In 1526, when the nomadic Timurid warrior-scholar Babur rode into Hindustan, his wives, sisters, daughters, aunts and distant female relatives travelled with him. These women would help establish a dynasty and empire that would rule India for the next 200 years and become a byword for opulence and grandeur. By the second half of the seventeenth century, the Mughal empire was one of the largest and richest in the world.
The Mughal women unmarried daughters, eccentric sisters, fiery milk mothers and powerful wives often worked behind the scenes and from within the Zenana, but there were some notable exceptions among them who rode into battle with their men, built stunning monuments, engaged in diplomacy, traded with foreigners and minted coins in their own names. Others wrote biographies and patronised the arts.
In daughters of the sun, we meet remarkable characters like Khanzada begum who, at sixty-five, rode on horseback through 750 kilometres of icy passes and unforgiving terrain to parley on behalf of her nephew, Humayun, Gulbadan begum, who gave us the only document written by a woman of the Mughal royal court, a rare glimpse into the harem, as well as a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of three emperors Babur, Humayun and Akbar her father, brother and nephew, Akbar's milk mothers or foster-mothers, Jiji Anaga and Maham Anaga, who shielded and guided the thirteen-year-old emperor until he came of age, Noor Jahan, 'light of the world', a widow and mother who would become Jahangir's last and favourite wife, acquiring an imperial legacy of her own and the fabulously wealthy begum sahib (princess of princesses) Jahanara, shah Jahan's favourite child, owner of the most lucrative port in medieval India and patron of one of its finest cities, Shahjahanabad.
The very first attempt to chronicle the women who played a vital role in building the Mughal empire, daughters of the sun is an illuminating and gripping history of a little known aspect of the most magnificent dynasty the world has ever known.
Ira Mukhoty is the author of Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History. She was educated in Delhi and Cambridge, where she studied Natural Sciences. After a peripatetic youth, she returned to Delhi to raise her two daughters. Living in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, she developed an interest in the evolution of mythology and history and its relevance to the status of women in India.
India was ruled for over 200 years by the Gurkani, a clan that established an empire of such magnificence, size and wealth, that it became a byword for glory around the world. But the name by which the Gurkani became rightly famous was an aberration. The dynasty was a nomadic Timurid one, as the founder, Babur, proudly traced his lineage directly to the Turkic conqueror Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane), who established an empire in the fourteenth century quite as glorious as Chinghiz Khan's. Babur referred to himself, and to his lineage, as Gurkani, from the Persianized Mongol word for guregen, or son-in-law, since some of the Timurids, including Amir Timur himself, had married Chingizid women, to add to their legitimacy. But Babur himself, and all of his descendants, male and female, were intensely proud of their Timurid lineage, very consciously evoking the Timurid charisma in various ways. Indeed, Babur thoroughly loathed his Mongol cousins, the Uzbeks, considering them brutish and uncivilized, and would have been horrified to know that his dynasty would become synonymous with an Anglicized form of Mongols-the Mughals of India.
It was while researching my first book, Heroines, that I realized the casual negligence with which we regard our history in India and the sometimes benign largesse with which we assimilate inaccuracy and fallacy as received wisdom. But the naming of things is important. It shapes the way in which we view ourselves and the place we occupy in the world. To name a thing is to magic it into being, to give it substance and weight. When the Europeans gave the name `Mughals' to Babur's dynasty, they were negligently assuming a shared Mongol inheritance for all Central Asian conquerors. One of the women I studied for my collection of essays in Heroines was Jahanara Begum, among the most accomplished women of the Mughal empire. I discovered the exact depth of my ignorance at that point-an ignorance that was also inadvertently tainted with prejudice.
The misnomer of the dynasty is only the very beginning of an enormous amount of almost whimsical misinformation that surrounds the history of the Mughals. The empire of the great Mughals-from Babur's invasion at Panipat in 1526 to the death of Aurangzeb in 1707-coincides exactly with the arrival and settling of the Europeans in India for trade and more, the elucidation of that history and the way in which we view it even today is marked by the way in which those early Europeans experienced and interpreted Mughal rule. The Europeans kept meticulous records of all their transactions with the Mughal court. They wrote detailed accounts in their letters to their holding companies and they wrote memoirs and travelogues. Jesuit missionaries arrived at the same time and they too wrote extensively of their experiences and travels. On the other hand, from the Indian point of view, it was considered indelicate, indeed outright rude, to write about royal Muslim women who were expected to maintain a decorous purdah. The Europeans, not held back by any such need for decorum, were instead fascinated by the notion of the private space of the Mughal women and indulged in some truly fervid leaps of imagination when trying to conjure up that forbidden world-the Mughal harem.
An Englishman travelling to Mecca in the seventeenth century admitted that the first question a traveller returning from the East was faced with was 'what are the women like?' And yet, when European men interacted with the Mughal court, they found themselves distanced from the affairs of women at several levels: as men, European men, they were both physically and culturally separated from the world of women. The purdah of the zenana meant that the women and the household that they inhabited were prohibited to them. Francois Bernier, a seventeenth-century French physician and meticulous observer of Shahjahanabad, admitted that though he yearned to visit the zenana, 'who is the traveller that can describe from ocular observation the interior of the building?' Moreover, since they usually did not speak Persian or Turki, Europeans could only comprehend this beguiling world through an interpreter. The nuances of culture and comportment were therefore often inaccessible to them. They could not understand the reason for a Mughal woman's influence and power, attributing it to an emperor's weakness, or worse, to incest.
The resulting chimera creation, the 'Oriental harem', was therefore a lurid and sometimes fantastical mix of bazaar gossip, stray gleanings of fact and sexual fantasy. The most frequent portrayal of this 'harem', as it was consumed eagerly by a curious audience in Europe that was beginning to be fascinated by the 'exotic East', was that of a cruel, despotic and endlessly lascivious emperor surrounded by thousands of nubile young women competing for his attention and pining away in sexual frustration. Not only was this image eagerly adopted by Western audiences, it also trickled down into the Indian consciousness through the colonial experience and the European narrative of Indian history. Thus, to this day, there is a perception that Mughal women operated within a fixed zone of influence, the domestic harem, an immutable cloistered space in which they led restricted and unfulfilled lives, from which they could seldom escape, and to which only the emperor had access. As I discovered while doing my research on the women of the great Mughals, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the zenana was an industrious, carefully calibrated and orchestrated world. The wanton world of the Europeans' imagination in which the women ruthlessly schemed against one another and wasted the hours of their days in frustrated languor was just that, a fantasy. The zenana was instead a busy, well-ordered place where each woman knew her place and her worth. It was a place where accomplished, educated women were prized; well-spoken, articulate and cultured women most likely to advance. There were intrigues, and jealousies, certainly, for how would there not be when hundreds and sometimes thousands of people lived together? But the overwhelming nature of the zenana was one of warm support and companionship, a complex, nuanced world of female complicity and understanding, one in which excellence was valued and women learned all the skills required to run a city, for there were no men within.
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