Much of the Mughal history - from Babur’s invasion at Panipat in 1526 to the death of Aurnagzeb in 1707 - is marked by the Europeans experience and their interpretation of the glorious period. Though meticulous in keeping records of their transactions and experiences, these traders, missionaries, and ambassadors to the Mughal courts were not privy to the finer nuances of the culture and comportment of the times as they did not speak Persian or Turki, Though fascinated by the notion of the private space of the Mughal women, the Europeans could hardly comprehend the Mughal women’s influence and power as they were physically and culturally separated from the world of women. For them, it reflected an emperor’s weakness, or worse, incest.
As their understanding was loaded with whimsical misinformation and bazaar gossip, the Europeans reduced the carefully crafted world of ‘zenana’ into a ‘harem’, which only justified their perception of this forbidden space for satisfying endlessly lascivious appetite of the emperor. The image and the imagination of a place to which the polygamous emperor alone had access gained widespread acceptance as a harem. It was this misconceived notion that led many to believe that harem was a claustrophobic place where the women ruthlessly schemed against one another and wasted the hours of their days in frustrated languor, competing for attention of the emperor for pinning down their sexual frustration. Nothing could be farther from the truth, discovered Ira Mukhoty, whose research on the Mughal zenana has led her to conclude that it was instead a busy, well-ordered place where each woman knew her place and her worth. What’s more, ‘it was a place where accomplished, educated women were prized; well-spoken, articulate, and cultured women most likely to advance.’ That the harem was a sexual charged place created a void in narrative on the feminine influence on the luminous destinies of the Mughal padshahs.
Daughters of the Sun is an authoritative attempt at bringing to life the dynamic zenana, which grew from an imperial sanctuary for elderly matrons, widowed women, unmarried relatives and royal concubines to an imposing place that contributed feminine wisdom on matters of governance, trade, and literary scholarship. The book examines lives and influence of some fifteen women – over a period of almost 200 years of Mughal rule - in shaping and strengthening the empire that carefully nurtured the old Perso-Chinizid symbol of the sun. The Mughals traced their lineage through Timur and Chinghez Khan to Princess Alanquwa of Mughalistan who were believed to be impregnated by the divine light of the sun, and hence these influential women were deservedly credited for being the daughters of the sun. And, the astounding efforts of these women were suitably acknowledged by each of the Mughal emperors.
Through the rule of each of the six great Mughals, one woman of enormous prestige and respect was bestowed the title of ‘Padshah Begum’ which she used to retain till her death. Such woman was very rarely the wife of the emperor, signifying the enormous respect and gratitude the emperor had for the matriarchs of the clan, the mothers and grandmothers, for keeping the warring brothers together and empire intact. It began with the supreme sacrifice of Babur’s elder sister Khanzada who was left as a captive of the Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan, to secure Babur’s safety. Upon her return ten years later, by which time Babur had become the Emperor of Hindustan, she was bestowed the title of ‘Padshah Begum’ which she continued to hold without any stigma well into the reign of Emperor Humayun.
Mukhoty’s research pieces together that part of the Mughal history which has gone unnoticed despite the existence of extraordinary biographies of Babur and Humayun written by Gulbadan Begum, a member of the zenana and daughter of Babur and sister of Humayun, who was commissioned by Akbar for this onerous task. That the zenana had space for literary foray comes clear from Gulbadan’s account, ‘there are no rigid limitations to the women’s freedom, and the matriarchs, especially, are constantly called upon to fulfill public roles’. She further observed it ‘as a raucous place filled with camaraderie, disagreements, hurt feelings, song and laughter’.
From the secluded space of the zenana emerged some of most versatile women of the Mughal period - unmarried daughters, eccentric sisters, fiery milk mothers and powerful wives - who not only engaged in diplomacy from behind the jaalis but traded with foreigners, built stunning monuments, and joined their men in the battlefields as well. The Mughal treatment of their women had been exemplary; they held their women in gratitude for being robust and enduring in suffering along their men in periods of war and peace. The life they led and the influence they exerted contributed significantly to shaping the history of the Mughals.
Aunt Khanzada begum rode 750 kilometers on horseback braving icy winds to parley on behalf of her nephew Humayun; sister Gulbadan begum wrote the only biographies written by a woman of the Mughal court; milk mothers like Jiji Anaga and Maham Anaga shielded and guided the thirteen-year-old emperor Akbar until he came of age; favorite wife Noor Jahan ran the imperial proceedings from behind the jaali; and writer of two Sufi treatises daughter Jahanara owned the most lucrative port in medieval India. These were women of real mettle and substance, political strategists, spiritual scholars and successful entrepreneurs in their own rights. One begins to feel for these women who, despite their immense contribution, remained a footnote in history.
Daughters of the Sun uplifts these amazing women from the closet of the zenana. Mukhoty confesses ‘I did not realize that the idea of a constantly evolving and dynamic zenana would become central to this book.’ Not all women in the zenana were sexually available to the emperor. They all had a role to play, a duty to perform, and were respected and paid for their crucial jobs. However, the strength of the zenana would continue to grow as ‘it was an established custom at the Mughal court that the padshah must protect all the widows and dependent members of those who have served him.’ That there was no love life for the Mughal women in the zenana would only be an absurd figment of imagination. Curiously, however, most relations for these medieval Muslim women were based on a number of considerations – expediency, practicality, and complicated genealogical calculations. The marriage of Babur’s sister Khanzada to a nobleman was one such, a marriage of propriety and convenience.
While avoiding the titillating tales of concubines, the book makes reading the Mughal history no less intriguing, engrossing and gripping. It captures one of significant aspects of the chequered Mughal history that has been grossly ignored by the mainstream history. In a well-researched and well-crafted narrative, Ira Mukhoty fills the curious gaps in the Mughal history by swinging the male-dominated narrative away from the prevailing Eurocentric vision. In most history books that deal with the life of the Mughals, the royal harem or zenana is usually a single chapter sandwiched between the imperial court and the royal kitchen. That there was something cooking at all the times within the confines of the forbidden place is what lends historical value to this book.
By viewing history from the women’s perspective, Ira Mukhoty has opened a new window to view the complementing world of zenana in re-narrating that part of Indian history. It is must-read parallel history of the Mughal Empire and its women. The book shows that the Mughal women were not just names in dull history textbooks, but were people with emotions and ambitions, loves and jealousies, and were equally accomplished, educated, articulate and cultured.
Daughters of the Sun
by Ira Mukhoty
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi
Extent: 246, Price: Rs 699
First published in Biblio, the issue dated July-Sept 2018.