The concept of a ladies' night walk, particularly a heritage walk, is an initiative dedicated to women, by women. It's an occasion to delve into the depths of history, uncovering fascinating stories from seemingly ordinary locations and unexpected corners of the city.
These walks encourage discussions about history, breaking the stereotypes and societal norms that have limited women's exploration.
Led by Anoushka Jain, the founder of Enroute Indian History, titled 'Tawaifs and Kothas' walk unravels the stories of forgotten women who shaped Delhi. A copy of Madhur Gupta’s "Courting Hindustan" is handed to each participant, which talks about the iconic courtesans like Mallika-e-Ghazal Begum Akhtar, who transitioned from courtesans to queens, pioneers, and artists. This initiative is part of the larger 'Badass Begums' theme, which highlights the forgotten stories of women who shaped Delhi.
Tawaifs were more than courtesans; they were cultured connoisseurs of music, dance, and poetry. The 'kothas,' their residences, were not today's brothels but rather sanctuaries of art and etiquette. Mughal royalty and nobles often sent their offspring to these 'kothas' to learn manners, music, and dance. These could rightfully be called the 'etiquette institutions' of their era.
The ranks of tawaifs were diverse, ranging from those offering companionship to those enhancing it with their artistic finesse. At the pinnacle stood the 'begums' and 'bais,' who amassed wealth and fame that rivaled today's finest actresses. Some commanded armies, with Begum Samru reigning as an 18th-century ruler with an army of 4,000.
Jain's mission is to dispel misconceptions about tawaifs and 'kothas.' These women often joined out of choice, seeking autonomy not found in middle-class homes. Kidnappings and forced prostitution came later, a far cry from the nurturing environment where daughters were celebrated and rose to prominence. Tawaifs were patrons of the arts, architecture, and culture, even being the city's highest taxpayers.
As the group strolls the streets of Bazaar-e-Husn, once the centre of Shahjahanabad, the legacy of tawaifs emerges. The havelis that once sheltered them have shifted ownership to card shops and rented spaces, their stories fading away. But these 'kothas' weren't dens of iniquity; they were vibrant centers that hosted elites and royalty, often positioned near religious institutions they supported.
As the British arrived, misunderstanding tainted the intricate fabric of Mughal society. These accomplished women were unjustly reduced to 'nautch girls,' mere dancing women. The 1857 revolt marked a turning point, eroding their patronage and initiating British campaigns against tawaifs. A proud legacy was forcibly uprooted.
The narrative of Shahjahanabad and the Mughal Zenana is not just about stones and structures; it's about the indomitable spirit of women who shaped a city. The heritage walks takes us through these age-old streets, not just as spectators, but as witnesses to the stories engraved within them.
If you enjoyed reading this, here's more from Homegrown: