Heeramandi: A Reverie of Delhi's Tawaifs, Whose Kothas Were Once Hubs of Etiquette and Learning

These kothas were not merely centers of entertainment but also spaces for private and political discussions, and hubs where art and culture thrived.
Tawaifs were an integral part of the walled city. They resided near Jama Masjid in today's Chawri Bazaar, known as 'Bazaar e Husn' (Market of Beauty).
Tawaifs were an integral part of the walled city. They resided near Jama Masjid in today's Chawri Bazaar, known as 'Bazaar e Husn' (Market of Beauty).

New Delhi- Heeramandi has taken the internet by storm, sparking a lively conversation about the tawaifs and the courtesan culture of Hindustan. The series has stirred up intriguing discussions, prompting us to revisit the forgotten heritage and 'ganga jamuni tehzeeb' of Hindustan, especially highlighting the remarkable contributions of strong, independent women who were once masters of art, music, and culture but were thrown to the margins of time.

The point I wish to highlight is the forgotten rich heritage and ‘ganga jamuni’ tehzeeb of Hindustan, and the marginalization of strong, independent women who were masters of art, music, and culture.

Tawaifs constituted one of the most respected and affluent classes of society. With influence over the nawabs, they wielded considerable power in cities.

Noble men often sent their sons to their kothas to learn etiquette and manners. These kothas were not merely centers of entertainment but also spaces for private and political discussions, and hubs where art and culture thrived.

After the 1857 revolt was quelled, the British confiscated their properties and labeled tawaifs as characterless, prostitutes, and housewreckers.
After the 1857 revolt was quelled, the British confiscated their properties and labeled tawaifs as characterless, prostitutes, and housewreckers.

Their involvement in the revolutionary movement and anti-colonial struggle, notably in the revolt of 1857, where tawaifs served as spies gathering crucial information and funds for rebels, incurred the wrath of the British.

Be it Azizun Bai of Kanpur, Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow, Vidyadhar Bai of Varanasi or many others who are unknown to history, played an active role in India's independence struggle.

After the revolt was quelled, the British confiscated their properties and labeled tawaifs as characterless, prostitutes, and housewreckers. The wealthy merchants (lalas) also saw this as an opportunity, seeking to seize their assets.

There are no more grand gatherings or lavish kothas, only dark and dull rooms. There is no music, singing, and riyas, only silence.
There are no more grand gatherings or lavish kothas, only dark and dull rooms. There is no music, singing, and riyas, only silence.

Tawaifs were an integral part of the walled city. They resided near Jama Masjid in today's Chawri Bazaar, known as 'Bazaar e Husn' (Market of Beauty).

They played a vital role in city life. While 'tawaif' is now used derogatively, it is inconceivable today that Ramlila processions used to pass through Bazaar-e-Husn.

Basant celebrations used to take place beautifully, portrayed by SLB. Very few people today know about the beautiful mosque in Old Delhi called 'Randi ki Masjid', built by Mubarak Begum, named after its popularity among the courtesans of Chawri Bazaar. This underscores that tawaifs were respected contributors to the sociocultural fabric.

Ye auratoñ meñ tavā.if to DhūñD letī haiñ tavā.ifoñ meñ inheñ aurteñ nahīñ miltīñ

  • Meena Naqvi

The descendants of these tawaifs now reside on Garstin Bastion Road, the infamous G.B. Road near Ajmeri Gate, where they were relocated in the early 1990s.

Today, no nawabs visit them; only men seeking physical gratification. There are no more grand gatherings or lavish kothas, only dark and dull rooms. There is no music, singing, and riyas, only silence.

This is nothing but yet another example of how women have been the worst victims of history and how our supposedly civilized liberal society treats women who dare to fight this men's world.

- Hitesh Kumar is a faculty member at Delhi University's Law College.

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