Zenana1 Deorhi was a honeycomb with many queen bees. From outside the complex jalis, the zenana looked like a quiet place, full of beauty and grace. But inside, it buzzed with disgruntled murmurs, noisy altercations, and jealous confrontations. A dense, bitter fluid of insecurity filled its cells. There were invisible walls of pride and position.
The only person who could penetrate these walls was Gulabrai. The patrani2, pasvans3, pardayats4, and ranis – everyone liked her. She was no threat to anyone. She was not even a contender in the race to win the maharaja’s favor. No one really knew who Gulabrai was. She had always been there in the zenana, as far as anyone could remember. Most of the women in zenana considered her as an inanimate object, like a pillar or a fountain. Gulabrai was passed down as an ancestral property when the last maharaja’s harem was evaporated on his funeral pyre.
Gulabrai had never married. Some believed it was due to her crooked front teeth or her withered, short torso that resembled a malnourished child. Her lips were always slightly parted – Was it a smile? Or just curiosity? No one bothered to ask her. Nonetheless, Gulabrai always wore a pleasant expression.
Gulabrai had assumed the role of a nurse for whoever needed her help. Her smile only vanished when she attended to the new girls on the morning after the first copulation. While she applied oil on their cuts and bruises, a cloud of melancholy came over her face. She silently cursed the maharaja, who used to find ecstasy in abusing these women.
Gulabrai only cried once, and that was for Bharmali. Bharmali was the eldest daughter of the diwan of Alwar. She was one of the spoils of a recent war. She was just fourteen years old, with a petite face and a cuckoo’s voice. Bharmali was an unwelcome addition to the zenana. Her sublime beauty, like a water lily, bothered every woman, except Gulabrai.
During the first few days after her arrival, Bharmali wandered through the dark corridors of the zenana, looking for a way out. She wept, calling out to her parents. Gulabrai took pity on her and explained to her the harsh reality of the war. Bharmali wailed when she realized that she was trapped inside the zenana forever. To alleviate her grief, Gulabrai played with her. On hot afternoons, they sat in Sukh-Niwas, behind the cool khus-khus curtains, and played pachisi5. Gulabrai even made a rag doll for Bharmali. She took Bharmali under her wings and taught her the ways of the zenana. With great care, Gulabrai combed Bharmali’s smooth hair and applied alta6 on her fingertips. All the while, her eyes twinkled with affection.
“Gulabrai, even if you aren’t married, you got a daughter!” the concubines teased her. Gulabrai tenderly smiled. For the first time, her half-smile had turned into full bloom. However, her happiness only lasted until the maharaja laid his eyes on Bharmali. Soon, the rituals for the concubinage started. Bharmali was pleased that the inhospitable women of the zenana gave her gifts. The maharaja gifted her ivory bangles and golden anklets. After the Solah Sringar8, Bharmali blazed like a fireball.
“Why are you sad, Baisa7?” Bharmali asked Gulabrai. Gulabrai embraced Bharmali and cried.
Two days later, Bharmali came out of the honeymoon chamber – tattered and shattered. When the slave-girls brought her out in a charpoy, Gulabrai let out a heart-wrenching wail. In the next few days, Bharmali lay on her bed, shivering with fever and blabbering in shock. Every inch of her body had bite marks and bruises. Gulabrai shuddered as she slowly peeled the clothes off Bharmali and inspected her. She didn’t leave Bharmali’s side, not even for a second.
The life in zenana continued uninterrupted. The patars9 danced and olaganis10 sung. But, Gulabrai had changed. Anger seethed inside her. When she realized she couldn’t change Bharmali’s fate, sorrow erupted in her like a volcano; tears rolled down her cheek like hot lava.
Bharmali’s ordeal wasn’t over yet. The maharaja summoned her the very next day. Bharmali kicked and screamed in horror, but she was dragged into the honeymoon suite. Her kicking and screaming only made the maharaja more voracious. While the maharaja raped Bharmali inside his chamber, Gulabrai paced up and down in the zenana like a wounded tigress, craving for the maharaja’s blood.
It became a routine, and after a few times, Bharmali lost all her vigor to protest. She followed the maharaja like a mannequin into the chamber. Gradually, the maharaja lost interest in her and moved on to the next girl. Gulabrai was relieved. However, the old Bharmali was no more. A dreadful silence surrounded her like a funeral shroud. The glitter in her eyes was exhausted forever. She never played pachisi with Gulabrai. She never touched her rag-doll again. The child in Bharmali was dead. Every time Gulabrai laid her eyes on Bharmali, she wished for the maharaja’s death. But, Gulabrai wasn’t aware of the consequences of her wish.
Then, one fine morning, the maharaja died.
The buzzing of zenana suddenly stopped. Bangles and anklet stopped clinking, the ghaghrasno longer rustled against odhnis11. The arguments stopped. The women in zenana no longer had a purpose. After all, the zenana was merely an extension of the maharaja. When the maharaja ceased to exist, so did the life of his harem. As the funeral preparations began, the thick, iron door of the zenana was shut tight.
Soon, a burst of laughter started echoing against the walls of the zenana. It was the Patrani – the chief queen. She had gone into a delirium.
“I am going to be a goddess,” she continued to shout. She was violently excited about her imminent exaltation – from an irrelevant plaything in the bed to a Sati Mata12, revered by her family and worshiped by her subjects. As her hysteric cries and laughter intensified, the zenana shuddered, realizing the impending doom. The maharaja’s death was a death warrant for his four queens, seven concubines, and sixty-four slave girls.
Two of the queens fainted and never regained consciousness. The last one froze into a stone-like silence. She just sat in her quarters, staring at the wall. It seemed like she was already dead.
The slave girls wailed about their prospects – it was either death or prostitution. They very well knew that soon after the maharaja’s funeral, they would be banished from the zenana to the cruel streets of the city. Men would tear them apart with their stares. If they were lucky, they could spend the rest of their lives as a slave of a wealthy courtier. The concubines preferred death over the transfer of ownership and harassment.
A commotion started in the slave-girls’ quarters. Many of them fought with the Baradan13, their chaperon. The elderly Baradan was beaten into a pulp by the slave girls. Some of them tried to escape the zenana by jumping down through the palace window. That window on the top storey of the zenana was their only portal to the outside world. Some of them did manage to jump down but met their end by falling on to the rugged red sandstone courtyard of the Diwaan-E-Aam. A group of sturdy female servants entered the zenana and force-fed the remaining slave girls’ high doses of opium and bhang. They soon fell on the ground like withered plants, muttering and laughing in intoxication.
Throughout the hustle, Bharmali remained as lifeless as she ever was. She was neither sad nor scared. She just sat behind the canopy of her bed, clutching the rag doll. Sitting by her side, Gulabrai wailed. Bharmali didn’t stir even a bit.
“Aren’t you afraid, Lado14?” Gulabrai asked Bharmali.
“Of what, Baisa?” Bharmali asked.
“Oh, my child, you don’t know what’s coming,” Gulabrai wiped away her tears and stood up. She knew it was time for her to stop being scared. She needed to think and find a way out. Images flashed in front of Gulabrai. The lively and playful Bharmali, her cuts and bruises, her suffering. Gulabrai took a decision. She wouldn’t give Bharmali up to the flames. Bharmali would live.
“Lado, get up,” as the night fell on the palace, Gulabrai shook Bharmali up. The shrieking and crying of the patrani had subsided, the concubines were finally shut up, the slave girls were still intoxicated. A deadly silence covered the zenana like a thick purdah.
Gulabrai lifted Bharmali’s veil and removed her ivory bangles and golden anklets. Like a snake shedding its skin, Bharmali freed herself from the insignia of her concubinage, the signs of her slavery. Then she changed into the commoner’s clothes that Gulabrai had bought. Bharmali did everything as if in a dream. She was too stunned to understand what was happening.
“This way, hurry,” Gulabrai whispered to Bharmali as the duo sneaked out of Bharmali’s quarters.
Holding their breath, they tiptoed through the long corridor. At the end of the corridor, there was a heavy metal door. With a bit of a struggle, Gulabrai opened it. A narrow, winding staircase appeared behind the door. Carrying a flickering lamp, they descended the stairs. The stairs ended in a landing with a trap door on the floor. It was one of the many secrets that only Gulabrai knew. She was born and brought up in that dungeon: the zenana not only veiled women but also a lot of secrets.
Gulabrai opened the trapdoor, and a dimly lit tunnel appeared. Bharmali stared into the tunnel, perplexed.
“This tunnel ends at the foot of the fort. You need to go now!” Gulabrai nudged Bharmali to step into the tunnel.
“No, Baisa, I will not go alone. Why can’t we both go?” Bharmali asked, confused.
“Bharmali, try to understand. It’s not possible for us both to go. No one should know that you are missing. If they figure it out, then they will hunt us down. It will be worse than death,”
“What are you saying, Baisa?” when Bharmali realized Gulabrai’s plan, she shuddered in horror. “No, No, I will not let you die,” she shrieked.
“Lado, listen to me. At the end of the tunnel, there is a small forest. Stay there until morning. Then try to get a shelter in the village. Make up some story, but don’t let people know who you really are,” Gulabrai moved into the logistics of the escape.
“No, Baisa, I will not let you die,” As Bharmali grew adamant, Gulabrai pushed her into the tunnel and shut the trapdoor tight. She heard Bharmali pounding violently from the other side. With her eyes flowing like rivers, Gulabrai stood there, silently. Her heart was being ripped into pieces. After a few hours, Gulabrai opened the trapdoor and inspected the tunnel. To her relief, Bharmali had gone.
The dawn was already upon the palace. Gulabrai slipped into the living quarters of Bharmali. She wore Bharmali’s royal couture and waited. When the first rays of the sun entered the zenana, two attendants entered the room. They were there to prepare Bharmali for the Sahamarana, the elaborate ritual of dying on the funeral pyre of the maharaja. They had never seen Bharmali, they couldn’t detect the switcheroo. Gulabrai emerged from behind the curtains of the bed. Her heart trembled like a piece of paper.
“Assume it’s your wedding day,” one of the ladies whispered to her.
Gulabrai took a deep breath as the women bathed and dressed her in Bharmali’s clothes. The heavy ghagra and choli fit Gulabrai perfectly. They adorned her with jewelry – the pearl necklace, the ivory bangles, the big, golden nose ring, the intricate waistband, and the golden anklets. Then they smeared her skin with minium mixed with gunpowder to ease the combustion.
Decked out in the royal attire, bearing cusa grass in one hand and black til in the other, Gulabrai descended into the central courtyard of the zenana. She was ready for her final journey. The zenana had become an ocean of red. The queens, concubines, and slave girls were all wearing red clothes, and were smeared with crimson-red pigment. Slowly, they made their way towards the iron gate of the zenana. For the first time, there were no arguments. There were no divisions of position or power. The impending death had united them all. As they exited the zenana, each of them dipped their hand in vermillion and pressed it against the wall. The crimson handprint was their final signature. The only sign that they had lived.
One by one, they exited the fort, following the funeral cortege of the maharaja. Double lines of soldiers stood on each side of the road, paying their final tribute to the kings and his satis. On either side of the passage, the commoners had crowded to get a glimpse of these women – who were led to the funeral pyre like a flock of meek sheep. Gulabrai lifted her eyes from behind the thick purdah and scanned the crowd. She wished to see Bharmali for one last time. Gulabrai’s eyes kept searching for Bharmali, even when the procession reached the funeral ground. The women walked thrice around the funeral pyre and finally ascended on to the vast pyre. The flames rose, and the shouts of satya15 reverberated the atmosphere.
As flames consumed her body, melted her skin, and broke her bones, Gulabrai saw that most beautiful sight – the beautiful Bharmali smiling at her.
- Zenana – the part of the palace where the royal women lived.
- Patrani – the chief queen, often the mother of the heir apparent.
- Pasvans – the concubines of a lower rank
- Pardayat – concubines of higher rank who were allowed to wear purdah like the wives of the king.
- Pachisi – A game of dice played in ancient India.
- Alta – A red pigment used by women to adorn themselves.
- Baisa– An elder sister / a respected lady
- Solah Sringar – The sixteen steps of adorning a bride before marriage
- Patars – Dancers of the royal court
- Olaganis – Singers of the royal court
- Odhni – An ornate, long piece of shawl worn with traditional Indian dresses.
- Sati Mata – In medieval India, the woman who immolates herself in on the funeral pyre of her husband used to be worshipped as the Sati Mata.
- Baradan – The slave retainer, often an elderly female.
- Lado – A way of addressing a daughter or a younger girl.
- Satya – During the ritual of sahamarana (means dying together), the women usually proclaimed the word ‘Satya’ three times before the flames engulfed them.
Featured Image Courtesy: James Atkinson
I have also read many articles about the working of a harem..can’t imagine the horror if the king was merciless. You gave it a form and your heroine was a part of the gory institution but the message I get from your story is that love triumps everything..loved your story..it must have been hard to write but thanks for writing and sharing.