Sixty women were slaughtered for the sake of one war general and his belief in astrology. Yes, that is the sad story of the wives of Afzal Khan, who was a general in the army of both Mohammed Adil Shah and his son Ali Adil Shah II of Bijapur.
At one point in his career as a military leader, Chathrapathi Shivaji’s father Shahji worked for the Adil Shahis of Bijapur and fought side by side with his contemporary Afzal Khan against rebelling Nayakas (military governors who ruled small dynasties). But Shahji’s son Shivaji who had other ambitious ideas that were not necessarily supported by Shahji, started capturing territories that belonged to Bijapur. It is believed that Shahji tried to reason out with Shivaji without much success. By the time Shahji died, Shivaji was getting stronger and bolder.
Afzal Khan was sent to subdue Shivaji. No one knows for sure if they fought a war before meeting at the negotiating table or if there was only a meeting between the two with a few of their closest circle of commanders and trusted men. Afzal Khan lost his life. It is said that history is written by the victor, which is true about this historical incident too. Songs have been sung by wandering Marathi balladeers on this subject, praising Shivaji’s bravado in anticipating and reacting to Afzal Khan’s aggression by beheading him. His head was presented as a trophy to Shivaji’s mother, Jijabai and his headless body was buried in a small town in Maharashtra. The losers claim that Shivaji killed Afzal Khan in cold blood without any major provocation.
Afzal Khan was a firm believer in astrology and seems to have consulted astrologers before leaving to meet Shivaji on the battlefield. The astrologers had prophesied that he would not return from this war with Shivaji. So, believe it or not, Afzal Khan forcefully drowned his women in a water tank near his mansion, in Afzalpur, a small locality out and away from the Bijapur fort and buried them before he left to meet his own end.
Whatever the case may be, astrology or otherwise, he died, and he would have left behind 60-odd unprotected women. I do wonder if they were all his wives or simply women of his harem.
I’d read that these women were all buried and lie next to each other on a burial ground and that it was possible to visit this place and I wished to see it, little knowing that it would end up being quite a task!
We followed Google Maps only to reach a desolate place with a few houses here and there and unpaved roads that seemed to go nowhere. Locals kept pointing in all directions, and we found ourselves even driving through a wedding shamiana (cloth tent) that was in the middle of a narrow road. With me on this hunt for the cemetery was my family, patiently allowing themselves to be driven around randomly!
Just when I was overtaken with guilt and decided we must turn back, we met a man on a scooter returning from an outing with his family who asked us to wait right there while he dropped his family home and came back to lead us to the burial ground. We were unsure if he would keep his word; he was not obliged to help us. Just as we were loudly expressing all possible reasons for his not coming back, he broke our big-city mentality of not trusting anyone by reappearing on the road that he had disappeared down. We followed him till we reached a house. He beckoned a man out from his home and told him to lead us to the cemetery. We followed the man along roads with quick twists and turns that were getting bumpier, narrower and finally non-motorable. He told us confidently that the cemetery was just down that road. We expressed our gratitude, thanked him profusely and bid him farewell.
With a small flutter of hope, we decided to walk along the heaps of mud only to reach an obscure board that read ‘Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) property’ around a hedged piece of land that looked like a farm. My heart sank. I thought, here goes another piece of history under a crop. We turned back and decided to abandon the idea of finding this place and caught a lady looking at us curiously (we certainly looked out of place!). To break the stare, I asked her if she knew about the burial ground. It’s right here, madam; just keep walking down the path, she said. So we turned round one again with hope in our hearts and walked down a path with overgrown wild shrubs that seemed to become a narrow sheep track and just as we were going to lose hope, we spotted a tower with 4 small minarets!
A few steps past the tower was a gate, and there was the burial ground on a raised platform. The graves were in a neat rectangle, nearly 11 in a row, all the same size and shape, nothing spectacular about them.
On one edge of the platform there was one level of what must have been a larger building with serai-like rooms and narrow stairs on each end leading to the upper level. We climbed up and it was from this elevated level that we spotted behind the building, a second tower in a more dilapidated state than the one we saw on the way, fragments of a 3-level building around a deep-water tank with steps leading down into it, and I wondered if this was the watery grave of those women. It was eerily serene.
The entire place is under neglect, despite the ASI board we saw earlier. A new layout called Treasury Colony seems to have encroached right to the very edge (or more! who knows!!), ensuring the liquidation of historical wealth. If you find yourself in Bijapur, do visit here before this evidence of a gory historical event becomes a ghost story and no more. Given the existence of different versions of this episode (who killed whom and how, were the women drowned or slaughtered, did any of the women escape, were they all his wives…), I feel the story has already changed and might grow new layers and alter old ones. And this, dear reader is the story of my adventure to see Saat Kabr (60 graves). And oh I must add, this place is commonly called ‘Saat Khabar’, Khabar being news while Khabr being grave. Go figure!