Remembering The Formidable Women Of The Mughal Zenana
For Ira Mukhoty, bringing long-forgotten and misremembered women back into the historical narrative makes her feel like a sorceress. In Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire, Ira chronicles the stories of the women who played a vital role in building the Mughal empire, their contribution a little known aspect of the most magnificent dynasty the world has ever known. The book transports readers to the 17th century, giving all a sense of what the Mughal women were really like, as living and breathing human beings, contributing to the culture of Hindustan.
SheThePeople.TV converses with Ira Mukhoty about the significance of the narratives in Daughters of the Sun and their impact on the changing perceptions of History.
Q. What inspired you to write Daughters of The Sun?
While researching Heroines, my first book, one character in particular caught my attention – Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan. She was a woman who profoundly influenced the architecture of Shahjahanabad. She was even buried in Delhi, at Nizamudddin Auliya’s dargah. And yet, I knew almost nothing of her, though I consider myself a Delhi-ite! This rankled and as I dug a little deeper, I realised there was a great deal about Mughal women that I either did not know about, or the knowledge that I did possess was clearly tainted by colonial interpretations. I believed not only that there were the ingredients for a fascinating book, but that there was an urgent need, with history constantly under threat and misinterpreted, for a new recording of the lives of these women.
I believed not only that there were the ingredients for a fascinating book, but that there was an urgent need, with history constantly under threat and misinterpreted, for a new recording of the lives of these women.
Q. What was your research and writing process like for this book – given that it carries the narratives of so many Mughal women (when female narratives are often lost to history)?
The research and writing for this book was both infuriating and extremely rewarding. Infuriating because it can often be very hard to get to the essence of a woman’s story. I often felt like I was a medieval detective, piecing together information from a few lines of a farman, a silent piece of architecture, tedious and uninspiring chronicles and of course, accounts from western adventurers. But at the same time, parts of Delhi still carry echoes of the past. The gullies around the Nizamuddin dargah, the havelis and winding roads in old Delhi still offer enticing glimpses of what life may have been for these women.
Q. Why is it important to highlight female Mughal history – especially in light of contemporary views about Islam and women’s rights?
When I set out to write my books, my aim was to bring Indian history, as accurately as possible to the lay-person, in a form that was truthful but also engrossing! The fact that I ended up writing Mughal history, which is somewhat under siege at the moment, was unplanned. Indian history is so precarious that it becomes even more important for these histories of Mughal women to be rediscovered in as nuanced and textured a way as possible. I hope that readers will discover that Mughal history is in our collective subconscious – in the food we eat, in the clothes we wear, in the way we greet each other and even in the nostalgia we have for a certain past.
Indian history is so precarious that it becomes even more important for these histories of Mughal women to be rediscovered in as nuanced and textured a way as possible.
Q. Female historical narratives are often missing, and the recorded stories are mostly through the lenses of Patriarchy and Colonisation. Why are decolonisation and intersectionality – particularly when it comes to marginalised genders such as females and transpersons – of Historical narratives important?
Women’s histories and especially Mughal women’s histories have suffered both through colonial and patriarchal interpretations. When it comes to the lives of women, as I discovered even in Heroines, patriarchal and colonial narratives find common ground in the invisibility and sanitisation of women. The colonial interpretation of female history, with its Victorian notions of female sexuality and chastity, and its loathing and distrust of alternate sexual identities, is slotted neatly with patriarchal narratives. It is, therefore, all the more urgent to deconstruct these lenses, to understand clearly why we are biased in certain ways and where these prejudices come from. Then we can begin to re-shape and reclaim a narrative, based on our indigenous perspectives. This is when we come to realise that our past is so much more nuanced than we imagine; there are characters like Arjuna who play with transgender identities, there are women like Meerabai who emerge from the hotbed of patriarchy – which was Rajput culture – to challenge all these restrictions on a woman’s identity.
There are characters like Arjuna who play with transgender identities, there are women like Meerabai who emerge from the hotbed of patriarchy – which was Rajput culture – to challenge all these restrictions on a woman’s identity.
Q. In Daughters of The Sun, readers learn about Khanzada Begum and that the honour of a Mughal woman wasn’t steeped in her chastity (her sacrifice was instead honoured), Harkha Bai and Noor Jahan’s international trading, about the Turki guard and other fascinating stories of History. Which part of Timurid and Mughal tradition would you have liked for to not mix with Hindustani traditions?
I was surprised and delighted when I discovered the lives of some of the earlier Timurid women to come to Hindustan, to realise how pragmatic and compassionate the Mughals were about their women. They did not place a supreme worth on the sexual chastity of their women, and divorce and remarriage were not only absolutely accepted, but indeed actively encouraged. It was understood that in times of war, women might have to co-habit with the enemy, but this in no way at all reduced her ‘worth’ in the eyes of her own family. Akbar famously loathed the idea that women could not live after their husbands died and tried hard to discourage sati. But Akbar married Rajput rajkumaris and Rajput culture famously formed a part of his syncretic culture. The most unfortunate aspect of this, I believe, is the inordinate worth that came to be placed almost exclusively on women’s sexual chastity and the invisibility of royal women.
Q. What do you think about Her Stories and how are these narratives changing the way that people perceive and understand History?
I hope that we are able to move towards a time when history automatically contains the stories of both men and women. How can we legitimately continue to flaunt a history which systematically removes 50% of the population from the canvas? I think, today, there is a gradual realisation that women were not automatically subservient and invisible, they were actually actively made so; their contribution was discarded, their visibility was scuffed and their voices were stifled. In a very small way, I hope my books also contribute to the reversal of this tendency.
I think, today, there is a gradual realisation that women were not automatically subservient and invisible, they were actually actively made so; their contribution was discarded, their visibility was scuffed and their voices were stifled.
Q. Why do you think Mughal tradition, for the longest time, could empower its women to grow in roles across administration, commerce, trade, battle, culture and arts – as opposed to other traditions and cultures?
Mughal women were able to contribute to the Mughal legacy and culture in substantial ways for two reasons. Firstly, the semi-nomadic Timurid tradition – in which Islam was only one of many defining parameters – was never as committed to purdah and the invisibility of its women as other Islamic traditions were. So the women, especially the earlier ones, led extremely adventurous lives and were involved in diplomacy, state-building, peace-keeping, etc.
Influential women, especially senior ones, were very much a part of the Timurid tradition, and many Mughal padshahs actively sought the counsel and allegiance of senior women. The second reason was the increasing wealth of the Mughal state. As the Mughal empire grew wealthier, individual Mughal women also grew richer, with wealth which was theirs to use in whatever way they chose. So they could patronise buildings, art and culture, and take part in trade in ways that other Islamic and non-Islamic cultures just didn’t have the means to. For example, Shah Jahan’s daughters and wives contributed in a defining way to the building of ‘Old Delhi’ whereas the women of the contemporary Safavid empire had a much more humble impact on Isfahan.
Q. Which female figure from the Mughal Haraman inspires you the most?
I find Jahanara particularly enigmatic because she was a Sufi mystic but also a deeply ambitious and profoundly influential woman at the Mughal court. She was always considered the premier woman of the empire, even by Aurangzeb, though she supported Dara Shikoh’s cause. After Shahjahan’s death, Aurangzeb reintegrated her into the court where she became Padshah Begum, a title he never accorded to the sister who had always supported him, Roshanara Begum. So there was something about Jahanara that compelled the respect of everyone, beyond politics and the intrigues of court.
Feature Image Credit: Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Daughters of The Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire, by Ira Mukhoty, has been published by the Aleph Book Company. It is priced at Rs. 699, and is available online and in bookstores.
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