Seated upon a tent-shaped palanquin, its silken cover held firmly with clasps of gold and silver, Gulbadan was primed to take the road to Mecca. Brocade and soft linen textiles from India were spread on the single hump of her brownish-yellow dromedary, also called the Arabian camel, an elegant being with black eyes, a long body, and long hair on its neck. A red steering cord was fastened around its mouth.

Gulbadan was dressed in her classic flowing attire and a finely stitched muslin stole. A pearl-and-cornelian-embedded gold necklace graced her neck. When the day got hot, she could wrap her face with the soft muslin. Similarly dressed, Salima and other women would ride upon their finely decorated Arabian camels.

As royal guests, it was expected that the Mughal women would ride the mamiyya, the best dromedaries with excellent pacing, so smooth that “one could easily go to sleep while riding such beasts.” For the distinguished aunt of the Great Mughal of India, it is also certain that the special laissez-passer called yol emri in Ottoman Turkish was arranged. The document was an important part of Ottoman practice in easing the travel of eminent guests and ensuring that no interruption took place. Local jurists and provincial governors had instructions to provide escorts and local guides along the dangerous stretches. The governor of Jeddah, a major regional Ottoman appointee, would enable the arrangements for the Mughal convoy.

Mughal court historian Nizam al-Din Ahmad says that Gulbadan’s kafila, or cavalcade, was patterned after the style and order of the legendary Egyptian and Syrian desert caravans. The Egyptians went from Cairo to Mecca via Ajrud and Aqaba, then south along the eastern shore of the Red Sea. They usually took between forty-five and fifty days to reach their hajj destination, making lengthy stops along the way. The Damascus caravan took the same time, although its route was through the desert forts such as Hasa, Tabuk, and al-Rahba, used for stopovers.

The logistics of a mixed land and sea convoy with a “multitude of people,” as an imperial Ottoman document remarked about the Mughal procession, were of a different nature. Gulbadan had in the first leg of her journey covered approximately eight hundred miles between Fatehpur-Sikri and Surat. After spending nearly a year in Surat before securing the cartaz from the Portuguese, the group had sailed across the Arabian Sea for nearly four weeks before reaching Jeddah. Now that they were on the desert road to Mecca, it was possible to emulate the Egyptian and Syrian desert processions.

Members of the Mughal convoy assembled in designated places before exiting Jeddah from the Mecca Gate. In the Egyptian and Damascene caravans, the hajj commander’s secretary was in charge of important decisions on the road, such as paying subsidies to Bedouin leaders to ensure their safety. Thieves and poor Bedouins with meagre resources lurked around the ancient shrines along the Arabian roads. Attacks on caravans during the forty-mile route between Jeddah and Mecca, which typically took two to three days, were possible. Bedouin guides familiar with the challenging and dangerous stretches of the desert would gallop at the head of the Mughal caravan. Water carriers would be with the party.

At the epicentre of the procession, perched upon an elegant camel, Gulbadan, “the leader of the caravan,” heightened the splendour of the pilgrim ensemble. The Mughal haraman rode by her side, adding to the stateliness of the convoy. Encircling the royal women were Akbar’s foster brother, Gulbadan’s elderly uncle, and Sultan Khwaja, the commander of the pilgrimage.

In close proximity behind Sultan Khwaja marched armed soldiers with lances and bows. They guarded the boxes containing cash in gold and silver, goods, and textiles. They also carried 600,000 rupees for donations and twelve thousand dresses of honour designated as gifts for the inhabitants of Mecca and Medina, as well as gifts for the Holy Sanctuaries and largesse for the sherif of Mecca. There was an unspecified but enormous amount of cash for the upkeep of the Mughal women, too. Gulbadan had a “large amount of money and goods,” wrote Abul Fazl in his Akbarnama. Akbar had “poured into the lap of each [woman] the money that they wanted,” Fazl added. Emperor Akbar had also set aside separate amounts for the free-passage pilgrims, such as the child who had earlier fallen into the sea.

Then there were allowances for the maintenance of staff, saddlers, cooks, tasters, tent pitchers, and torch bearers. The valuable merchandise that the Indian traders brought for sale had to be shielded: incense, prized cotton, silk, brocade, satin, linen textiles, candlesticks, pepper, ginger, indigo, and mastic. As Ludovico di Varthema saw in the 1510s, aside from the extensive traffic of jewels and spices of every kind from India, there was “wax and odoriferous substances in the greatest abundance.” Merchants sold their goods in the markets of Mecca and Medina and donated part of the earnings in alms, in addition to the dues owed to the Mughal state. Behind the soldiers guarding the treasured gifts, merchandise, and cash were storekeepers, cooks, and assistants, followed by merchants and common folks. At the tail end were more soldiers.

The grand Arabian caravans that inspired the Mughals had a unique feature, the mahmal. In the likeness of a majestic lady covered in splendid fabric and gold, an enclosed tent topped by a circular finial made of gilded silver, this insignia in procession was the star attraction of the Egyptian and Damascus processions. The colour of the mahmal depended on which dynasty it represented. Yellow was the colour of the Mamluk sultans, black the colour of the Abbasids. The silken fabric of the mahmal was handsomely stitched in silver- or gold-plated wire with arabesques, scrollwork designs, and inscriptions from the Qur’an. The patron’s name was usually embroidered on the front of the pyramid-shaped roof. Sizes varied. The height of a 15th-century Syrian mahmal, now housed in the Topkapi Palace Museum, is 12 feet from its base to the pyramid and the wooden tuft on the top.

Grounded in ancient feminine traditions, women in history were connected with the lore of this ceremonial tent. A high-ranking lady in a gilded canopy, for instance, accompanied armies to embolden them. The Prophet Muhammad’s wife Ayesha is said to have had that role. Noble girls rode in palanquins decorated with lavish ostrich feathers and shells. In a silver, ebony, and sandalwood palanquin draped with blue, green, yellow, and red sable and silk, Abbasid Queen Zubaida went on pilgrimage five times. Her delicate tented seat embellished with gold thread inscriptions is among the possible origins of the mahmal.

By the 12th century, the mahmal regularly appeared during the hajj as a vehicle for transporting rich pilgrims. An early 12th-century classic and bestseller, the Maqamat, or the Assemblies, consisting of a series of fabulous stories, was written by Al-Hariri, a poet and philologist who lived and studied in Basra. Seven hundred authorised copies of the Maqamat were sold by the time of his death in 1122 a large number in those days of handmade books.

Over a hundred years later, in 1237, Yahya al-Wasiti drew glorious illustrations for the book. Accompanying the thirty-first Assembly is a double-page folio depicting a caravan accompanied by musicians, drums, trumpets, and black flags, the dynastic colour of the Abbasids. A turbaned man is seated on horseback, the hajj commander and attendants on foot. And there, on the back of the camel, is a red- and gold-painted pyramid-shaped mahmal. On the left folio, pilgrims and camels sit on the ground and so does the mahmal, now a stupendous black with just a delicate gold lining like a necklace around its neck. Red to black, “from joyful to reflective.”

After their conquest of Egypt, the Ottomans started a second mahmal from Damascus with Syrian and Turkish pilgrims, in addition to the Egyptian one. Like the former Arab and North African sultans, the Ottomans used this luxurious sign to enhance their protective role as the rulers of the Holy Places. The ceremonies accompanying the legendary litter grew more elaborate.

Many observers documented the alluring mahmal. Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveller and writer, noted the excitement among the people of Cairo in 1326 when the mahmal came out from the imperial citadel. “All classes of the population, both men and women, assemble for this ceremony . . . camel drivers singing to their camels in the lead . . . resolves are inflamed, desires are excited, and impulses are stirred up.” Dervishes marched behind the camel with the ceremonial canopy. Shopkeepers along the route painted their houses and hung precious carpets. Martial exercises with lances were common. Local artists wore demonic masks to amuse the crowds and extort money.17 Sieur Paul Lucas in 1744, Edward Lane in 1825, and Sir Richard Burton in 1853 saw the exquisite mahmal. Lane also made sketches of it. Orientalist Alfred Dehodencq likely never saw one, but he depicted it in 1853 in a painting of a procession set around the Red Sea.

Over centuries, royal women had journeyed to Mecca parading their grace and intent. Zubaida’s silver and ebony palanquin and El-Qutlugh’s ring hunts signified beauty and power, in pilgrimage as in daily life. In the late tenth century, a princess went to Mecca from Mosul with a cortege of four hundred mahmals, all of the same colour, “so that it was impossible to recognise the one that the Princess was in.” 15th-century Mamluk queen Fatima chose a silken palanquin embroidered with ruby, turquoise, and pearls to enhance her distinction. The colour or selection of jewels a woman chose heightened her persona.

Yet in the end, it was the person of the dignitary that mattered most. Gulbadan and her companions knew the mahmal’s credentials and beauty. Guidebooks, histories, chronicles, and travelogues mentioning it were part of the wider Islamic milieu, including Mughal India.

Gulbadan was in the innermost shielded spot amid caravan dignitaries. Like the exquisite mahmal at the centre of the desert cavalcades, the princess and the Mughal matriarchs were the luminaries of Emperor Akbar’s convoy. Splendidly guarded yet in full view, they created their unique pageant. Singular in composition and singular in vision, the star-studded Mughal women’s convoy thus embarked on the road to Mecca. Never had a group of royal women travelled this way to Arabia. Unified in their vision of a women’s cluster hajj, the haraman were also unanimous about how they wished to broadcast their arrival in the city of Mecca.

Excerpted with permission from Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan, Ruby Lal, Juggernaut.