Mahlaqabai Chanda: Courtesan Royale from the Deccan

The life of an outstanding woman the late 18th and early 19th century Hyderabad. She is the first woman 'sahib-e-diwan', a poet whose works have been put together as a collection.

By Salar Jung Museum

Salar Jung Museum

Portrait of Chandabibi (20th century)Salar Jung Museum

Mahlaqa Chanda : courtesan royale

Pearls fell to the floor amidst an enthralling dance performance in late eighteenth century at Poona, Deccan; the dance was ordered to be stopped by the Peshwa for the pearls to be gathered by attendants. The dancer shot back, “Chanda never picks up anything which has fallen to the ground!” and continued dancing. This is an incident from the life of Mahlaqabai Chanda; an outstanding woman of her time; late 18th and early 19th century Hyderabad. 

She was a well known poet in Persian and Urdu. She is the first woman sahib-e-diwan, a poet whose works have been put together as a collection or diwan. Her Persian works have been lost; her Urdu works survive in some libraries. Not only was she intelligent, beautiful but could sing, dance write, had a great sense of humour and a gift of repartee.

Nizam II on a Hunting Expedition (Late 18th century) by Rai VenkatachallamSalar Jung Museum

Mahlaqabai is seen in a palanquin accompanying Asaf Jahi ruler Nizam Ali Khan, Nizam II on a hunting expedition. This watercolour painting is by Rai Venkatachalam, from the late 18th century.

She was a celebrated courtesan in the Asaf Jahi court of Nizam Ali Khan, Nizam II and Sikandar Jah, Nizam III. Born in 1767 to Medabibi (also known as Raj Kunwar) and Basolat Khan Bakshi-e-awwal, a descendant of Mirza Sultan Nasr, a nobleman of Balkh (now in northern Afghanistan), who had migrated to India during Mughal emperor Shahjehan’s reign and had worked in the Mughal administration. He came to Hyderabad with Ameen-ul-umera and was killed in a war against Dawood Khan Pathan.

Medabibi had two daughters. First was Mehtab, from her first husband Haakim of Dewalha. Mehtab got married to Nawab Rukn-ud-dowla, the Prime Minister of Hyderabad. Mehtab had no children; so Medabibi gave her second daughter Chanda to her. Chanda thus grew up in the prime minister’s residence with comforts and luxuries and was called Chandabibi

Chandabibi learnt singing and dancing and grew up to be very beautiful. The Asaf Jahi ruler Nizam Ali Khan, Nizam II took Chandabibi who had learnt horse-riding and archery, along with ten of her companions with him when he went to the battles of Kolar, Nirmal and Panagal. He gave her the title Mahlaqa (visage of the moon).

Poetry from the diwan(collection) of Mahlaqabai Chanda (Early 20th century) by Ghulam Samdani KhanSalar Jung Museum

Poetic Musings

Chandabibi studied poetry under Sher Mohammed Khan Iman; music and dance from Panna Maharaj and Ustad Khushal Khan who was a descendant of Tansen. Chandabibi trained under Mir Alam, too, the then Prime Minister of Hyderabad. When Nizam Ali Khan made Hyderabad his capital, a lot of buildings, palaces and deodis were built. There were many parties and receptions where Chandabibi used to dance to the enthralment of all, she being a superb dancer. She practised a form of Deccani kathak in her dance. She could sing well, too, and rendered many ragas with ease. She had many admirers which included two rulers, peshwas, prime ministers, noblemen and poets. Chandabibi was given the status of a nobleman by the Nizam (ruler) and appointed to the umrah (the highest nobility). Given her intelligence she was frequently consulted by the rulers on policy matters.

Chandabibi was very religious and a devotee of Hazrat Ali. Her mother Meda’s mausoleum is at the foot of hillock at Maula Ali in Hyderabad, which she got constructed herself in Mughal-Rajput architectural style. Along with the mausoleum there is a mosque, a decorated pavillion and two step-wells in the complex. She is also responsible for the construction of Ashur Khana Chandabibi and another three storeyed arched step-well at Tarnaka.

Title page of Hayaat-e-Mahlaqa, Ghulam Samdani Khan, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Salar Jung Museum
Show lessRead more

She received big jagirs (tracts of land) like Nampally, Adikmet, Hyderguda etc. She started a school with 300 girl students, as she believed women should be empowered with education and be independent like her. She adopted two girls Husn Afza Bano, Haseen Laqa Bano and a boy Mohammed Maqbool. She used to organise a mela (fair) at Lingampally Bagh in Hyderabad every year for seven days where men of religion, literary repute, artisans and fakirs (ascetics) would gather and interact under her aegis, and be honoured by her. She had a love for knowledge, built a library full of books on arts and sciences and commissioned the Mahnama, a new history of the Deccan.

Her biography has been written in Urdu in ‘Hayaat-e-Mahlaqa’, by Ghulam Samdani Khan.

Mahlaqabai's tomb (Late 18th century) by Mahlaqabai ChandaSalar Jung Museum

Mahlaqa Chanda died in 1824 at 57, and was buried next to her mother’s tomb in Hyderabad, thus ending a splendid presence of an outstanding, talented woman in Asaf Jahi Deccan. Much of her personal wealth was bequeathed to orphans.

Credits: Story

1. Salar Jung Museum Bi-annual research journal, Vol. XXVII-XXVIII, 1990-1991/Alladin, Bilkiz, Hyderabad: Salar Jung Museum.
2. White Mughals/Dalrymple, William, New Delhi: Viking, 2002.
Deccan Studies, May 2010/Scott, Kugle Hyderabad: Centre for Deccan Studies.
3. INTACH Hyderabad Chapter - Heritage annual 2012/Reddy, Anuradha ed., Hyderabad: INTACH, 2012.
4. Daastan-e-Hyderabad/Varma, Anand Raj, New Delhi: Classical Publishing Company, 2017.

Credits :
Exhibition Script, Curation, and Compilation – Soma Ghosh
Photography – M. Krishnamoorthy and Bahadur Ali
Special thanks to – Dr. A. Nagender Reddy, Jt.Director, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad and all other staff.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Women in India: Unheard Stories
From pioneers of the past to innovators of the present, meet the women who have changed Indian culture forever
View theme
Google apps