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Understanding the Mughal women

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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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