Ira Mukhoty’s history of women in the Mughal royalty shines light on an obscure past
A new history of the Mughal era brings to life the royal women, now lost in the depths of time
Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters Of The Sun promises that it will not be a history of the great Mughals—but, fortunately for us, that is exactly what it turns out to be. It is not the kind of history we read in school, littered with names and dates and battles, the analyses of taxes, administrative systems and agrarian reforms. But it is a history nonetheless, a softer and more hidden history about the lives and ways of the royal women who lived in the zenana and how they saw the world and viewed the always-turbulent times in which they lived. For even as the empire settled, the Mughal court was never placid or calm. Rivalries between brothers, between fathers and sons, the comings and goings of embassies from foreign lands, royal bequests and the practice of private and public religion, festivals and state occasions—all these kept the women busy, as did their own likes and dislikes and their relatively fragile positions as favourites and wielders of power in their own right.
Mukhoty goes a long way towards persuading us that these women had a profound influence on the men they birthed, loved, protected and advised. Because of who they were and what they did, how they lived out their ambitions and aspirations, they are an important part of a fuller understanding of what was, at its zenith, the grandest empire the world had ever known. Mukhoty’s heavily researched book contributes both colour and texture to this more detailed and infinitely more beautiful canvas of the Mughal period.
Typically, our knowledge of Mughal queens is restricted to Mumtaz Mahal, who inspired the empire’s greatest monument, and Nur Jahan, who helped her sometimes wayward husband rule with a firm hand. Some of us will recall Gul Badan, Babur’s daughter, who wrote about the life and times of her courageous father and unfortunate brother, Humayun. The names of a few other royal sisters and daughters crop up, usually around the lesser-known monuments of the period and in the more tragic stories of the era. Jahanara Begum, for example, lived with her father, Shah Jahan, when he was imprisoned in the Agra fort by his son, Aurangzeb, Jahanara’s brother. Zeenat Mahal, wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar, watched helplessly as the British swiftly dismantled the empire that her husband’s family had built over centuries. But, in this book, Mukhoty’s research (which appears to be a thorough reading of English translations of primary sources) and her love for her subject(s) bring many more court women to light and to life.
Although the book is laden with riches, literally and metaphorically, there are some jewels that shine especially bright. Mukhoty makes the point that as long as the Mughals remained firmly attached to their Turkic roots through language, marriage and culture, their women had more freedom. The veiled and separated zenana was formalized only after three generations of Mughals had established themselves firmly in the subcontinent. Mukhoty seems to suggest that this had much to do with the fact that relations between the emperors and local rulers were becoming ever more complex. Marriage alliances were critical tools of diplomacy and persuasion. By the time Jahangir became “the emperor of the world", the women of the court lived in physically segregated spaces. However, this did not diminish their political and social power, their personal wealth, their capacity to trade and do business across continents and cultures or become expert hunters and markswomen.
Women acquired power within the Mughal court in a variety of ways, apart from rank and the wealth bestowed upon them through imperial firmans and the grant of mansabs and jagirs. For all that the emperors were often ruthless with their blood relatives, they attached great importance to their “milk mothers", the women who breastfed them as infants. Milk mothers were accorded the same rights and privileges as the monarchs’ birth mothers and were often treated with greater respect than the stepmothers. Akbar was profoundly attached to Maham Anaga, his milk mother, and when he was still a teenager, she was effectively his regent, ruling the nascent empire with much cunning and an iron hand.
Daughters Of The Sun challenges many commonly held notions about delicate, cloistered princesses who did little other than perfume themselves and lounge on divans eating grapes and pomegranates. Even as we revel vicariously in the details of the court’s dazzle and glitter, its apparently limitless opulence and increasingly bloated extravagance, we are reminded that whether the court travelled to the cooler climes of Kashmir in the blistering summers or accompanied its men to the edges of battlefields, all its arrangements, from kitchens to entertainment, were presided over by a woman, the Padshah Begum. She was the highest-ranking woman in the Mughal court, often (but not always) the queen mother. Imagine the power she wielded, her capacity for organization, imagine, in fact, the scope of her imagination. Nur Jahan was one such Padshah Begum, as was the ill-fated Zeenat Mahal.
The royal woman conspicuous by her absence in Mukhoty’s book is one whose story we grew up on—Jodha Bai, the Rajput princess that Akbar married and with whom he fathered Salim, named after the Chishti saint whose favour he represented. In The Enchantress Of Florence, Salman Rushdie suggests, like many other writers, that Jodha did not exist, she was a figment of Akbar’s imagination, the friend and perfect companion who understood both his reality and his dreams.
But Jodha and Akbar have come to symbolize the syncretistic traditions of the middle Mughal period, a symbol that is the bulwark of modern India’s idea of its tolerant and inclusive past. If research shows that the Jodha we know did not exist, we will need to invent her. Now, more than ever, if we are to keep our faith in an India that celebrates difference rather than one that destroys it.