Female desire in the Mughal dynasty: Daughters broke chastity norms, but had limited agency

Little is written about the Mughal daughters' sexuality in texts representative of that period, but foreigners' travelogues and contemporary literature tell us about their affairs and the fate of their lovers

Syed Mubin Zehra December 08, 2018 13:31:33 IST
Female desire in the Mughal dynasty: Daughters broke chastity norms, but had limited agency

Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal, the world’s best known monument dedicated to love, in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. But, the emperor was not half as generous when it came to his daughters’ choices—he got one of Jahanara’s lovers boiled to bits. Shah Jahan’s grandfather Akbar, who opened himself to other religions and liberally patronised art and literature, was a purist when it came to women. He insisted they be veiled and confined to the harem, the domestic space reserved for women.

At a time when a debate rages over women’s place in history, the lives of Mughal daughters offer us a glimpse into a burdened existence, one that singularly bore the weight of chastity, lineage and purity. Sexual freedom was not welcomed or unacceptable. Daughters are perceived as being the bearers of izzat (honour) in any household, and the Mughals were no exception. While matrimonial alliances with Rajput women were wide-spread, Mughal daughters were not allowed non-Mughal partners. It was a serious threat to the patriarchal Mughals and was dealt with sternly.

Female desire in the Mughal dynasty Daughters broke chastity norms but had limited agency

Jahanara Begum. Wikimedia Commons

Take the example of Jahanara Begum, who was talented and someone her father had come to rely on, after Mumtaz Mahal’s death. She was her father’s daughter—a builder of mosques and gardens, a poet and had a string of lovers, like her father who, as was the practice, had several wives and many more concubines. She was in love with a handsome young man, the son of her chief dancer who charmed the princess with his singing, writes Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci. A smitten Jahanara bestowed on him the title of 'Dulera' (colloquial Hindi for 'groom' or 'lover') and a rank equivalent of a commander.

Another lover was a commoner too. When Shah Jahan, who was born of a Rajput mother, heard of the affair, he reached his daughter’s palace, unannounced. Caught unawares, Jahanara hid the man in a cauldron used for baths, write Manucci and Francois Bernier, a French traveller who for some time was the personal physician to the princess’ brother Dara Shikoh. The emperor commanded the harem eunuchs to light fire under the cauldron “for the princess’ bath” and did not leave until the young man had been boiled to a gory death.

Such instances find no mention in Mughal documents or official sources. As the Mughal women were circumscribed to the domestic sphere, little is written about their sexuality in texts representative of that period. They, however, have been written about by foreigners. Their travelogues and some contemporary literature shed a light on sexual relations in the Mughal harem. These accounts also testify to the failure of the chastity norm.

An emperor’s need to suppress a daughter’s sexuality was an important tool for maintaining chastity. And to keep up the chaste image, seclusion of the women, especially the royal daughters, was vital. There were broadly two reasons for keeping the daughters “pure”. First, to maintain the nasab, or the lineage, pedigree. Second, nasab was through the male line, so relationships with non-Mughals were out of question.

Aurangzeb’s daughter Zebunnisa Begum was beautiful and an accomplished poet, who wrote under the name Makhfi ('Hidden One' in Persian). She also had a reputation for liaisons. Her name was said to have been so enmeshed in gossip about her lovers that it obscured her talent as a poet.

But not all affairs were for keeps.

Raushanara Begum, the second daughter of Shah Jahan, grew tired of a lover after 20 days and wanted to get rid of him but without letting Aurangzeb, who was now the emperor, know, French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier writes in his Travels in India.

So, she complained to Aurangzeb that a man had entered her apartment to rob and kill her. Scared for his life, the young man jumped out of the palace window into the Yamuna as a crowd gathered to catch him. Aware of his sister’s dalliance and to avoid a scandal, Aurangzeb said the man should not be killed, and be handed over to the chief qazi, nipping the gossip, Tavernier writes.

Fidelity to the emperor co-existed with the norm of chastity. The most important section of the Mughal household was their women, whose foremost asset was a chaste character. Her body was the site on which were inscribed coded and socially sanctioned images of the “perfect woman”, always constructed by the patriarch. The queen mother was the epitome of the Mughal womanhood and so was the daughter, who became the “persona of chastity”.

Perhaps the sexuality of women was considered a threat, which was neither economic nor political but a social threat for the representation of Mughal daughters and women in general. This led to the subjugation of Mughal daughters and the segregation of women as a subordinate gender developed within the harem.

Dr Syed Mubin Zehra is the author of Sexual & Gender Representations in Mughal India

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