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Book Review: Ira Mukhoty’s ‘Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire’

By Fahad Hashmi

The history of the Mughal India remains a constant presence in the Indian public sphere. The names of Babur, Akbar, Shah Jahan, Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb keep surfacing owing to a host of reasons, political as well as cultural. Scores of right-wing Hindu organisations have been busy in manufacturing a particular version of Indian history with a view to eliminating every trace of Muslim identity – symbolic and others. It could easily be argued that the Hindutva historiography has outplayed the history that professional historians have been busy producing. This history coming from Hindutva quarters has largely been successful in propagating and nurturing a hostile attitude towards Muslims of India.

Besides contrived history, Hindutva’s arsenal includes bullying tactics, death threats and murders.  People owing allegiance to the right-wing Hindu ideology have regularly been spewing venom against historians and other intellectuals who challenge and falsify Hindutva’s myths masquerading as history. We know that Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger were categorically targeted for their opinions. Of late, Audrey Truschke, an American historian of the medieval India, has been under relentless attack. She came up with an excellent book on Aurangzeb last year triggering a barrage of sexist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic remarks against her.

Male protagonists – whether it’s Babur or Bahadur Shah Zafar or anyone in between them – normally occupy centre stage in the Mughal history, or at least this is how we have been taught. Except for Nur Jehan and a few others who appear tangentially, the absence of Mughal women is conspicuous.

Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun seeks to enlighten us a great deal about the untold or unknown world, that is, the Mughal haraman and its hustle and bustle. The book unveils a slew of accomplished women of the Mughal zenana, and sheds light on their erudition, political acumen, bravery,and love for philosophy, poetry, architecture and other finer things in life. The prominent figures are: Khanzadah Begum, Gulbadan Begum, Jahanara Begum, Roshanara Begum and Zebun Nisa. The story of this parallel world begins with Babur’s grandmother.

Aisan Daulat Begum, the grandmother of the founder of the Mughal Kingdom, was a great manager and possessed a special knack for planning things. She had a leading role in shaping Babur’s mind in early years. In his excellent memoir Baburnama, he recounts his grandmother’s bravery and intelligence. Once Sheikh Jamaluddin Khan, for instance, arrested Babur’s grandparent, and Aisan Begum was given to Khwaja Kalan as a ‘gift’. The moment Khwaja Kalan entered the room where the grandmother was held captive, he was caught by the lady’s attendants and brutally stabbed. When Sher Shah Suri, take another example, badly routed Mughals during Humayun’s reign and compelled them to leave Agra, it was Babur’s wife Bibi Mubarika who chose to stay back alone in order to save her husband’s grave from defilement.

To add more to such acts of bravery, it was Khanzadah, the elder sister of Babur, who was given to Shaybani Khan, the Uzbek chief and an arch enemy of Babur, in marriage. This political move in the form of a marital alliance made it easy for Babur to escape the siege. Later, the Uzbek chief handed Khanzadah over to Sayyid Hada. However, Khanzadah returned to her own tribe after a long time when Shaybani Khan and Sayyid Hada were defeated by Shah Ismail.

Interestingly, Khanzadah, or for that matter any other Timurid woman who got caught by enemies during a battle, was never looked down upon and held up to ridicule. On the contrary, they were happily welcomed and warmly embraced. And their sacrifices were recognised and talked about positively as cardinal contribution in the establishment and longevity of the Mughal kingdom. It is something quite unusual and extraordinary, and totally at odds with our ‘modern’ times. We know, for example, the fate of Birangana or what happened to the rape survivors of 1971, or the way abducted women were treated around the partition of India and Pakistan. One is also reminded of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Lajwanti, which poignantly captures the abduction of the eponymous character around the partition and the callous indifference meted out to her by her husband after she was rehabilitated. This single work of fiction fathoms elements of a universal fact.

Gulbadan, the daughter of Babur and Dildar Begum, for instance, wrote Humanyun-nama (Humanyun’s biography), to help Akbar know more about his father and grandfather. Jahanara, Shah Jahan and Nur Jahan’s eldest daughter, appears to be one of a kind in the entire Mughal dynasty from its inception to the last days. Her multifaceted personality is breathtaking. She is a diplomat. She owns two trade ships Shahi and Ganjawar and deals with merchants. She loves poetry and engages in philosophical debates. She appreciates and practises Sufism. She is an excellent manager of the zenana. Endowed with political insight, she uses her political agency in the imperial war of succession. Jahanara, popularly called Begum Saheba, becomes Padshah Begum, the highest title for a woman of Mughal haram, at an early age. The decision was not only admired but also desired by other women. She penned a biography of sufi saint Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti named Munis al-Arva (The Confidant of Spirits), and also Risalah-i-Sahibiyah (A Lady’s Treatise) describing Mullah Shah Badakshi, who was a sufi of the Qadriyah order and a great inspiration for both Jehan Ara and Dara Shikoh. The latter book also narrates Jahanara’s spiritual journey. Her political agency surfaces on varied occasions, however, it comes to the forth more prominently when she aligns with Dara Shikoh in the imperial war of succession. On the other hand, Roshanara, her younger sister, prefers Aurangzeb’s politics over Dara’s. In fact, Roshanara keeps Aurangzeb, who was commanding Deccan at that time, well informed about the goings-on of the imperial court and Dara’s ambitions. She also nurses an ambition for the title of Padshah Begum. Mukhoty meticulously captures the role of Shah Jahan’s two daughters, Jahanara and Roshanara, in their brothers’ scramble for the peacock throne.

The eldest daughter of Aurangzeb and Dilras Banu Begam is Zeb-un-Nisa, another jewel in the crown of the Mughal Empire. The father admires and cherishes her a lot. She is a hafiz (one who memorises the Quran by heart), possesses an extensive personal library and slakes her thirst for knowledge. She gives patronage to writers and poets who later reciprocate the kindness by dedicating their works to the princess. Zeb-un-Nisa was herself a poet of repute, and used Makhfi (The Mysterious) as her nom de plume. However, when the emperor sensed a whiff of treachery from the seized letters that were exchanged between Zeb-un-Nisa and her younger brother, Akbar Shah, Aurangzeb imprisoned the former in the Salimgarh Fort in Delhi for good. She spent more than two decades in the prison and finally died. Her sombre mood can be gauged in a couplet of hers:

Were an artist to choose me for his model –
How could he draw the form of a sigh?

The book, it goes without saying, digs out the Mughal haram from the Oriental fantasy as well as its wild imagination about zenana’s licentious sex and other obsessions. One finds that Daughters of the Sun is an effort at restoring and endowing agency on Mughal women, the way Manan Ahmed Asif has beautifully read the role of Raja Dahir’s daughter in his brilliant work titled A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia, although the two works are entirely on two different registers.

The role of zenana has been beautifully summarised by Ira Mukhoty: ‘The haraman, with these women in it, will create a sense of identity and home for Babur, Humayun and even Akbar. Very often, in the padshahs’ endless wanderings and ruinous search for a meaningful space, these women are the Timurid homeland.’

Daughters of the Sun is an excellent read whose appearance in the public domain is a courageous act at a time when the Hindutva toxicity has spilled over and is profusely affecting all of us.

Daughters of the Sun is available here.

Fahad Hashmi is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.


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