In every citadel of the Mughal Empire, there existed a luxurious fortress that housed the women of the court. Known as the ‘Mahal’, this closely-guarded space that few men could enter has intrigued the world for centuries.
Uncovering the little-known lives of the remarkable women who inhabited the Mahal, this commanding narrative introduces us to Ehsan Daulat Begum, Babur’s grandmother, without whose enterprise there would have been no Mughal Empire; the Padshah Begums who ran the vast establishment of the Mahal with an all-women team; the female scholars and poets - like Zeb-un-Nissa, Salima Sultan Begum, Zeenat-un-Nissa - who influenced the emperor in matters of diplomacy and state policy; and the queens and princesses who ran vast estates and oversaw fleets of trading vessels, among others.
Mahal is a rare peek into life behind the veil, and an illuminating account of the role women played in the courts of the Mughal Empire.
Subhadra Sen Gupta has written over 30 books for both adults and children including the popular A Children's History of India. She loves to travel, flirt with cats and people-watch.
EVERY CITADEL IN MEDIEVAL INDIA HAD A CLOSED CORNER, a luxurious restricted space hidden behind high walls, guarded night and day, where only the royal men were allowed to enter. The medieval harem was designed as a fortress within a fortress, where the women - the queens, princesses and concubines -had to live, and was run as an all-female establishment. For all their long royal titles, these women were the private property of the monarch, just like the gold, silver and jewels in the treasury and the horses and elephants in the stables. The residents of the harem knew that they were symbols of the power and majesty of the king; in the chastity of their bodies lay the honour of the dynasty.
Royal historians, such as Abul Fazl at Emperor Akbar's court, mention the number of women in the harem - similar to writing paeans to a victory in battle - as it made a king's moustache curl higher. They took great pride in quoting the number of queens and concubines gathered in a haramsara, or zenana deori. Abul Fazl's grandiose claim that there were five thousand women in Akbar's harem in Fatehpur Sikri forgets that there was no space to build such a huge establishment on top of the hill it was situated on. The Jesuit priest Antoine de Monserrate claimed Jahangir had three hundred wives, but historians have trouble naming even twenty queens. In a world where exaggeration and hyperbole was the norm, the Mughal harem was painted in such lurid colours that sometimes it is hard to extract the truth from the myths.
When a young girl entered a harem never to leave, it was presumed that she would soon be forgotten; but what the sultans, badshahs, maharajas and ranas did not realize was that the more you hide something, the more it fascinates people. Throughout history, the outside world has enveloped the harem in an aura of mystery and intrigue; it has been a source of endless curiosity and whispered innuendo. The bazaar gossip about the Mughals was often spiced by tales about the haramsara, and as Harbans Mukhia writes, 'The dominant popular image of the Mughal family was of a vast number of women crowding a harem, all for giving pleasure to one man, the emperor, whose sexual appetite was insatiable.
We have a lexicon of words connected to this secluded feminine world - harem, haramsara, mahal, seraglio, purdah, zenana, raniwas, sohagpura, zenana deori, andar mahal - from across the subcontinent and across religions since, contrary to popular belief, the seclusion ofwomen is not a ritual particular to Islam but a regional practice carried out by royalty. A study of the harems of the Mughals shows that, compared to the harem in Kabul during Babur's and Humayun's rules, the freedom of women was much more controlled and limited when the harem moved to Agra and Delhi, matching the Rajput attitude towards their harems. Now, in the 21st century when there are fewer harems, the fascination has shifted to the veil, and we are brooding over the subtle differences between a hijab and a niqab and writing convoluted articles about the burqa, abaya and chador. The judgmental curiosity about veiled and secluded women continues, as if these women are somehow responsible for their fate.
As always, when it comes to women, there is a difference between perception and reality. A true portrait of the Mughal harem, which they called the Mahal, was much more prosaic and practical. It was the senior women who ran the establishment and set the rules and conventions. Unlike what we would like to believe, the Mahal was not an exotic sexual playground; it was a family space. And the stories of these women, from queens and princesses to foster mothers and female officers (called mahaldars), deserve to be heard.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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