Randi ki Masjid: The Proud Legacy of a Courtesan
Old Delhi’s Bazaar-e-Husn once attracted many men from far and near, to the kothas of the beautiful and multi-talented courtesans who graced the place. In the early 19th century, the British administrator of Delhi, David Ochterlony, fell in love with one such beauty, Mubarak Begum, whose only legacy is now enshrined in a mosque, Masjid Mubarak Begum, commonly referred to as ‘Randi ki Masjid’.
Associating the word ‘randi’ or prostitute with a mosque may be quite unfathomable today. After all, why would anyone use such a derogatory term for a sacred space?
The truth is, the word randi never had a negative connotation, to begin with. Until the mid-19th century, a randi referred to a woman who was skilled in music, poetry, dance, and a variety of other crafts. Unlike the common professional dancers, like dominis and tawaifs, randis only occasionally performed in front of the public as part of her profession. Among the courtesans, randis ideally occupied the most prominent positions and lived quite glamorous lives, always surrounded by important people. Men would swoon over these women and the latter could occasionally take them as lovers, and dismiss them as they pleased.
When the British initially came to India, some of them were extremely drawn to the Indo-Persian culture and began to imitate it in their dressing, food habits, and so on. William Dalrymple’s book ‘White Mughals’ deals with this pre-mutiny (1857) trend among the British who were trying to Indianize themselves. Some of these men were highly attracted to the courtesans and sought their company from time to time. In rare cases, they even got into long-term relationships with them. General David Ochterlony was one such ‘White Mughal’ who made India his true home and vowed to never leave it. He smoked hukkah and wore Persian attire like the Mughals. His colorful lifestyle and his eccentricity earned him the title "Loony Akhtar '', meaning crazy star.
Mubarak Begum’s death in 1878 led to the confiscation of the mosque by the British. Today, the mosque is under the care of the Delhi Wakf Board. In 2020, heavy rainfall destroyed one of the domes of Randi ki Masjid. This shows the negligence of the authorities towards this historical monument. Although the present times may not have been kind to Mubarak Begum, the status she upheld in her life cannot be disregarded. It is worth noting that not many women of her time managed to immortalize themselves in the way Mubarak Begum did, despite their resources and social status. In this context, Masjid Mubarak Begum, or Randi ki Masjid stands as a proud memory of a woman who overcame the constraints of her time and led a truly fulfilling life. Amidst the busy lanes and cacophony of Chauri Bazaar, the small mosque in red sandstone appears very distinct and somewhat odd, much like the patron herself, who stood her ground amidst the vast sea of British and Mughal men seeking to curb her influence.
He was the first British Resident or administrator of Delhi, a position he held twice. Despite being already married to twelve other Indian women, his heart found a match for the thirteenth time in Shahjahanabad's Bazaar-i-Husn, literally meaning Market of the Beauties, in a local courtesan, by the name Mahruttun Mubarak un-Nisa, popularly known as Mubarak Begum. According to some sources, Sir David was married to Mubarak Begum but after 1857 when colonial relations with the natives soured, the British denounced her as a mere mistress of the high official.
Whatever sources we have, it appears that Sir David truly loved and respected Mubarak Begum and the latter had quite an influence over Ochterlony’s life. As William Dalrymple remarked,
“Much younger than Ochterlony, she certainly appears to have had the upper hand in her relationship with the old general.”
She was called Generalee Begum, much to the displeasure of some British who despised this racial mixing of their high-class officials with the ordinary women of the streets. Perhaps, to increase her social standing and make her more honorable, Ochterlony got a mosque built in Mubarak Begum's name, which popularly came to be known as 'Randi ki Masjid', because of her professional background. Some beliefs suggest that the mosque was commissioned not by Sir David but by Mubarak Begum herself, to showcase her influence.
Randi ki Masjid was constructed sometime in 1822-23, in the present-day Hauz Qazi Chowk of Chauri Bazar in Old Delhi. Built in red sandstone and decorated with bright green arches on the doorway, the small marble-floored mosque can accommodate up to ten men. The inscription ‘Masjid Mubarak Begum’ is found under the central dome on the front, which is written in both English and Persian, signifying a strong British and Indo-Persian relationship. It is unclear if people visited her mosque to offer prayers because she had a controversial reputation among not just the British but also the Mughals. She adopted the name ‘Qudsia Begum,’ a title popularly used for the wife and queen of the Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shah. This may have severed her relations with the Mughals.
According to William Dalrymple, Mubarak Begum also actively took part in the mutiny against the British in 1857. This again could have aroused hatred towards her amongst the British. Post 1857, the status of courtesans diminished greatly with the enactment of various Acts which clubbed all dancers, singers, and other public women as prostitutes, preventing the inter-mixing of British men with the natives. It is safe to assume that Mubarak Begum also lost her influence because of these new policies and attitudes of the British.