In the harem at Agra, meanwhile, there was a flurry of further additions. A daughter, Khanum Sultan, was born to Akbar and then in 1570, a second prince, Murad. In November 1570, Rao Kalyanmal of Bikaner and his heir, Kuar Rai Singh, accepted Mughal overlordship and were brought into the Mughal fold.

Rao Kalyanmal then offered a daughter and two nieces, Raj Kanwar and Bhanumati, in marriage to Akbar. At the same time Har Raj of Jaisalmer also submitted to Akbar and offered a daughter, Rajkumari Nathi Bai, as a wife for the Padshah while his son, Kuar Sultan Singh, was accepted as a nobleman at the Mughal court.

When the Rajput brides entered the Mughal harem they brought with them their holy fires and their sparkling language, their busy gods, and their swaying clothes. For Akbar did not require these women to convert to Islam and they were allowed to fully participate in their Hindu rituals as they had in their own homes.

And yet, in an astounding sleight of hand, these women would disappear completely from the Mughal records, smoothed into impossible standards of purity and chastity, all individuality removed. So very rigorous would this vigilance be that there is only one record that clearly states that the mother of the much longed-for Mughal heir, Salim, was indeed Harkha Bai Kachhwaha.

For these women, there would be no intimate accounts of labours arrested by plain-faced midwives or compassionate recordings of a young girl’s mixed feelings towards her determined groom. The name of Prince Murad’s mother was not noted and the celebrations following births were negligently narrated, formal and bloodless.

The purdah, which had been cursory in the case of the Timurid women, who rode on horseback, participated in mixed gatherings at banquets and feasts, and travelled with their husbands and sons, had now suddenly become opaque. This was noted in a history of the reign of Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, when it was written that “ever since the reign of Akbar, it had been ordained that the names of the inmates of the seraglio should not be mentioned in public, but that they should be designated by some epithet derived either from the place of their birth or the city in which they might have first been regarded by the monarch with the eye of affection”.

That there was a growing Mughal desire to circumscribe the harem within an ordered space as a reflection of the exalted charisma of the Padshah, which now removed the harem from the sight of ordinary people, is clear from Abu’l Fazl’s writings. But there may also have been something the Rajput brides brought with them, along with their gods, dancing girls, and feasts, that made this process inevitable.

In the turbulent, fractious environment of Rajasthan, the clan structure of ruling families was the scaffolding upon which layers of loyalty were constructed. On the one hand there were the rulers, linked to their thikanedars and small jagirdars in an intricate web of blood and obligation called bhai-beta, or clan. A further unit of relationship and strength increasingly became the saga, the in-law family, who were also expected to provide warriors and fealty in times of strife.

Marriages between two weaker clans could provide ballast against more formidable neighbours while clans could try to appease encroaching pretenders by offering daughters in marriage, thus securing bonds and alliances. As a result, polygamy became rampant in the ruling houses of Rajasthan, the women often inconsequential beyond their ability to produce brave sons to fight the making of a complicated harem and die magnificently in their endless battles.

In an extreme example, Rawat Durga Das of Deogarh married strong horse-riding women and then kept them in seclusion to breed sons who would, it was hoped, be as fearless as their mothers had once dreamed of being. In genealogies and chronicles, the Rajput women lost their names, their individuality now smooth as river stones, hidden behind the name of their fathers’ clans. As Rajput kinship networks evolved through the centuries, regulating the place of these elite Rajput women and their chastity became deeply embedded in the honour of the clan; this also became an increasingly confounding problem for these polygamous households.

Widow remarriage, also known as nata marriages, which did occur in earlier, more forgiving times, were now deemed impossible for elite women who had to be irreproachable in their purity. And so to further ensure that all these many women with their female attendants were kept beyond the temptation of any sexual lapse, a physical space was devised, the zenana deorhi or rawala, which was the equivalent of the Rajput purdah.

The zenana in a Rajput household did not open directly into the main entrance of the home. Instead, a wall known as a pardi hid the main entrance to the women’s apartments. Not even a glimpse of these women could now be seen by anyone outside of the zenana. A

s the rules of the feudal structure became stricter, the purdah of elite women became a symbol of a ruler’s prestige and power. The more exalted the ruler, the higher were the zenana walls and the smaller the windows, the women obliterated behind the stone walls.

The entrance to the zenana was guarded by deorhidars and eunuchs. The only males who were allowed entrance, apart from the ruler and the immediate family of the women, were priests, and the sons of davris, the hereditary female slaves who were part of the women’s dowries. Curtains would be held up at the entrance to the zenana if state matters needed to be discussed.

Purdah was also used to enforce rules of hierarchy within the bustling zenana and so the wives of a ruler were made to use the ghoonghat, a cover for the head, in front of their mothers-in-law and senior women of the zenana, whom they were not allowed to speak to directly for years after their marriage. In this the Rajput women differed from the Mughals, who were never expected to hide themselves from other women.

So forbidding did the idea of purdah become that even in Rajput art, while hundreds of portraits of men would be produced in the following decades, almost no paintings of actual women were ever produced, this invisibility itself, as described by historian Molly Aitken, “a form of purdah that served to promote elite men’s and elite women’s different accesses to public visibility”.

In the colliding worlds of the Rajput and the Mughal, it is difficult to be sure exactly who learnt from whom, as they now increasingly had intertwined cultures and destinies. Did the Mughals adopt the Rajput notion of seclusion or did the Rajputs bolster their women with additional layers of coverings when they encountered the Mughals?

Was this a defensive measure or an imitation as elite behaviour in a feudal society began to mirror the other? What is clear is that in the alchemy of this meeting, the idea of honour became inextricable from a woman’s chastity, both Mughal and Rajput. When Abu’l Fazl would begin work on the Ain-i Akbari, he would, for the first time in the history of the Mughal Empire, declare that the Mughal women were pardeh-giyan, the veiled ones. The women would be further hidden behind grandiose titles which made them indistinguishable, Hindu, Persian or Turk. Hamida Banu would be transformed into Maryam Makani and Harkha Bai into Maryam uz Zamani and when they were mentioned at all in the records, they were now always resolutely “chaste”.

There were other ways in which the Rajput women brought their culture into the Mughal world. As their life in seclusion was physically constrained, Rajput women often turned to religion both as emotional sustenance and as a source of entertainment. There were almost daily functions, distracting with their rituals and their effervescent colour. There was Basant Panchami, Holi, Rakhi, Dussehra, Diwali, Teej, and Janmashtami, breaking the monotony of their years and colouring the background of their lives.

They had access to the royal priests as well as female Brahmins so they could conduct these rituals with panache and fervour. “From early youth, in compliment to his wives, the daughters of the Rajahs of Hind,” railed Badauni bitterly, “he had within the female apartments continued to offer the hom, which is a ceremony derived from sun-worship.”

To Badauni it was clear that this nefarious influence on Akbar was at least partly due to these Rajput women. He grumbled gloomily about the “jewelled strings tied on his wrists, by Brahmans, by way of a blessing” and the abhorrent “current custom also to wear the rakhi on the wrist, which means an amulet formed out of twisted linen rags”. Still later Badauni would note that even Akbar’s sartorial choices were influenced by Hindus.

“Certain pandering pimps,” he clarified, “brought forward proofs in favour of shaving the beard.” The Rajput wives “had influenced his mind against...association with people who wore beards. And in order to gain their love and goodwill, and that of their castes, he abstained entirely from anything which was a natural abhorrence to these people, and looked on it as a mark of special devotion to himself if men shaved off their beards – so that this became a common practice.” And indeed Akbar never did keep a beard, only a small moustache, and he grew his hair long out of deference to the habits of his Hindu subjects.

Akbar: The Great Mughal

Excerpted with permission from Akbar: The Great Mughal, Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company.