Understanding the Mughal women
Daughters of the sun
Author- Ira Mukhoty
Publisher- Aleph, Rs 699
The Mughal empire would not have been possible without its powerful women, writes Ira Mukhoty. An excerpt:
When Umar Shaikh Mirza, the Timurid ruler of Ferghana, dies in 1494, falling through the dovecote of his fortress at the top of a ravine in modern-day Uzbekistan, he is only thirty-nine years old and his eldest son and heir, Babur, is just twelve. As befits a man who would profoundly love gardens and whose endless quest for a suitable garden site in the arid wastes of northern Hindustan, even in the midst of precarious empire-building, would drive him to distraction, the young Babur is in a charbagh in neighbouring Andizhan when he hears of his father’s death. Almost the first thought the young mirza has on learning this calamitous news is that if his uncle, Sultan Ahmad Mirza, ‘were to come with a large army, the begs would turn both me and the province over to him’. The prosaic reality of succession politics in the region known as Mawarannahr, as scholar Lisa Balabanlilar has noted, is that ‘it was not outsiders but Babur’s rapacious Timurid-Mongol uncles who posed the first and most immediate threat to the boy’s inheritance’. Indeed, in this volatile and fractious situation, the only unconditional support Babur can count on is that of his female relatives—his grandmother, mother and sister.
When Babur’s great ancestor Timur came to power in Central Asia in 1370, some 150 years after the death of Chinghiz Khan, the enduring charisma of the great Khan still lingered, though none of Chinghiz Khan’s descendants were strong enough to wield effective power. Timur himself was a tribal nobleman but could not claim direct descent from Chinghiz Khan and, in recognition of that, never took the imperial title of khan, but called himself amir, commander. He did, however, carefully cultivate a Chingizid connection by marrying powerful Chingizid women. From then on, Timur added the title guregen, son-in-law, as an implacable addendum to his power, and also married all his sons and grandsons to Chingizid women. But by the fourteenth century in Central Asia, Timur also had to incorporate a powerful new symbol of legitimacy into his mantle—Islam. In an audacious balancing act between his old Turco-Mongol yasa, and the new Islamic Shari’a, he wrought together the allegiance of a diverse group of followers and had in his army ‘Turks that worshipped idols and men who worshipped fire, Persian magi, soothsayers and wicked enchanters and unbelievers’. So successful was Timur’s strategy of catastrophic acts of violence and conquest combined with a careful nurturing of cultural symbols that, for his successors, there was no longer any need to invoke the Chingizid charisma at all. The Timurid legacy, for all its guregen humility, was incandescent enough.
By the time Babur’s father dies, the sprawling empire of Timur has long since splintered into semi-autonomous provinces ruled by Timurid mirzas, ever more numerous and volatile. Which is why when Babur rushes to Ferghana to consolidate his inheritance, according to writer Amitav Ghosh, he is hardly alone, for ‘the valleys and steppes of Central Asia teemed with Timurid princes in search of realms to rule’.
Babur’s immediate strategy at this time of precarious reckoning is to meet with his close advisers and his grandmother, Aisan Daulat Begum. ‘For tactics and strategy’, Babur famously declares in his Baburnama, ‘there were few women like my grandmother’, before adding, ‘she was intelligent and a good planner. Most affairs were settled with her counsel.’ In contrast, when Babur talks about his father in his extraordinarily frank and evocative biography, though he acknowledges his ability to rule, he is not particularly tender. ‘He was short in stature’, Babur writes unsentimentally, ‘had a round beard and a fleshy face, and was fat’. We are also told that ‘he used to drink a lot’, and that ‘he grew rather fond of ma’jun and under its influence would lose his head’. In talking about his mother, grandmother and his sisters, however, Babur is never anything other than deferential and loving. Babur’s clear reverence for his grandmother Aisan Daulat Begum is not surprising, for even in a land of strong and independent women, she was extraordinary. Earlier in her peregrinations with her husband, Yunus Khan, the two were taken captive by a certain Sheikh Jamal-ud-din Khan. Aisan Daulat was then handed over as prize to one of the sheikh’s officers, Khwaja Kalan. According to the sixteenth-century general and chronicler Mirza uhammad Haidar Dughlat, ‘she made no objections, but appeared pleased’.
However, when Khwaja Kalan went to Aisan Daulat’s rooms in the evening, hoping to enjoy his new ‘gift’, he found the door precipitously locked behind him and the begum’s servants ‘laid hold of him and put him to death, by stabbing him with knives’. This plan had been masterminded by the begum and ‘when day broke, they threw his body outside’. When the horrified Sheikh Jamal went to the begum for an explanation, she replied with matchless self-possession and pride: ‘I am the wife of Sultan Yunus Khan; Shaikh Jamal gave me to some one else; this is not allowed by Muhammaden law, so I killed the man, and Shaikh Jamal Khan may kill me also if he likes.’ But the sheikh, recognizing an indomitable adversary, sent her back with honour to her husband.
This, then, is the flinty and uncompromising woman who immediately stepped beside her young grandson upon the death of his father, guiding his next crucial steps and leading him to a place of safety. With the begum is her daughter and Babur’s mother, Qutlugh Nigar Khanum, who, Babur says, ‘was with me during most of my guerilla engagements and interregna’. With them also is his oldest sibling, Khanzada, elder to him by five years.
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