The first Mughal Badsha who had a Hindu mother was Salim Mirza (Jahangir). However, when we look into the annals of Mughal history and shift through the numerous biographies and writings of that period, we hardly find a clear mention of the Badsha of Hindustan’s mother by name. In 1562, Akbar made one of his first alliances with the Hindu Rajput fraternity that would stand stolidly behind him throughout his reign.
This was Raja Bihari Mal of Kachhawaha clan of Jaipur, whose sincerity and offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage brought the first of many Hindu princesses into the Zenana of Akbar. Hira Kunwar Sahiba Harkha Bai brings the Rajasthani style of dressing, use of silk so enamoured by the Mughals, Hindustani hair styles, cooking and a lot of cultural practices which were to be integrated into not only the Mughal Zenana and but the Badsha’s court as well. Harkha Bai gives birth to a son in 1569 and this son is named Salim after Sheikh Salim Chishti, the Sufi mystic who promises Akbar this son will live unlike the others and he will have more heirs. Around this time we see Akbar, of the lineage of his nomadic Timurid clan, for the first time build extensive buildings and living quarters in the planned city of Fatehpur Sikri an erstwhile small village where lived Salim Chisti. Here the zenana for the first time is built as a completely separate space for the women.
It was in the Akbarnama, the biography of Akbar where Abu’l-Fazl records the history of Akbar inviting holy men of different faiths to gather and debate the different religions and the syncretic understanding leading to the formation of Din I Ilahi was perhaps conceptualised. The horrified Badauni ( a staunch Sunni) writes of these events in the Ain-i-Akbari as Abu’l-Fazl describes an impeccably ordered world in which the women in the ever increasing multi religious, multi-cultural zenana are hustled away into a rigorous and contained anonymity. This is quite unlike the earlier Mughal harem where the women did not follow a very strict public and private boundary in their lives. The Zenana is now not only a large and busy community of women but almost a small township with children, staff, relatives, guards, tutors and assorted entourage. We have Niccolao Manucci, a Venetian adventurer and chronicler, who details the role of the woman Mahaldaar, like a major dome who is personally appointed by the emperor- intelligent, witty, capable of keeping order I this bustling enclosure and a spy to the emperor. Under her are the urdubegis robust bodied, highly trained women body guards of the emperor when he is in his sleeping quarters. These come from various ethnic backgrounds – Ethiopians, Tartars, Turks.
To come back to the question of the name of Jahangir’s mother there is strangely no direct mention of her name during this period of well chronicled history. She is projected not as a woman of flesh and blood but a sacrosanct symbol of the Empire and the woman is hidden behind not just the high walls of the zenana but also a flamboyant title Maryam-uz-Zamani, Mary of the World and the real woman is lost. Her nephew Man Singh and heir to the kingdom Amber goes on to become an illustrious member of Akbar’s court and it is through these references and others that her identity has been established. Badauni records the amalgamation of the Rajasthani Rajput culture into the Persian-Timurid court. It seems that the disappearing of the Mughal royal women from the public eye (in contrast to the earlier Timurid women who led very public lives) may have borrowed some elements from the Rajput patriarchal culture. The Rajputs sequestered their women jealously and for the Rajputs, their honour as a clan is deeply invested in their women’s sexual chastity, leading to the horrific excesses of the sati and jauhar fires. Akbar himself is shocked at the ritual of sati and laments the fact that a Hindu woman once married cannot be married again after the death of her husband yet his own zenana slowly transforms into one smooth façade where the individuality of the royal women are erased. Here we have reference to the Tutinama (an illustrated book of fifty-two moral stories for women) by historian Bonnie C. Wade, which ‘was a pleasant sort of control, but control nevertheless, with the point about correct behaviour of a woman being made fifty-two times’. Despite the efforts at erasing her individuality we have two artefacts which establishes Harkha Bai as Jahangir’s mother.
The first one is in the miniature painting made by Bishen Das for the Akbarnama, in which Hamida Banu Begum sits on a chair beside her daughter-in-law- Harkha Bai who has just had a baby- the infant Salim who have been depicted. The second one establishing that Maryum uz Zamani is Harkha Bai, mother of the first Mughal Emperor to be both born in India and of a Hindu mother- in the imperial records, there is an edict, written in the name of the queen mother, Maryam-uz-Zamani. In this first and only instance, Maryam-uz-Zamani is clearly mentioned as the mother of Jahangir.
Water and its link to personal wealth in the Zenana: The narrative of empowerment
The first official documentation establishing her connection and tribute to water is found when she has a stepwell built in Bayana, in the district of Bharatpur in memory of the difficulties faced by women in the arid land of her birth.
Two distinct and noteworthy developments to be noted here which will have direct part to play in the subsequent conflict with Mariyam uz Zamani are the presence of Jesuit priests of European origin in Akbar’s court, their involvement in the education of a son of Arbar and the Portuguese establishing thriving trading posts along the Malabar Coast. Goa, with a population of 225,000, which is larger than Madrid or Lisbon. Akbar also granted them a village near Hugli close to Kolkata. This is within some years after the discovery of the sea route from Europe to India by the Portuguese in 1498. By then the Portuguese have trading settlements in seven regions all along the sea coast of India starting from Chittagong in the east to Surat in the west.
We have mention of John Newberry, William Leedes and Ralph Fitch who arrive at the capital of the ‘Great Mogol’ when in 1581 Queen Elizabeth of England grants a charter to a small mission company entitled the Company of Merchants to the Levant to trade in India. Ralph Fitch will write the first document of an English man’s account of the Mughal court.
In 1585, Fatehpur Sikri is abandoned. The absence of running water near the city is cited as one of the reasons for the decision. But we turn our gaze now to Rajasthan and look at the small village of Bayana. Bayana has a rich growth of the famous indigo, so valued the world over. Finch who has accompanied Hawkins, ambassador of King James to Jahangir’s court in 1610, five years after Akbar’s death clashes here with Harkha Bai’s agent with orders to buy all the indigo and load it onto the queen mother’s ship which is bound for Mocha, near Mecca.
Maryam-uz Zamani has built another stepwell here for cultivation of the indigo which her ship trades in . This conflict results in both Hawkins and Finch being forced to leave the Mughal court. We can have an estimate of the power of Harkha Bai from this incident. The more important understanding is however, about the power structure of the court and the prowess of this lady hidden within the Zenana, a widow now, yet engaged in trade overseen personally using the waterways, owning a ship called Rahimi trading in the coveted sea routes. Her personal wealth is enormous and she runs her business under her own name and controls her finances herself. Indeed, many of the Mughal noblewomen, since the time of Akbar, have become independently wealthy as the Mughal empire has flourished. She like other royal women of Akbar’s court owns property in her own name.
Maryam-uz-Zamani’s favoured status at Jahangir’s court is reflected in the fact that she is one of only four members of the court (one of whom is Jahangir himself) and the only woman to have the high rank of 12,000 cavalry, and she is known to receive a jewel from every single nobleman at court ‘according to his estate’ every year on the occasion of the new year’s festival. But what Maryamuz-Zamani is most interested in, what she invests her money in and actively participates in, is maritime trade.
Surat, through which pass all the goods exchanged between India and the rest of the trading world. As for the quantities of fine cotton cloth traded, Pietro della Valle writes: ‘everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, was clothed from head to foot in material made in Gujarat’, most of which passes through Surat.
Harkha Bai trades through the enormous ship that sails under her colours, the Rahimi from the town of Surat which bustles with different languages and people from different cultures. Harkha Bai, did not trade directly with the merchants and has a huge number of agents, middlemen and financial advisers, almost mirroring the entire finance department of the empire. She trades with foreigners from all over the world. The Rahimi is one of the largest vessels of any kind to sail the Indian seas. Her capacity is upwards of 1,500 tons and the ship has room for a load of 1,500 passengers. In 1613, the Rahimi transports goods worth 100,000 pounds equivalent to, in today’s currency, half a billion rupees. The Rahimi trades in then Hindustan’s major exports—indigo, cotton and silks and leather, metal, carpets, spices, opium and jewels. In return, it brought back goods of particular interest to the noblewomen—gold, silver, ivory, pearls, amber, perfumes, wines, brocade, cutlery and glassware. The Rahimi is famous amongst the Europeans for being ‘the great pilgrimage ship’. In 1612 and 1613 the Portuguese pirates attack this ship outrageously This attack was considered grave enough to bring about a complete reversal of fortunes, both for the Portuguese and, incidentally, for the newly arrived English. Jahangir reacts swiftly. He halts all traffic through Surat and this immediately paralyses the lucrative trade which has made the fortune of this city. He further shuts down the Jesuit church in Agra, which had been built under Akbar, and sends his agent, Mukarrab Khan, to lay siege to the Portuguese town of Daman. Marium uz Zamani, raises a war cry. A Hindu queen and her Muslim ship, carrying Hajj pilgrims in Christian waters patrolled by the Portuguese armada is effective in replacing the power of the Portuguese by that of the English. Jahangir increases his negotiations with the English from this time onwards. Harkha Bail will never get back the Rahimi, but this daughter of the desert, of arid parched lands made her fortune trading along the waters and was powerful enough to have been part of the process that evicted the great naval force of the Portuguese from Indian shores.
Her story speaks of the empowerment of women defying the strong socio-cultural forces to keep her very identity a mystery.
We know about her in a large part because of her expansive maritime trade involvement and the momentous incidents that took place related to these activities.
My next blog moves on to the story of a modern-day woman whose livelihood also moves around water. She is a leader and hero in her own community. Her work is based on the water bodies in her small village. She has represented India in various multinational fora and is the source of livelihood for many women and their households. Check this space for more.
Harkha Bai. Museum of fine arts, Boston. Image Courtesy: Ira Mukhoty.