Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire is Ira Mukhoty’s startling insight into the lived reality of the wives and daughters of one of the most powerful dynasties to rule the East

How did you go about deciding that you wanted to write this book?

It started with my first book, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History. I thought it would be interesting to choose eight women in Indian history to understand what we consider heroism in women. One of the women I talked about was Jahanara Begum [Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter]. She influenced the construction and shape of what we called Old Delhi today, of course Shahjahanabad back then. She was such a hugely powerful and ambitious woman. That took me aback. That was not the idea I had of Mughal women. We are not taught that. We remember Shah Jahan, but not his daughters, not his wives, apart from Mumtaz Mahal. So, it just intrigued me.

We have inherited the colonial perspective, which meant that the women in the harem were sequestered, voiceless, they’re just there to please the padshah, practically illiterate etc. And we were lazy about it. We haven’t really questioned it to any great detail. Given the times we live in and the way our history has been used almost as a tool of vengeance, I thought it would be interesting to see how much of it is true. How much we have either forgotten deliberately or succumbed to certain interpretations.

From your book we learn that the women from the royal Mughal families were well-educated and influential. Kings constantly sought their counsel, they were ambassadors, peacemakers, accompanied their men in times of war, ran large independent businesses, at one point commissioned 50 percent of Mughal-era buildings, brokered deals between different countries etc. How did we not already know all of this?

It just seems incredible when we think about it, but academics have known about this. The effort hasn’t been made to bring this out to the lay public and, I suppose, string it out in a way which shows their influence coming in right from the time of Babur and his sisters and mother. I thought it was interesting to show how they were powerful from the beginning and how that power changed as the zenana [women’s quarters] changed — as they came into India and absorbed the influences of the different cultures, especially of the Rajputs. And how the wealth and magnificence of the later Mughals was mirrored by their women because they had so much wealth. That’s another interesting thing — these women were independently wealthy. So, Jahanara Begum and Roshanara Begum were single women, no husbands, but they had an enormous amount of money which came to them from their mother, Mumtaz Mahal. The English ambassadors at the Mughal court couldn’t get over it. At the exact same time, in England, women couldn’t think of having this kind of monetary and financial independence.

Was it difficult to find authentic accounts of women during the Mughal empire? You mentioned that, at times, you had “to read into the silences.” What do you mean by that?

It was pretty difficult, but not as difficult as I first imagined. I kind of ended up feeling like a medieval detective because you look for clues in all sorts of places. For example, in the title an empress might have, how she claims that title for herself, that can speak quite eloquently [as Mukhoty states in her book, “Noor Jahan’s seal reads ‘By the light of the sun of the emperor Jahangir, the bezel of the seal of Noor Jahan, the empress of the age has become resplendent like the moon’ — this is surely as powerful a testimony to her own ambition and glory than any biographer’s praise”].

But what we are told often is that there’s nothing on women and there’s no evidence. That’s actually blatantly untrue. It’s just that these histories are neglected. Take [Babur’s youngest daughter] Gulbadan’s work; for hundreds of years we didn’t know about it because no further historian ever referred to it. They only referred to Abu Fazl’s [author of the Akbarnama] or Badauni’s work. So the work exists, but it is obscured.

For example, there’s a book by a 19th century Englishwoman who married a Muslim noble and lived with him for 12 years in a Muslim household, in a zenana. It’s a wonderful body of work — like a Lonely Planet guide that she’s writing for her girlfriends back home. She’s telling them ‘This is what we eat, this is how it is and the women love company. They’re so boisterous and educated.’ You get this from within the zenanas. Instead of listening to the Europeans sitting outside and imagining gossip, these works were far more authentic. But they were always ignored.

One of the many things that shocked me was finding out that Mughal emperors had armed female guards protecting their person and who accompanied them everywhere they went.

Yes, usually Abyssinians. It’s something we don’t talk about very often, but we brought in slaves from Ethiopia, from African countries, for many centuries. They often became warriors and generals; they were able to cast off [their slave identity]. These women slaves were very sought after for imperial service. They were kept in the zenana for a long time.

Do you think women were freer then compared to how they are now?

That’s an interesting question. Even in my first book it’s something I looked at very closely to see what it is about the times that has changed. [Back then] in their own way, women were accepted for who they were. They may not have been completely free, but they were allowed quite a bit of laxity when they chose to do whatever they wanted to do, that broke social norms or pushed boundaries, such as Meera Bai going off into the desert to sing her songs of Krishna. They may not have always thought it the best way for a woman to behave, but it was accepted. Post-colonialism — the Victorian notion of what is ‘correct’ — we became stricter in our ideas of how women should comport themselves and behave.

Who was your favourite historical character mentioned in the book?

It’s extremely difficult to answer that. I have to say one of the ones I have loved very much is Bega Begum, Humayun’s wife. When Gulbadan writes about her [Bega Begum’s] conversations with Humayun, they’re so frank. And the things she says to him — she keeps chiding him and telling him things such as, ‘There aren’t thorns on the way to my house, why don’t you come and visit me sometime? You’re always at your aunt’s house.’ I find that very charming. He had this sort of feisty wife and she just spoke her mind.

Did working on Daughters of the Sun change your perspective in any way?

It helped me put things in perspective. To see that these women were not so very different. We have the same driving forces, whether it’s love or hate or revenge or greed. These are all motivations that stay with us the same. Our basic humanity is very unchanged, actually.

How long did it take you to write it?

Two years, which is not a great deal when you think about it. I think because of my Jahanara work — that I had done for my first book — I had gotten a whole chunk of information for the third section. I had already got a lot of my research done for that when I was doing Heroines. But it did take two years. This is all I do. This is all I do every day. [laughs]

What is your next book about?

I’m working on a biography of Akbar which is why I’d really like to come to Lahore! [laughs] It was one of his great capitals.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 30th, 2018