1523 - 1603
Akbar's aunt who wrote the family historyby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
The year was 1603, and a funeral procession wound slowly through the streets of Skiri, India. Deaths in the Mughal royal family were important occasions. She who had died had been the daughter of the first Mughal emperor, sister of the second, and aunt of the current, Akbar. As the bier carrying the woman’s body passed by, the crowds gasped with shock at what they saw. There, carrying a corner of the bier as if he was a common laborer, walked Akbar, the emperor himself! It was a shocking display of respect from the 61 year old ruler who himself would be dead in two more years. (4)
Who was this woman, that even the emperor should honor her so? Her name was Gulbadan Begum, and this is her story.
Born in 1523, Gulbadan Begum was a daughter of Babur, first Mughal emperor of India. She grew up in India surrounded by other begums (women of the royal family). Babur died when Gulbadan had reached the age of three, and her teenage brother, Humayun, took the throne. Little is known about Gulbadan during this time, but she married Khizr Khwaja Kahn when she was seventeen and had one son, possibly more. (2)
Gulbadan was very attached to the royal family, as was expected of begums during those days. Her husband once contemplated joining in a rebellion against Emperor Humayun, but Gulbadan advised him not to, and eventually changed his mind. (2) Other than that conflict, and the periodic tiff among emirs, all went well in Gulbadan’s life.
Unfortunately, her peace did not last. In 1540, Humayun, who tended to be a bit lax while defending his kingdom, was forced out of the country by invaders. Accounts exist that Gulbadan was held captive during this time by a half-brother (4), while other scholars say she merely fled with other members of the royal family to live in Kabul. (1)
Humayun eventually regained his kingdom in 1555, but died tragically after falling down a flight of stairs the year after. (2) After his death, Humayun’s son, Akbar became the emperor. He called Gulbadan and the other begums to his court, and they willingly came. Akbar was exceedingly fond of his Aunt Gulbadan, and she likewise of him. (2)
It is at this time, later on in Gulbadan’s life, that her real story begins. When she was sixty years old, Akbar, remembering her marvelous storytelling skills, asked her to write down the histories of her father’s and brother’s reigns based on her memories and the accounts of others. Gulbadan agreed to do as her nephew asked. The results were astounding.
Up until that point and for years afterward, the only people to record the histories of emperors were men hired to do the task. Their accounts were longwinded and centered around making their subject look good, instead of reporting what actually happened. Gulbadan’s book did not do either of those things. Her account, which she titled Ahwal Humayun Padshah Jamah Kardom Gulbadan Begum bint Babur Padshah amma Akbar Padshah (shortened to Humayun-nama), not only offered unembellished facts, but an intimate look at those she wrote about.
Her manuscript reads like a diary. She shares the feelings of the people she writes about, including herself, in a way that grabs a reader’s interest. When reading Humayun-nama it is obvious who Gulbadan liked and who she didn’t. As a woman, an invaluable resource was available to her that male historians could not use: the opinions and memories of the women around her. She drew from her fellow begums for stories about her father, who she was mostly too little to remember. Gulbadan also concerned herself with writing down the customs of the time, much of which would have been lost otherwise.
In 1576, after Humayun-nama was completed, Gulbadan did something else amazing. With only several escorts and a few friends, she embarked on a pilgrimage to the Muslim’s holy city of Mecca, three thousand miles away. Sinking ships, long treks through deserts, and the threat of robbers did not dissuade Gulbadan from her purpose. (3) The Christian crusades had long since ended, and most of the Middle East was under Islamic control. Gulbadan stayed in Mecca seven years. From all accounts, she was a very pious woman.
Gulbadan went back to Akbar’s court and lived there peacefully until she died. Gulbadan Begum lived in an interesting time, caught right in the middle of royal affairs. Her Humayun-nama is one of the most interesting and insightful pieces of literature written in her time. It was out of respect for her writing talent and plucky spirit that Emperor Akbar carried her bier to her grave.
1. Rethinking Mughal India, Ruby Lal. September 23, 2005 <http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=2003&leaf=01&filename=5340&filetype=html>
2. Humayn-Nama, Gulbadan Begum’s Forgotten Manuscript, Neria Harish Hebbar, MD. September 21, 2005. <http://www.boloji.com/history/029.htm>
3. The Mugahal Princesses. September 22, 2005. <http://www.salaam.co.uk/hajj/mughal.php>
4. Gulbadan Begam bint Babur Badshah /Gulbadan Banu Begum. September 21, 2005. <http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/gulbadan.html>