Home > How To Lounge > Books > The travels of Mughal princess Gulbadan

The travels of Mughal princess Gulbadan

In this excerpt from a new book, historian Ruby Lal explains Princess Gulbadan’s pivotal role in her nephew Akbar’s court

Detail from 'Ladies of the zenana on a roof terrace', the Kronos Collections. Photo: Wikipedia

By Ruby Lal

LAST PUBLISHED 22.02.2024  |  10:00 AM IST

The fifty-two-year-old Princess Gulbadan sat across from her nephew Emperor Akbar, waiting for her turn to speak. She was of average height, somewhat stocky in build, with distinctive straight eyebrows shading her penetrating kohl-lined eyes. She was dressed in a long flowing shirt over loose trousers, a scarf thrown over her chest and shoulders, her face exposed. Ruby and pearl necklaces adorned her.

The emperor was fully cognizant of Gulbadan’s status as a powerful elder, a key dynastic witness, and a memory holder. Bearing the wisdom of the migratory decades she spent in Afghanistan and India with her father and brother, the first two Mughal kings, she was now a matriarch in her nephew’s harem.

TRENDING STORIES

Elder and younger Mughal women, Hindu Rajput wives of the emperor, princes and princesses of many generations, sons and daughters of wives and concubines, eunuchs and midwives—all lived in different sections of the harem, which was studded with domes and cupolas raised on columns, tucked behind the walls that parted it from the imperial court. Gulbadan had spent much of her life on the move, in open country. Living behind dauntingly high harem walls was part of a recent state policy. Akbar, the mighty and all-powerful emperor, had built secluded quarters for the women of his dynasty and instituted elaborate regulations for their routine and welfare. Housing them in the splendid isolation of the new harem, he declared these peripatetic ladies to be sacred and untouchable, and hence to be kept strictly out of public view. Unapproachable women enhanced the emperor’s strength and allure. Akbar publicly dubbed them the veiled ones. By the mid-1570s, a few years into the building of Fatehpur-Sikri, all of the women had moved into their designated harem apartments. The Mughal harem was fundamental to Akbar’s plan to broadcast his image as a strong and invincible sovereign: the head of the empire, whose revered women couldn’t be seen. No longer able to travel as they had in the time of Akbar’s forefathers, the women were now harem-bound. Thus Akbar advertised his own grandeur. …

Also read: A novel with a profound sense of serenity and grace

The emperor listened intently as Gulbadan spelled out an idea. Long ago, she told him, she had made a vow to visit the Holy Places. Now she wished to travel across the seas to Mecca and Medina to fulfill her pledge to God.

Akbar knew that Gulbadan had traversed the vast, dangerous roads linking Afghanistan and northern India, had seen settlements and resettlements, had been part of caravans traveling amid welcome news as well as news of devastation, exile, and migration. Lately, living in her nephew’s harem, she had counseled the young monarch and his associates on key domestic and political affairs. It would serve Akbar’s interests if he had such an experienced and esteemed senior as an ally.

While the aunt and nephew sat talking about the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage, each embodied a different perspective. The vagabond princess Gulbadan was inquisitive. Born into a long line of peripatetic rulers, she valued movement as beneficial to freedom and to the flowering of mind and body. For most of her life, she had not known the comfort that Akbar’s stately residences provided. She had lived happily enough in tents, citadels, and gardens. Her relocation to Agra brought her to a new land, new languages, and new relationships. Rich and wondrous as Al-Hind was, it was difficult at times, especially in the exile and confinement of Akbar’s new capital Fatehpur-Sikri.

In contrast, Akbar had established the unquestioned grandeur of the Mughal Empire and tested the bounds of inherited religion and politics. A curious mix of ambition and ferocity, he was also an ardent seeker of truth and religion. Massive tension arose between the experimental emperor and the orthodox Sunni clergy. He was the first to marry numerous Hindu Rajput women to strengthen political networks. Those strategic marriages were key to his expansionist projects. His Sunni advisers, suspicious of Akbar’s eclectic inclinations, in their disapproval were insulting to Shi’a migrants from Persia and other parts of the Islamic world. Clerics weren’t the only critics.

MORE FROM THIS SECTION

view all

Also read: New on Shelves: 4 books to curl up with

Historian ‘Abd al-Qadir Badauni, who served in the emperor’s court, secretly wrote a huffy counter-narrative to the official (emperor-sanctioned) history the Akbarnama. “Hindustan is a wide place," Badauni observed, “where there is an open field for all manner of licentiousness, and no one interferes in another’s business, so that everyone can do as he pleases." This was not meant as a compliment.

Rumors spread that the emperor had turned against Islam. Reports that he had committed sacrilege, claiming to be the new Prophet, traveled to Persia, Central Asia, Portugal, and Spain. His true motivation was perhaps more spectacular. According to scriptural predictions, in 1591 an Islamic messiah would inaugurate a new epoch of peace and prosperity. Like the Ottoman Turkish sultan and many other Islamic monarchs and saints, Akbar dreamed of being declared the long-awaited Mahdi, the Renewer who would banish evil and usher in a just world order. Whichever philosophical basis for his sovereignty appealed to Akbar the most—the “Perfect Man" of philosopher Al-Arabi, the scriptural notion of the Mahdi, or the concept of divine light—all converged in the belief that he was an agent of God who would maintain the “rhythm and balance of the cosmos."

By 1577 Akbar was getting closer to his Infallibility Decree, the pronouncement that made him the supreme arbitrator in civil and ecclesiastical matters. As a godlike king, he would be the final authority on any opposition to his imperial dictates and commands. In these audacious times, he needed the blessings and support of elders like Gulbadan.

And so, when Gulbadan proposed her voyage to western Arabia, Akbar accepted the idea. He knew that navigating the waters to the Holy Cities nestled upon the Red Sea was a mammoth undertaking. Pirates regularly attacked pilgrim ships. No Mughal emperor or other Muslim monarch of the time made the pilgrimage. As heads of their respective domains, they had to stay away from such risky adventures to safeguard their lands and peoples. It was the women of royal families who often went on the pilgrimage, thus accruing blessings for the entire dynasty. A royal Mughal women’s visit would consolidate Akbar’s standing as a great and blessed Muslim emperor…

Also read: A taste of modernist Urdu publishing

Gulbadan would be the first royal Muslim woman in the history of Islamic courts to initiate a group pilgrimage for women. She knew that although the majority of pilgrims were devout, the hajj was not just about piety. Trade, politics, and religion intertwined in Mecca, a mercantile republic, precursor to Venice, Pisa, and Genoa. Seekers and mystics traveled there simply to wander and absorb the aura of the desert land where many prophets were given revelations. Sojourners, or mujawirs, spent years learning, wandering, and living in the sacred Arabian cosmos. Scholars went to gain expertise in the traditions (hadith) of the life and times of Prophet Muhammad in some of the finest schools in the Holy Cities.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan’ by Ruby Lal, published by Juggernaut Books.