New book offers fascinating account on wives, daughters and sisters of Mughal emperors
A new book by Gurgaon-based author Ira Mukhoty, Daughters of the Sun (Aleph Book Company), is a first-of-its-kind attempt to chronicle the role of the women in building the empire
Tight jackets and tunics in diaphanous materials replaced the more pragmatic, flowing qabas, Jahangir did not marry anyone after Noor Jahan, Women wore jamas of fine muslin, so sought-after that they were named running water and night dew. Pics/Courtesy Aleph
While we all remember the story of 16th century Timurid warrior and scholar Babur's arduous journey from Kabul to Punjab, from where he waged war on Delhi to become the first Emperor of the Mughal dynasty, little is known of the wives, sisters, daughters and aunts, who travelled with him, and helped him establish his empire in the Indian sub-continent.
A new book by Gurgaon-based author Ira Mukhoty, Daughters of the Sun (Aleph Book Company), is a first-of-its-kind attempt to chronicle the role of the women in building the empire, and whose stories have suffered the neglect of both, history and memory. "Women, in general, are a misremembered group in history," says Mukhoty, in an email interview. "Their achievements are constantly ignored or diminished in favour of the histories of men. For the Mughals, it is further complicated by the fact that a lot of the works are in Persian, a language that is seriously out of favour in India. There is a Persian document called the Pilgrims' Confidant, about the Haj pilgrim to Mecca, sponsored by Aurangzeb's daughter Zeb-un Nisa. I tried very hard to have the document translated into English, but was unable to. This is a beautifully illustrated manuscript, which may have interesting references to its imperial patron. The original document is, moreover, in a collection abroad, as are many Mughal documents following the great plunder by the British. So there are many layers obscuring the legacy of the Mughal women; language, despoliation and disinterest," she adds.
For Mukhoty, the idea of researching this book came to her when she stumbled on the story of Jahanara Begum, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan, who reigned from 1628 to 1658. "The over-arching scope of her ambition, so clearly spelt out in all her works, took my breath away. At a time when even globally women were expected to live lives of quiet submission, Jahanara blazed such a fiery trail. And yet we really don't remember the extent of her achievements at all," she says.
The book is split into three parts. The first discusses the peripatetic queens, who travelled from Persia to Hindustan, and includes Khanzada Begum, Babur's elder sister, and his wife Dildar Begum, among others. The next talks of the wives during the imperial splendour. Here, Jahangir's wife Mehr-un-Nisa Begum alias Noor Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal — Shah Jahan's wife — find mention. The last section of the book takes us into the waning years of the Mughal empire, fraught with greed and overreaching ambition. The story of Jahanara Begum, the beloved eldest, unmarried daughter of Shah Jahan stands out here.
An interesting source for Mukhoty's book was Gulbadan Begum's Humayun-nama. Gulbadan was sister to Humayun and daughter to Babur, who arrived in Hindustan at the age of five. "She was asked many decades later by her grandnephew, Akbar, to write a biography of Babur and Humayun," Mukhoty writes in the book. "Gulbadan's account is a fascinating insight into the households of Babur and Humayun as seen by an insider. Her writing is forthright, frank and rambunctious," says Mukhoty. "It is her lack of a self-conscious eye on posterity, which made her account so invaluable. She gives us details which help us imagine a living, breathing space instead of a splendid, but unknowable place which the male biographers wrote about. Male historians of that time wrote in grave and obscure prose, about battles and ancestors. Gulbadan wrote about Humayun's opium habit and his relationship with one of his feisty wives," says the writer.
Among the Mughal women, whom Mukhoty has most affection for is Khanzada Begum, who at 65, rode on horseback through 750 km of icy passes to parley on behalf of her nephew, Humayun. "This fearless and indomitable lady made sacrifices all her life for the legacy of her younger brother Babur, and for the future of her family. She was constantly sent as peace ambassador to warring brothers and travelled endless miles through icy terrain on horseback. She wept upon seeing the infant Akbar, because he reminded her of her long dead 'baby' brother Babur. This gives us such a different insight into Babur too, no longer the marauding foreigner of legend but a dearly beloved and mourned brother," she says.
Mukhoty, however, finds Mumtaz Mahal to be the most voiceless of the lot she researched about — the irony being that she was also the most famous. "I think the Taj Mahal, and the 20th century construct of an 'exclusive love' that it generated is definitely the reason Mumtaz Mahal is viewed with affection by so many. But she left no writings, no substantial buildings, no clear evocation of an ambition. She was busy raising 14 children in 19 years, travelling the length and breadth of the country with her restless husband. She will forever be hidden by the splendour of the Taj Mahal."
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