Chand Bibi: The Deccan’s Warrior Queen

Princess Chand Bibi defends Ahmadnagar in 1595 (Image: Hutchinson's story of the nations/ Public Domain)
When the South Indian sultanates of the Deccan were threatened by Mughal annexation, a warrior queen united the South.

“So great was the love she inspired that the peasants of the Western hills refused for many years to believe that she was dead. She had escaped they said, through an underground passage and was hiding in some deep fold of the Sahyadri mountains. When the time will come, she would again reveal herself, drive the Mughals across the Vindhyas and bring back once more the golden years of Ahmadnagar.”

The death of Chand Bibi was a heartbreak for the people of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate. Their fiery queen was all that stood between them and the Mughals. It wasn’t just Ahmadnagar who had something to fear, the Deccan Sultanates of Golconda, Bijapur and Bidar would have known that they would be next.

Chand Bibi was the wall that stood between the Northern Mughal Empire and the Southern Kingdoms. For many years, she had held out. But ultimately, the Mughal Emperor Akbar triumphed over her. But the warrior Queen left a stronger legacy in the South than the king of kings. She had united the Sultanates against the Mughals, including the armies of the Abysinnian slave-kings.

Had she not refused to accept Akbar’s yoke, she would have done well in the Mughal Empire. She was a fluent polyglot, who spoke Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Marathi and Kannada. She played the Sitar and painted flowers as a hobby. But the skills she showed the Mughals were different – representing her military training and tactics.

Early years

Chand Bibi hawking with her attendant

Chand Bibi was born in the year 1550 and died in 1599. Her father, Hussain Nizam Shah, had ruled the Ahmadnagar Sultanate. He too united the Deccan Sultanates, then against the large Vijayanagar Empire that spanned the entire Southern portion of the subcontinent.

When Chand Bibi was 14, she was wedded to Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur. It was a powerful union, promising a powerful combined house. But Ali was killed in 1580 when the couple were still childless. Consequently, Ali’s ten-year-old nephew, Ibrahim Adil-Shah II, was crowned ruler of Bijapur – with Chand Bibi ruling in his name.

A powerful general named Kamil Khan was attempting to usurp her power and repeatedly insulted her, threatening to knock her teeth out. Chand had to play her cards smartly.

She sent a charkha spinning wheel and some cotton to Haji Kishwar Khan, along with the message:

Evil has befallen us now. If you possess a grain of self-respect, you should consider the humiliation of your near-relation as your own Lo and behold! I have been put into the sea of troubles by the arrogant Kamil Khan. Blow out his brains! The ranks and dignity that he now possesses were once enjoyed by your father and you, being the rightful heir, should receive it.

Keep up the struggle, the well-wishers of the royal family will be on your side. If not, put your hand to the cotton and Charkha.

It worked well. Kishwar Khan rode to her aid, and with her command, Kamil Khan was beheaded. But soon, Kishwar became the new Kamil. The problem was that he did not recognize that there is no ‘i’ in ‘team’. When the Bijapur armies repelled an Ahmadnagar invasion, Kishwar claimed all of the enemy’s elephants for himself – a huge treasure. This irked the other princes and commanders.

Chand again had to find a replacement. But Kishwar heard of this and had him assassinated. He acted in blatant defiance of the king, who was still too young to impose his authority. Chand Bibi and her servants were detained in Satara Jail. In her impassioned writings from prison, she mused on her life thus far. Plaintively, she prayed to God that her protege, Ibrahim Adil Shah II, would survive these intrigues.

Kishwar made his bid for the throne but forgot that he had many enemies. Many of the empire’s trusted nobles were at the battlefront and they returned on news of Chand Bibi’s arrest. An Abyssinian general, Ikhlas Khan, rode on Bijapur – and a relative of the assassinated replacement murdered Kishwar. Ikhlas Khan freed Chand Bibi and took the title of prime minister. Chand Bibi then consolidated the border and ensured peace.

Battle with Akbar

Between 1591 and 1593, Akbar’s emissaries had demanded the Deccan Sultanates join his empire. To a ruler, they all refused. But the rulers were divided amongst themselves – Ahmadnagar’s ruler was killed and a game of succession triggered further instability. Exploiting this, in November 1595, the Mughals invaded Ahmadnagar.

Chand Bibi managed to defend the Ahmednagar fort from Akbar’s forces. The Mughals mined and breached the fort, but a veiled Chand Bibi appeared with her men and drove them away with cannon fire and stones. She had the breach filled in and made fervent calls for help to the other kings. Her bravery inspired her men and earned her the title Chand Sultana. When the news reached the Mughals that a massive Deccan army was heading their way, they sued for peace with Chand Bibi. She was allowed to choose the regent of Ahmadnagar, in exchange for ceding Bedar province to the Mughals.

By the time Chand Bibi’s aid arrived, the Mughals were gone. The Deccan kings began to fight amongst themselves and in exasperation, Chand Bibi resigned. Much against her advice, they repudiated the peace treaty with the Mughals and marched on Bedar. Unperturbed, Akbar prepared his forces for the final assault on Ahmadnagar.

Akbar sent his son, Daniyal, and led campaigns near Malwa so his presence would help morale. Put between a rock and a hard place, the rival factions declared Chand Bibi their supreme commander once again. Grimly, she took command – even as many cowards fled the doomed garrison.

Daniyal’s forces attacked with all their might. They mined the walls and set many fires – but these were put out by heavy rains. But finally, when the starvation of her men seemed apparent, Chand Bibi opened a negotiation with the Mughals. She had tried to enlist the aid of Muhammad Quli, the founder of Hyderabad, but she failed. She had no more cards to play.

Abul Fazl, the Mughal poet and leader, records betrayal as the cause of her death. Some radicals, unhappy with the proposed terms of peace, stormed Chand Bibi’s house and killed her. In one story, a Eunuch she turned to for advice defamed her on the streets and invoked the mobs. The popular version, recorded on the streets, was that she committed suicide to save her honour.

The most popular image of Chand Bibi is the one of her riding her horse, hunting. She was a queenly figure – let down by the constant backstabbing and intrigues of her ruling elite. But she never let their manners affect her. When her protege, Ibrahim Adil-Shah II, turned of age – she stepped back. He went on to rule long past her death, his reign remembered as a golden one. Chand Bibi’s heartfelt prison prayer had worked. Together with the Abyssinian generals, Ibrahim Adil-Shah II kept the Deccan free from the Mughals. In a way, her vengeance was achieved.

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