Book Excerpt: From Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty
From the chapter Ambitious Siblings and a Shahzadi’s Dream
Roshanara is now forty years old. She has lived a muted life in the shadow of her glorious sister, whose every action is celebrated. Jahanara is so universally loved and personally discreet that Roshanara knows she is beyond rumour and scandal. But there is one person who is not so faultless, and who can be brought low—Dara Shikoh. From the zenana of Shahjahanabad, Roshanara observes and forwards to Aurangzeb Dara’s many transgressions. She knows he has slowly but steadily antagonized the Ulema and even many of the nobles because of his fascination with mysticism and eclectic Hinduism. He is accused of being ‘constantly in the society of brahmins, yogis and sanyasis, and he used to regard these worthless teachers of delusions as learned and true masters of wisdom’. She learns of his scandalous friendship with the naked mystic Sarmad, an Armenian Jew who has converted to Islam, lives with a young Hindu man and taunts the orthodox clerics with his heretical verses. Roshanara is also aware of the fact that Dara Shikoh has made powerful enemies within the nobility due to his arrogance. ‘If Dara had a failing’, agrees Manucci, it was that he ‘scorned the nobles, both in word and deed, making no account of them’. Nor does Dara endear himself to the Ulema when he declares that ‘paradise is there where no mullah exists’. Dara himself is ill-advised, being contemptuous of the opinion of others. ‘He spoke disdainfully to all those who ventured to advise him, and thus deterred his sincerest friends from disclosing the secret machinations of his brothers.’ Roshanara notes all these things about Dara and she bides her time carefully. Amidst the gaunt topography of her life, Roshanara is waiting for her destiny to reveal itself. And few at court suspect the extent of her rancour or the depth of her ambition. Roshanara is ‘very clever, capable of dissimulation, bright, mirthful, fond of jokes and amusement, much more so than her sister begum sahib’. Dissimulation, at least, is a trait Roshanara shares with Aurangzeb and ‘all was done in great secrecy’, says Manucci, of their long-range communications, ‘with much craft, so that his brothers could neither know nor suspect anything’. And so, following Shah Jahan’s illness, while Shah Shuja and Murad Baksh impetuously declare themselves padshah, Aurangzeb waits. And then in January 1658, he marches north, towards Agra, where Shah Jahan has been moved to, with the purported and pious aim of ‘liberating’ the old padshah from the noxious influence of the apostate and idolater Dara and establish peace in the empire.
Five months later Aurangzeb, along with his ally Murad Baksh, is advancing upon Agra itself. On a day in May so hot that ‘many strong men died from the heat of their armor and want of water’, Dara Shikoh and his imperial army have been effectively routed. From within the zenana, Shah Jahan and Jahanara are appalled at the defeat of their beloved shahzaada. Dara sends a disconsolate message to his father and sister, lamenting that ‘what has now happened to me is what you foretold’. Shah Jahan had advised Dara to wait for Suleiman Shikoh, his twenty-five-year-old charismatic oldest son, who was fighting Shah Shuja. But Suleiman Shikoh is waylaid and abandoned, and will end up in the stark, rugged hills of Garhwal, under the protection of that raja. Dara is devastated by his loss, the fickle loyalty of his generals who hustle over to Aurangzeb’s winning side, by the conflicting orders from his sentimental father who did not want to have his younger sons killed. Jahanara sends out a faithful eunuch with valuable jewels for Dara. She sends a message also expressing ‘her deep grief, telling him that she was even more discomfited than he; but she had not lost all hope of some day seeing him reign peacefully’. But Jahanara will never see Dara alive again. He goes to his haveli, takes what precious stones he can carry, and leaves for Delhi with his three wives, his daughter, Jaani Begam, his young son, Siphir Shikoh, and a few servants.
From the zenana, Jahanara sends a long, anguished letter to Aurangzeb, encamped outside the city. ‘His majesty is free from all bodily infirmities’, she assures Aurangzeb. ‘He is devoting all his attention to the improvement of the condition of his subjects and the maintenance of peace in the empire.’ She then berates Aurangzeb for his ‘unbecoming and improper action’ in taking up arms against his brothers. It is clear that Jahanara now understands the true object of Aurangzeb’s determined hatred, ‘even if your expedition is due to antagonism to prince Dara Shukoh’, she acknowledges, ‘it cannot be approved by the principle of wisdom, for according to the Islamic law and convention, the elder brother has the status of a father. His majesty holds the same view.’ In a distant echo of Humayun she tells Aurangzeb that ‘for the life of a few days in this transitory and evil world and its deceitful and deceptive enjoyments are no compensation for eternal infamy and misfortune. Don’t, don’t, for the virtuous do not behave like this.’ She urges Aurangzeb, instead, to write to Shah Jahan so that ‘efforts (can) be made for the fulfillment of your wishes’.
But Jahanara has underestimated the corrosive loathing that Aurangzeb has for Dara, whom he blames for his father’s cold criticism throughout his career. Obedience to the imperial diktat has been easy for Jahanara, cherished as she has always been. She cannot or will not see how destructive Shah Jahan’s constant undermining of Aurangzeb has been. And how, somewhere, Aurangzeb is also a creature of his family’s casual disdain. Aurangzeb replies with a meandering letter, blaming Dara for all his ills, claiming, disingenuously, to be acting only in self-defence. He then lays siege to the fort at Agra, cutting off its drinking water in this relentless month of June and the people in the fort capitulate within three days. Aurangzeb and his men take over the fort, its jewels, rich robes, gold and stores. Shah Jahan is, effectively, imprisoned within the zenana of the palace. At this stage, Jahanara goes to meet Aurangzeb in what will be their last meeting in many years. It is clear that Shah Jahan and the women have realized that the stakes have changed considerably. Violence has uncoiled, in the inferno of a June day, and Aurangzeb’s ragged ambition will not be denied. There is, possibly, a realization that a reckoning will come for all the thwarted years during which Aurangzeb has been kept from the court and from the love of his father. Perhaps Jahanara guesses that it is for the very life of Dara Shikoh that she must now plead.
About the book:
Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire by Ira Mukhoty
In 1526, when the nomadic Timurid warrior-scholar Babur rode into Hindustan, his wives, sisters, daughters, aunts and distant female relatives travelled with him. These women would help establish a dynasty and empire that would rule India for the next 200 years and become a byword for opulence and grandeur. By the second half of the seventeenth century, the Mughal empire was one of the largest and richest in the world.
The Mughal women—unmarried daughters, eccentric sisters, fiery milk mothers and powerful wives—often worked behind the scenes and from within the zenana, but there were some notable exceptions among them who rode into battle with their men, built stunning monuments, engaged in diplomacy, traded with foreigners and minted coins in their own names. Others wrote biographies and patronised the arts.
In Daughters of the Sun, we meet remarkable characters like Khanzada Begum who, at sixty-five, rode on horseback through 750 kilometres of icy passes and unforgiving terrain to parley on behalf of her nephew, Humayun; Gulbadan Begum, who gave us the only document written by a woman of the Mughal royal court, a rare glimpse into the harem, as well as a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of three emperors—Babur, Humayun and Akbar—her father, brother and nephew; Akbar’s milk mothers or foster-mothers, Jiji Anaga and Maham Anaga, who shielded and guided the thirteen-year-old emperor until he came of age; Noor Jahan, ‘Light of the World’, a widow and mother who would become Jahangir’s last and favourite wife, acquiring an imperial legacy of her own; and the fabulously wealthy Begum Sahib (Princess of Princesses) Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s favourite child, owner of the most lucrative port in medieval India and patron of one of its finest cities, Shahjahanabad.
The very first attempt to chronicle the women who played a vital role in building the Mughal empire, Daughters of the Sun is an illuminating and gripping history of a little known aspect of the most magnificent dynasty the world has ever known.
About the author:
Ira Mukhoty is the author of Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History. She was educated in Delhi and Cambridge, where she studied Natural Sciences. After a peripatetic youth, she returned to Delhi to raise her two daughters. Living in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, she developed an interest in the evolution of mythology and history and its relevance to the status of women in India.