Gulbadan Begum’s story

Parvati Sharma | Updated on June 21, 2019

Ahead of her time: Gulbadan Begum’s Humayun-nama, written at her nephew Akbar’s urging, offers intimate, first-hand glimpses of three Mughal emperors. - Shanker Chakravarty   -  The Hindu

The daughter of Babur and author of Humayun-nama not only wrote history as a woman but lived it, too

Someone asked me the other day what it’s like to write history as a woman. Such questions trouble me; they make me wonder why no one ever asks me what it’s like to write as an immortal genius. Fortunately for my soul, I’ve just finished reading the wonderful memoirs of Gulbadan Begum — who not only wrote history as a woman but lived it, too, and can answer the question far better than I.

Gulbadan Begum — or Princess Rosebody, as her equally engaging translator, Annette Beveridge, sometimes calls her — was the daughter, half-sister and aunt of Babur, Humayun and Akbar respectively. Her book, the Humayun-nama, is officially a history of Humayun, written at Akbar’s urging, but it offers intimate, first-hand glimpses of all three Mughal emperors. That isn’t all. In a dynasty rife with writers, Gulbadan is the only woman to have published a history, and offers much more than any other writer of that period.

Here, for example, is a story from Humayun’s harem. The young emperor’s mother, Maham Begum, had a burning desire for a grandson, such that any “good-looking and nice girl” she spotted was immediately recruited to the task. Among them was Maywa-jan. Dutifully, Humayun married her. Three days later, Humayun’s first wife, Bega Begum, arrived in Agra from Kabul — and was soon pregnant. Promptly, Maywa-jan declared herself with child too, sending Maham into ecstasy. She began collecting gifts while mouthing a refrain: “Perhaps one of them will have a son”.

As it happens, Bega had a daughter. Maham focussed her attention on Maywa-jan and the months passed by. Ten, then 11. The young girl spoke cheerfully of an aunt who’d delivered in her 12th month. “But in the end,” writes Gulbadan ruefully, “everyone knew she was a fraud.” Does this story “light up [a] woman’s world”, as Beveridge puts it — or does it shed light on the world of the Mughals? Given how we tend to think of childbirth, motherhood and harems, it’s easy, almost reflexive, to imagine Maham flapping about in a womanly dither and dismiss her ambitions as merely domestic. However, her impatience may have been for an heir, not a grandson — Humayun had just assumed his father’s throne; one day, he would need a successor in turn.

Mughal women were intimately involved in rule and succession, in war and diplomacy. The fact that Babur’s harem came to him in Agra from Kabul is well known and makes for a touching story (though nothing, perhaps, can match Babur’s tearful reunion with Kabuli melons). Beveridge, however, suggests that Babur wasn’t just missing his family in a newly conquered land. He was also worried about what his sisters and aunts were making of his old kingdom.

Beveridge quotes a letter in which Babur laments the “unsettled” state of Kabul and declares that “in a country where there are seven or eight chiefs, nothing regular or settled is to be looked for”.

“Who were these seven or eight chiefs,” asks Beveridge. The men had all crossed the Indus with their king. Babur’s next sentence may be his answer: “I have therefore sent for my sisters and the ladies of my family into Hindustan...”

Through much of early Mughal history, warring factions would send each other embassies through female relatives. Humayun’s younger brother and fraternal nemesis, Kamran, once suspected that Humayun’s ‘mothers’ (real, step or foster) were trying to poison him. Gulbadan records her own stern advice to her husband, Khizr Khwaja Khan, on which side of the family he was to support: “Beware, a thousand times beware of thinking of separating yourself from [Humayun]...”

It isn’t as if the women were acting behind the scenes, in secluded kitchen cabinets. At one premature celebration of Humayun’s reign (he was soon to be exiled by Sher Shah Suri), Gulbadan describes the emperor and his senior-most aunt presiding over the gathering, with a grand total of 96 begums to their left and right. Among them were the intriguing Sham and Mihr-angez, close friends who were accomplished archers and musicians, liked to dress in men’s clothes and play polo.

The most striking character in Gulbadan’s book was not at this party, though she would play a role in helping Humayun regain the throne he was now about to lose.

Haram Begum was married to Babur’s young cousin Sulaiman. Sulaiman was the chief of Badakhshan, but Haram was its ruler. So clearly was this the case that when Kamran wished for an alliance with Badakhshan — and its army — he did not approach Sulaiman. Instead, he proposed to his wife.

As Kamran’s messenger woman “wept, and moaned, and coaxed”, pressing his suit upon the queen, Haram sent for her husband and son, thundered at them for being cowards and wondered what a man like Kamran should deserve, “who fears neither me nor my son”.

Kamran should have feared her. Not long after, Haram agreed to give Humayun her army: “In a few days,” Gulbadan writes, “the begum had given horses and arms to some thousands of men.” She even rode with them a distance before sending them to battle — and win — against her cheeky suitor.

As for Kamran’s proposal — she had the messenger torn from limb to limb. It’s the kind of thing that gets you a reputation, as a woman, but neither Haram nor Gulbadan seem to have cared.


Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal

Published on June 21, 2019

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