Mughal-era courtesans are the unsung heroes of India’s freedom struggle

In June 1857, when Indian soldiers laid siege to Cawnpore (now Kanpur), enclosing British East India Company officials, they were accompanied by a courtesan. In the midst of the confrontation, as shots whizzed around, the courtesan was seen by at least one eyewitness armed with pistols.

Azeezunbai’s fascinating story finds no mention in history textbooks. If it survives today, it is mainly in archival reports, local legends, and a paper written by Lata Singh, an associate professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Going through these resources can be like leafing through a flip book. Scattered across them is a picture of a woman who made a pivotal contribution to the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, at the forefront and behind the scenes, working as an informer, messenger and possibly even a conspirator in the Kanpur chapter of the rebellion.

A courtesan from Lucknow, Azeezunbai moved to Kanpur at a young age. There, as Singh writes, she grew close to the sepoys of the British Indian Army, particularly one Shamsuddin Khan. Testimony given to the British inquiry into the rebellion described Azeezunbai as being “intimate with men of the second cavalry” and “in the habit of riding” with armed soldiers on horseback. She was also spotted “on horseback in male attire decorated with medals, armed with a brace of pistols” during the mutiny.

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