan, and I have been given a room inside the zenana, while my husband is in the mardana. Women walk freely in and out of the zenana, but men, other than the family, still cannot enter.

I get ready, leave my room and walk past the huge courtyard of the mahalsara, flanked by large imambaras. On one end of the courtyard are the chambers of the erstwhile Rani of Mahmudabad, the present Raja’s mother.


Rani Kaniz Abid was the queen of the estate of Bilehra, a royal in her own right. A strong, self-possessed woman, the Rani had depth of character and a sharp intellect. She had named the zenana, the usaara, which means ‘prison’. This is the place where humans are kept as prisoners, she would say. Once, someone brought a few colourful caged birds as pets for the young crown prince. But the Rani would not hear of it. She walked up to the cage and opened the gate, setting the birds free. This was her silent protest against the invisible cages of the world that women lived in.

At the far edge, to the right of the mahalsara, stands a lush green garden that has at its centre a large rectangular, glimmering pool flaunting a curved bridge over it. Known as the phulwari, this space was once the garden of the royal ladies. Within this very garden was a small menagerie that the late Raja built for his son. This zoo housed a myriad birds and animals for the amusement of the young prince, but it made the Rani uncomfortable. She would, one day, request her husband that as much as she would like her son to look at them and be happy, these creatures should be set free. You cannot cage living beings, was the lesson she instilled in her son.

Rani Kaniz Abid’s longing for freedom also stemmed, perhaps, from traumas of her early childhood, when she faced confinement at the hands of the British. Her brother, who was the heir-apparent, passed away at a very young age, and her father, heartbroken and overcome by grief, followed just three months later. Eight months on, her mother too passed on, leaving her and her three sisters orphaned. As the eldest, Kaniz Abid was to become the next Rani according to the rules of primogeniture, but she was still a Rani-in-waiting until she came of age. During this time she and her sisters were confined to a house where a British collector supervised every aspect of their lives. For her, that was the beginning of life in the usaara. A life of virtual imprisonment. That was also the beginning of her realization of what it meant to long for freedom, which she never lost even as the Rani of Bilehra.


Reminiscing, the Raja speaks of his mother’s deep religious convictions. But her spirituality was not in conflict with her championing of freedom. As a Rani who commanded power and respect, her life, she felt, remained cloistered in the usaara by patriarchy. And yet, she voluntarily chose never to reveal her face in public. The Raja recalls that for most of her life, his mother would insist on remaining purdah nashin [A woman who remains veiled in public in accordance with the practice of purdah]. In fact, her first passport had no photograph for identification, only a note saying purdah nashin! It was only much later that she agreed, when her daughter-in-law, with whom she was very close, “persuaded her and took her to England”.

Rani Kaniz Abid’s daughter-in-law Vijaya Khan, the present Rani of Mahmudabad, hails from a renowned family of Udaipur—the daughter of former foreign secretary Jagat Singh Mehta. Interestingly, in spite of the difference in religion, the cultural context of both places was surprisingly similar. Rama Mehta, the present Rani’s mother, in her book Inside The Haveli, has described vividly the separate zenana and mardana sections, and the various regulations within her marital home in Udaipur. Although the book is a fictionalized account based on her own life, it depicts real places and the real culture of the times.

Restrictions upon women existed uniformly across religions and geographies. And it was considered a way of ‘honouring’ the women of the nobility, by not letting a commoner have the privilege of setting eyes upon them. In practice, however, it became oppressive. But Rani Kaniz Abid, the queen who couldn’t stand cages, subtly and gently unlocked the gates of the usaara as well. She never asked her daughter-in-law to observe the restrictions of segregation, reflecting her firm belief that, in time, even the most entrenched systems would slowly but surely transform. 


Back in the zenana, I am now in front of the Bara Imambara, participating in one of the processions that begin inside the mahalsara. This procession is accompanied by a horse that is decked up in ceremonial regalia to represent the steed of Imam Husain, the Prophet’s grandson, martyred in the battle of Karbala. The horse is a Mewari stallion, gifted to the Mahmudabad family by the royals of Udaipur. A caretaker leads the handsome animal into the zenana, and as they walk by, I take full notice of the man, and suddenly find myself struggling to suppress a wave of laughter in the middle of this sombre mourning procession.

The caretaker is wearing a ghoonghat, a chequered cloth drawn over his head. This veil will prevent him from resting his eyes upon the women inside the zenana. I mull over, with some amusement, this far superior solution for men who complain of being ‘lured’ by the mere sight of women.

He holds the reigns of the horse, while the ladies chant elegies, led by a distinguished woman—the Raja’s first cousin. Gazing at her as she recites, I wonder if the erstwhile Rani resembled her—silver hair, pale skin, almond eyes and a look of utter serenity. I am suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of solidarity and admiration for Rani Kaniz Abid, who may have accepted purdah, but dreamt of freedom, both for herself and for others in her care. Who valued the need for mobility and opportunity, and believed in setting free all living creatures from all sorts of cages—the visible and the invisible.

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