The foundation of the great Mughal Empire in India was laid by Babar, a minor prince of Farghana in Afghanistan. Hounded by his rivals in Farghana, he crossed the rugged mountains to reach the rich territory of Hindustan, which was known as the ‘Golden Bird’ in those days. Although Babar was a Turk, he claimed to have descended from Changez Khan through his mother and Timur through his father’s side.
To Babar goes the credit of establishing the Mughal dynasty in 1526, the word Mughal being an altered form of the word Mongol.
It was Babar’s son, Akbar, who proved to be the greatest Mughal ruler. An able administrator and shrewd statesman, he expanded the empire to encompass almost two-third of Hindustan. One of the most successful strategies devised by Akbar for the expansion of his empire was the matrimonial alliances with the proud Rajput kings.
Akbar ruled for five glorious decades, from 1556 to 1605, during which the Mughal Empire grew to be one of the wealthiest and ably administered empires in the world. It became synonymous with splendour, power, wealth, and culture. It is said that the revenue earned by the Mughal Empire during Akbar’s reign amounted to more than seven times the revenue earned by the British through their colonies around the world.
The Mughals brought with them a whole new culture and way of life. The beautiful gardens landscaped with great care were a gift of the first Mughal ruler, Babar. Persian architecture synthesised with the Hindu style to form a perfect balance of beauty. Poetry, literature and paintings, the Mughals left an indelible mark of their rule in Hindustan.
The Mughal rulers were not just lovers of art and architecture; they loved beautiful women, too. Most of them maintained large harems, within which resided hundreds of women brought from different places. Harem is an Arabic word meaning prohibited or the sacred enclosure. It was the secluded part of royal household where all the female relatives of the emperor lived along with entertainers, maidservants, attendants, and concubines.
With each conquest, came more women. There were female relatives, wives, concubines, their attendants, nautch girls, and eunuchs who loved, lived, quarrelled and shared the joys and sorrows of their lives within the cloistered environment of the harem.
Most Mughal emperors had many wives and many more concubines. For instance Jahangir had no less than twenty wedded wives and hundreds of concubines. During Akbar’s rule the harem contained no less than five thousand women and by the time Aurangzeb ascended the throne, the number increased manifold, as the numerical strength of the servants alone amounted to about two thousand.
The Mughal princesses were not allowed to marry and had to spend their entire lives within the confines of the harem. Unlike the popular notion that the Mughal women spent a life of ennui and worthless existence behind veils, many of them had a powerful influence in many spheres of the empire. Nurjahan, Mumtaz Mahal and Jahanara were
strong women who brought about substantial changes in the social and political scenario of their times. During their times, the harems buzzed with new ideas and creative activity.
During the Mughal rule, the harem had developed into a highly complex but organised domestic institution. Francois Bernier, a European traveller, who stayed at the Mughal capital during the reign of Shahjahan, provides a vivid description of harem administration in his travel account, Travels in the Mogal Empire (1656–68).
The harem observed a strict hierarchy in which seniority was accorded the highest importance. Although the Padshah Begum, or the Chief Queen, was the most significant figure in the harem, the status of the dowager queens was accepted as more important. The residences, amenities, monies were allotted according to the pecking order. The grandeur of their palaces and lifestyle varied according to their influence upon the emperor.
The mahals or palaces of the Mughal queens were grand and luxurious with splendid apartments in keeping with their rank and income. Every chamber had its reservoir of running water and the apartments were surrounded by beautiful gardens, delightful alleys, shady retreats, streams, fountains and pavilions. There were lofty divans and terraces on which the women could sleep comfortably during the sultry nights.
According to Abul Fazl, the noted historian in Akbar’s court, the harems were run in an efficient and highly structured manner. With hundreds of women living in them, these harems or zenanas needed deft management.
The female employees of the harem were divided into three categories – the highest ranking women called Mahaldars, then the middle ranking ones known as Paristaran-é-hudur, and lastly the lower-rung employees that consisted of female slaves who had entered the harem as gifts from other rulers or had been bought by the emperor.
Mahaldars controlled the harem. This lofty rank was granted only to highly educated and responsible women who also spied for the emperor. There are umpteen stories about the ego clashes between mahaldars and princesses since these women wielded extraordinary power in the harem.
The princesses also resented the watchful eyes of the mahaldars. Efficient and reliable women were appointed as daroghas and belonged to the middle ranking. They maintained discipline and order and were assigned different sections to look after. These ladies were given liberal salaries and benefits.
The harem was very closely guarded and had three-tier arrangement of guard placement. The innermost circle of guards consisted of most trustworthy women guards, generally Uzbek women, who were skilled in wielding of scimitars and swords. Eunuchs formed the next tier of security and finally came the Rajput guards.
Entry to the harem was strictly regulated. The doors of the harem were closed at sunset and torches were left burning through the night. Each guard was obliged to send his report to the nazir of all that happened in the harem. The written reports of all the events that occurred in the harem were sent to the emperor. Nothing that happened in the harem remained secret from the chief queen and the emperor, at least not for long.
Tanushree Podder has written two books set in the Mughal era. While Nurjahan’s Daughter is an account of events during Jahangir’s reign, Escape from Harem, set in Jahangir and Shahjahan’s rule, is the story of a concubine.