Book review: Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty
Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar
Title: Daughters of the Sun
Author: Ira Mukhoty
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
Babur’s defeat of Ibrahim Lodhi in the first battle of Panipat, 1526, marked the establishment of the Mughal Empire in India. Nurtured by his several illustrious descendents, this infant empire, which grew from strength to strength, united a large part of the subcontinent for two centuries and left an indelible impression on Indian history and culture. To this date the history of this empire has been largely studied from the point of view of its political conquests and the socio-economic and cultural developments of its emperors. With a few notable exceptions, women are conspicuously absent in these accounts, despite the fact that Babur owed his success in no small measure to the efforts of the women in his life.
Academic research on Mughal history has so far showcased prominently the characters of Noorjahan, wife of Jehangir, and Jahanara, the favourite daughter of Shahjahan. Books published in the area dating from 1960 onwards, such as Rekha Misra’s Women in Mughal India 1526-1748 A.D. (1967), Renuka Nath’s Notable Mughal and Hindu Women in the 16th and 17th Centuries A.D (1990), Soma Mukherjee’s Royal Mughal Ladies and their Contribution (2001) cover the domestic arena of the Mughal empire in a limited manner. Written in a prosaic style, these encyclopaedic accounts do not analyse the ramifications of the contribution of Mughal women, much less the sources on which their books are based. This dominant trend was challenged by Ellison Banks Findly’s book Nur Jahan, Empress of Mughal India (1993), which concentrated on how Muslim and Hindu women negotiated power inside the harem, and later in 2005, by Ruby Lal’s Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World. Spanning the period from 1487 to1605, the latter highlights the influence of the familial world, especially the role of women, upon the first three Mughal rulers: Babur, Humayun and Akbar. Along with her research papers on the same subject, this book stands out as a remarkable exception to all others written on Mughal women thus far.
Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun endorses and carries forward Lal’s school of thought. An enthralling sociological piece, it covers a bigger time frame, giving us an unusual peep into the private lives of Mughals from the times of Babur to those of Aurangzeb as well as the attempts to drive out the banal images of the harem as a sexualised space, created largely by European accounts. Her nuanced narrative gives voice to fifteen influential but otherwise disappeared Mughal women while throwing light on their complex and changing socio-political status, economic and personal ambitions and the boundaries of their domestic arena.
Used to a peripatetic lifestyle in the nascent stage of the Empire, many of these stoic and robust Timurid women accepted hardship willingly alongside their men, thereby naturally reducing the gap between their public and private space. Their dominant status was further fortified by the pragmatism of Mughal men who did not stigmatise women who passed into enemy hands. Khanzada Begum, a sister of Babur, for instance, who was lost to the enemy was welcomed back many years later and continued to enjoy power on her re-establishment in her maternal family till her death.
In a complete subversion of the tenacious stereotype about the conservative attitude of Islam towards its women, Mukhoty points out that it was the Mughals who drew inspiration from the Rajput ideas of sexual virtuousness and purdah for women instead of it being the other way round. These norms seem to have been incorporated in the harem after the conquest of Chittor and defeat of Rani Durgavati, the queen of Gondwana. The book, therefore, is in a way an exposition of the rubbing off of the cultural restrictiveness of the Rajputs on the Mughals.
Akbar’s rule seems to have been the point of transition when the need to establish a stable empire and manage a diverse harem, which emerged as a shelter for a large number of women including mothers, grandmothers, elderly women and wives of men disgraced in his court, led to the delineation of the public and private space for the first time. Tented residences of Babur’s reign were replaced by palaces of marble and stone heralding the dawn of a new empire. Fatehpur Sikri clinched the idea of a separate enclosed space called the zenana where women were to be neither seen nor heard. The birth of Salim (future Jehangir) institutionalized the veil of chastity and a pseudo identity hidden behind a title – Harkha Bai, Humayun’s mother, became Maryam us Zamani while Hamida Bano, Akbar’s mother, was rechristened Maryam Makani (of Mary’s stature).
Yet these invisible bearers of morality negotiated the norms imposed on them astutely. During the empire formation, the unscrupulous, ambitious and dominant Maham Anga, Akbar’s foster mother, wielded such power that she was able to rout Bairam Khan, commander in chief of the Mughal army. Akbar’s official chronicler Abul Fazl too acknowledged her wisdom and courage. Politically active women such Harkha Bai, were able to banish William Hawkins the ambassador of the English East India Company from the Mughal court. Noor Jahan emerges as another striking figure in the light of Jehangir’s incompetency as an opium addict, while Jahanara, Aurangzeb’s daughter, attained the title of Padshah Begum, an honour and power bestowed upon widowed wives, sisters and unmarried daughters. Upon them lay the onerous task of uniting conflicting fathers with their sons, a regular malaise of the Mughal dynasty.
Feisty, independent, spirited and adventurous, they travelled long distances for both pilgrimages and sightseeing. Akbar’s aunt and author of Humayun Nama, Gulbadan Begum herself embarked on one such pilgrimage under extenuating circumstances, while one of Humayun’s wives, Bega Begum alias Haji Begum (due to the Haj that she undertook), refused the splendorous but constrained life of the royal harem despite her closeness to Akbar. Wealthier than their contemporaries in the western world, many of them were excellent traders. Maryam uz Zamani, owned the famous ship Rahimi of Surat, a ship that could carry 1500 passengers to Mecca. Nur Jahan indulged in male dominated sports such as marksmanship and excelled in it. Mughal shahazadis were given education which Rajput princesses seem to have been denied. Engaged in scholarly pursuits, many turned to writing in their spare time. Gulbadan Begum’s chronicles in the form of Humayun Nama, amply prove the point.
In the field of architecture, Humayun’s widow, Bega Begum, built his famous tomb while the notorious Maham Anga comes across as an architect of a mosque and madarsa called the Khair ul Manzil for girls and women only. Noor Jahan’s innovative Tomb of Itimad ud Daulah at Agra not only marked a transition between the Indianised sandstone and marble constructions of Jehangir and the Persianized pure marble creations of Shah Jahan but also introduced Pietra Dura inlay work. Mughal women thus emerge as multifaceted and multi talented individuals with contributions in a wide array of fields ranging from political to artistic, economic and literary.
Ira Mukhoty has used a variety of sources to flesh out the characters of the book, which include not just the foundational ones such as Baburnama but also accounts of Europeans and other foreigners who came to India at this time. Secondary literature, architectural and sartorial history supplement the narrative while illustrations of annotated Mughal paintings complement it. However, what really stands out is the comparative analysis of accounts of female historians of the times such as Gulbadan Begum and Jahanara, and those of the more famous male historians such as Abul Fazl, Faizi and Badauni. It is this that brings out the difference between the male and female perception of people, events and spaces. This must be acknowledged since even stalwart historians such as Harbans Mukhia have dismissed Gulbadan’s writings on account of her peripheral character in Mughal India.
Thus, while a dyslexic Akbar of Gulbadan’s account emerges as a harsh but at once loving father and a complex human being with his myriad strengths and weaknesses as a male, Faizi, Abul Fazl and Badauni’s history only emphasise this superman’s achievements. While Gulbadan looks at his zenana as an asylum for women, in Fazl’s account, with its emphasis on female chastity, the latter start disappearing, while the more orthodox Badauni of the Sunni creed rues the influence of Rajput women on Akbar visible in the form of prohibition of beef, garlic and onions and insistence on vegetarianism and drinking of gangajal. It is this remarkable blend of sources that is the highlight of Mukhoty’s work. Not surprisingly, Mukhoty’s Akbar surfaces as a more humanized character, a veritably hinduised Raja, a syncretic man, a patriarch trying to reconcile the conflicting values of his status, religion and era with the liberty of women whom he also seeks to protect.
Over and above this, the book is peppered with rare anecdotes of the period; for instance, Sher Shah Suri’s immense chivalry towards both Babur’s widow and his arch rivals, the Mughals, after defeating Humayun. Appreciating his widow’s efforts to save Babur’s grave, Suri not only left it unmolested but also sent an escort with her to have Babur’s remains transported to Kabul where they remain to this day! Such tales come as a pleasant surprise to the reader, live as we do in an age where barbaric treatment of prisoners, especially women, and desecration of sites is the common order of things. Other informative snippets such as the influence of Noorjahan’s miniatures on the paintings of Rembrandt or the impact of Jahanara’s city Shahajanabad on Louis XIV’s Louvre Palace, where a Mughal style apartment was proposed to be added, not only link Mughal history with the world’s but also underscore the idea that history cannot be studied in isolation.
Even so, this persuasive narrative could have done with a few more details such as those on the progress of music under Nur Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal and Zebunnisa Begum (a disaffected daughter of Aurangzeb). Noor Jahan, a proficient poet and writer, organized a number of mushairas and was a keen collector of books with a library of her own. Zebunnisa’s literary contribution too has been ignored. Food history, inextricably linked with the domestic turf, could also have been woven into the narrative. Likewise, Mukhoty has paid scant attention to the sexuality of Mughal women except that of Jahanara. A question that remains unanswered is why Mughal princesses remained unmarried.
Lucidly written and gripping from the word go, the book runs like a commentary and has entered the literary and academic scene opportunely, at a time when erasure of Mughal influence on Indian culture seems politically and socially popular. Finally it is a valuable addition to feminist history as well as to the history of Mughal India.
Dr. Madhu Kelkar has done Ph.D in History, from the University of Pune, in the area of “History of Water Management in the City of Bombay, 1845-1957”. She is a permanent faculty at H.R. College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, India. Her areas of interest include History, Environmental Studies, and Travel and Tourism.