Leading ladies

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Mukhoty restricts her book to the reigns of the first six Mughal emperors, tracing the trajectories of their rule, and simultaneously tracing the lives of the prominent Mughal women of each period.

Title-Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire
Author-Ira Mukhoty
Publisher-Aleph Book Company
Pages– 276
Price– Rs 699

English traveller and writer Thomas Coryat, visiting India during the reign of Jahangir, wrote: “The king keepeth a thousand women for his own body”. Gross exaggeration, of course, but wild assertions such as this, along with those of other Europeans writing about the Mughals — Niccolao Manucci, François Bernier, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier — was to create an image of a Mughal harem that was little more than a glorified giant bedchamber for the Emperor. A place of perfumed beauties, of lust and sexual intrigue, and of hundreds of women catering to the desire of one man.

It is this myth that Ira Mukhoty attempts to explode in Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire. Realising 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”, she sets out to show what the Mughal harem really was. Of course, the home for the wives and concubines of the emperors, but also a refuge for hundreds of female relatives and dependants — even the widows and daughters of loyal and highly esteemed courtiers. A place of opulence and elegance, but also a place of industry, of literature and learning. Of power.

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Mukhoty restricts her book to the reigns of the first six Mughal emperors, tracing the trajectories of their rule, and simultaneously tracing the lives of the prominent Mughal women of each period. Here, from the matriarchs — like the intrepid Khanzada, elder sister of Babur — to princesses like Roshanara, are women of every stamp. There are the nomadic Timurid women of the early years, who rode alongside the Emperor, rarely in purdah and as used to a life on the march as their men. There are the accomplished and hard-headed businesswomen, like Maryam-uz-Zamani and Noorjehan, who wield power, both political and commercial. There is Jahanara, with her Sufi bent of mind, and the political machinations that were to end in her downfall.

What makes this book so valuable is that it is both immensely readable as well as very informative — especially when it comes to the more elusive of the Mughal women. Noorjehan, Jahanara, and (to some extent), Mumtaz Mahal: these are the women of whom most people know something. But women like Khanzada, Gulbadan, Harkha Bai, Maham Anga and Salima Sultan Begum, mostly from the earlier years of the Mughal dynasty, are rarely talked about. And these are the women whose lives, explored by Mukhoty, especially come alive in Daughters of the Sun. There are the later luminaries of the court, of course, but their predecessors are the ones who are truly the heroines of the book.

The depth and width of Mukhoty’s research shows through. There is detail aplenty here, culled from the writings of everybody from Manucci and his like to official chroniclers like Abul Fazl (who wrote the Akbarnama) and, most importantly, some of the women themselves: Gulbadan’s memoirs, in the form of the Humayunnama, and Jahanara’s writings. There are descriptions of everything from the gardens at the Red Fort to the clothing of the women; important events and small but interesting anecdotes; the women’s impact on, and involvement in architecture, literature, religion, social life, and — of course, given the stature of these women — the state.

At times humorous, sometimes almost lyrical in its descriptions, Daughters of the Sun goes deep into the lives of the padshah begums (as most of these women — including Khanzada, Gulbadan, Noorjehan, and Jahanara — were titled). Their courage, their fire and their personalities come through vividly. From Aisan Daulat Begum’s murder of a “husband” who was being forced onto her to Maryam-uz-Zamani’s role in the suppression of Portuguese ambitions in India, it makes for an engrossing read. If there is a shortcoming, it is in the less-than-diligent editing and proofreading. Besides the occasional typographical error, there is a certain amount of repetition, with events, details and even quotations being repeated, which can be sometimes tedious.

That aside, this is a good book, vastly more women-centric than most books on the Mughals; better-researched and wider in scope than Rumer Godden’s biography of Gulbadan, and more readable than Rekha Misra’s Women in Mughal India. This is a book that is a worthy tribute to the women it is about.

Madhulika Liddle is an author and historianSource Article