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NON-FICTION: THE WOMEN OF EMPIRE

December 30, 2018

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Here is Mughal history the way we have never read it before. For far too often, history has been a dictated or glorified record of the accomplishments and acts of bravery by men. As a result, women’s achievements are usually overlooked. In revealing this aspect of history that’s often not taught, Ira Mukhoty’s second book, Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire, chronicles the lives of the real, flesh-and-blood women who were integral to the birth and success of the Mughals.

These are women who are either ignored by historians or reduced to mythical-level sexual fantasies about the oriental harem by Western travellers. In contrast, according to the author’s own research, the Mughal harem was “a place where accomplished, educated women were prized; well-spoken, articulate and cultured women were most likely to advance.” Readers hoping for salacious, Bollywood-esque accounts of scheming wives, frustrated princesses, seductive concubines and orgies in the harem will be extremely disappointed, for Daughters of the Sun provides the exact opposite.

The book details how — had he not had the support of his mother and sister — it was highly unlikely that Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, who ascended to the throne at the age of 12, would have amounted to anything. The Mughal dynasty was not a matriarchy, but since Babur claimed descent from Genghis Khan, his origins in the nomadic culture of Central Asia may have initially freed the Mughals from the sedentary obsession with limiting women’s public life.

An exciting new book delves into the lives of the real, flesh-and-blood women who were indispensable to the formation of the Mughal empire

This libertarian mindset continued for many generations. In fact, when he encountered the Rajputs and their treatment of women, including sati (forced immolation) — a practice the Mughals abhorred the most — Babur’s grandson Akbar remarked on “the strange determination of the [Rajput] men that they should seek their salvation through the repression of their women.”

The Mughal women were among the few members of their court whose loyalty the kings and princes could count on. They rode great distances, helped manage affairs both domestic and foreign, and gave them counsel. They were diplomats, advisers and, in one harrowing account, a peace offering to an aggressor.

This incident is detailed in the Baburnama; Babur was ‘forced’ to sacrifice his 23-year-old elder sister, Khanzada Begum, by ostensibly giving her in marriage (“ransom and war conquest”) to the Uzbek Shaybani Khan. Babur was then free to leave Samarkand for Kabul, which he conquered, eventually taking over the whole of what was, back then, India. Meanwhile his sister was divorced by Shaybani Khan and forced into marriage with a man of lower rank. It would be another 10 years before she would be reunited with her brother. However, in accordance with the Mughals’ outlook, there was no shame attached to her name. Instead, she was revered.

Mukhoty writes, “It is a testament to Khanzada’s resilience and the Timurids’ gruff pragmatism that no stigma is ever attached to Khanzada, nor indeed any Timurid woman who ‘falls’ to an enemy… [She is] reintegrated into Babur’s household as a woman whose sacrifice for the safety of the padshah will be celebrated not only by Babur and his entire haraman [women of the harem], but [also] by his son Humayun and into the future generations. When Humayun becomes Padshah Ghazi of Hindustan, Khanzada, along with some of the older women, becomes a living repository of the memory of Babur and the Timurid dream. She is the guardian of those threshold stories the early Mughals told themselves … Khanzada is a ‘true’ Padshah Begum, childless, twice-divorced, un-bolstered by son or husband, but deserving of this title in recognition of the valour of her sacrifice and legitimacy of her memories.”

Daughters of the Sun not only humanises the women, but also the men. We learn about their relationships with their wives, sisters and mothers and how deeply attentive they were as fathers. We know all of this mostly because of Babur’s daughter Gulbadan Banu Begum who wrote the Humayun-nama, a deeply elaborate account of the life of her brother Humayun. She began working on the book following a request from her nephew, Humayun’s son Emperor Akbar.

Mukhoty takes note of accounts left behind by other women as well. Hamida Banu Begum, Humayun’s wife and Akbar’s mother, wrote extensively but stopped writing after Akbar became king. During Akbar’s time, half of the Mughals engaged in trade were women. They commissioned many buildings, several of which were demolished by the British following the ‘rebellion’ of 1857, but they were keen to leave their mark in the world. The king also had armed women guards to protect him and follow his movements. However, the emperor’s favourite chronologer Abu Fazl harboured very strict and regressive views of the zenana and women’s ‘place’ and then reduced the women in historical record to virtuous and pure titles. He put them on a pedestal of chastity and robbed them of their humanity. In contemporary psychoanalytic terms, Abu Fazl could be said to be suffering from the Madonna-whore complex.

Among the many women Mukhoty writes about is Jahanara Begum, daughter of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal, who left an indelible impact on history. She was declared Padshah Begum (first lady) by her father after her mother’s death. Jahanara was one of the wealthiest women in the world; she owned businesses, helped manage her father’s affairs, authored many books, was a religious scholar and commissioned many of the buildings in Delhi at the time. She is also the only woman to be buried at the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi — a place that currently ‘bans’ women from entering.

Although these women never really ruled or became regent queens — with the exception of Emperor Jehangir’s wife Noor Jahan Begum — Mukhoty argues that those who became Padshah Begums, or ranking queens alongside the great Mughals, were uniquely brilliant in their own right. They were indispensable to the formation of the Mughal empire and made invaluable contributions to both its security and splendour.

Mukhoty beautifully details the diversity and complexity of the power wielded by women, their fierce loyalty and sacrifices, their dreams, methods of resistance and relationships. The book is meticulously researched, with the author not only carefully gleaning what little information is available through accounts by historians, but reading into their ‘silence’ as well. Mukhoty skilfully combines academic research and storytelling to weave a narrative that is constantly informative, entertaining and challenging. This is a much-needed book for our times, a deeply engaging and fascinating read.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Daughters of the Sun:
Empresses, Queens and
Begums of the Mughal
Empire
By Ira Mukhoty
Aleph, India
ISBN: 978-9386021120
320pp.

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

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