Hamida Bano was a 14-year-old when Humayun Badshah, 33, met her in Pat, a town in Sehewan in the kingdom of Thatta, in 1541. Having been defeated by Sher Shah Suri in the battle of Kannauj, Humayun was on the run – he had lost the kingdom his father Babur had established in India and along with his half brother Hindal, he took refuge with Shah Hussain, the Sultan of Thatta in Sind.
After many days spent travelling through perilous and desolate deserts, they had finally found some peace. Humayun’s stepmother Dildar Bano, who was Hindal’s mother, gave a banquet in his honour and among the guests she invited, was the beautiful Hamida.
Hamida’s father Sheikh Ali Akbar, a Persian sufi more popularly known as Mir Baba Dost, was Hindal’s spiritual instructor, and there was a close bond between him and the family. As soon as Humayun saw Hamida Bano, he asked his stepmother Dildar, “Who is this?” He was mesmerised by the beauty and liveliness of the teenager and asked if she was already betrothed. On hearing that she was not, he expressed the desire to marry her.
Mirza Hindal was affronted. Not because, as some stories and texts say, he was in love with her – but because he was concerned about the family name.
“I look on this girl as a sister and child of my own,” he is believed to have said. “Your Majesty is a king – heaven forbid there should not be a proper meher, and so a cause of annoyance should rise.” Meher is a mandatory payment in the form of money or possessions paid or promised by the groom, or the groom’s father, to the bride at the time of marriage, which legally becomes her property. Hindal was concerned that an emperor on the run may not have enough resources for this endowment to his bride at the time of nikah, or their wedding.
Humayun assured his half-brother that he would ensure a meher befitting his royal status and their family name. Thus began a royal courtship, or at least an attempt at one: Humayun tried to woo Hamida, but she would have none of it. A much older man ousted from his empire was probably not the prince of her dreams. She may have known that an emperor, even one without an empire, must be imperious. She wanted a companion, not a ruler.
Gulbadan Begum, Humayun’s younger sister and the author of Humayun Nama, writes:
“On another day he came to my mother, and said: ‘Send someone to call Hamida Bano Begam here.’
When my mother sent the message, Hamida Bano Begam did not come, but said: ‘If it is to pay my respects, I was exalted by paying my respects the other day. Why should I come again?’”
Another time, Gulbadan writes, His Majesty sent Subhan Quli and said:
“’Go to Shah Husain Mirza and tell him to send the Begam.’
The Mirza said: ‘Whatever I may say, she will not go. Go yourself and tell her.’
When Subhan Quli went and spoke, the Begam replied: ‘To see kings once is lawful; a second time it is forbidden. I shall not come.’
On this Subhan Quli went and repeated what she had said. His Majesty remarked: ‘If she is na mahram, we will make her mahram.’”
The young woman was not one to be swayed by royal protocol or pomp. The resistance continued for 40 days. Finally, Dildar Bano went to the young woman and said, “After all you will marry someone, better a king who is here.”
The young girl replied, “Oh yes! I shall marry someone, but he shall be a man whose collar my hand can touch and not someone whose skirt it does not reach!”
Dildar Bano advised the teenager and perhaps even swore that her stepson was no autocrat. Hamida Bano finally agreed to marry the king and in September 1541, Humayun, a keen astrologer, took the astrolabe in his hand and chose a propitious hour. He then summoned Mir Abul Baqa and ordered him to solemnise his marriage to Hamida.
As meher, Hamida received two lakhs, a sum that befitted the royal status, and the title of Maryam Makani, or dwelling with Mary, in recognition of her innocence and piety. Though Hamida had been apprehensive of being just another addition to a royal harem, the 15 years that she would be married to Humayun were spent in close companionship with him. Love must have been further nurtured in the hard conditions they endured, for she never once left his side.
While still on the run a year later, they were blessed with a son in Umerkot where they had taken refuge with the Rajput king Rana Prashad. The child born on October 15, 1542, was named in accordance with Humayun’s dream. After his defeat in Kannauj, Humayun had headed for Lahore. In a state of utter dejection, he had had a vision there, in which a venerable man in green clothes holding a staff had said, “Be of good cheer, do not grieve,” and had given his staff to Humayun. “The most high God will give you a son whose name will be Jalauddin Mohammed Akbar,” the holy man had said.
When Humayun asked the man in the vision his name, he replied, “The Terrible elephant Zinda Fil Ahmed of Jam,“ and added, “Your son will be of my lineage.”
Sheikh Ahmed e Jami had been an 11th century Persian sufi saint. Hamida Bano was in fact his descendant. Humayun personally cast Akbar’s fortune and predicted greatness for the baby.
In December 1543, they were once again on the run and she made the perilous journey from Sindh with Qandhar as their destination. But in the course of that journey, Gulbadan writes, “Humayun had to take hasty flight from Shal-mastan, through a desert and waterless waste”.
Hamida went with her husband, leaving her infant son behind with trusted servants and Humayun’s brother Askari. She was reunited with him in Kabul after two years. Hamida remained steadfast by her husband’s side through his life and even accompanied him to Persia. There were no comforts or luxuries with meager provisions and no personal attendants on that journey, but even in the darkest of days, Hamida was not only his companion but a source of inspiration.
After an exile of fifteen years Humayun regained the throne of Delhi, but he was not destined to rule for long. He died a year later and his son Akbar ascended the throne. Akbar was only thirteen at the time and recognising his mother’s acumen and intelligence, often sought her advice. Hamida was a wife for only fifteen years and she lived for fifty after Humayun’s death. She is buried in a chamber next to the tomb of her husband in Delhi, built by his eldest wife Bega Begum or Haji Begum.