The invisibility of the Mughal princesses
The limitations of Southasia’s historical record can be seen in the indifference towards two notable Mughal princesses, Jahanara and Zebunnissa.
History – that mosaic of tales and fables that is generally, though not entirely, agreed upon – will always be contested and debated, often in the blood-lined bazaars of power. Indian history, which serves as the broad banner for the histories of Southasia, is certainly no exception in this. After all, Indian history has largely been one of power laced with the force of religion. In addition, during the course of this history, the rulers, ministers, clerics and soldiers have, with rare exceptions, all been male. Indeed, the annals of the sultanate and Mughal history, both medieval and modern, are largely tales of powerful and quarrelsome men vying for power and patronage. The local patriarchal society, influenced by the zeal of West Asian Islam, ensured the almost complete invisibility of women.
The brief reign of Razia Sultan (1236-1240) was an exception, though her ascension to the Delhi sultanate throne and subsequent dethronement and exile, as well as the continuous resistance of clergy and nobles to her political persona, only reinforced the predominance to patriarchy. Other than Razia Sultan and Queen Nur Jahan, who both gave up purdah and participated in the brutal politics of men, rarely did a woman rise to a position of authority or influence. For her part, Nur Jahan (1577-1645) experienced particular success, but her precedent was not the norm – she was Persian, after all, and was considered a particularly wily player of power politics. And Nur Jahan is demonised as a power-hungry monster, who supposedly subjugated the masculinity of her emperor husband to assume charge of the Mughal Empire. Indeed, in the words of that husband, Jahangir, the kingdom had been ‘sold’ to his wife for a cup of wine and a bowl of soup. Nur Jahan has also been accused of misdeeds that were common to powerful men of that age: bribery, nepotism and the weaving of court intrigues. Such faint praise aside, all the while her lasting contributions to the Mughal court – the cuisine, lifestyle and trends of that age – have been largely overlooked, to appear as little more than ‘feminine’ footnotes in the main narrative of Southasian power.
Lahore is where Nur Jahan and Jahangir married, and where they established their royal home. As a Lahorite, the childhood memories of this writer are inextricably mixed with those of many visits to Jahangir’s tomb. But the name of this much-celebrated monument is also particularly symbolic: it is not just the final resting place of Jahangir, but also that of the queen who lovingly designed the buildings and surrounding gardens, to their very last detail. Many of the architecturally significant additions made to the Lahore Fort, such as the zenana (female) quarters, have never been attributed to her. The irony, of course, is that Nur Jahan was the only queen who actually spent the majority of her royal life in Lahore. Other Mughal Emperors and Empresses lived in Agra or Delhi, save a few years of Akbar’s sojourn in Lahore. However, the histories of Lahore inevitably reduce Nur Jahan’s era to a brief footnote or an unread appendix.
But there is more to this story of the neglected women of the Mughal court than Razia Sultan and Nur Jahan. Buried within the folds of history is the tale of two princesses who have always remained well out of sight of the mainstream historical narratives of the Mughals. In recent decades, historians and novelists have indeed begun to explore the lives of princesses Jahanara and Zebunnissa, but the scanty primary sources available have largely thwarted these endeavours. Nonetheless, the stories of these extraordinary Mughal women dazzle through the mists of time, and their central paradox cannot be overlooked: the princesses were royal, and hence noteworthy, and yet they are almost completely invisible in what Southasians know as ‘history’.
Decades after Nur Jahan reigned, Princess Fatima Jahanara (1614-81) broke the longstanding taboo and became a major powerbroker within the complex dynamic of the Mughal court. Shahjahanabad (what is now referred to as Old Delhi) and its residents were familiar with Princess Jahanara, who had been a confidante of her father, the emperor Shah Jahan, as well as her eccentric brother, Dara Shikoh. Being the eldest daughter, she had a special role in the royal household, which fell under her control following the death of her mother Mumtaz Mahal – the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Interestingly, however, it was the mystical path that provided for both social and royal sanction for Jahanara’s high-profile public role.
Along with her brother, Dara Shikoh, Jahanara had been initiated into the Sufi faith, and was inspired by the saint Mian Mir of Lahore. Though Mian Mir adhered to the Sufi order known as Qadiriyya, Jahanara was also a devotee of the Chishti saints, particularly Nizamuddin Auliya and Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. In one notable instance, in 1643, the princess travelled to Ajmer after recuperating from severe burns, which had led to a near-death experience. It was this event, perhaps, that eventually led Jahanara to write her well-known biography on Chishti. In it, we learn of her pilgrimage to Ajmer, and of the mystical ecstasy that overcame her one evening while she was circumambulating the celebrated Chishti’s tomb. Thereafter, the princess ordered the construction of a massive marble pavilion directly in front of the tomb. Today, this vestibule is appropriately called the Begumi Dalan, a name derived from her title, Begum Sahib. Following her death, Princess Fatima Jahanara was laid to rest in the courtyard next to Nizamuddin Auliya’s tomb, in Delhi.
As a patron of mystical literature, Jahanara commissioned translations of several classic works, as well as erudite commentaries on these texts. As with Nur Jahan, Jahanara appreciated and promoted the arts, and was an accomplished poet in her own right. Her name was eventually romantically linked to various prominent men of letters of the time. Thus we have a female voice, personal and direct, from the 17th century, encompassed in Risala-i-Sahibbiyya (Madam’s treatise). Here, Jahanara records her journeys into mysticism, courtesy her spiritual guide Mullah Shah Badakhshi, interspersed with her verse. In this way, Sufism and its doctrine created a relatively genderless arena in which Jahanara could nurture her spiritual ‘voice’, and identify herself as a Sufi disciple as well as an artist and scholar in the literary and spiritual landscape of 17th-century Mughal India. The patronage of Sufi rituals also enabled a diluted purdah regime, and provided legitimacy to the public role – as an active leader and contributor – of an unmarried princess in the religious and cultural milieu of Delhi.
Following his son Aurangzeb’s order of house arrest, Shah Jahan was remanded to Agra Fort in 1658, where he eventually died in 1666. Jahanara remained loyal to her father, and stayed imprisoned with him until the end. Sixteen years later, she too died, and bequeathed all of her property to Khwaja Moinuddin’s dargah in Ajmer – though her brother permitted only a third of the money to be so directed. Each time I frequent the Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi, I make sure to visit Jahanara’s small, serene tomb, with its delicately carved latticework on white marble that has gone brownish-pale with time, but which seeks to remind us of her soulfulness. The tomb has no ceiling, and fuses with the open skies in deference to her wishes. The inscription says it all: “Let naught but green grasses cover my grave/For mortals poor, it’s a grave-cover brave.”
Although few remember Begum Sahib’s concrete contributions, much has been made of the supposed adventurousness of her love life. Hindi cinema has dwelled on her unfulfilled love for her childhood companion, Mirza Yusuf Changezi. The well-known film Jahanara (1964), for instance, narrated the doomed romance of the princess, discussing how the dying Mumtaz Mahal reportedly made Jahanara promise that she would never leave her father. A heartbroken Yusuf then wanders the country, lost in her love. As I sat one evening at Jahanara’s tomb, I reminisced about her admirer, a Persian poet who fell in love with the princess at their first meeting. According to the tradition, pigeons would fly back and forth with messages of their love, and couplets and ghazals that sang of longing for each other. In all likelihood, this love story never reached its culmination in real life, unlike what the Hindi films of the 1950s tried to depict.
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