And the Built Heritage they Shaped
by Srilagna Majumdar & team
As we look at history, the period between the middle of the 1500s to the beginning of the 1700s, almost the entire Indian subcontinent was controlled by the Mughal Empire. We all have heard of the political, military, architectural and artistic achievements of the Great Mughals, right from Babur to Aurangzeb. But our concern, here, is with its women.
Not much space in history has been accorded to the extraordinary lives of the Mughal women, for over 200 years, some of whom were actively involved and contributed immensely to the court politics, architecture, shaping of cities, trade, spiritual, artistic and charitable endeavours. The women had a tremendous influence on the vision of the emperors who they were associated with. Many of them were the ‘king makers’ who ruled the Mughal world behind the curtains. There are many accounts of foreign travelers to India who note the numerous architectural activities carried out by the royal women – sarais, step wells (baolis), mosques, madrasas, seminaries, bazaars and gardens. Obscured from public view, women devised creative ways to prevail in the public realm.
We bring to you the contribution of Mughal women, primarily, the built heritage they shaped, in three parts. In the first part, below, we talk about few powerful Mughal ladies and the part they played in the Empire. The next two parts shall cover the architectural feats of the Mughal women.
Let’s take a stroll through history, and see why we need to remember and celebrate these royal Mughal ladies!
(1511 –1582) Humayun’s first wife, a Persian from Khorasan, she was also called Haji Begum, after she had gone on the Hajj to Mecca. Bega Begum lived a life of surprising independence. An episode described by Gulbadan* shows that she was a spirited woman who even spoke sharply to her husband when he did not visit her. Bega Begum was the first of the Mughal women to become a builder, and many would follow to build mausoleums, mosques, madrasas, seminaries, bazaars and gardens.
After the death of her husband when she decided to build his mausoleum for which she will always be remembered. Bega Begum was encouraged in this endeavour by her stepson Akbar, who was very fond of her. She was interested in patronizing education and so she established a madrasa near the mausoleum. Bega Begum is buried in the mausoleum near her husband, and somewhere nearby is the grave of one of the most unfortunate princes of the dynasty – Dara Shikoh.
* Gulbadan Begum was Mughal Princess and daughter of Emperor Babur. She wrote the Humayun-nama , an account of the life of her half-brother.
Mah Chuchak Begum
(died 1564) Meaning “moon flower”, Mah Chuchak Begum was the wife of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun. She was an ambitious lady who threw out the Naib Subadar and ruled Kabul on her own. She once led her army in person and defeated Munim Khan at Jalalabad.
She is said to have given a lot of trouble to Akbar during the initial portion of his reign! She was ambitious about her own and her son, Mirza Mohammmad Hakim’s political career. In the year 1554 A.D. Humayun nominated him as the Governor of Kabul under the guidance or charge of Munim Khan. Mah Chuchak Begum herself threw Ghani, Munim Khan’s grandson, out of Kabul and took the task of Kabul’s administration and ruled directly, which was a feat of surprise at that time! Mah Chuchak gave political refuge to Shah Abdul Mali (who belonged to the great Sayyids of Tirmiz) and married her daughter Fakru-n-Nisa to him, since it was politically beneficial for her. By using her diplomatic skills and intelligence, she created opportunities in patriarchal world for herself.
Maham Anga (died 1562) was the chief nurse of Akbar. She cared for Akbar and helped him through his troubles since his childhood. She was highly ambitious and pushed Akbar to make many difficult decisions. Akbar’s foster mother, became the sole power holder in the Mughal court, had great diplomatic skills and tremendous influence on government in what is known as the ‘Petticoat Government’.
Maham Anaga also greatly contributed to Mughal architecture. Khairul Manzil Masjid built by Maham Anga speaks volumes about the brilliance of the ancient techniques and her knowledge of it. The fact that a woman exerted such power made certain factions envious of her. In theological discussions as well as political ones, her power was questioned.
Born as Mehrunnisa (1577 – 1645), in Kandahar, she first gained the title of Nur Mahal, and later Nur Jahan (Light of the World). Nur Jahan was the only Mughal empress who had coins minted with her name. She also saved her husband Jahangir from the clutches of rebel leader Mabahat Khan.
She was a highly educated and intelligent lady who was fond of poetry, music, and painting. She wrote verses in Persian and constructed a library which consisted of a large number of meritorious works. In 1613 A.D. she was elevated to the rank of Padshah Begum or the first lady of the realm. The remarkable rise of her kins was also due to her influence on the Emperor. Her architectural endeavours are hard to neglect and hold special places in Agra and Delhi. Nur Jahan broke through all restraints and customs, and shines bright in the minds of history buffs till today!
Jahanara Begum (1614 –1681) defied all stereotypes of being a Mughal princess. Her life neither revolved around the men of the family nor did she spend her days in the harem as a woman was expected to. She was the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and the older sister of Prince Dara Shikoh and Emperor Aurangzeb. People often referred to Jahanara Begum as Faqirah (ascetic) due to her devotion to Sufism. She commissioned translations and commentaries on many works of classic literature.
Upon the death of Mumtaz Mahal in 1631, Jahanara, aged 17, took the place of her mother as First Lady of the Empire, despite her father having three other wives. As well as caring for her younger brothers and sisters, she is also credited with bringing her father out of mourning and restoring normality to a court deeply affected by her mother’s death and her father’s grief. Jahanara’s position in the court as a power broker was secure enough to occasionally argue with Aurangzeb and have certain privileges that other imperial women did not possess.
Shah Jahan’s fondness for his daughter was reflected in the multiple titles that he bestowed upon her, which included: Sahibat al-Zamani (Lady of the Age) and Padishah Begum (Lady Emperor), or Begum Sahib (Princess of Princesses). Her power was such that, unlike the other imperial princesses, she was allowed to live in her own palace, outside the confines of the Agra Fort. Her importance can also be gauged from the fact that upon Mumtaz Mahal’s death her personal fortune was divided by Shah Jahan between Jahanara Begum (who received half) and the rest of Mumtaz Mahal’s surviving children. She was given the revenues of port of Surat, allotted an income from a number of villages and owned gardens including, Bagh-i-Jahanara, Bagh-i-Nur, Bagh-i-Safa and the Pargana of Panipat was also granted to her. She shaped the city of Shahjahanabad to a great extent. She sponsored the construction of the Jama Masjid in 1648 and Chandni Chowk – the principal bazaar of Shahjahanabad.
- Soma Mukherjee : Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions
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