Maldives-Bengal trade flourished under Maldivian Queen Khadeeja of Bengal origin

Maldives-Bengal trade flourished under Maldivian Queen Khadeeja of Bengal origin

By Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/

Conventional historians have had a tendency to ignore women rulers in a patriarchal world. For example, the Queens of the Islamic country of the Maldives are not celebrated as they should be. Maldives was in fact known for its queens. Accounts of foreign travelers from the 9 th., to the 14 Century had labelled the Maldives as Mahiladwipa  the Sanskrit term for ‘Island of Women’.

The influence of women in Maldivian administration in early times can be found in the writings of the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, who documented his ‘surprise’ in finding a woman as a ruler when he arrived in the islands in the 14 th., Century.

Ibn Battutah mentions Queen Sultana Khadeeja Rehendhi Kabaidhi Kilege who ruled for thirty years, standing up against enemies and divisive forces in her kingdom and within her own family.

Sultana Khadeeja traced her ancestry to “Bengal”, a term which at the time referred to the present-day Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha. Under her long reign, trade with her ancestral home Bengal flourished.She imported rice from Bengal and exported cowries shells when the cowrie was international currency.

She was the first female ruler of the Theemuge dynasty and also the longest ruling queen of the island, though she was betrayed and overthrown by her husbands twice. Sultana Khadeeja ruled between- 1347-1380.

Historically, India, Bangladesh and the Maldives had trade relations for Centuries. The earliest Arabic account of South East Asia and China, “Akbar alSin Wa I-Hind, dated 851 BC mentions the Maldives comprising 1900 islands.

Ancient Indo Maldivian trading routes

In course of time, the Maldives became an important trading hub in the Indian Ocean. One of the most extensive accounts of the trading network is found in the works of Ibn Battuta  who visited Maldives in 1347. It is from Battutah’s writings that one gets to know that the female ruler, Queen Khadeeja, ran one of the most successful trading networks linking the Maldives with Bengal.

Khadeeja was a descendant of the nobility of Bengal. According to Battutah she was the granddaughter of a Sultan of Bengal and that she made money and acquired political power through overseas trade using cowries shells as a trading item and as currency.

Maldives-Bengal trade began in the 9 th.,Century and continued till the early part of the 20 th., Century. The most important item of export from Bengal was rice. Bengal  imported cowrie shells.

Battutah also mentions that even the soldiers of Khadeeja’s army were paid in rice from Bengal.

Upon hearing about the travels and the arrival of Battutah in the Maldives and also hearing about his short stay in the palace of the Sultan of Delhi in India, Queen Khadeeja invited him to her Durbar for a meeting. She requested Battutah to stay back in Maldives as the Qazi or the Chief Justice of Maldives. Battuta accepted the offer and remained in the Maldives as a Chief Justice and travelled across the country. He had four wives, the last one being the sister of Queen Khadeeja.

Much of the legal, administrative and judicial system of that era can be gleaned from the writings of Battutah. He stayed in the island-country for 14 months and finally left in 1349. He also made a second visit later on, but it was of a very short duration.

According to H.A.R. Gibb’s The Travels of Ibn Battuta AD 1325-1354 (London. Hakluyt Society, p.241–254), Khadeeja became the Queen of Maldives thrice, in 1347, 1364 and 1376. According to popular lore she became the queen by removing her brother Ahmad.

1978 Maldivian postage stamp depicting am ancient Maldivian trading vessel

Ibn Battutah records that Khadeeja was the eldest daughter of Sultan Jalaluddin Umar Veer who was the son of Sultan Salahuddin. Salahuddin was connected to Bengal as he was the son of a noble family from Bengal.

Problems started after the death of Sultan Jalaluddin in 1341. Though his son Ahmed ascended the throne, he was an extremely unpopular. Finally, he was overthrown. In the meantime, the eldest daughter of the Sultan, Khadeeja, had married the Vizier Al-Qaleeb Mohamed Jamalud-Din. After the death of Ahmad, Khadeeja became Sultana.

According to Battutah,  in the initial years of her reign, the Sultana ruled alone, but gradually her husband Jamal took over. However Khadeeja also exercised much power. Orders were issued solely in her name and even Friday khutbahs were said in her honour.

In the 16 th.year of her reign in 1363, Jamal removed Khadeeja and usurped the throne. Khadeeja retaliated by assassinating him within a year and regained power in 1364.

Thus began the second phase of Khadeeja’s reign,  which lasted till 1374. During the second phase, she married her Prime Minister, Abdullah-ibn Mohammead al-Maqrami.

Ibn Battutah had visited the Maldives at this time. The Maldivians treated him well as was the case earlier. He also got married to one of the sisters of Sultana Khadeeja.

But as fate would have it, the second husband of Khadeeja also betrayed her and forced her to abdicate in 1374 and placed himself on the throne. But Khadeeja was successful in removing him and killing him in 1376.

Thereafter she ruled alone till 1380. After her death, her sister, Fatima reigned as the Sultana between1380 and 1383.

Sultana Khadeeja became a monarch thrice and maintained her position against all odds, and managed to carry on a flourishing overseas trade.

Interestingly enough, Battutah also notes that the Maldivians have a matrilineal social set-up. He noted the  freedom enjoyed by women. There was freedom to choose one’s clothing and participate in social activities.

Sultana Khadeeja is still regarded as a brave queen and continues to inspire feminist thoughts and movements in the Maldives.