The Amazons of Hyderabad

The Guardnees of the Zenana, a.k.a. the Zafer Paltan, and the battle of Kharda

Sometimes, my search for information takes me to unrelated but strange and interesting stories, and this is one of them. It has nothing to do with the establishment of the Amazon office in Hyderabad and deals with something which pre-independence travelers to the princely states, found curious, amusing, interesting, and took note of. Its connections to the royal Harem and/or the Zenana of the immensely rich Nizams of Hyderabad made it even more interesting to the lay reader.

First a bit about the Amazons of Scythia, who were part and parcel of Greek mythology. They were considered to be fierce female warriors and while many believed they were just myths and never existed, things took a new turn in the 1990s, when archaeologists began identifying ancient female skeletons buried in warrior graves in the same region. Much later, the Amazon region (and river) in South America were discovered and named so, after explorer Francisco de Orellana encountered female warriors who were - very white and tall, with very long hair braided and wound about their heads. They were robust, went naked with their private parts covered, and with their bows and arrows in their hands, doing as much fighting as ten Indian men.

Anyway, over time, the name Amazon became the name of our very famous contemporary conglomerate which supplies us anything we can think of - goods, books, and audio-visual media, after Bezos decided that his company should be renamed after that large river, changing it from Cadebra to Amazon. Keeping all that aside, note that this article is all about the so-called Zaffer Paltan, or the Amazons of Hyderabad as some colonials called them, and as you will gather soon enough, they were not fierce warriors but were the Nizam’s guardians of chastity.

To get to the story, we have to first cover a little ground on the Nizams of Hyderabad and how they rose to prominence. Abid Khan of Turkmenistan, connected to the bloodline of Abu Bakr, the first Khalifa or Caliph of Islam happened to meet the then young prince Aurangzeb, resulting in a long-lasting relationship. After the death of Aurangzeb, Asaf Jha the descendant claimed the area thence known as Hyderabad and established his own dynasty and kingdom in the region. Asaf Jha II continued the reign and was involved in not only numerous conflicts with the Mahrattas, but also in bringing the East India Company to the area.

Chowmahalla Palace

As we can gather, this Nizam had a sizeable harem of some 500 vivacious beauties from the world over housed within a large Zenana or women’s quarters, in the palace grounds. The special Women’s regiments to guard the Zenana were created by this Nizam - Ali Khan Asaf Jha, and these regiments were later known as the Zaffar Paltan, the victorious platoon or the Nizam’s Urdubegis. (Mrs Poter visiting the Zenana later in 1891 describes the quarters, click on this link to read it. While there were mentions of male guards or eunuchs, the first guards were the 2,000 strong all-women Zaffer Paltan. They were, in those days, smartly attired, well trained and armed with weapons.

The first detailed description of this regiment comes from an official publication which stated - What can be said to the existence of a corps of female infantry at Hyderabad, regularly trained in the manual and platoon exercises, and in the performance of elementary movements? “The late Nizam had two battalions of female Sepoys of one thousand each, which mounted guard in the interior of the palace, and accompanied the ladies of his family, whenever they moved. They were with the Nizam during the war with the Mahrattas in 1795, and were present at the Battle of Kurdlah (Kharda), where, at least, they did not behave worse than the rest of the army. One of these battalions was commanded by Mama Burrun, and the other by Mama Chumbebee, two of the principal female attendants of the Nizam's family. The present Nizam still keeps up a reduced establishment of those women; and Moneer-ool-Moolk has also a party of them. They are dressed as our Sepoys formerly used to be, and carry muskets; and they do the French exercise with tolerable correctness. They are called Zuffer Pultuns, the victorious battalions, and the women composing them are called Gardunees, a corruption from our word guard. Their pay is five rupees a month."

Julian James Cotton writing in the Calcutta review adds - Female sentries, dressed something like Madras sepoys, were on guard before the doors, and about twenty or thirty women were drawn up before a guard-room in sight - The Nizam's harem of six hundred ladies was guarded by an Amazonian corps known as the Zuffer-pultan (regiment of victory). Like a similar body in the service of Runjeet Singh, they wore uniforms resembling those of the Company's sepoys, and could perform the manual and platoon exercises with great smartness, and deliver a volley with precision. They showed conspicuous steadiness in action on more than one occasion. Their representatives of today, discharge the comparatively unexciting duties of State musicians (as depicted in the second picture), although they still occasionally act as gentries at ceremonial functions.

Asaf Jha II
George Burton though was notably wry, in his remark - They (the British troops) fought in the presence of the Nizam's corps of Amazons, known as the Zafar Paltan, or victorious battalions, who did not behave any worse than the remainder of the army on that occasion. It does not appear whether the Amazons earned the distinguished appellation of Zafar Paltan by the glory of their deeds, or whether it was merely a tribute to what should have been the gentler sex. They have long since been disbanded, the place of muskets on their shoulders being taken by smiling infants.

So, we can now figure that the platoons did participate, at least once in the Nizam’s regular battles with the Mahrattas. The story of what happened in that battle (the reason why they went to war is equally curious!) at Kharda (near Ahmednagar) is quite interesting and somewhat unique.

Ijjat ka sawal - Battle of Kharda -1795

The Nizam’s large army, all the associated retinue, including his harem and his dancing girls, trundled on, in the direction of Poona, along the banks of the River Manjira, while the equally large Mahratta forces led by Kerkar lumbered slowly towards them. To protect the harem, the platoons of women soldiers clad in red coats marched alongside the covered howdahs perched on many elephants. Leading the harem was Bakshi Begum, the Nizam’s senior wife. Now don’t ask me why the Nizam went to all this trouble, perhaps the palace life was too unexciting, and the women wanted some adventure, I don’t know, this was the practice in those days and we know that from some Mughal war accounts as well. The Zaffer paltan was commanded by Mama Barun and Mama Champa, and the former, Mama Barun, was one of the two senior aseels or wetnurses of the royal family.

It was on the 14th March 1795, that the Nizam’s Army arrived at the top of a ridge known as the Moori ghat and looking down, saw the vast Mahratta Army encampment below them. The next day, fighting orders were given and the French troops in each camp started to fire upon each other. As you may have gathered, both parties employed French mercenaries, one lot being Bourbon French commanded by de Boigne and the other Republican French belonging to the Nizam, led by Francois Raymond. Raymond’s twelve newly raised infantry regiments as we read (in Dalrymple’s account) used their higher altitude to great effect, showering de Boigne’s flanks with sprays of grapeshot, but Raymond’s forces were assailed by arrows fired by the Bhonsle’s bowmen from the other flank.

As we can read from various accounts, the Women’s Regiments were ordered to descend and so, the Zuffur Plutun or Victorious Battalion advanced equally steadily downhill with their muskets, and succeeded in holding their own against the Maratha right wing. As the sun set, the Nizam, deciding that it was late, signaled a stop to the firing.  The tired and spent warriors settled down for the night in their tents. You would imagine that they slept through an uneventful night, dreaming of succulent food and other thoughts of Hyderabad, but what happened was just the opposite, it turned out to be very eventful when some intermittent cannon firing by the Sindhias took place.

The already queasy Bakshi Begum and some others woke up startled at around 11PM hearing cannonade and went on to have a nervous breakdown, terrified for her life, and screaming that she wanted to get out with the rest of the women. If the Nizam did not listen to her or get them out right away, she would go out of the tent, remove her dress and expose herself to the Mahrattas!! How about that!

The Nizam had his honor to preserve and had no plans to allow his senior wife to carry on with her threat. The retinue hastily moved on to a nearby indefensible and half-ruined Kharda fort, for it was the only somewhat hardened shelter available nearby, and which lay at the very bottom of Moori Ghat, just over three miles behind the front lines.

During the panic and confusion of the Nizam’s inexplicable retreat, a small party of Marathas looking for water stumbled on a Nizam’s picket, and the brief exchange of fire in the dark was enough to throw the remainder of the Nizam’s troops into a complete panic. They rushed back towards the Kharda Fort, leaving all their guns, baggage camels, ammunition wagons, stores, and food behind them. The Maratha Pindaris moved in to loot the deserted camps.

The Mahratta scouts looking for water got back and after the sun rose, much to the surprise of the Mahrattas the Nizam’s army had fled to the Kharda fort. The Nizam was pinned in the fort with a small force inside, while the major part of his army remained outside. The fort was blockaded by the advance troops of the Peshwa under Sindhia.

Kharda Fort
The fate of the people in the fort after the said event turned out to be quite miserable, they were trapped, the siege lasted 17-22 days and many died of starvation and disease as negotiations between the Mahrattas and the Nizam got extended. Finally, when they ran out of food or water, the Nizam and his entourage surrendered. The Nizam’s minister Azeem-ul-omrah was handed over to the Mahrattas.

I must add here that some accounts of the battle at Kharda, perhaps revisionist, do not mention the begum’s disrobing threat as the real reason for the Nizam’s withdrawal, and try to point out that the Nizam had fled due to the ferocity of the Mahratta attack. Interestingly the Peshwa saw through all this and reacted to the Nana later - "I grieve to observe such degeneracy as there must be on both the sides, when such a disgraceful submission has been made by the Moghuls and our soldiers celebrate a victory obtained without effort”. It must also to be added here that the British stayed away from the fight and did not support the Nizam, who incidentally was under their protection.

As reparations, the Nizam had to cede much of his territories to the Mahrattas and pay some 3 crores compensation. But as it transpired, the 21-year-old Peshwa Madhava Rao II fell off his balcony or threw himself off it, the same year, not able to carry on with Nana Fadnavis. A lot of in-fighting followed, which enabled the Nizam to evade most of the payments, as well as the promised transfer of territory to the Mahrattas. This battle of Kharda was incidentally one of the last among the Nizam-Mahratta wars.

Later on, in 1804 – the Amazons were to figure in more palace intrigue when they were deployed to extract the senior begum Sarwar Afza Begum from her palace and to search for jewelry that had been secreted in her palace, wrongly. These female guards had to resort to violence and dragged the screaming begum out, after which the floor was dug up to reveal the jewels. It appears that they found these jewels, an expensive pearl armband, 35,000 gold mohurs, 50,000 pagodas, 7 lacs and 92 thousand rupees, gold vessels as well as a bejeweled howdah with pearls. So, we can see that they were indeed powerful and used for maintaining law and order in the Zenana. We can see that they were employed to assist in the case of the abduction of Kilpatrick’s wife

British commentators who saw the Zuffur Plutun on parade tended to make snide remarks about their ‘ridiculous appearance’. Those who saw them in action, however, were quite surprised by the women’s ferocity, discipline and effectiveness: Henry Russell later quoted ‘an officer of high rank in the King’s Army [who] once said on seeing a party of them that they would put half the native corps in India to the Blush’.

Dalrymple tells us that Mama Champa, featured in a palace painting, was a tall, large-breasted and large-bottomed woman with powerful, masculine hands and an extremely fearsome expression on her face, began her career as the Nizam’s nurse, was very intelligent, due to which his Highness entrusted many of the works of state to her. Mama Barun on the other hand, was a little older, more stooped and emaciated, with her face speckled by smallpox; but she is made to appear wise and canny, with a hooked nose and the hint of a smile at the edges of her mouth. Her monthly salary was raised from twelve rupees to forty and she was given a palanquin as well as the land of Champ Paith and marriage with Faujdar Khan, the master of elephant fighting. She seems to have accumulated a massive fortune in presents and bribes from courtiers anxious to acquire her services!!

Zafar Paltan over time…

When Alexis Soltykoff visited India in 1841, he chanced upon the Zaffar paltan while visiting Hyderabad. A chapter in his book loosely translated from French provides a fascinating aside. (The sketch of the paltan women, based on his painting however shows the girls with bare feet and British uniforms, while the description indicates curved slippers of the Mughal style)

Yesterday, while going, to see one of the reserved gardens of Nyzam, in the company of Colonel Macdoraid, we greeted each other, at the entrance, by a row, young soldiers, dressed in red, who presented me with arms, to the sound of drums and bugles. The extreme youth, the delicate air of these soldiers attracted my attention; and what was my surprise when I learned that they were women, a regiment of amazons, specially assigned to guard the royal harem! I then examined, with keen curiosity, this squad of armed girls. They had shakos red and trimmed with green plume, under which were seen from behind their beautiful black braids, curled en masse round; their complexion was yellowish; and their delicate features but slightly flattened, attested to their Mongolian origin.

Their slender body stood out under their cloth uniform red, and on their breasts crossed the white buffalo; the pants were green, and on their bare feet were embroidered slippers with curved points, which they did not keep in the apartments. They held bayonet rifles over their shoulders. Their hair in a braid and the slightly developed chest were the only clues by which we could recognize their sex; had it not been for this, they would have been taken for very young people.

I asked the prime minister of Nyzam for permission to make a sketch of it, and he was kind enough to send a detachment of about twenty in one of the numerous courtyards of its vast palace, in the middle of which was a piece of water. There they first performed some maneuvers to the sound of their war music; and then I made a sketch of it very hastily so as not to tiring, but with the accuracy of which I am quite happy, even with regard to the resemblance of the heads..

Mrs Major Clemons writing in 1841 adds - The first thing we were shown excited our surprise and attracted our particular attention: it was the Nizam's regiment of women, a fine and really handsome corps, which is appointed as guard over the seraglio. They turned out to receive us, went through their exercises, and performed some maneuvers in a most soldier-like manner. Their dress consists of a kind of tunic, and loose trousers, military cap and other accouterments of a soldier, but bare-footed. The band was formed of all ages, and the bass drummer was a remarkably stout handsome woman.

Capt Wilson is uncharitable in his remarks - The sentries may at all times be observed very alert on their posts, excepting in the case of those who may have an infant to take care of, when, perhaps, one hand may be employed in holding a musket, whilst the other is engaged in nursing. Women in this condition must find it a very difficult matter to conduct their duties to the satisfaction of their superiors. The husbands of these Amazons have nothing whatever to say to the regiment, and follow their own occupations, either under government, or upon their own responsibility!!

Narendra Luther, the chronicler of Hyderabad concludes - In course of time the practice was ended, the supervision of the seraglio being best done by eunuchs according to the age-old practice. The eunuchs were specially selected for this job because they were incapable of any `mischief' with the ladies of the harem. They also ensured the effective observation of the code of morality by them.

As time went by and the Nizam’s power and revenues reduced, these Amazons faded out gradually. In 1861, Briggs, Assistant Resident at Hyderabad saw six of those girls in the Nizam’s Paigah and mentions that while doing a drill for him, they giggled in shyness like any other girl. At this time, they looked quite unmilitary - with chappals for footwear, unpressed trousers, and wielding bamboo staves. The picture of these onetime Amazon’s, as you can see above, is quite unflattering.


Memoir of the Operations of the British Army in India: During the Mahratta wars 1817-1819 - Valentine Blacker
Scotland and the Indian Empire: Politics, Scholarship and the Military in Making British India - Alan Tritton
White Mughals – William Dalrymple
Voyages dans l'inde - le prince Alexis Soltykoff
Ledendotes of Hyderabad – Narendra Luther
The battle of Kharda and its significance – K Sajjan Lal

Pictures - The picture of the paltan in British uniforms comes from the Harper’s weekly and is supposedly based on the Soltykoff sketch, but seems to have been manipulated by the Brit artist who did them in 1859 or thereabouts. The second picture is sourced from N Luther’s book Lendotes, page 206 is reproduced after obtaining kind permission (acknowledged with thanks) from the late historian’s son Rahul Luther. PLS DO NOT COPY..

The Chowmahalla palace was where Asaf Jha II lived - The Palace complex is made up of four palaces: the Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahniyat Mahal and Aftab Mahal, all arranged around a central courtyard garden with a marble cistern in the center. The Chaumhalla Palace was commenced in 1750 with later additions by successive Nizams. The palace has four quadrangles and the Zenana is situated beyond the third.