“The little history that is reproduced in this volume has few, if any, compeers, in as much as it is the work of a Musalmani, and lights up her world.” Thus wrote Annette Susannah Beveridge in her 1902 translation of Gulbadan Begum’s Ahval-e Humayun Badshah as The History of Humayun. She added,“Gul-badan’s long span of unchronicled life was probably spent in the peaceful occupation of a wife and mother, with variety from books, verse-making, festivities and outside news.”

The manuscript ends abruptly in 1553 with the blinding of Kamran on Humayun’s orders.

This “little history” portrays the dynamic and contested nature of the establishment of Mughal rule, highlighting both its newfound authority and grandeur, alongside the contested hierarchies and traditions that co-existed with it.

It has been the subject of study and indeed life’s work, of the renowned feminist historian, Ruby Lal. After a hugely acclaimed Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, in which Lal examines the powerful empress as a co-sovereign, giving Nur Jahan Begum her due, she has come out with a new book. Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan, published by Juggernaut, will go a long way in establishing Gulbadan Begum as a daring princess and consummate explorer whether it be new territories or old traditions.

Reassembling missing history

Treating the 83 folios as a “sacred text”, Lal pieces together the life of this extraordinary princess. That the book ends abruptly does not deter Lal who looks for clues and information about her greatest adventure in paintings, Mughal records, architecture and surprisingly in Ottoman farmans in the National Archives in Istanbul, Turkey, to “reassemble her missing history”.

At the end of the book in Note on Sources, Lal questions assumptions: “Who decides what history is? Who decides what counts as a source? Who decides what is memorable and desirable of the name archive?” and thus we meet a princess, whose life turns out to be a far cry from Beveridge’s estimate of a “peaceful occupation of a wife and mother”.

We enter into the life of a Mughal princess born in 1523. Three years before, her father Babur won the first battle of Panipat which laid the foundation of the Mughal empire in India. He died in 1603 after her nephew Akbar had consolidated the empire. The span of life of the daughter of Babur, sister of Humayun and aunt of Akbar, gave her a unique lens with which to view the establishment and consolidation of the magnificent Mughal Empire. She saw it as a fledgling empire under her father, faced exile after the fall of her brother and returned to Agra once more under her nephew’s reign.

We read about battles and campaigns, ambassadors, and gifts but what is more important – we have court histories to rely on for these – we hear of births and deaths in the harem, trials and joys of the women following the emperor, the nature of their peripatetic life in tents and citadels.

There are many such anecdotes and interesting descriptions that the princess pens down in a manner resembling the candid memoirs of her father. One such fascinating anecdote is a vivid description of the gifts sent by Babur after he defeated Sultan Ibrahim Lodi. The gift-giving ceremony gives us a peep into Babur’s domestic relationships as well as the protocols, hierarchies, and traditions that existed within the family. Another very well-known event which is only described by Gulbadan Begum is the initial rejection and then acceptance of Humayun’s proposal to Hamida Banu Begum.

“Oh, yes, I shall marry someone, but he shall be a man whose collar my hand can touch and not one whose skirt it does not reach,” had replied the 14-year-old Hamida when Dildar Begum had asked her the reason for rejecting Humayun’s proposal. That Humayun won her over and they lived a fulfilling life in exile and for the few years after he won back his kingdom, is the stuff that legends are made of.

A painting of Gulbadan Begum. | Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A free-floating life

But what about Gulbadan Begum’s own life? Pre-empting or perhaps setting the fashion of Mughal ladies who wrote under the takhallus of “Makhfi”, the hidden one, Gulbadan keeps her own life under wraps. A brief reference to her marriage to her cousin Khizr Khwaja Khan is provided through a chance remark of Humayun. Meeting her in 1539 in Agra, after the battle of Chausa, he refers to her cap – a muslin lachaq – worn by royal brides and we know she is married.

This is a comprehensive biography of the princess, who on her nephew’s request wrote an unofficial history of the life and times of the first three Mughal emperors as witnessed by her, making her the first Mughal woman to write prose.

Did Gulbadan Begum describe her brother’s victory in 1555, her own return to Agra and the restrictions she felt in the organised harem of Akbar? We do not know. This is where we owe a debt to Lal, for she painstakingly excavates sources which have been overlooked to piece together the history of a powerful woman with a great sense of freedom and adventure.

In an interview with khabar.com Lal said, “feminist history is embedded in the idea of excavating hitherto expunged experiences, dissociated from our worldview, of non-dominant people such as women, queer people, slaves. A feminist scholar knows in her gut that digging up erased subjects, cardinal in the fabric of history can turn history upside down.”

The peripatetic life is curtailed as Akbar puts in checks and balances as he sets about organising his empire and creates a Shabistan-e Iqbal or fortunate place of sleep. Gulbadan Begum used to an adventurous, “free-floating life” is now confined within the red sandstone walls of Fatehpur Sikri. Abul Fazl, the emperor’s chronicler may laud the harem as “cupolas of chastity and chaste secluded women”, writes Lal, adding that, “in spite of the potentials of harem life,” which “offered women surprising opportunities – wide horizons behind high walls”, Gulbadan longed to return to her life as a royal adventurer.

The royal adventurer

In Akbarnama, Abul Fazl records, “Gulbadan Begam the paternal aunt of HM the Shāhinshāh had long ago made a vow to visit the holy places, but on account of the insecurity of the ways, and of the affairs of the world, she had not been able to accomplish her intention.” And “Gulbadan and Salíma Sultán Begam now obtained the Emperor's permission to go the pilgrimage and received from him a sum of money for the expenses of the journey. All the pious poor who desired to join in the pilgrimage obtained the means of travelling.”

This might seem very simple for hajj has been made very easy for pilgrims today. However, it wasn’t always so. My grandparents performed hajj 75 years ago, taking the sea route and we heard of the innumerable difficulties they faced. Compared to them, my parent’s hajj some 40 years ago and my own some 15 years ago seems simpler, though it was by no means easy, and there are many times in the narrative where I find myself identifying with the 16th-century female pilgrims.

Hajj in the 16th century was not for the faint-hearted and Lal’s account of the pilgrimage performed by the royal women, the first-ever initiated and led by a royal Muslim woman from an Islamic court, the intrepid Gulbadan Begum, is fascinating, to say the least. They may have been the “veiled ones” as referred to by Abul Fazl, but Lal succeeds in lifting the veil of their adventures, which started in India as they waited for travel permission from the Portuguese. A detailed description of the difficulties of attaining a travel pass from the Portuguese and the negotiations involved by another Mughal chronicler, Bayazid Bayat becomes the base of reconstructing the scenario faced by Gulbadan Begum. Not so easily put off, Gulbadan Begum gave her jagir of Buztaris or Bulsar to the Portuguese as sourced by Lal from Father Monserrate’s testimony.

In the spring of 1577, Gulbadan sailed from Surat and after three and a half years left for her homeward journey in 1580. But it was another year before she returned for there was more adventure in store for this enterprising princess. They got shipwrecked in Aden.

The highlight of the book is this pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca and how the Mughal matriarch became a threat to the Ottoman Empire. Lal has been able to reference at least five orders kept in the National Archives in Istanbul, which ordered the sherif of Mecca to throw out these ladies creating “fitna”. Fitna is a word meaning chaos is a word used in a negative sense in Islam. How did the royal ladies end up causing strife on a sacred pilgrimage or behaving in an un-Islamic way? The answer, traces Lal, lies in their extreme generosity and charity and becoming a “prominent spectacle in public places”, which made them the talk of the town. This was the era of the three powerful Islamic empires – called Gunpowder Empires – of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. The Ottomans upheld their claim to the Caliphate and Sultan Murad III could not have some Mughal women violating the source of his authority by their munificence.

A shipwreck is unheard of today but would have been a reality that struck terror in the hearts of 16th-century travellers. Yet, Gulbadan Begum, who was stuck in Aden for many months takes it in her stride and enjoys the experience.

In the Note on Sources, Lal gives the reason for using the term “vagabond” in the title. Looking for a word that could “capture the vigour of life-in-movement”, of Gulbadan Begum whether living in tents or mansions and “convey the philosophy of a movement” she hopes to capture the “textures, complexities, and paradoxes” of the worlds of Gulbadan Begum. A word writes Lal, “rigorous enough to encompass the central motif of Gulbadan’s spiritual, political and bodily movement”.

By the end of the book, it is very clear that Lal has entered into Gulbadan Begum’s life so thoroughly, that she has developed a great affinity with her subject of study in twenty-odd years. We can see it in the piecing together of the four fantastic years spent on the pilgrimage which also highlights in the words of Lal, “the lush worlds that the Mughal men and women inhabited, made and lived”, including the networks and explorations that pilgrims would have experienced.

Putting together an illustrious life from varied sources, official and unofficial, popular and marginal, makes the book truly remarkable.

Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan, Ruby Lal, Juggernaut.