The people of Hyderabad have not forgotten Chanda. At least not this frail, wispy old man I meet at the foot of the Maula Ali shrine. He volunteers to take me to Mah Laqa Bai’s tomb. I call her by her formal court title Mah Laqa Bai, bestowed upon the famous courtesan by the second Nizam of Hyderabad, but he calls her Chanda, which is her nom de plume. Later, he would tell me that his name is Mustafa Sayeed and that he was born near the shrine, and show me the graves of his parents buried nearby.

As he rolls out a rusted moped parked in front of his one-room-apartment, he accosts a passerby. I cannot easily follow the rapid-fire exchange in heavily accented Dakhni Hindi, but I understand that he is berating the younger man over some unspecified transgressions including alcohol. “Musalman, agar sheesha mooh se lagaye, to gaya! (If a Muslim touches alcohol, he is done),” Mustafa declares as he blows a puff of smoke from his morning cigarette. “Kya karna? Mohalle ki saari dukano mein, Hindu se zyada Musalman logan hain. (In the alcohol shops here, there are more Muslims than Hindus),” the passerby says. In response the old man declaims: “Aise logan sacche Musalman nahin hote! (These people are not true Muslims)”, even as he indicates to me to climb on to the back of the two-wheeler.

I cannot help smile as I recall one of Chanda’s couplets that I read in translation: Spring is here, with wine’s arousal and waves of blossoms kissing/ With God’s bounty of luxury, rapture and bliss nothing’s missing

The Maula Ali dargah stands at the top of a rocky hillock that rises almost 2,000 feet above the surrounding plateau. A flight of nearly 500 steps winds its way up to the shrine dedicated to Ali Ibn Ali Talib, the Shia hero and son-in-law of the Prophet. Built in 1578 by the third Qutb Shahi king Ibrahim Quali, the shrine has been a place of pilgrimage over the centuries for Shias, Sunnis as well as Marathi Hindus and several tribal sects.

“Twenty-five years-old,” Mustafa exclaims in his pidgin English as the moped wheels scream over a bump on the road and we nearly topple over before the two-wheeler comes to a stop. Mustafa, the moped, and the unrelenting bump were drawing a lot of smiles and tolerant good natured laughter from men gathered in front of a nearby meat shop. An undeterred Mustafa starts hectoring them to clear off so that he can drive around the interfering road block. “Subah subah itna jaldi mein kahan ja rahai hon? (Where are you hurrying off to in the morning?)” replies the man whose bike had inadvertently blocked Mustafa’s right of way, a barely concealed grin visible beneath a luxuriant growth of beard.

In the Hyderabad he loved, in its buildings and its streets, he started seeing more signs of Chanda’s presence. He learnt that the Osmania University campus he often visited for his research was located in an area that used to belong to her jagirdari. Less than half a kilometre from the campus was a huge well constructed by Mah Laqa Bai.

Is ko Chanda ka makbarah dikhane le ja raha hoon. Yeh ladka Hindu hai. Par Chanda ka makbarah pooch ke aa gaya, (Am taking this boy to Chanda’s tomb. He is a Hindu, but came asking for the place),” Mustafa replies.

After 10 minutes through narrow roads, the moped veered off into an open compound standing in the middle of decrepit houses and small shops. The unfenced compound led to a large white archway before which a recently put up board proclaims in English that the tomb is a protected monument. The archway gate opens into a narrow passage flanked by two small prayer chambers on both sides, beyond which lies a garden. The garden leads to the main tomb building, a white rectangular pavilion supported on pillars with engravings. Two black marble slabs sit in the centre of the structure, with lamps burning in front of them. Mustafa kneels in front of the tomb, eyes closed in prayer as I examine the inscription. I wonder whether the writing is in Persian or Arabic.

The mausoleum was built by Mah Laqa Bai to house the remains of her mother, Raj Kunwar Bai, who was a devotee of Ali. On her death the poet was buried next to her mother’s tomb, both of them facing Maula Ali. On both sides of the white tomb are dalans or pleasure pavilions. And where the mausoleum faces the hillock that rises behind it, there is a small mosque for prayer. As I pick my way up stone steps that lead to the top of the mosque, I can hear Mustafa’s voice arguing with the watchman. In front of me, beyond a line of trees, the hill of Maula Ali rears its head.

In spite of its Mughal roots, Asaf Jahi architecture does not have the same ornate splendour. It displays a sober tone, as if the Deccan had tempered a far more prodigious and sensual spirit. Nizam-ul-Mulk, who became the first Nizam of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, moved to Aurangabad in the opening decades of the 18th century, seeking to carve out an autonomous kingdom as the Mughal empire started to disintegrate under Aurangzeb’s descendants. In its long march to Aurangabad, Mulk’s army attracted several fellow travellers, among them a troupe of itinerant Hindu singers.

Travelling with the group of minstrels were three young Muslim women who had fled Ahmedabad and poverty to make their way south. They made a living by dancing in public to entertain soldiers in the Nizam’s army. One of the sisters was Mah Laqa Bai’s mother.

Though the Asaf Jahi Nizams ruled under the name of the Mughals, they were in reality independent rulers. A Sunni, the first Nizam reversed Aurangzeb’s policy of persecuting Shias and pursued a policy of religious reconciliation. When the second Nizam shifted his capital from Aurangabad to Hyderabad, Maula Ali came under his patronage and the annual procession to the shrine again became the most significant religious festival of the city.

Mah Laqa Bai was known and accepted as a poet by her peers in Hyderabad, but Kugle discovered that at least some of her poetry had circulated beyond the Deccan to north India. Mir-Taqi-Mir, the legendary Urdu poet had read Chanda’s work. 

According to an official history commissioned by Mah Laqa Bai, when her mother was pregnant with her, she went on a pilgrimage to Maula Ali. In sight of the shrine, she fell sick and threatened to miscarry. A court noble who had accompanied her ran into the shrine and brought out incense sticks, smelling which she made a recovery.

Thus began Mah Laqa Bai’s life-long association with the shrine of Hazrat Ali and an unshakeable conviction in the saving power of his grace. It was a faith that Chanda would hold on to her entire life, from her introduction as a tawaif (courtesan) in the Nizam’s court through her rise into the ranks of the nobility, she believed that Ali, who had interceded to save her at birth, continued to protect her and guide her steps.

The last couplet of almost every ghazal she wrote was addressed to Ali, her divine benefactor and the first emir of the Shia faith.

Chanda has faded from the public memory of Hyderabad along with the Nizami culture she was part of. The decrepit old man in a torn T-shirt with whom I am sharing tea exemplifies what many Muslims in the city feel. The sense of belonging and yearning with which they connect to the city’s Nizami monuments, even though they have been pushed to the margins economically. With Mustafa, this sense of lost belonging is particularly keen because of his forefathers’ association with Maula Ali. As I say goodbye, I leave a hundred rupee note on the table. I had hardly walked twenty yards when his gruff voice hollers after me, “Your change!” As he stuffs a bunch of ten rupee noes into my hands he says loudly in English, “Not for money. For God.” He repeats it again almost as if he is afraid that I haven’t heard him properly. “Do you understand? It’s all for God.”
It was all about God for Chanda too.

Professor Scott Kugle remembers the day he first visited Maula Ali. It was in 2006. Currently professor of religious studies at Emory University in America, Kugle was then doing a research project on Islamic religious monuments in Hyderabad. That project would never be completed. The visit to Maula Ali would change the course of the professor’s career, personal and professional.

“It was when I climbed up on that hill, to the shrine on the top and looked down that it happened. There was this big open green space and these buildings. I had heard that there were tombs of noblemen and women around Maula Ali. And I had heard the name Mah Laqa Bai Chanda,” he recalls.

With two companions, Kugle climbed down to the tomb compound. He found the ground strewn with old playing cards and trash, and overgrown with weed and thorn bushes. He came across the plaque with the name of Mah Laqa Bai in the dilapidated tomb complex. A big tamarind tree was growing over the tomb, knocking parts off it. Smaller trees had broken through the roof and the roots had grown their way inside the edifice. While he noticed the decay, he was struck by the beauty of the architecture and the atmosphere it evoked.

It did not occur to him to connect the name Mah Laqa to the Chanda that he had heard of as a Dakhni Urdu poet of the past. When exploring the inscriptions of the Maula Ali shrine he had noticed, among the names of the wealthy patrons who had contributed to the building, a plaque bearing the words “Chanda Bibi”.

It was not till several weeks later, as he started reading the poems of Chanda for the first time that all the different personages merged together in his mind as belonging to the same person. The noblewoman who had constructed many religious monuments in the city, the most famous courtesan and dancer in Hyderabad’s history and the poet credited with being the first woman to compile a full diwan of Urdu poetry.

It was a realisation that would take him from fascination with the personality of Chanda, to historical research into her life and eventually to organising architectural and cultural projects to restore her legacy. Along with a group of heritage activists, Kugle would direct the renovation of Mah Laqa Bai’s tomb. He also started translating her poems from Urdu to English, a labour of love that stretched over several years. Now he has translated her entire oeuvre, consisting of a full diwan of ghazals, and is compiling it as a book for publication.

The 2006 visit to Maula Ali was not Kugle’s first to Hyderabad. As a graduate student studying the history of Islam in India and Pakistan, he visited both the countries in the mid-Nineties. He had spent several months in Hyderabad then, poring over Persian manuscripts in the Andhra Pradesh Oriental Manuscripts and Research Library. He returned in 1998 to do doctoral research on 16th Century Sufi literature and was hosted by the Islamic studies department of the Osmania University. Of all the cities and towns Kugle had been to in India and Pakistan, it was Hyderabad that claimed his heart.

“I fell in love with the city, its culture, its historical presence. I made a lot of friends here, among academicians as well as other people. I engineered my professional life in such a way that I could come back again and again.” It was during one of those visits that Kugle was working on a historical project about Islamic monuments in the city.
After the visit to Maula Ali, however, that project changed into one about Mah Laqa Bai, whose name in Urdu means Madame Moon Cheek.

In the Hyderabad he loved, in its buildings and its streets, he started seeing more signs of Chanda’s presence. He learnt that the Osmania University campus he often visited for his research was located in an area that used to belong to her jagirdari (estate). Less than half a kilometre from the campus was a huge well constructed by Mah Laqa Bai. Two centuries ago when the well was built, a highway ran from what is now the old city area of Hyderabad where the Nizam and the nobility had their palaces, to Maula Ali on the outskirts of the city. The well stood at a half-way point for pilgrims.

Mah Laqa Bai’s mansion, the Hassa Rang Mahal, where she trained hundreds of courtesans in her life, still stands at Nampalli. At the end of the last Nizam’s rule in Hyderabad, it was converted into a government school.

“Mah Laqa Bai fascinated me because of her multi-dimensional personality and her unique historical position. Her mother and half-sisters were tawaifs who migrated from Ahmedabad and managed in a single generation to rise from utter penury to enjoy wealth and protection, often through marriages with powerful nobles. But Chanda Bibi became part of the nobility itself, something which to my knowledge is unique in the history of the Deccan. The second Nizam gave her the formal title of Mah Laqa Bai and granted her a jagirdari over substantial tracts of lands. As a nawab, she was also given a bodyguard of 100 soldiers and the right to be carried around in a palanquin and have her way cleared by the beating of kettle-drums. This placed her in a unique position as a woman within a patriarchal society to exert independent social and political influence,” says Kugle.

Kugle started going through the extant biographic material on Chanda in Urdu. His first lead was a biography published by an Urdu writer in the opening decade of the 20th century. Though reasonably accurate about the major events of Mah Laqa Bai’s life, Kugle found that the author had glossed over Mah Laqa’s role as a courtesan and dancer to fit in with the more conservative social values of his own time. The biography portrayed her as a pious Shia woman and poet.

The next available biography appeared more than 50 years later as a doctoral research thesis of a young scholar working in the Urdu department of Osmania University. Kugle found that the book had taken the biographical excavation of Mah Laqa Bai forward but no other work had been done in the decades that followed till a modern Urdu biography appeared in 1998. Though shored up by more detailed research, the professor found himself unsatisfied with the sanitised and de-sexualised Chanda that emerged from its pages.

He turned to Persian manuscripts from the early Asaf Jahi period preserved in the Oriental Institute and other libraries. He came across the Tuzuk-i-Asafiyya (Pomp and Order of the Asaf Jahi Dynasty), an illustrated hagiography of the second Nizam’s reign written by Sah Tajalli Ali, who was a noted poet and painter of his court. One of the paintings show Mah Laqa Bai—represented by a crescent over her head—leading a troupe of female dancers. The Nizam and the courtiers are pictured getting ready to watch the entertainment.

The greatest source of information turned out to be a history of Hyderabad in Persian commissioned by Mah Laqa Bai herself to record the history of her family’s contribution to the growth of the city. The Persian history, though perhaps uncritical in some respects, gave prominence to her persona as a dancer and courtesan. It also proved a rich resource for Kugle in piecing together the history of Mah Laqa Bai’s family.

Chanda Bibi was born on April 4, 1768 and was brought up by her step-sister in the women’s manor (Zenani Deor). There she received the best in aesthetic education. She learned Persian, wrote Urdu poetry and was trained in classical music and dance as well as archery. It is possible that the dance form she learned was close to Kathak, which was popular in late-Mughal court circles and practised by tawaifs. Even before she started giving dance performances at court, she had begun composing ghazals in Urdu. Her early skill must have found some recognition. For Sayyid Sher Mohammad Khan, the most renowned Urdu poet of his generation in Hyderabad, started giving her advice and correcting her verse. As a young woman, she gave dance performances for the aristocrats. She drew the admiration of Aristu Jah, the prime minister, who became a patron of her dance and poetry. Under his orders, her diwan was compiled and published in 1798. Aristu Jah was an important connection that would open all doors for Chanda Bibi, including the Nizam’s.

The Nizam took her as a close companion (musahiba) and she accompanied him on battles and hunting expeditions. In 1803, when the Nizam returned victorious from battle, Chanda Bibi’s performance was the major attraction in the celebrations that followed. On that occasion he gave her the formal court title of Mah Laqa Bai, the name by which she would be known afterwards. He also granted her a jagirdari over large areas of land, with the right to collect revenues. This allowed her to exercise independent influence in a way no woman of her generation could, even those belonging to the royal family.

She used her huge wealth to fund charitable activities, religious festivals and construct buildings that bore her name. She patronised poets and historians and trained a new generation of courtesans in dance and music. She continued to revise and expand her diwan till her later years. When she died in 1824-5 she was buried according to her wishes in the tomb pavilion and garden she had built to house her mother’s remains. Near Ali, the beloved.

In 2007, Kugle obtained a digital copy of a manuscript of Mah Laqa Bai’s diwan from the London Museum. It was one of the earliest versions and was gifted by the poet to Sir John Malcom, the Scottish statesman and historian, when he was stationed for a short period as assistant Resident in the court of the second Nizam. It was a personal gift given to the young officer from Mah Laqa Bai after a dance performance.

Mah Laqa Bai was known and accepted as a poet by her peers in Hyderabad, but Kugle discovered that at least some of her poetry had circulated beyond the Deccan to north India. Mir-Taqi-Mir, the legendary Urdu poet had read Chanda’s work. Mir, interestingly did not have a very high opinion of the merits of her poetry, but included Mah Laqa Bai in the Nukat-us-Shura, his Persian biography of the lives of Urdu poets.

(Though Mah Laqa Bai has the reputation of being the first woman poet to compile a diwan of ghazals, the other contender for that position is her contemporary Luft-al-Nisa Imtiyaz of Bijapur. Recent research suggests Imtiyaz might have circulated her diwan four months before Mah Laqa Bai did hers).

“Her (Mah Laqa’s) every ġhazal consists of only five couplets, reflecting the five members of the holy family (panj tan): the Prophet, his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali, and their two sons Asan and Usayn. Also, the final fifth couplet of each ġhazal is devoted to praising ‘Ali. The final couplet shows its author, Mah Laqa Bai with the pen name Chanda, in a posture of intimacy with Ali, as his servant, supplicant, extoller or loyal partisan,” says Kugle.

Mah Laqa Bai wrote in the ghazal form, which is a short lyric that is used to depict love—both erotic and spiritual. One of the defining characteristics of Chanda’s poetry is the dual and seemingly contradictory worlds it inhabits. Chanda’s poetry moves in phases, from the Asaf Jahi court, with its fascinating tapestry of art, politics, intrigue and seduction to a mystical world of deep devotion to a mythical spiritual figure. One of her poems in this vein as translated by Kugle reads:

Cups of crimson wine are circling in rounds of dance/If the beloved is glimpsed, this party abounds in dance/ God made this beloved peerless in my view/Everything before my eyes resounds with dance/You captivate beasts and birds along with people low and high/Each in its way obeys your command in bounds of dance/Leave the party of my rivals and come over to mine/I’ll show you a star whose very name sounds like dance/Why shouldn’t Chanda be proud, O Ali, in both worlds?/At home with you she eternally astounds with dance

The poem begins with a description of a wine party that probably reflects the experiences of the social life at court. The first two couplets stick to the conventional boundaries of the ghazal and the glimpse caught of the beloved in the atmosphere of dance and intoxication indicates a love that is both worldly and amorous. The third couplet however, inhabits a dual world, the words lending themselves to both spiritual and temporal meanings.

The description of the lover as one whose charms captivate beasts and birds as well as all people high and low is at one level the conventional hyperbole of love poetry. At another, it talks of the divine qualities of a spiritual figure whose unbounded love enslaves all creation, and the dance becomes a metaphor for spiritual ecstasy born of the love of this divine figure.

In the fourth couplet, the poem re-introduces the theme of sensual love, rivalry for position at the court and the writer’s pride in her allure and talents. The last couplet moves back to the world of transcendental love by explicitly naming Ali and Chanda. But this “other world” does not obliterate the real one, for Ali is both immanent in this world and transcendent to it. Which is why Chanda, his devotee, can ask why she should not be proud in both worlds.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Mah Laqa Bai for any modern scholar trying to re-construct her life is her position as an unmarried woman in a male-dominated court.

As a courtesan, she enjoyed independence unavailable to women of that time. But that independence was paradoxically predicated upon male patronage, on seduction of powerful men through a combination of art and sexuality. In a patriarchal society, where female identity and sexuality is constructed solely in relation to marriage, the courtesan is a permanent outsider. The tawaif is outside marriage and direct male control. To men, therefore, the courtesan is a constant object of allure. For women, she is an object of admiration for her beauty and artistry, of envy for her independence, of resentment for seducing their men and of derision for her status as outsider.

But the proud independence of the courtesan was often an illusion, as they were sustained by grants from the royal court or the private patronage of noblemen. The success of the courtesan depended not only on her artistic talent, but also on her ability to negotiate a complicated and potentially treacherous social terrain. Mah Laqa Bai herself was heavily indebted to two powerful prime ministers for her meteoric rise at the Nizam’s court. The first was Aristu Jah (prime minister 1778-1804) who introduced her to the court and whose patronage was probably instrumental in securing her the Nizam’s gifts.

The second Nizam died within a year of giving land grants to Mah Laqa Bai. With that Aristu Jah’s term as prime minister also came to an end. But Mah Laqa Bai managed to weather the change in political dispensation successfully. She immediately attracted the attention of Mir Alam, (prime minister 1804-1808), who was so enamoured of her that he composed a sar-a-pav (head-to-toe) praise of the beautiful courtesan.

It is possible for the careful reader to trace the shadows of court politics and the ambiguities of a courtesan’s life in Mah Laqa Bai’s ghazals. While the conventions of love poetry—of eternal love, faithfulness and the pain of abandonment abound in her poems—there are also re-current themes of intrigue, enmity and infidelity. 

There seems to be an underlying recognition that for a courtesan loving a man is always about seduction and power. Fidelity is only a chimera:

It appears from where I stand that I am always in your absence/Though in my heart and soul I am ever in your presence/Why would the nightingale fly away from roses’ aroma and hue/Has some home-wrecker broken through the garden fence?/I’m oppressed remembering the fleeting flash of someone’s unveiling/My tears seem to lessen this downpour that once was immense/In this world the only true man is one guided by feeling/Who each moment seeks his love with his heart’s eye intense/Let not Chanda’s head bow before anyone in this world/Such a wish of ‘Ali’s servant-girl is her one proud pretence

Kugle thinks that Mah Laqa Bai’s mystical devotion to Ali, who was saint as well as warrior, also reflects her anxieties as a single woman and courtesan. Her seduction of men was invariably linked to manipulating them for gaining status, wealth or power. She had also to be constantly on guard against competitors and rivals who would seek to undermine her position or rise at her expense. This could be another courtesan, a jilted lover, a jealous wife or powerful rivals of her patrons.

“As a court noble of high standing, she was subject to the intrigues and jealousies of rivals. As a courtesan, she could fully trust no man as a patron or protector, and there is evidence in her witticisms that have been preserved that she had to parry derision and criticism in court and in public, aimed at her vulnerability as a single woman and public performer. The only male figure she could rely upon was Ali, her spiritual patron and the essence of masculinity in her view, ” says Kugle.

The professor says he never set out to translate Chanda’s diwan. That would have struck him as too ambitious a project. But reading and re-reading her poetry, he translated into English a few that he found easy. These were the most musical of her ghazals, the ones that she composed to be set to song or maybe even to be accompanied by dance. And as the months passed he had translated a good part of the poems. Meanwhile, he continued his historical research, publishing his findings in academic journals dedicated to the study of the Deccan or Islamic culture in the subcontinent. While the work of various Urdu scholars had kept the memory of Mah Laqa Bai alive in Hyderabad, Kugle found that their focus was confined to Mah Laqa Bai as a poet. As a scholar of religious studies, Kugle was interested in finding out how as a Shia woman in the court of a kingdom recently overrun by Sunni overlords, she interacted with her social milieu. How does one locate Mah Laqa Bai, the composer of poems of mystical love and patron of the Maula Ali shrine within the socio-religious fabric of her time?

Hyderabad emerged into the modern age from the late medieval age with a catastrophe—Aurangzeb’s invasion in 1686. In a siege lasting several months, Aurangzeb’s army defeated the last Qutb Shahi king and proceeded to massacre the local population.

Aurangzeb used Sunni-Shia sectarianism to justify his attack on the Golconda kingdom, portraying the Qutb Shahi king Abu-al-Hasan as a sinful Shia idolater and a lover of Hindus. Once Hyderabad was conquered, Shia mosques were ransacked and their ritual objects looted. The Golconda kingdom was absorbed into the Mughal Empire and the city was left to languish in revenge for resisting the siege.

When Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Mughal viceroy, became the independent ruler of the Deccan in 1724, he continued to rule from Aurangabad. Hyderabad started to revive again when the second Nizam transferred the capital to Hyderabad in 1763, five years before Mah Laqa Bai’s birth. With the Mughal Empire crumbling and the Maratha power growing stronger, the Asaf Jahi dynasty needed the support and loyalty of the populace. The Nizam followed a broad policy of religious reconciliation, promoting Shia and Hindu nobles to high positions and re-opening all the Shia religious centres shut down by the Mughals. The Asaf Jahis were helped by the fact that 170 years of Qutb Shahi rule had created a culture of syncretic religion in the region.

Central to this project was the Maula Ali shrine. When Aurangzeb had sacked Hyderabad, Maula Ali had escaped, probably due to its distance from the city. Here Sunnis, Sufis and Shias could come together and share a common religious platform based around their adoration for Ali. The Muharram ceremony at the shrine was not observed as a Shia festival, but attracted Sunni as well as Hindu devotees.

Kugle thinks that the wide acceptance Mah Laqa Bai’s poetry gained in the Nizam’s court as well as literary circles furthered the legitimisation of Shia piety in the city’s nascent cultural space. The building projects she undertook in Maula Ali were not only markers of personal devotion, but part of the nobility’s efforts to foster a syncretic religious culture in the city.

Mah Laqa Bai personally patronised several religious festivals that allowed different sects to fraternalise around common religious themes. On Gyarween, an occasion associated with the Sufi saint Abdul Quadir Geelani, she organised a religious gathering, which lasted for several days.

As a Sufi saint he had a great following among Hyderabad’s Sufi Sunnis while all Shias venerated him as a direct descendant of Ali. Another festival that Mah Laqa Bai patronised was the Khat darsin, a festival that no longer exists. On the first day of the festival she would receive and honour the Syeds, who claim to be direct descendants of the prophet and are important to the Shia faith. On the second day she would receive Sufi fakirs and on the third Hindu sadhus. Common people were invited to partake of her hospitality and gifts on the fourth and final day of the festival.

An interesting glimpse of the tension between Mah Laqa Bai’s Shia piety and the official Sunni creed of the court can be seen in a poem commemorating the Nizam’s rule, which she is believed to have recited in his presence. She deviates from her usual practice of honouring Ali in the last couplet, addressing the Nizam instead:

The savior of us all, Nizam of the realm, called Asaf Jah/May he live long as Hidr, with the twelve Imams’ blessing/Chanda always hopes you’ll give from your platter of bounty/She asks only to never turn to another in moments distressing

Mah Laqa Bai seems to consider that it would be unwise in the midst of the Sunni nobility to venerate Ali above the Nizam. Nonetheless, she invokes the blessings of the twelve Imams of the Shia faith on the Nizam, aligning the prosperity of the dynasty to Shia spirituality.

For decades, citizens interested in preserving the cultural heritage of Hyderabad had been pressing the government to take better care of Mah Laqa Bai’s tomb . But their efforts to get protected status for the late 18th century monument could never penetrate beyond bureaucratic walls.

In 2008, Kugle sat down with a group of heritage activists in the city and discussed plans to renovate the tomb complex. One of those people was Sajjad Shahid, a member of the Centre for Deccan Studies (CDS), a group set up to encourage independent research into the history of the various regions in the Deccan plateau.

Shahid and Kugle came to the conclusion that any renovation project that had a chance of succeeding would have to be done under their own steam. CDS felt that among its members and the loose network of scholars and heritage activists in the city, it could muster sufficient scholarship about the early Asaf Jahi architecture to restore the monument. But the project estimate ran into several lakhs and the CDS was a research institute. They would need to find outside funding. “It was then that Scott came up with this idea. The American Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation funded projects to protect and preserve monuments and artefacts of cultural importance. Scott suggested that we submit a proposal for the restoration of Mah Laqa Bai’s tomb to the American consulate and apply for aid,” says Shahid.

The American consulate asked them to submit a detailed proposal for restoring the historical monument. Kugle and Shahid started searching for an architect who could take on the job. They engaged the services of a conservation architect named Nithin Sinha.

“To prepare a comprehensive restoration plan would require several months of research and work. We could start construction only if the consulate accepted the plan and released funds. We told Sinha that we could not pay him anything other than some token fees unless the project was sanctioned,” says Shahid.

Sinha, who did not agree to be interviewed for this article because of prior engagements, agreed to the condition. He went through old photographs of the tomb available in libraries in the city. Sinha also undertook exhaustive studies of other buildings from the same period, poring over old documents, books and photographs as well as examining extant buildings for details of their construction. In a few months, a plan for restoring Mah Laqa Bai’s tomb, along with cost overheads was drawn up.

The American consulate accepted the proposal and agreed to sponsor the restoration of the tomb structures, excluding the mosque and the large well situated inside the complex.

The restoration took two years. The team had not only to replicate the original appearance of the buildings but also the traditional material used to build it. Lime mortar was prepared at the tomb site from sand and slaked lime.

Fortunately, two small minarets had survived and the conservationists could restore the others by copying the design. While the larger structures were relatively easy to restore, the decorations posed a true challenge. A craftsman who knew how to re-create patterns from lime mortar was hired. When no other copy of a pattern could be found, Shahid says that they decided to follow a rule of thumb. If 60 to 70 per cent of the design was intact, then they would complete the pattern. If half of the pattern had been obliterated they would leave it incomplete.

As the work went on, some people objected that the renovated sections looked too new. Shahid says they briefly considered adding additives to the lime mortar that would artificially create an appearance of age. But Shahid, Kugle and Sinha decided against it, choosing to let the years do their work.

To restore the garden that used to surround the tomb pavilion and dalan in earlier days, they sought the help of a landscape consultant. The consultant carried out a palaeobotanical study to determine the plants and trees that used to stand there. Based on the results of the study, new specimens were planted. A grant given by the Coca-cola Company to restore water bodies allowed Sinha and his colleagues to clean up and rebuild the well.

A local Muslim educational society pitched in to renovate the small mosque that stood at the rear of the tomb. 

When the renovation was completed in 2011 and Mah Laqa Bai’s tomb opened to the public, the Andhra Pradesh State Archaeological department declared it a protected monument.

Though it has been almost two years after the tomb was declared a protected monument, Shahid complains that the government has completely neglected the upkeep of the monument. With only a watchman at the premises, Shahid fears that the garden that they painfully recreated will soon start withering. And that without proper maintenance, the renovated buildings too will eventually fall into disrepair. But whatever may come, he says he has played his part.

Kugle, however, is not done with Chanda. Having translated all her poems into English, he is working on a comparative study of Chanda and Siraj Aurangabadi, an Urdu poet from Aurangabad who wrote in the first half of the 18th century. As I take leave of Kugle, I ask him how during his long journey to find Chanda, his idea of her has evolved.

The answer is slow in coming: “I first saw Mah Laqa Bai through the religious architecture she had commissioned. Thus her identity as a Shia woman tempered my reading of her poetry and I saw the mystical element as the predominant one. But as I kept reading and translating her poetry, my picture of her started to alter. I started to see how cosmopolitan the world she inhabited was. How more mundane themes of love, parties, rivalries and matters of court was as much part of her life as her love for Ali.”