Women in Mughal harems

Contrary to popular belief, not all women from the Mughal dynasty have led their lives behind the comfortable shadows of their male counterparts. In fact there were some remarkable women who unabashedly defied societal norms and contributed largely in strengthening the illustrious empire we read about today. Two such names I recently came across while reading Indu Sundaresan’s historical novel series ‘Taj Mahal trilogy’. The tri-book series gives an insight into the lives of empress Nur Jahan (emperor Jahangir’s wife) and princess Jahanara (daughter of the Taj Mahal fame lovesick ruler, Shah Jahan). Known for their exquisite beauty and sharp intellect, these two women had the courage to defy traditions and follow their dreams at a time when women were expected to stay content with their insignificant statuses behind the ornate walls of zenana.

The first book ‘The Twentieth wife’ depicts the journey of Mehrunnisa, which was Nur Jahan’s name before she became the wife of the fourth Mughal emperor known for his extraordinary accomplishments in art and architecture. The book gives a detailed narrative of the life of the azure blue-eyed Persian beauty whose father was a nobleman in emperor Akbar’s court. It is a wonderful love story which blossomed gradually over a span of almost two decades. To my surprise and very pleasantly so, Nur Jahan married Jahangir at the ripe age of 34, something unusual and unheard of in those times.

The second book ‘The feast of roses’ chronicles the 16 years of married life shared by the opium-addicted emperor and his twentieth and undoubtedly the most favourite wife Nur Jahan. During these years, the strong, charismatic and well-educated empress gained importance and became an influential figure at the court. Right from signing royal documents to minting coins in her name, Mehrunnisa, behind the restrictive confines of the regal ‘purdah’ system, achieved every important aspect of sovereignty in the empire. And also due to this newfound power, she incurred the ire of many important courtiers and other powerful women in the imperial harem.

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The third book in the series titled ‘Shadow Princess’ is the story of Mehrunnisa’s grand-niece and daughter of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz, Jahanara. This princess, who lost her mother at the tender age of 17, had to not only bear the burden of her father’s lifelong grief but also had to play the mediator between her warring brothers who were ruthlessly fighting each other for the throne. In spite of inheriting her deceased mother’s immense wealth and the status of the most powerful woman in her father’s zenana, this young princess was not allowed to marry and was ultimately forced to resort to unconventional ways to meet the love of her life.

My take on the series!!

Well ! this was an eye opener that too in a pleasant kind of way. The depiction of these noteworthy Mughal women were very engaging to read. Though the books are a fictional account on the lives of the two women, but I liked how the author tried to stay true to the historical facts while describing the characteristic flaws and strengths of her characters. Nur Jahan intrigued me for all the paradoxical attributes her character portrays; on one hand she is an ambitious, manipulative woman and on the other she is as an adorable naive, petulant wife. Jahanara impressed me with her unwavering dedication to her family. She not only became the advisor of her father’s empirical affairs but was also in-charge of the imperial seal, thus establishing herself as an immensely powerful and indispensable entity in the empire.

Apart from the characters and the overall narration of the books, I also loved reading and visualising the delicate gossamer veils, intricately designed ornaments and the gold-embroidered, stone-encrusted silks worn by the royal women. The vivid description of carved minarets, bustling bazaars and the carpeted and velvet-cushioned royal chambers took me on a luxurious regal ride. If you are a history buff and an admirer of strong women, then this trilogy will not disappoint you.

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12 thoughts on “Women in Mughal harems

  1. An eye opener indeed !!! specially when we owe the impression about restricted life styles and unwelcomed options ,of those women in Mughal era,. Piya, your blog presented a characteristic View of those well known historic personalities…………would love to read that book .( hope ,I can order that online …)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Piyali, I would never read books such as these( 😛 .. Not my area of interest!), and I must say your excerpts/ version about those distinctive women from history is quite interesting! On top of that, your style of writing is too good! 🙂 With an easy tone, it literally engages the reader, striving for more in the end. :* Keep writing more such blogs.. Lots of Love!

    Liked by 1 person

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