Role of wet nurses in life of Emperor Akbar

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


October 22, 2022

Emperor Akbar

Zoya Ansari takes a leaf out of an important aspect of Mughal history

The Mughals were known for their strong filial bonds that spread to their extended families including their wet nurses. Their wet nurses played important roles in the imperial households and their ambitions mostly disturbed the political equilibrium of the empire Emperor Akbar went through many vicissitudes in his life and probably the most cumbersome was the presence and activities of his wet nurse or foster mothers known in the Mughal world as ‘angas’. Akbar retained his intimate closeness with his foster families and he was fond of saying that there was a river of milk between them and he could never cross it. Mughal history reveals that the debt of milk remains close to Akbar’s heart and gave enormous leverage to his foster family. He was unfailingly courteous to them and tolerated their activities much to his peril.

Akbar faced tremendous travails in his early life when his father Humayun along with Akbar’s mother Hamida Banu Begum was deprived of the throne and turned out of the subcontinent in 1543 by the wily Afghan Sher Shah and had to migrate to Persia to seek asylum with the Safavi Shah. They were left with no option but to hand over the custody of their son Akbar to the wet nurses for it was a tradition in the noble families at the time and nurturing their royal foster son was considered a matter of honor for the families of the wet nurses. Akbar’s parents left him at the tender age of one in the care of his foster family and Akbar never lost his devotion to these families.

Maham Anaga’s Family

The prominent amongst foster-setup are family of two women known as Maham Anaga’s family comprising her husband Nadim Koka, son Adham Khan and son-in-law Shahbuddin Khan. The other family was of Jiji Anaga’s and it was actually Jiji Anaga who gave her milk to Akbar but she was a retiring sort of a woman and her family consisted of her husband Shams-ud-Din Aga Khan and their sons including Aziz Koka. Jiji Anaga’s husband Shams-ud-Din Aga Khan had also saved Humayun’s life at the battle of Chausa when he was routed by Sher Shah Suri.

By virtue of their association with Humayun and Akbar, both families were considered very influential in the life of the emperor and they gained the sobriquet of Atka Khel. It was noted that amongst women charged with taking care of Akbar that Maham Anaga was the primary personality as she was known to be an even-tempered and spiritually-minded woman who was steadfast in her loyalty to the royal Timurid family.

In the age of absolute personal rule, loyalty to the infant prince was a ferocious certainty and they devoted their lives to Akbar’s cause and he was safe with him. The foster families craved the honor bestowed on them by royal attachment and always remained jealous of each other. Overcoming all difficulties Humayun and Akbar finally rode into the subcontinent and re-conquered their lost kingdom. The royal ladies all remained behind in Kabul but Maham Anaga accompanied Akbar.

Bairam Khan Capriciously

Akbar was thirteen years old when the kingdom was regained. He was a boisterous youth not knowing fear at all and would prove to be a rugged individual. He was restless and was not conducive to acquiring formal education but preferred the company of his racing pigeons, dogs, horses, and companions in arms. His dyslexia prevented him to become educated and he became the only Mughal ruler to remain effectively illiterate. Akbar would, however, compensate for his lack of education by developing a prodigious memory and excellent visual skills.

By this time Akbar had come under the influence of Bairam Khan who however ensured that Akbar overcame his difficulties after the untimely death of his father. The exigencies of power isolated Bairam Khan in just two years but the main role played in his discomfiture was by Maham Anaga and the rest of his foster family who deeply resented his highhandedness. Both Maham Anaga and her son Adham Khan, ten years older than Akbar managed unrestrained access to the young ruler. They exploited this opportunity with tremendous dexterity by bad-mouthing Bairam Khan.

Their intrigues became successful when Bairam Khan capriciously killed Akbar’s mahout providing a wonderful opportunity for Maham Anaga to persuade Akbar to shift to Delhi from Agra and he suddenly left professing a need to meet his mother, Hamida Banu. Maham Anaga emphasized to Akbar that as long as Bairam Khan remains he would not allow Akbar to exercise any authority in his kingdom. Hamida Banu joined Maham Anaga in strengthening Akbar’s resolve to get rid of Bairam Khan. Maham Anaga was aware of the dangerous game she was playing and took another step by soliciting his permission to proceed to Makkah as she beseeched Emperor Akbar that Bairam Khan would not spare her for the indiscretion she had committed.

Bairam Khan’s Influence

Akbar was already disdainful of Bairam Khan’s influence and turned against him isolating him with the result that he gave up and was allowed to go to Makkah instead but was assassinated on the way to Gujrat. There were two families now around Akbar who controlled events to a considerable degree whereas eighteen-year-old Akbar searched for ways to balance different factions at court. Akbar trusted Maham Anaga and valued her judgment, her ambition and intelligence allowed her considerable power in this nascent Mughal court. The disruption in their influence and hold occurred when her son Adham Khan invoked the wrath of the emperor when he botched up his victory over Baz Bahadur by holding his dancing girls whom Maham Anaga quietly killed but Akbar got to know about it. Adham Khan was recalled to Delhi as a disgrace to Maham Anaga’s clan and Akbar also went ahead by removing Munim Khan and replacing him with Shams-ud-Din Aga Khan who was Jiji Anaga’s husband.

The fault line in the relations between the Atka Khel now emerged prompting the hot-headed Adham Khan to kill Shams-ud-Din Aga Khan in what he considered just retribution for his family’s fall from grace. He also committed the folly of confronting Akbar who punched him down in anger and then twice threw him down from his first-floor quarters ensuring his death. After Adham Khan was killed Akbar went to inform Maham Anaga and mentioned that Adham killed Aga Khan and was inflicted with retaliation.

Mughal Empire Of First Tombs

Maham Anaga bore this wound with fortitude but died forty days after the death of her son. Akbar built a mausoleum for his foster mother in Mehrauli in Delhi which is one of the first tombs of the Mughal Empire. Akbar, however, retained his intimate closeness to his foster families despite the outrage committed by Adham Khan. Mirza Aziz Koka, Jiji Anaga’s son, was to enjoy a long and illustrious career at Akbar’s court. Two of Akbar’s daughters were married to sons of Mirza Aziz Koka and when Jiji Anaga died Akbar was devastated and shaved his head in mourning this was only the second time he did so and the other occasion was the death of his mother. The foster families retained their special position and honor throughout the Mughal Emperor Akbar though after the example set by Akbar they were made to remain outside the imperial state policies. The Weekender


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