Fair position

Royal women of the Mughal period were proficient in martial arts and social etiquette, besides being capable administrators, seasoned politicians and artists, says Pramod Sangar

THE position of woman in almost every age or period has remained distinctly subordinate. Describing the status of the Rajput woman in medieval India, Col Tod in his Annals of Rajasthan commented, "To the fair of other lands, the fate of the Rajputani must appear to be one of appalling hardship. In each stage of life, death is ready to claim her; by poppy at its dawn; by the flames in the ripe years; while the safety of the interval depending on the uncertainly of war, at no period in her existence worth a 12 monthís purchase."

The status and position of Muslim women varied according to the country. The Turks, in general, gave their women a fair measure of freedom. Royal women of the Sultanate period played a dominant role. After the death of Iltutmish, Malika-a-Jahan, his wife and mother of Nasirudin, was the major power behind the rise of her sons to the throne. Iltutmishís daughter Raziya Sultana not only commanded the army against the rebel iqtadars but was also a capable administrator. Similarly, Mohd Tughlaqís wife and sister played important roles in various ways.

Women of the Mughal period were proficient in martial arts and social etiquette, besides being seasoned politicians and artists. During travels, hunting and military expeditions, the women folk often accompanied the kings and nobles. Some of them rode on horses, dressed in manly attire.

Humayunís sister and author of Humayunana, Gulbadan Begum, in her biography, refers to Mehar Angez Begum, daughter of Muzzaffar Husain Mirza, as an expert archer, polo player and musician. Babarís daughter Gulrukh Begum was a poetess of great eminence. Hamida Banu Begum, Salima Begum, Mahim, Nurjahan, Roshanara and Jahanara were some of the outstanding women, who acted with grit and firmness during critical times and saved the empire from crisis.

Mughal women of the 17th century were not averse to trade and commerce. In fact, they took a keen interest in commercial activities. While trade and commerce in the Mughal period was conducted by the business community of the country, there are instances of princess and princesses as well as nobles of the states participating in the same with gusto and interest. Royal women were attracted towards foreign trade due to its lucrative nature.

By pursuing a vigorous policy of expansion, Akbar, the real architect of the Mughal empire, converted the tottering edifice of the Delhi sultanate into a mighty empire. His innovative and dexterous policy of trade and commerce made India the commercial hub of western countries. Europeans explored the trade potential that existed in India since Akbarís time. The Mughal emperors, however, failed to realise the importance of a strong naval power, a serious flaw which was, later exploited by the European merchants.

The Mughal women of royalty were keen traders as they had their own junks (ships of distinctive Chinese built). Some of them were as heavy as 1200 tonnes. One such junk was maintained by Jahangirís mother, who was a great adventurer in the field of commerce. Her ships carried on brisk trade activity between Surat and ports on the Red Sea.

According to William Finch, the Emperorís mother, or others, acting under her protection, carried on extensive trading operations and at his time a vessel belonging to her was being laden (with indigo) for a voyage to Mocha.

One of the ships belonging to the queen mother known as Rahimi`A0carried its cargo to Mocha. In 1614 AD, once this ship was captured by the Portuguese. This ultimately resulted in a war with them. The capture of the Indian junks in the Red Sea belonging to the royalty by the Portuguese or the English was bitterly resented by the Mughal authorities. However, they were helpless in front of their superior naval power. Another ship belonging to the queen mother was robbed and later burnt though the ship had a Portuguese pass and the queen mother had a large interest in the cargo.

This time Jahangir ordered the imprisonment of all Portuguese in his dominion and the seizure of all their goods. The war ended after two years of fighting and the Portuguese agreed to make compensation and grant certain additional passes to the Mughal and native vessels proceeding to the Red Sea.

Nurjahanís role as the power behind Jahangirís throne is well known in the annals of history. Nature had endowed her with a quick understanding, a piercing intellect, versatile temper and sound common sense. She was educated and well versed in Persian literature. Her verses were limpid and flowing and these helped her capture the heart of the emperor. Writing a century later, Khafi Khan remarks that the fashion introduced by Nurjahan still governed the society and was liked by the women of royalty. She was intensely fashionable and charitable. When in power, she ruled everything. When out of power, she abstained religiously from active life. Such was the lady ó bold and graceful, fashionable and bountiful, loving and ambitious and charming and dominating. She was equally interested in sea-borne trade and took an active part with her brother Asaf Khan (father of Mumtaz Mahal), who rose to be the prime minister of Shahjahan. She maintained a number of ships and took interest in foreign trade. She dabbled in indigo and embroidered cloth trade.

The tradition was maintained by Jahanara Begum, the favourite daughter of Shahjahan, who enjoyed a privileged position. Her income came from the revenue of the affluent city of Surat, which ran into lakhs. Realising the enormous influence of Jahanara Begum, foreign traders often went to pay her their respect. She owned a number of ships and enjoyed trade privileges.

Thus we can safely conclude that the women of the Mughal royalty were not only keen traders but also knew the advantages and profits of international trade.