Meet the Empresses, Wives and Daughters of the Mughal Empire
Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty chronicles the lives of the women who played a significant role in building the Mughal empire. An Excerpt:
When Humayun reaches the ancient town of Paat, Hindal’s mother Dildar Begum arranges for a ‘grand entertainment’ in which all the members of this fractured court are able to come and greet their dispossessed padshah. Included in this party is a fourteen-year-old girl, native to the town of Paat, Hamida Banu Begum. She is the daughter of Hindal’s preceptor, Shaikh Ali Akbar Jami, who is himself a descendant of a Shi’a sage known by the awe-inspiring sobriquet of His Reverence the Terrible Elephant. ‘Who is this?’ asks Humayun when he sees the young girl, clearly smitten by her beauty and grace. Hamida Banu is often to be found visiting Hindal’s haraman in Dildar Begum’s company, and it is not long before Humayun indicates to his stepmother his desire to marry the young Hamida Banu. But the thirty-two year-old, battle-scarred and already much married Mughal pretender is probably an underwhelming proposition for the very young Hamida Banu and she initially refuses to consider Humayun’s proposal. Even Hindal is angry at Humayun’s behaviour, quite probably believing that with Sher Shah Suri and Shah Husain Mirza as immediate dangers, it was hardly the time for Humayun to be considering matrimony. ‘I look on this girl as a sister and child of my own,’ says Hindal angrily to Humayun, now reminding him of his impoverished condition and the need to produce a suitable mahr or bride gift. ‘You are a king. Heaven forbid there should not be a proper alimony.’ But Humayun is annoyed at these objections and asks Dildar Begum to intercede on his behalf. ‘As for what they have written about alimony,’ he pleads with her, desperately and somewhat unrealistically, given his circumstances, ‘please Heaven, what they ask will be done.’ Dildar Begum acknowledges the patience and tact required in such a situation and advises Humayun to stay calm. ‘It is astonishing that you should go away in anger over a few words’, she tells him. Dildar must also handle her son Hindal’s objections and, according to Jauhar, she rebukes Hindal: ‘you are speaking very improperly to his Majesty, whom you ought to consider the representative of your late father.’
‘Oh yes, I shall marry someone,’ she admits to Dildar, with bracing candour, ‘but he shall be a man whose collar my hand can touch and not one whose skirt it does not reach.’
To Hamida Banu herself, Dildar is gentle and pragmatic. ‘After all you will marry someone,’ Dildar tells the young girl. ‘Better than a king, who is there?’ And this is the prosaic reality of a girl’s choices which Dildar wants Hamida Banu to understand. It is an eloquent testimony of Hamida Banu’s wit and spirit that she is said to have replied: ‘Oh yes, I shall marry someone,’ she admits to Dildar, with bracing candour, ‘but he shall be a man whose collar my hand can touch and not one whose skirt it does not reach.’ If Humayun is a king, Hamida Banu argues, then he is too exalted a person for her and she would rather marry someone closer to her own standing in society. Humayun persists, and asks Dilda to send Hamida Banu to see him. But the young girl refuses, questioning Humayun’s motive and invoking propriety: ‘If it is to pay my respects, I was exalted by paying my respects the other day,’ she tells Humayun tartly, before adding, ‘why should I come again?’ But after forty days, with the sympathetic Dildar’s efforts, Hamida Banu finally agrees to the proposal and she is married to Humayun. A mahr of two lakhs is given to the bride. Hamida Banu could never have imagined, as a young fourteen-year-old, how irrevocable her decision would be and how precipitous the changes that it would bring to her life.
It is in the audacious memory of Gulbadan’s biography that we have an intermittent view into the many human emotions and the domestic politics that lay behind the grander scope of the Mughals’ canvas.
The many intimate details we know of Hamida Banu’s brusque courtship by Humayun is because the two young sisters-in-law, Gulbadan and Hamida Banu, will become very close friends later in life. When Gulbadan writes her biography more than forty years later, many of the incidents will have been told to her by Hamida Banu herself, still sharp in the women’s minds almost half a century later and long after Humayun himself is dead. It is in the audacious memory of Gulbadan’s biography that we have an intermittent view into the many human emotions and the domestic politics that lay behind the grander scope of the Mughals’ canvas. The small fallibilities and unexpected weaknesses and through it all the complex network of female influence that allowed life to carry on in the most desperate and unusual of circumstances. This particular incident, with its irresolute bride and harried groom will, of course, have particularly far-reaching consequences as it will result in the birth of Akbar, the greatest of the great Mughals.
So piteous is Humayun’s situation that at one point he stays up all night to physically prevent any potential deserters from leaving him.
The immediate future for Humayun and Hamida Banu, however, is decidedly more prosaic and holds only uncertainty and betrayals. The newly-wed couple travels to Bhakkar along with Humayun’s much depleted and battered army, hoping to gain a foothold in the district of Sehwana. Shah Husain Mirza continues to pursue Humayun through Sind with deadly intent, and all the while Humayun’s few remaining officers surreptitiously desert the increasingly frayed Mughal camp whenever they can. So piteous is Humayun’s situation that at one point he stays up all night to physically prevent any potential deserters from leaving him. In the morning, his great amirs Tardi Beg and Munim Beg, somewhat farcically, try and run towards their horses to make a getaway while Humayun is bathing, and the Padshah Ghazi of Hindustan has to run after them himself, admonishing and pleading, till they have no choice but to remain with their padshah, albeit with bad grace.
Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire, Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company, MRP 699; Pages: 320
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