Hidden Stories: Ira Mukhoty Lifts The Veil On Women Of The Mughal Zenanas

Posted: June 29, 2018

Ira Mukhoty brings us hitherto unknown stories of the royal Mughal women in Daughters of the Sun, some of who would have made better emperors than their men.

The women of the mighty Mughal empire feature only occasionally in the narrative of history, but what we know is certainly not all that was.

Strong and independent. Fully capable of handling giant architecture projects, welfare schemes and a well-oiled gigantic household. Industrious, creative, brave and resourceful. These are the phrases that best describe the women who were consorts, daughters and protectors of the Mughal line of rule.

Where were the women?

We only get to hear of the great Mughal emperors, but seldom do we hear about the women in their lives. Though little is known about these women, they nevertheless played a pivotal role in the rise of the Mughal empire. Offering support, strength and succour to the rulers, some of them were worthy to be emperors themselves save for their gender.

Ira Mukhoty’s book Daughters of The Sun is a well-researched and well written book which throws light on the lesser known occupants of the zenanas, or more derogatorily known, ‘harems’ of India’s Mughal rulers, and bringing to life an era long gone by but still surrounded by falsehoods and half-truths. Mukhoty, armed with facts and research but never boring presents an alternative narrative of the women who supported, fought with and were contemporaries of the Mughals.

Women’s collectives that made a difference

A common perception of the women who inhabited the household of the emperors is that of shy, shrinking violets who were over-protected and entrusted only with the job of producing progeny or pleasing the emperor. Nothing could be further from the truth. We meet a women’s collective who were involved in supporting the emperors on all matters, writing historical biographies, building monuments, and much more. Women of their own time who made their own plans. They were all assigned tasks and duties, and were responsible for ensuring they were carried out, not unlike members of a collective.

This collective was almost often headed by an older lady- in Babur’s case his grandmother, in Humayun’s and in Akbar’s instance their aunts. Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb were ably assisted by their daughters and sister respectively and Jehangir by his wife and mother.

An ‘European’ model of the zenana is a mistake

Mukhoty’s thoughts in the introduction are worth pondering on. “…I realized the casual negligence with which we regard our history in India and the sometimes benign largesse with which we assimilate inaccuracy and fallacy as received wisdom.”

We have till now adopted the European interpretation of the zenana or ‘haraman‘ (household) as Babur called it. The Europeans saw the harem as the king’s chamber of indolence and lust, pointing to the debauched lifestyles of the emperors. When in fact the harem or haraman was a close knit group  of women with the interest of the emperor and the empire at its core. It was inhabited not just with nubile beauties, but “…elderly matrons, young wives, children, servants, widowed relatives, divorced sisters and unmarried royal relatives.”

Hardy women, not shrinking violets

Babur’s household for example travelled with him across rugged mountains, treacherous passes and into the plains of India. Four years after Babur fought in India he called for his haraman and they picked up their belongings leaving behind the comfortable and familiar environs of Kabul to the hot plains of Agra on his bidding.

Gulbadan, Akbar’s aunt and Humayun’s sister is a key source and author of the definitive Humayun Nama which gives details into the life in the zenana. It is through her we learn more about Babur as a gentle father rather than the warrior. We learn that Babur relied on his grandmother immensely, consulting her in matters of state and war. The gentler, more accommodating Humayun turned to his aunt Khanzada Begum for advice.

The royal Mughal women – what do we know now?

The book introduces to us Humayun’s young bride (all of fifteen when she had Akbar) Hamida Banu who whilst pregnant roams with her husband and his dwindling supporters, and follows him half-starved, homeless and thirsty as Humayun retreats back to Kabul for refuge. In our minds the image of a pampered, comfortable queen with no worries is destroyed. It is this same Hamida Banu who loved to ride out to meet her son Akbar as he camped at battle sites.

Almost as important to Akbar as his birth mother was his wet nurse Maham Anagha, who raised him as her own. Another of Akbar’s wet nurse was Jija Anagha. These women were accorded great honour and prestige by the emperor. So much so that when Jija Anagha died, Akbar shaved his head in respect. These foster mothers played an important role in making the emperor who he was, though they lost that clout when their progeny refused to fully accept Akbar’s superiority.

While the emperors held great power, bestowing their largesse on the many members of their household, this power was in reality buttressed by the many supporting hands and minds of the women in their life, their urge to be deeply loyal to their emperor but without political ambitions of their own. More often than not they become pawns in the games that their fathers, brothers, and sons play, but they constantly try to carve their own identity.

But the shift happens…

We also see the shift from Babur’s fierce nomadic tribe of women who are on an almost equal footing with him, to the sanitised image that the queens are expected to maintain as we go down the Mughal line. We see this shift with the birth of prince Salim also known as Jehangir.

“But for the first time in the history of the Mughal empire , there is no record whatsoever, of the name of the mother of this much-desired child. While Akbar is feted in a fulsome manner for the birth of his son, his wife, the mother of the child is never named. The time when Maham Begum and Dildar Begum’s pregnancies and sad losses are openly discussed is long gone. The queen mother is now more than just a mortal woman who suffers and gives birth. She is the sacrosanct symbol of a resplendent institution.”

Yet Shah Jahan’s daughters the shehzaadis (princesses) Jahanara and Roshanara compete for their father’s affections and ear. Though they can never ascend the peacock throne, they want to be a force behind it. Even as power ebbs from Shah Jahan and moves to the ruthless Aurangzeb, Jahanara, who tended to her dying father, now aligns herself with her brother. She is a great patron of the arts and one wonders: what if she had been a man.

Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un-Nisa is an accomplished and erudite woman, having recited the Quran from memory as a child. She is much loved by him, given a hefty allowance when she grows up and becomes a patron of writers, poets and artists. Art and culture thrive in her patronage and she is quite a contrast to her warring, restless father. Yet, when Aurangzeb learns of his favourite daughter’s complicity in a mutiny he acts swiftly and imprisons her. She died a lonely and forgotten death thereon, a far cry from the highly respected nomadic Timurid grandmother and aunts, whose voices were listened to.

‘Hindustani’ women too

The book details not only the life of the Mughal women and the emperors, but we also get a glimpse into the lives of those who opposed them.

The brave queen Durgavati of Gondwana who killed herself rather than be captured in battle. The women who were forced to commit jauhar (mass self immolation) or were killed by the sword rather than be captured by the Mughals. The losing Rajput men whose war cries rose in a shrill pitch, defending honour even in the face of certain defeat and death.

Babur was astonished by the valour and sense of honour of the Hindustani people. Akbar was too, which is why he made alliances by marrying several Rajput princesses and giving his daughters in marriage to Rajput households. His wife Harka Bai, mother to Jehangir, deeply influenced the emperor. Akbar, we learn to our surprise prayed to fire, maintained regular fasts and observed a blend of Muslim and Hindu religious practices.

We are indeed indebted to Ira Mukhoty for revealing the virtually unknown but equally important lives of the women who breathed life, fought for, and made peace and alliances for the emperors of the Mughal empire. They quietly wove the threads of art, architecture, writing, elegant fashion, administration and beauty into the history of India without being lauded or acknowledged for their efforts, until now.

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Top image via Goodreads and book cover via Amazon

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Sheeba is the co-founder and editor at Little Kulture, a website dedicated to discovering

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