Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire (Book Excerpt) by Ira Mukhoty

Ira Mukhoty is the author of heroines, powerful Indian women of myth and history. She was educated in Delhi and Cambridge, where she studied natural sciences. After a peripatetic youth, she returned to Delhi to raise her two daughters. Living in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, she developed an interest in the evolution of mythology and history and its relevance to the status of women in India. Below you can read an excerpt from her book, Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire. Courtesy: Aleph Book Company.

Excerpt from Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire

…like the padshahs who follow him, will not give the Portuguese menace the weight that it deserves and will make the catastrophic error of never maintaining a navy. And in the slipstream of the Portuguese presence the Dutch and the English and the French will arrive and, unlike the Portuguese, they will not content themselves with trade.

But on 17 October 1576, Gulbadan and her party of women is finally ready to set sail. They have hired two large Turkish vessels, the Salimi and the Ilahi, and when they leave now it is with the acceptance, as with all Hajj pilgrims, that they may never return. A crowd gathers at the port to watch this royal party of women board their ship. Apart from Gulbadan, Salima Sultan and Sultanam, there were also two stepnieces of Gulbadan—Haji Begum and Gulizar Begum. There is also a granddaughter of Gulbadan, Umm-kulsum, and Salima Khanum, a daughter of Khizr Khwaja Khan. A number of these women are related to disgraced men, Humayun’s rebellious brothers Askari and Kamran, as well as Bairam Khan, who were all sent to Mecca as punishment through exile, but these women travel with honour. In addition to these royal ladies there are a number of lesser women also, from the households of Babur and Humayun, elderly servants. There are no young women on this Hajj; it is a company of matriarchs and older women, the most respected members of Akbar’s court. Hamida Banu Begum remains in Agra, with her son the emperor, standing in lieu of the imperial presence when Akbar absents himself from court, and Bega Begum is in Delhi, overseeing the construction of her husband’s tomb. The matriarchs of the Mughal empire in this third quarter of the sixteenth century have lavish ambitions and have spread their influence far and wide. Though none of the Mughal emperors are permitted to abandon the empire to perform the Hajj, they support the Hajj ‘at great public expense, with gold and goods, and rich presents’. Apart from the enormous sum in cash, the Mir Hajj of the party, Sultan Khwaja, loads 12,000 robes of honour to give away as presents at Mecca. The people of Surat gather in huge numbers for Surat ‘is very populous, as all other cities and places are in India, which everywhere abounds with people’. There are both Hindu and Muslim onlookers for ‘they live all mixt together, and peaceably, because the Gran Moghel, to whom Guzarat is now subject, although he be a Mahometan, makes no difference in his dominions between the one sort and the other’. So there are Hindu and Muslim men in white linen shirts and loose pants and slippers, and Hindu women in short red waistcoats, long colourful skirts and clinking, voluble jewellery. They wear huge pendants on their ears, ‘very disproportionate’ to the traveller Pietro della Valle’s foreign eyes and no veils, so that they may be ‘freely seen by everyone both at home and abroad’.

It is a sombre moment for all the Hajjis, as they murmur prayers and board the Salimi. After a year of impatient waiting at Surat, they are thrumming with excitement at the audacious scope of their enterprise. Yet they must know, as they look one last time at the fertile fields of Hindustan, the turgid and silty waters of the Tapti, that the voyage that leads to the arid deserts of Arabia is full of dangers. They will have heard, from other travellers, of the threat of shipwrecks, of drowning, of piracy, of Bedouin attacks on land, of disease and of accidents. But the holy pilgrimage to Mecca is also the fifth pillar of Islam, and a religious duty that all good Muslims should undertake at least once in their lives. Gulbadan and her party are conducting the Hajj not only for their own immortal souls but also on behalf of the padshah. So the mood will be contained, certainly, but also lit through with joy and divine fervour.

For the next few weeks, through the winter of 1576, Gulbadan’s ship sails across the Arabian Sea, following the monsoon winds as the Hajj ships have done for centuries. This is a long way to come for Gulbadan, child of Kabul and indomitable traveller through the Hindu Kush. The open seas offer an altogether different sort of challenge and there are sudden, gusting winds and crashing, lurching waves. Fear scrabbles in the hearts of the women occasionally when storms rock the ship and the dense blackness of the nights makes the sea appear endless and opaque with hidden monsters. There are coral reefs, especially in the Sea of Berbera, which can eviscerate a sewn-plank ship like the Salimi. The Sea of Berbera, later renamed the Red Sea, is a monstrous stretch, infamous for its gigantic waves and hidden coral reefs. Pilgrims recite the Litany of the Sea feverishly and chant prayers for the calming of the ocean. It is well known that there are mischievous sea djinns skulking at the bottom of the sea and ‘in order to ward off evil, merchants would throw their rice or other food into the sea’. But apart from the often pervasive seasickness and occasional boredom, the women travel in comfort, through Akbar’s largesse, in separate quarters lavishly appointed for them. The poorer pilgrims sleep on top of the merchandise or in the hold of the ship, in the pungent company of the rats and the livestock—the sheep, goats and camels.

When finally the women disembark near Mecca, they are disorientated, after the torpor of the weeks at sea, by the blazing colours and the tumult of the pilgrims pouring into the holy city. Because the Hajj is a time-bound ritual, to be conducted at a specified time of the year, all aspirants converge upon Mecca in the same week. There are enormous pilgrim caravans from Egypt, Syria and Iraq, several miles long, with combined numbers of some 200,000 persons and 300,000 cattle. There are hundreds of soldiers to protect the unarmed pilgrims, Mamluk warriors on horseback, archers, elite bodyguards, cavalry and cannon. There are camels loaded with water barrels for pilgrims who are too poor to arrange for their own transport. For Gulbadan and the other Hindustani ladies, even though they are now used to the splendour of Akbar’s court, the pilgrim caravans and the Ottoman’s regalia will have been a magnificent sight. They will have been conscious, also, of the need to maintain their own unquestioned opulence, ambassadors as they are of Akbar’s Mughal court. But first, there is the Hajj to perform.

When the women arrive at Mecca, they find it arid and barren. ‘In my opinion,’ thunders the damning Swiss traveller, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, ‘the curse of God has been laid upon the said city, for the country produces neither grass nor trees, nor any one thing’. The people, nonetheless, seem prosperous and Ibn Battuta, the notoriously intrepid fourteenth-century Moroccan voyager is impressed by their good looks: ‘The Meccans are elegant and clean in their dress, and as they mostly wear white their garments always appear spotless and snowy. They use perfume freely, paint their eyes with kuhl, and are constantly picking their teeth with slips of green arak-wood. The Meccan women are of rare and surpassing beauty, pious and chaste.’

As Mecca and the moment of the sacred Hajj approaches, Gulbadan and all the women prepare to enter the state of complete mindfulness and surrender required. The women physically prepare themselves as well,


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