History Who was...?

Who are Mehr Lekha Begum Sahiba and Yasmin Mahal?

‘Who was…?’ a new series that explores the African women who pop up in history yet remain mysterious.

History. When I look into it, what I see is men, men, men, oh here’s a woman, men and more men. This pattern repeats itself when one investigates that part of history that is even less popular than the less popular bits. Here I am talking about the history of Africans in Asia, India in particular. I was first introduced to this history with a name, Malik Ambar. If you do a cursory search on the topic, Ambar’s name and images depicting him will come up. While I am pleased that his name has not been erased like countless others, I could not help asking, “What of the women?”

This only worsened when I read a sentence somewhere that stated the African women in Asia’s history were concubines and slaves. I still wanted to know…and that’s how I came across three names. The two in the title are the ones that I would like to know more about.

Let’s start with Mehr Lekha Begum Sahiba, one of the six principal wives of Mansur Ali Khan, a Nawab of Bengal in the 19th century. According to Mansur Ali Khan’s Wiki entry,

Mehr Lekha Begum Sahiba (Guiti Afroz Mahal). She died at Murshidabad on May 30, 1855, she has been buried at the Jafarganj Cemetery. She was previously a mut‘ah wife as Hasina Khanum, a former Abyssinian slave girl.

And that’s all.

Moving on to Yasmin Mahal, who at least had a painting done of her (it’s the featured image to this post). Yasmin Mahal was an African woman who had “quite a passionate affair” with Wajid Ali Shah. Wajid Ali Shah was the last Nawab of Oudh/Awadh in present day Uttar Pradesh. You may consider him a libertine, Wajid Ali Shah was a poet and a ruler who apparently lived freely and loved deeply.

It would seem that he was fond of dark skinned African women as revealed in the manuscript he wrote as a young man, believed to have been completed in 1848. Called “Ishq-Nama” or “Chronicle of Love”, the manuscript includes Wajid Ali Shah written details about the women he met and fell in love with, as well as the poems he wrote to them. Now us common folk will probably never get more insight into the love poems Wajid Ali Shah wrote for African women because the manuscript isn’t public.

Representation of an Indian prince eating in the land of the Ethiopians or East Africans (Zangis). Mughal, Akhbar period, c. 1590. Museum Rietberg Zurich, permanent loan Catharina Dohrn © Photograph: Courtesy Francesca Galloway.
Representation of an Indian prince eating in the land of the Ethiopians or East Africans (Zangis). Mughal, Akhbar period, c. 1590. Museum Rietberg Zurich, permanent loan Catharina Dohrn © Photograph: Courtesy Francesca Galloway.

Another name comes up Begum Hazrat Mahal, a courtesan turned freedom fighter in the rebellion of 1857, she was Wajid Ali Shah’s first wife. According to author Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Begum Hazrat Mahal was the daughter of an African slave.

“Now people claim she was a great Indian heroine. In fact she was only half Indian. It is quite possible her mother was sort of Indo-African.”

Whether Begum Hazrat Mahal was of African descent or not, one thing seems clear Wajid Ali Shah was serious about his affection for African women. He apparently had a team of bodyguards that comprised of African women soldiers who dressed in red jackets and tight-fitting, rose-coloured silk trousers.

The third name I stumbled upon was Bamba Muller, another woman of Abyssinian descent. The daughter of a German banker and an Abyssinian mistress, Bamba Muller grew up in Cairo under the care of missionaries. She became Maharani Bamba Duleep Singh when she married the last ruler of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Duleep Singh. However, you can get to know Bamba Muller through her extensive Wiki page, but don’t stop there look at her highly achieving children including Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh who was a suffragette!

One thing of note is that all these women were queens. So when people say Africans in India became kings, they should add “and queens”. Yes, I know women like Yasmin Mahal (may have) only gained the titles through marriage but that doesn’t change the fact that they had it. They were not just concubines or sex slaves but principal wives. But the question remains who were they really? Was Yasmin Mahal born in India? How did she get there from East Africa? What did she really feel for Wajid Ali Shah since they loved each other passionately? (Will I ever see a film about Wajid Ali Shah and Yasmin Mahal ala Bajirao Mastani?) Who was Mehr Lekha Begum Sahiba? How did she become a slave? How did she become a former slave? What was her relationship with Mansur Ali Khan like? Then again, what was it like to be an African woman in centuries old India? Were women like Yasmin Mahal and Mehr Lekha Begum Sahiba respected? How did they move and mingle in royal circles? What was that Indian prince eating in the land of East Africans doing there? Is there a deeper pre-colonial history of Indians in East Africa that I need to know about? Last but not least, who on earth were those silk-clad women bodyguards?

Featured image
Yasmin Mahal, wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oudh in Uttar Pradesh. Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2013