Zoya Ansari tells about the
dignified living quarters
The general impression about Harem: Imperial Mughal abode is that it was a place where male members of imperial and aristocratic families kept their women. This definition is quite a misnomer as harem was actually a place of abode both for male and female members and just not for their womenfolk. It was therefore that such abode was known as a prohibited place owing to the sanctity it was viewed with loyalists. These premises were guarded because it housed the most important members of the ruling families. In addition to the royal residence it was also home to royal and aristocratic women and it was this aspect that was highlighted in the annals of history where these lodgings were painted as an exclusive place where women lived in a vacuum-sealed world of their own. As was the prevailing practice the Mughal code of honour demanded that many of the royal women were even nameless to the outside world though it was often mentioned that they considered living in these quarters a high honour.
Keeping in view the exalted position the emperor has designated himself the Mughal harem was an immense establishment. Akbar had more than five thousand women in his harem comprising of wives, concubines, female relatives, administrators, guards, cooks and menials. Lady Officers in Akbar’s harem received stipends varying from twenty- seven to 1,610 rupees a month and these wages were high in comparison to an ordinary Mughal cavalryman who received a maximum of just thirteen rupees a month. The total cash stipends that Akbar paid to the harem women came to 852,000 rupees a year, excluding the pay of eunuchs. Harem salaries rose even higher under later emperors and these financial emoluments indicated the high status of the lady officers looking after female quarters of the harem.
The vastness of the imperial harem, its reputed opulence, and the fact that there was little authentic information about harem life, led to a lot of spicy speculation among the public about what went on there, based on the colourful gossip of eunuchs and harem servants. Inevitably, their accounts are marred by exaggerations and distortions. There was hardly any doubt that the emperor did maintain a large number of wives and concubines as he was compelled to beget many children so that some of them might survive keeping in view the prevalent high infant mortality rate. But this was not the only reason for the emperor to maintain a vast harem but the significant underlying reason was that many royal marriages were contracted for political reasons, to cement alliances or to show favour. Nevertheless, contrary to common myth the arduous life of the emperor left him with little leisure for amorous play.
It was also very clear that the imperial harem was a part of the pomp and display expected of the emperor as it behooved his status as the supreme lord. The harem contained beautiful apartments, separated, and more or less spacious and splendid, according to the rank and income of the females. Nearly every chamber had its reservoir of running water at the door; on every side were gardens, delightful alleys, shady retreats, streams, fountains, grottoes, deep excavations that afford shelter from the sun by day, lofty divans and terraces, on which to sleep coolly at night. The apartments were decorated with gold and azure, exquisite paintings and magnificent mirrors.
The emperor was the only adult male who was allowed to enter the female part of the harem. There lodged none in the premises of the harem but his women and eunuchs. Their food came from one kitchen but each wife took it in her own apartments. The royal harem, being also the residence of the emperor was tightly guarded. Within, it was guarded by sober and active women with the most trustworthy of them placed about the apartments of his majesty. Outside the enclosure the eunuchs were placed and at a proper distance, there was a guard. Besides, on all four sides, there were guards of nobles, Ahadis and other troops. Uzbek, Tartar and Ethiopian women were preferred for harem duty and eunuchs came mainly from Bengal.
The emperor spent a good part of his working day in the harem but he spent it working, for it was here that he did some of his most confidential work. The harem was his residence-cum-private office and it was run like a full-fledged government department with its own budget, administrators and accountants, headed by the Mahaldar, the lady superintendent. For the officials outside were required to send written reports into the palace of all that the king ought to know. To these reports the women officials replied as directed and to carry this out there were eunuchs who took out and brought back the sealed letters written from one side to the other on these matters.
The female part of the harem was usually headed by the emperor’s chief queen but at times the first lady was the royal mother, as Hamida was in Akbar’s harem. The first lady had her own formal seat in the hall of the ladies’ wing on which, as on a throne, no one else was allowed to sit. The uzuk, the royal signet ring, was usually in her keeping, which gave her a chance to review the final drafts of firmans. When the affairs of the empire were considered a family matter, it was inevitable that members of the royal family, including women, should be involved in the business of government. The begums, watching and listening from behind the screens of durbar halls were knowledgeable about affairs of state for they were privy to the secret reports that the emperor received from his intelligence agents, which were opened in the harem. Due to their daily contact with the emperor and the intimacy of their relationship, the womenfolk exercised considerable influence on the modulation of state policy.
The begums were a potent though invisible power behind the throne. Such a role for high-born women was not unusual in Islamic political tradition. However, it was only the exceptional woman, under exceptional circumstances, who made a mark in medieval history. Many of royal women enjoyed fabulous incomes which they could deploy in any enterprise of their choice and sometimes jagirs or specific taxes were assigned to the begums. A good part of the immense resources of the begums was spent on luxuries but a fair amount was also spent on the patronage of culture, on charities, or on the construction of monumental buildings. Exchanging gifts was an engaging diversion for the begums.
Occasionally, the great begums indulged in international trade—Jahangir’s mother, Maryam Zamani, for instance, conducted extensive overseas trade and so did Nurjahan and Jahanara, and there were several others like them. The royal ladies also played an important role in the patronage of officials and amirs courted them assiduously, sending them presents and seeking their advice and support. The begums knew all the top officers, having watched them through the grill in the durbar hall. There could be, of course, no direct contact between the begums and the amirs and they had to communicate with each other through eunuchs. In exceptional cases, the emperor conferred on a senior amir the freedom to enter the harem as a gesture of high favour and great intimacy. TW