She is called the Lady of the Lotus and, like countless tragic love tales of the world, hers is celebrated in the love poems of the region. This love affair lives in the folk lore of Malwa – in Madhya Pradesh, India – through many of the books written on the subject, the miniature paintings depicting the lovers, the ruins of small town of Mandu and many of the films made on her tragic end. One reason for my attraction to the story is that the hauntingly forlorn song written by Bharat Vyas, “Aa lot ke aa ja meray meet” (“Come back! Return to me, my love”), sung separately by Mukesh and Lata for the film Rani Rupmati, has been a personal favourite.
This sixteenth-century story is about Roopmati and her prematurely aborted love affair with Baz Bahadur, enacted in the enchanting green landscape of the town of Mandu, located on the Malwa plateau along the northern banks of River Narmada: the traditional dividing line between North India and the Deccan. The love story was first recorded in poetry by Ahmad-ul-Umri in 1599 during the last years of Emperor Akbar’s reign. It is translated from the original Persian to English by LC Crump under the title The Lady of the Lotus: Rupmati, Queen of Mandu. The book also contains 26 poems reportedly written by Roopmati herself.
It must be remembered that initial Mughal rule in the Indian Subcontinent was embittered by Afghan-Turkic rivalries. Babur had defeated and ousted the Lodhis, an Afghan dynasty. His son Emperor Humayun was evicted from the throne by the Afghans led by Sher Shah Suri. When Akbar was consolidating his rule, he sent expeditions against Afghan rulers in the Subcontinent who had been sympathetic to the Suri dynasty. One such ruler was Baz Bahadur of Malwa, about 700 kilometres south of Delhi in a region where the state boundaries of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra merge.
Baz Bahadur’s father, Shujaat Khan, had served as governor of Malwa under Sher Shah Suri and died in 1555, the same year that saw Humayun return from his exile and win back his empire from the Suri descendents. Baz Bahadur inherited his state and opted to defy Mughal sovereignty, declaring independence.
Many people of Afghan origin, who had come to India as fiercely orthodox mercenaries, quickly lost their warlike edges and succumbed to the influences of the plains of India, becoming patrons of art, music and the finer things in life. Unlike his predecessors Baz Bahadur, too, was an accomplished poet and musician – indulging his passions even as ruler.
When Roopmati entered the palace, she wished to be close to her sacred river. From a hilltop near the royal palace, one can still see a slivery streak flowing in the distant south, which is the Narmada. Baz Bahadur built a two-domed pavilion for her to view the river
Roopmati was exceedingly beautiful. Umri describes the beauty of Roopmati in the same style as used by Waris Shah to describe the beauty of Heer. One paragraph is quoted here for reference:
“And of the dividing line of her hair what shall be written? It was as the river Ganges in the land of Hind. Strange outshone the parting of the hair of her head, even as a flash of lightning that cleaveth the midmost hour of night. The parting of her hair was a ray of sunlight or a strand from the rosary of Sulaiman or the dividing of night in twain.”
One version of the story states that Baz Bahadur had gone hunting in the dense woods along the Narmada River. Pursuing an animal, he heard an alluring voice singing to the river, the deer and the birds. Following the melodious tune, he came upon a maiden of about fourteen years, of unusual beauty, who was playing her flute accompanied by her friends.
He sat down to talk to her. He told her who he was. Enamoured, he offered to marry her and take her to his capital Mandu.
The girl loved her surroundings and especially the river where she used to come every day to pay her homage. On his proposal, she replied, “When Rewa shall flow through Mandu, I will be your bride.” Narmada is known as Rewa in the local dialect.
Here I will introduce a bit of a folktale that adds a bit of mysticism and spice to the love story. Baz Bahadur was impressed by the poetic reply of the girl and went down to the river to request it to climb the mountain and flow through Mandu, 20 kilometres and 1,000 feet higher. According to popular lore, the river directed the prince to go back to his capital and look for a certain sacred tamarisk tree. The river informed him that at its roots, the prince would find a spring that is fed by the waters of Rewa. Sure enough, Baz Bahadur found the tree, dug at its roots and discovered the spring. He filled a lake with its waters and thus fulfilled the condition of the girl.
In a more mundane version of the story, as depicted by Ahmad-ul-Umri in his book, Roopmati was the daughter of Jadu Rai, a Brahmin in Sarangpur. This town was granted as a jagir (fiefdom) to Baz Bahadur by his father. The prince was on his first visit to his estate and was invited to a feast by Jadu Rai. There, while in his home, Baz Bahadur heard Roopmati and later came across her in person. He was dazzled by the sublimely gorgeous girl and mesmerised by her sweet singing. After assuming power on the death of his father, Baz Bahadur asked for the hand of his beloved and, in return, granted Jadu Rai the jagir of Sarangpur. The marriage was conducted according to Muslim as well as Hindu rites in 1555.
When Roopmati entered the palace, she wished to be close to her sacred river. From a hilltop near the royal palace, one can still see a slivery streak flowing in the distant south, which is the Narmada. Baz Bahadur built a two-domed pavilion for her to view the river. He named the lake that he had created Rewa Kund. An elevated aqueduct provides water from the lake to Baz Bahadur’s palace. The lovers lived in bliss for six years.
Today, their abode is called the ‘Rewa Kund Group’, consisting of Rewa Kund, Baz Bahadur’s Palace and Roopmati’s Pavilion in the Citadel of Mandu, and is a popular tourist attraction that speaks of their enduring love.
Every tragic love story has a villain as does this one, and he is Adham Khan. Adam Khan Koka was the son of Maham Anga, the senior wet nurse of Emperor Akbar and a woman of great power. She had been involved in many an intrigue in the imperial household. Akbar had appointed her son a general of the Mughal army after the death of Bairam Khan in 1561 and sent him to capture Malwa.
The small force of Mandu had no chance of standing up to the large Mughal force. Baz Bahadur was defeated on the 29th of March 1561 at the battle of Sarangpur – an incredible 457 years before this day.
Baz Bahadur fled, leaving behind his army, treasures and his beloved. He headed for the southwest, across the rivers Narmada and Tapti, to Khandesh – now in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Adham Khan took possession of all his treasures. According to the historian Badauni, both the commanders, Adham Khan and his deputy Pir Muhammad Khan, perpetrated acts of barbaric cruelty, massacring the prisoners and killing even their wives and children. After the victory, Adham Khan sent the Emperor Akbar a report of the victory along with only a few elephants – choosing to appropriate for himself the rest of the spoils.
He would subsequently lose his command, and later his life, for insolent and arrogant behaviour. However, that was later. For now he turned his attention towards the harem. By now he had heard about the beauty of Roopmati and was eager to take her into his custody.
Adham Khan summoned Roopmati to his presence and demanded that she transfer her love to him willingly. According to Umri, Roopmati at first tried to appeal to the conscience of Adham Khan. She argued:
“It did not become the glory of the conqueror thus to seek to disgrace the name and fame of the broken Afghans: for in the day of recompense Heaven might bring down that very shame on the head of the conqueror”.
However, Adham Khan made it clear that if she didn’t give herself up willingly, he was prepared to force her.
Roopmati disguised herself as a flower-seller and fled the palace in the hope of reuniting with her fleeing husband. Adham Khan sent fifteen of his best cavalrymen in pursuit.
Roopmati hid herself about 30 kilometres from Sarangpur and called over her brothers for help. The Mughal cavalry, however, caught up with the fugitives and in the ensuing battle, Roopmati’s brothers were killed. She was brought back to him.
Adham Khan renewed his overtures. She made it clear to the conqueror:
“There is no hope that what I gave to Baz Bahadur, the same I should give unto thee.”
She was now well guarded and had no hope of escaping again. Still, she formulated a plan to escape the awaiting violation. She conveyed to Adham Khan that she would submit to him after three days. Adham Khan was delighted.
On the third day, Adham Khan ordered a grand feast to be arranged. Roopmati bathed herself and wore the dress that Baz Bahadur had presented to her on the day of their wedding. She then took her flute and sang songs that had melted her husband’s heart. Then very calmly, she swallowed powdered diamonds. An intoxicated Adham Khan entered the bedchamber with licentious expectations, only to find a lifeless Roopmati lying on the bed.
Mandu is a celebration in stone of life and joySuch is the tragic end of this story that began in love and happiness, and ended in grief.She became celebrated as a martyr to fidelity and an example to the tribe of lovers. She was buried in Sarangpur.
Baz Bahadur, for his part, subsequently accepted Mughal sovereignty and continued to serve under Emperor Akbar – but only after the insolent Adham Khan had been executed by Akbar himself. Baz Bahadur, too, now lies buried besides his beloved.
Mandu is a celebration in stone of life and joy, of the love of Prince Baz Bahadur for Rani Roopmati. The balladeers of Malwa still sing to the romance of these lovers. High up on the crest of a hill in Mandu, Roopmati’s Pavilion continues to gaze down at Baz Bahadur’s Palace on one side and the Rewa on the other.
I end this tale with verses attributed to Roopmati herself:
They who are wise,
Avoid love’s lure
Yet tempted once,
There is no cure
Save to press on,
With banners high
Resolved to win,
Or fighting die.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues.
“The original article was published in The Friday Times Lahore, Pakistan and is reproduced here with the permission of the writer”