There has always been a lot of curiosity about the harems of the Mughal emperors thanks to the European accounts which relied on bazar gossip, as they were not allowed inside. So we have tales of women pining inside a cage and kept there for the sexual pleasure of the kings.

Niccolao Manucci wrote that the Muslims were ‘very fond of women, who are their principal relaxation and almost their only pleasure’. He forgets that most of the emperors spent their time campaigning and preparing for battle and had to keep themselves mentally and physically alert, and thus could not possibly have been in the harem all day and night.

In reality, only five per cent of the women in the harem were in an intimate relationship with the emperor. The rest were female employees needed for the smooth functioning of the harem, and the female relatives of the emperor.

In reality, only five per cent of the women in the harem were in an intimate relationship with the emperor. The rest were female employees needed for the smooth functioning of the harem, and the female relatives of the emperor.

Like everyone else, I too was curious to know what went on inside the harem.

The word ‘harem’ comes from Arabic word haram, which literally means sacred or forbidden and is used to refer to sacred precincts of Mecca. In Persian it means sanctuary.

The consorts, sisters, aunts and mothers of the Mughal emperors were strong, opinionated women, who had a great deal of influence over the emperors.

We know that Babur consulted his mother and grandmother and that Humayun’s wife Hamida Bano Begum accompanied him through thick and thin when Sher Shah Suri ousted him from India.

Gulbadan Begum, Humayun’s sister, wrote an invaluable memoir which gives details of their lives and times and Humayun’s rule.

Nur Jahan had coins struck in her name and issued farmans during Jahangir’s reign.

Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s daughter, was one of the richest women of her times and ran a successful business empire of trade, with her ships plying the seas.

These women were advisers to the emperors, chroniclers, successful businesswomen, poets and builders of magnificent monuments.

All this knowledge was already in the public realm but it was only while translating Dilli ka Aakhiri Deedar and Bazm e Aakhir, which are accounts from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mughal Delhi and form part of my book City of My Heart, that I discovered how the begums, princesses, maidservants and other women spent their time.

The Red Fort area where they lived was known as ‘mahal’ (palace), and some parts of it such as Khwaabgaah, Imtiaz Mahal and Mumtaz Mahal still survive inside. The rest of the palaces and gardens were destroyed after the fall of Delhi in 1857 and exile of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar by the British.

Together, the original books give details of their jewellery, the colours and materials of their dresses, the types of shoes they wore and their everyday life in the harem. The women were not confined to it and they enjoyed many festivities and outings. Earlier they had accompanied the emperor on campaigns and hunting trips, but once the British established their rule and the Mughal emperor was only a nominal head, they would only accompany him on outings to Mehrauli, Safdarjung and Humayun’s tomb or the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, where they would picnic and frolic.

Let us enjoy a ladies’ day out on the banks of the River Yamuna under the Red Fort, accessed by the women through the Khizri Gate in the Musaman Burj (the palace which is next to the Diwan e Khas).

Tents would be put up and there would be guards to ensure that no stranger entered. Covered boats would be anchored to the bank for the ladies to boat in. Female shopkeepers would set up shops. The emperor and royal princes would also join them and enjoy the festivities.

The young girls would run about, climbing trees, plucking fruits, much to the horror of their nursemaids and attendants, who were scared they would fall and get hurt. Some agile maidservants would climb the tree and eat the fruits on the tree itself. The royal ladies and girls would splash one another with water and enjoy themselves.

The young girls would run about, climbing trees, plucking fruits, much to the horror of their nursemaids and attendants, who were scared they would fall and get hurt.

There would also be a similar outing for the ladies in the Bagh e Hayat Baksh in front of Hira Mahal in the Red Fort, where the twin pavilions Sawan and Bhadon are situated.

It was a beautiful garden with fruit-bearing trees and peacocks prancing about and birds singing.

A colour code was given for the attire to be worn on this occasion, and everyone had to wear red, be it the emperor, the chief consort, princesses or maidservants. They hurriedly got dresses dyed red and embroidered and decorated with fine gold and silver lace.

Orders were given for the purdah so that women could come out for a stroll. There would be shops selling betel leaves, vegetables, dried fruit, lace, clothes and other finery. Food stalls would be frying puris, bare (vada) and kebabs. The hawkers’ children would sit with a variety of rings and bands, while the halwais’ sons soldpuri, kachori and mithai.

The begums and the princesses would enter daintily, glittering and shimmering in their red dresses and jewellery. Their maidservants, nannies, attendants and nursemaids would accompany them. They would warn their charges of sorcerers, black magic and the evil eye, telling them to cover themselves with a white chador, to stay safe from evil spirits that may be hovering around, while they walk through the vaulted corridors of the palace that lead to the garden.

All kinds of counters would be recited by the attendants to offset the effect of the evil eye, which they were convinced were directed by rivals towards their charges. This amused me as we still do it at all gatherings. Nazar, or the evil eye, is the biggest fear of every caregiver and older relative of young girls even in today’s world.

Nazar, or the evil eye, is the biggest fear of every caregiver and older relative of young girls even in today’s world.

The young princesses would play with their friends, while the servants and attendants would rib each other in good-hearted fun or hostility, depending on the relationship of their employers.

It would look as if red flowers had blossomed in the garden. The children would clamber all over the trees and pluck fruits from them. Some of the older girls and women would stand beneath the trees with their bags spread out to catch the fruits. If one of their own servant girls had climbed a tree, they would ensure the fruits are thrown into their lady’s bag.

When dusk approached, they would enjoy the moonlit evening with singers and dancers entertaining them.

The young ones would play hide-and-seek and string flowers into garlands.

A beautiful, evocative description by Munshi Faizuddin is given in Bazm e Aakhir, published in 1885 and part of City of My Heart:

“While the grey clouds sway and dance in the sky, every now and then a burst of rain adds to the beautiful ambience. Peacocks scream, nightingales chirp, koels sing and a strange longing arises in the heart. The princesses flit around in the rain like gay butterflies, plucking different coloured flowers, stopping at one flower for a minute, then moving on to the next. The young girls in colourful dresses remind one of turtledoves in a garden or deer in the forest. It is as if beautiful but disobedient flowers bloomed in that garden, oblivious to the gardener’s attempts to bring about some order.”

After the British captured the Red Fort in 1857, there was a hunt for all the royals. Many managed to escape, and in Begamat ke Aansu (some stories are a part of City of My Heart) there are heart-rending descriptions of the trials and travails of these young princesses and begums who were reduced to begging or working as servants. All the flowers that bloomed in the harem were trampled in the dust.

Rana Safvi is a renowned writer, scholar and translator who runs the popular blog ‘Hazrat-e-Dilli’. Her latest book, City of My Heart: Accounts of Love, Loss and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century Delhi (Hachette India), is a carefully curated selection of Urdu narratives in a first-ever English translation by people who lived through the last days of Mughal rule in Delhi.

The views expressed are the author’s own.

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