Akbar inherited some complicated legacies that had a huge impact on the status and influence of the women in his life. On the one hand, the Mughals were proud Timurids, descendants of the late 14th century Central-Asian warlord Amir Timur. Timur was a semi-nomadic tribesman, whose women accompanied him everywhere on his peripatetic lifestyle, very lightly veiled and always part of mixed social gatherings, consuming food and drink with the men. This society was pragmatic about women who were captured in wars, and were encouraging of re-marriage, and attached no stigma to divorced women. So the earlier matriarchs in Akbar’s life were very much descendants of this legacy. These included the elderly, much respected Khanzada Begum who wept upon seeing the infant Akbar because of his resemblance to her dead younger brother Babur. There was Gulbadan, Akbar’s paternal Aunt, who was so irrepressible that she went on a seven year Hajj despite Akbar’s misgivings, spending money and distributing largesse with such ostentation, that the Ottoman authorities requested that the Mughal ladies immediately leave the shores of Mecca. There was, of course, Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum who held the exalted title Maryam Makani. Akbar loved and respected her enormously, and a European visitor was once shocked to notice that the Padshah lifted the palanquin carrying his mother onto his own shoulders. All these senior Timurid women were revered by Akbar, and in the time of his deepest doubts, he sought their advice and company.
Some of the laws Akbar formulated early in his reign regarding the status of women were clearly influenced by the lives of these matriarchs. He encouraged widows to re-marry, and did not understand the stigma attached to widows and divorced women in Hindustan, since he had before him the luminous example of Khanzada begum, twice divorced, and yet supremely respected.
The other group of women who had a strong influence on the Padshah was his wives, especially the Rajput noblewomen. Very soon after his marriage to Harkha Bai of Amer, his first Rajput wife, Akbar started enacting laws which may very well have been due to her influence. He forbade the enslavement of enemy women and children, and did away with the pilgrimage tax which had affected the Hindus of Mathura. In his personal habits too, this influence was visible, in the worshipping of the sacred fire, wearing of the tilak and rakhi, and in his increasing vegetarianism and fasting.
As he grew older, Akbar’s views towards women continued to evolve, reflecting an increasing sensitivity to their vulnerability, both under Islam and Hinduism.
After initially being admiring of women who committed Sati, he grew disenchanted with the system, and criticized men who supported it. He was also openly critical of Islamic laws of inheritance which favoured sons over daughters.
When his own daughters were born, it was meticulously recorded by Abu’l Fazl that the celebrations were ordered to be as elaborate as those for the birth of sons.
Akbar was in advance of his time in his attitude towards women for an Islamic monarch in the 16th century. And yet, in one of the great mysteries of his reign, so many of these women remained invisible, hidden behind the anonymity of grandiose titles and bland recordings.
Ira Mukhoty is the author of Akbar-The Great Mughal published by Aleph Book Company.