The Mughal ‘harem’ has been the subject of a great deal of uninformed curiosity and voyeurism often based on bazar gossip. With the result that while the court historians like Abul Fazl could only talk of the formal structure of the harem, no such problem existed for the European travellers who let their speculative and erotic instincts run rampant about a section of the palace, which was totally inaccessible to them and gave fantastic accounts of it, referring to the women themselves marginally. This led to a ‘colonial caricature’ which replaced the rich and layered character of the Mughal haram as found in Persian sources, leading to a picture of a decadent Mughal society where the Mughal women were reduced to faceless, submissive, licentious, and intriguing ladies.

Challenges the Orientalist fantasies of a Mughal ‘harem’

It is for this reason that Ruby Lal’s book Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, originally published in 2005 and recently republished by Permanent Black and Ashoka University, is such a path-breaking book. The book deals with the first three Mughal emperors. Whether it is the use of the actual Persian word ‘harem’ by Lal which means sanctuary, or her minute reading of primary sources, this pioneering book challenges the traditional Orientalist fantasies of a Mughal ‘harem’ which became synonymous for a place where emperors and princes were though to have sexual access to many women.

Lal confronts the stereotypical image of the place called ‘harem’ denoting women’s quarters, and of “some of the assumptions that have made commonly been made about the existence of separate ‘public’ and ‘private’ domains”. Her conclusion after studying the lives of Mughal men and women is that it appeared “the public-private were originally different parts of the same courtly life, and that the ‘private’ closely intersected with and spilled over into the ‘public’. The “private ‘was never completely segregated or exclusively residential.” Lal uses the term ‘domestic’ instead of public private and private life, to cut through the historiographical baggage.

Contrary to public perceptions of veiled women who wielded no influence on imperial decisions, she examines the complex set of relationships in which women of the nobility were involved in their everyday existence, including public and political affairs that were necessarily conducted inside the ‘haram’ or the court. She points out to the “richness of many of these activities, and to their complex and contradictory character, thus showing that ‘domestic life’ is not an endless journey between bedroom and kitchen with the primary function of raising children and caring for husbands.”

Harem and the making of the new Mughal monarchy

The essential function of the harem was not to provide pleasure to the emperor as suggested in some earlier readings of harem life, but according to Lal, a part of the making of the new Mughal monarchy.

Though many Mughal histories have been written, not much attention has been paid to the crucial domain of the imperial household or the activity and the relationship or even the identity of the inhabitants of the household. These women, though living in seclusion in the harem from the reign of Akbar, were of crucial importance in the establishment of imperial traditions and grandeur and were an integral part of the foundation of this grand monarchy.

We owe a great deal to Gulbadan Begum’s memoirs, Ahval-I-Humayun Badshah. Gulbadan Begum was Babur’s daughter and it is she who continues to breathe life into the lives of Mughal women for readers many centuries later, challenging sexualised image of an Oriental harem fantasy.

The first two Mughal emperors led peripatetic lives and were mostly on the move. The women accompanied them and played important roles in decision making even in this world. Lal examines their life and agency through marriage, motherhood, and wifehood. The peripatetic nature of Mughal life, became more regulated under Akbar’s administrative policies. Under him the haram became subject to rules and regulations and ‘sacred and hidden’.

Abul Fazl, emphasises Akbar’s controlled sexuality and his moderation and ascetism. Thus, according to Ain-e Akbari, in keeping with the display of kingly power and dignity, Akbar’s disciplined ‘use’ of food, women, and sleep were for higher purposes. Yet, unlike, Babur and Humayun, Akbar had an unusually large haram and much has been made of it, so it deserves a mention. This was due to the number of marriages that Akbar made. These have been read as being aimed at forging political alliances and producing royal heirs.

However, Lal suggests that these could be read in another way: “symbolically demonstrating that the world was under the emperor’s protection”, and that a unique conception of kingship was being proclaimed through the making of these marital alliances. “The reach and protection of Akbar’s empire comes to be stretched through his marriages in quite extraordinary terms.” Akbar’s marriages into Rajput and other Hindu noble families can be seen as “an index of a power that incorporated the universe in quite unprecedented ways”.

While the haram may have been institutionalised and secluded, inaccessible to most people, the inmates were not invisible or bereft of power. We know from the memoirs of Gulbadan Begum that Babur’s mother and sister, Humayun’s wife Hamida Bano were very influential in the courts and were consulted by the emperors.

Gulbadan Begum herself led a pilgrimage to Mecca, Mariyam-uz Zamani, Akbar’s Rajput wife was a very successful entrepreneur. Even the imperial milk mothers such as Maham Anga and Jiji Anga, wielded great influence.

As Lal writes, Mughal men and women were partners in the production not only of heirs but also of imperial genealogies and new royal rituals, in the establishment of new traditions, and even in the practice of governance.” Lal is undoubtedly one of the most important voices in the genre of feminist history writings and this book successfully lifts the veil of the women and visibilises the royal women and the role played by them.

Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World

Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, Ruby Lal, Permanent Black and Ashoka University.