Zoya Ansari describes an important aspect of the Mughal rule
At its peak, the Mughal Empire controlled large swathes of the territory of the vast subcontinent. And it spread well over 3.2 million square kilometers. Ranging from the Indus Basin in the west to the Assam and Bengal in the east and from Afghanistan and Kashmir in the north to the Deccan Plateau in the south. During its sway, the Mughal Empire was one of the most powerful ruling entities in the world. Awash with riches with its ethos based upon continuous conquest which was considered an accepted attribute of monarchical rule.
The empire, therefore, was maintained by an efficient military machine. And spent much of its revenue on conquest rewarding the most loyal soldiers and bringing new lands and people who would farm them. As a forerunner of gunpowder empires, the Mughal Empire soon became a much sought-after destination for Muslim migrants. From the Muslim world who provided it with the much-needed freshness and ideas.
The Mughals were essentially liberal people belonging to enlightened central Asian origins. And were known for their deep respect for the traditions of their forefathers. One of their endearing characteristics was profound regard for their womenfolk whom they accorded very high rank during their rule. Though the condition of women in the ruling classes in medieval times was not very different. And was quite similar to the other parts of the world with their existence essentially vacuum-sealed and private and Mughals were no exception.
This position was radically different than that of the women of the poor segments of the population. Where there was no seclusion for the women and they had to work and earn their own living. However, the ruling class was divided into two separate worlds, one for the men and the other for women. The women from rich and powerful families were often confined in their apartments and mansions and were jealously guarded.
In this context, a Mughal noblewoman, known as a begum. Such life was desired above all, as they were treated well and often with respect. The customs of the time were such that they were kept in seclusion. But they treated such an existence as a privilege and not as a restriction. The Mughal noblewomen had to cover their faces and bodies while they were allowed outside of the palaces and mansions. They were made to travel in covered litters with no one allowed to look at them.
And special attention was paid to keeping them out of reach of common people. The Mughal ruling class prohibited the construction of a building to be built anywhere near the abode where their ladies were housed. They were careful to the point that husbands would not allow their fathers-in-law or brothers-in-law to speak with their daughters and sisters unless they were present. The tradition was that if a noblewoman revealed herself in public. Then she would be ostracised from her family including getting divorced from their husband.
It remained consistent throughout the Mughal rule that to the outside world. These women were nameless yet ironically they considered this anonymity as a matter of honor. Though all efforts were made to keep such women hidden people devised ways to refer to them. And their role through innuendo and comment on their existence. Moreover, their existence in the vast mansions was not lived alone and they had many women companions to keep them company.
Their abodes usually were bustling places of activity with every facility available to them. The atmosphere was reputed to be gay with the ladies whiling away their time in festivities all year round. To fill their days, many women occupied themselves with arts and crafts, such as embroidery, stitching, painting, and writing. Music and dancing were also allowed though it was frowned upon in some circles.
Their mansions were very well provided for with every amenity available to them with vast domestic assistance at their beck and call. Their premises were efficiently and aggressively guarded with senior ladies organizing their affairs with ample financial resources allocated to them. The lavish living of the Mughal ladies became legendary. As it was also known that they were paid regular salaries. Apart from the frequent grants money provided by the head of the family.
It is widely believed that the regular salaries ranged from rupees 300 to rupees 500. Which were rated very lucrative for the age. With vast financial resources available to them the noble ladies carried out welfare works. Including building educational institutions, rest houses, gardens, homes for destitute women, and other monuments adding to the luster of the Mughal rule. Some noble ladies proved to be patrons of arts and culture and rewarded outstanding artists and craftsmen.
The abodes of Mughal noblewomen were widely known as a powerful place in the Mughal governance structure. Their power was derived from the trust reposed by the rulers in their noblewomen. Who usually kept the seals of office in their possession. They were often consulted by the rulers who accorded great reverence to them. Particularly the mothers, sisters, and wives of the rulers.
The mother of the ruler has a special place within their hierarchy who was not only widely respected but was also paid homage to. The marriages of Mughal rulers were also considered political alliances assigning a special place to the wives and their families. It was also known that royal marriages were often enforced by peace treaties or alliances enhancing the role of noble ladies in the political hierarchy.
The abodes of noble ladies were frequented by the rulers who devoted considerable time to looking after their interests. In fact, the rulers maintained their private offices in the residences of noblewomen and they were privy to most secret affairs of the Empire. They often interceded in important decisions of the ruling elite and advised it to appoint officers of the state. It was universally acknowledged that the Mughal noblewomen were highly educated and were fully aware of the intricacies of governance.
The Mughal rulers often did their confidential work in the confines of the premises of their ladies and sought advice from their ladies in most cases. It was not uncommon that Mughal noble ladies were allowed to attend meetings. Although behind walls, curtains, or screens so that they would be familiar with the matters of the state. These women often used their wits and cleverness to manage the empire alongside the rulers often using their influence to steer politics the way they preferred.
It was often acknowledged that the begums were the silent and invisible power behind the exercise of political power and wielded great authority. These ladies usually developed their own point of view that they candidly conveyed to the ruling elite who gave it tremendous credence and often acted on it. They had the added advantage of being completely trusted as their entire lives totally rested upon the continuity in power of the Mughal dynasty. Keeping in view their vantage point in the exercise of power they recognized forces acting from behind the throne. They were an essential element of the power arrangement of the Mughal rule and influenced events in more than one way. Theirs was an exclusive existence that had no parallel in the historical annals of the subcontinent. TW