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Posted at: Jul 8, 2018, 1:23 AM; last updated: Jul 8, 2018, 1:23 AM (IST)

Women of Mughal Empire, unveiled

Reicha Tanwar

Conventional history writers, by and large, have not recorded the contribution of women in society and therefore their role has mostly gone unnoticed. Razia Sultan, the only woman to ascend to the throne of Delhi, successfully ruled for four years. She discarded the veil and appeared in public wearing male dress. Her short reign was a period of stability. As a historian observes, “Sultana Razia was a great monarch. She was wise, just and generous, a benefactor to her kingdom, a dispenser of justice, the protector of her subjects and leader of her armies. She was endowed with all qualities befitting a king but she was not born of the right sex, and so in the estimation of men, all these virtues were worthless.”

As Ira Mukhoty writes in the introduction to her book that it is an attempt to recreate the dynamic, changing world of the Mughal Empire from the time Babur became emperor to the beginning of the 18th century which marked the end of Aurangzeb’s reign — a period of almost two hundred years. The lives and influence of 15 women, who left their mark on the Mughal Empire and impacted the destinies of the Mughal kings, have been chronicled. In the case of the earlier Mughals, it was the older matriarchs who were the most influential, aunts and mothers like Hisar Daulat Begum, Khanzada Begum, Dildaar Begum, Gulbadan Begum, Maham Begum and Bega Begum. When Akbar became the king at only 13, a group of ‘milk mothers’ or foster mothers, became powerful, including Jiji Anaga and Maham Anaga. Later, as the kings settled in their growing empire, their wives gained influence. So there was Harkha Bai, Salma Sultan Begum and the famous Noor Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. Finally, as the empire became truly luminescent, unmarried daughters became powerful, Jahanara Begum and Roshanara Begum gained fame and clout. Under the last of the great Mughals, Aurangzeb, there are the waning stars, his daughters Zeb-un-Nisa Begum and Zeenat-un-Nisa begum. The early Mughals, Babur and Humayun, had enormous respect for the matriarchs of the clan, their mothers and grandmothers, whose advice often helped keep warring brothers together.

One of the earliest women to travel into Hindustan on horseback was Khanzada, Babur’s elder sister. Babur and his son Humayun, both revered Khanzada because of the sacrifice she made, when she was left behind with the Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan, to secure Babur’s safety. The Mughals were tenacious in their gratitude towards the matriarchs of their clan who were robust, physically inured to hardship and willing to suffer their menfolk’s privations, alongside them. They were pragmatic about women who fell to an enemy unlike their contemporaries, the Rajputs, who invested so heavily in their women’s chastity that death through sati/jauhar was preferred to loss of honour to an enemy.

There was no clear separation of public and private space for these early Mughals. The women created a home on the move — travelling while pregnant, delivering babies, arranging marriages and parlaying with errant sons and brothers. Maham Begum, Dildar Begum and Gulrukh Begum, Babur’s principal wives and his concubines, bore his children on the move, harried by enemies.

The sources to piece together the life of the Mughal women are available but they have been overlooked. Gulbadan Begum, daughter of Babur and Humayun’s sister, was asked by Akbar, her grandnephew, to write a biography of Babur and Humayun called Humayun nama that has been translated into English from Persian is a major source.

Another important source for the account of the women of this era is Abd-al-Qadir Badauni’s biography of Akbar. It reports that the Rajput women that Akbar married, particularly Harkha Bai, brought with them their Vedic fires, sun worship and vegetarianism, marriage rituals and other customs. One of the reasons cited for the misinformation that surrounds the history of the Mughals from 1526 onwards – Babur’s invasion at Panipat to the death of Aurungzeb in 1707 — coincides with the arrival of the Europeans in India for trade. The Europeans kept meticulous records of their transactions with the Mughal court. They wrote detailed accounts in their memoirs and travelogues. Jesuit missionaries arrived at the same time and they, too, wrote extensively of their experiences.

On the other hand, it was considered indelicate to write about Muslim royal women who were in purdah from the Indian point of view. Therefore, the nuances of culture and deportment were often inaccessible to the Europeans. Hence there is a European narrative of Indian history which has also trickled down into the Indian subconscious.

Mukhoty ensures a comfortable narrative. Her style and language reveal a passion for unfolding the important roles that the women of the Mughal Empire played, a combination of history and drama. It must, of course, be said that the study, all its good documentation apart, is not necessarily a conventional history. This gives it the added advantage of being of interest to the ordinary or general reader as such.

The book is well produced, particularly the images of the period. Put together, it is an excellent volume.

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