Akshara Sivakumar breaks down the common misperceptions with regard to the status of women during the Mughal period and offers a well-rounded view on the same.
Mainstream Mughal historians, while investigating Mughal history, often tend to gravitate towards niches such as politics, economy and warfare. Little has been said regarding the socio-cultural aspects of Mughal life, especially with reference to women and gender studies. This article seeks to delve into the lives of Mughal women and explore what conventional Mughal historians incorrectly portrayed about the famed royal women in the Mughal era.
The portrayal of Harems by Historians
Linguistically, the word harem originates from the Arabic haram, parts of a house which men cannot visit. More specifically, it refers to the women’s quarters. Being a forbidden place, the harem naturally became an aspect of curiosity and rumour.
An initial account of the Mughal harem was provided by a historian of the name K.S. Lal via his book The Mughal Harem. While this account was the first formally published study of harems, it was not always historically accurate. According to Karuna Sharma, Lal’s interpretation of the harem reduces it to “a sequestered and exotic place where women served men (and their sexual needs).”
Ruby Lal, a prominent Mughal historian, further goes on to say, “What we have here is the portrait of a sexualized, secluded, feminine domain (albeit not for the “old and ailing”), centrally premised on a crude principle of sensual pleasure that was supposed to regulate the “private” lives of imperial men and women.”
Ruby Lal identifies this pattern again in R. Nath’s Private Lives of the Mughals (1994), where he claimed: “By a routine estimate, he (Jahangir) had nearly 300 young and beautiful women attached to his bed, an incomprehensible figure in the modern age. This shows his over-indulgence in sex and his excessive engagement in the harem [sic].” She also comments, “This received image of Mughal private life has been powerful in blinding historians to the density and variation of domestic life projected in the contemporary records, such as Gulbadan Banu Begum’s Ahval-i Humayun Badshah…. The extracts from Gulbadan’s memoir reveal a harem far different from that commonly presented to us.”
It is no doubt that male historians like K.S. Lal and R. Nath condense the harem into a place of fulfillment for the Badshah’s sexual needs and desires, where “sex orgies dominated” and women were constantly jealous of one another in attempts to attract the emperor’s attention. This description completely ignores the harem for what it actually was – “a vibrant space, fraught with tension and contestations for power” , where not men, but women held authority and command.
Gulbadan Begum, Gender Relations and Feminism
Gulbadan Banu Begum was the daughter of Babur, sister of Humayun, and aunt of Akbar. She was born in 1523 in Afghanistan and travelled to Hindustan (to Agra) at the age of six, after Babur had some substantial conquests in that region. Gulbadan was thus a close witness to the making of Mughal monarchy, seeing it through many vicissitudes – from the inception of the Mughal kingdom in the early conquests of Babur to its established splendor in Akbar’s reign. It was in this context that Gulbadan wrote her Ahval-i Humayun Badshah.
Many notable historians such as Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha have identified how Gulbadan Begum’s extremely nuanced descriptions of women and harems strikingly differ from the interpretations written by contemporary male historians. For instance, the Begum gives a detailed narration of how Hamida, Humayun’s wife, was reluctant to marry him. She portrays Hamida as a warm, impulsive individual with her own ideas, reluctant to become a queen and possibly also unwilling to marry a man much older than her.
One of the most noteworthy accounts recorded by Gulbadan in the Humayun-Nama is her meeting of Shad Begim and Mihrangaz Begim, a “startingly unconventional couple ” at the Mystic Feast. She wrote, “They had a great friendship among one another, and they used to wear men’s clothes and were adorned by various accomplishments, such as the making of thumb rings and arrows, playing polo and shooting with the bow and arrow. They also played a great many musical instruments.” This is important as this record gives us an insight on how gender roles were not adhered to in the Mughal era and how there was space for expression of gender fluidity as well.
Another notable personality in this empire was Empress Nur Jahan, the most powerful woman in 17th century India and the only woman Mughal ruler. She was dubbed a “feminist icon” by Ruby Lal, who went on to describe her as “a remarkable leader in a male-dominated world…. at a time when women rarely occupied public space” . Nur Jahan significantly helped shape public policy during her reign and brought in many “feminist” reforms such as “initiating marriages of her women companions under the age of 40 to Jahangir’s troopers and attendants, and giving those between 40 and 70 the choice of either leaving the palace to look for a husband, or staying with her” . Lal elucidates that “by offering choices to the underprivileged and to the most vulnerable inhabitants of the harem, she sparked a “feminist” moment in Mughal history.”
All of these particulars give us a vivid image of an empire that was liberal, tolerant and forbearing with respect to their customs and daily lives. This image is a stark contrast to the ones provided by male historians in today’s day and age, where the Mughals are painted as a people that were lusty, devious and narrow-minded. It is important to expand studies on the socio-cultural lives of the Mughals in order to develop a broad and unbiased understanding of one of the largest monarchies to ever rule India. It is only with such balanced and impartial learning can we fully comprehend the past lives of the stories that existed within the walls of the Mughal war rooms, courts and harems.