Gulbadan Banu Begum, A Lesser-Known Mughal Princess (1523-1603)
Updated: Jan 17
Babur named all three of his daughters by Dildar Begum after the word Gul ‘rose’; (Gulrang: ‘rose colored’, Gulchihra: ‘rose face’ and Gulbadan: ‘rose-body’). However, Gulbadan is easily held "head and shoulders above others". (Schimmel pg.145)
Married to an "insignificant" Khizr Khan, Gulbadan was only eight when her father passed away in 1530. Decades later, at the behest of her nephew and the third Mughal Emperor Akbar, Gulbadan produced a vivid biography about her half-brother, the second Mughal Emperor Humayun, titled: Ahval-i- Humayun Badshah—the only (extant*) record which was written by a woman in the Mughal Era. 
WRITING THE MEMOIR: Ahval-i- Humayun Badshah
Historian and Professor Ruby Lal, who has worked at length on Gulbadan's memoir, discussed in one of her papers: “What Gulbadan wrote, however, was no panegyric… Interestingly, the genre title that Gulbadan chose was different from all [the other records- biographies, chronological narratives]: ahval, [means] conditions, state, circumstances or situations.” (pg. 600-601)
The single, surviving copy of Gulbadan’s Memoir (housed in the British Library, London) shows that it was divided into two parts: the first discusses the life of Babur and the second, Humayun’s, abruptly ending at the point where Kamran (Gulbadan’s other half-brother) was blinded. 
In addition to providing the standard account of battles, victories, empire building, the Ahval gives extensive and minute details of the ‘inside life’— women lost in the battles fought, complications faced during childbirth, adoptions, arrangement of celebratory feasts. Professor Lal cites several examples, such as the marriage history of Humayun-Hamida (Akbar's parents).
The official records written by ‘the men in the court’ tell us that a fugitive, thirty-three-year-old Humayun fell for the fourteen-year-old Hamida, who was the daughter of his younger half-brother Hindal’s tutor and married her much to Hindal’s chagrin.
What these documents do not mention is Hamida Banu's initial and categorical refusal to accept the proposal. When advised by the Queen Mother (Dildar Begum, who brought the proposal in), that there could be ‘no greater proposition than the Emperor himself', the young Hamida had the temerity to say that she will marry someone ‘whose collar my hand can touch and not one whose skirt it does not reach.’ 
Another example might be how Humayun reacted when Hindal murdered one of his favourite advisors as an act of defiance. Gulbadan's writing, according to Gascoigne, is the most revelatory narrative: ‘Humayun entered the harem of Dildar Begum and ‘swore by the Quran that he bore no grudge… but would merely want him [Hindal] to return to Agra and he [Humayun] would not cease from his protests until she [Dildar Begum] had agreed to go and fetch him [Hindal] back.’ (pg. 35)
LEADING THE HAJJ
In addition to writing this intimate biography, Gulbadan also has the merit of having led an entirely female royal entourage to the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).  At the age of fifty-two, Gulbadan left for Mecca accompanied by her sisters-in-law, nieces-in-law and granddaughters.
For a year, the party had to halt at Surat, waiting to obtain the cartaz (official pass) from the Portuguese who had by now actively begun trading with India and were notorious for blockading ports and sinking ships, including the ones set out for pilgrimages. Gulbadan, at the head of the negotiations with the Portuguese, could only obtain the cartaz after giving them the city of Buxar.
Two Turkish vessels —Salimi and Ilahi carrying the royal retinue along with magnificent gifts [6,000 rupees for donation, 12,000 khilats (‘robes of honour’)] finally set sail for Mecca on October 17, 1576. (Mukhoty pg. 96)
After offering their prayers, the Mughal party dressed up in their finest clothing and jewelry. Then, led by Gulbadan, they had graciously distributed His Majesty's largesse to the public. The women remained in Arabia for about four years; visiting other holy cities, praying in the name of His Majesty for the welfare of his realm. Upon their return, the ship was wrecked and they were stranded in the Middle East for months. By the time the women finally came back, they had been away from Hindustan for nearly seven years!
They were greeted with great pomp and spectacle, celebrated for their feat of honoring the distant Holy Land on behalf of the Padshah. Meanwhile, the harem had, in their absence, been converted from mobile tents at Charbaghs to spacious but restrictive buildings made of red sandstone. Henceforth, Gulbadan and the other royal women had lived the rest of their lives in these spaces, veiled from the public. Gulbadan lived till the mature age of 80. Akbarnama by Abul Fazl poignantly describes how Hamida Banu, in a futile attempt to revive her friend and sister-in-law kept uttering ‘Begum Jio!’ (Live Begum!) to which a dying Gulbadan replied, ‘I am dying, may you live long.’—breathing her last.  An inconsolable Akbar had shaved his head and carried the bier himself. In the years that he survived her, Akbar constantly complained of missing his beloved aunt's presence.
Although six centuries have passed since Gulbadan and her companions died, their stories continue to be studied, read and told. Ahval-i- Humayun Badshah has not only helped scholars put faces and emotions in the otherwise remote and mute harem inmates, but it has also revealed the real picture of the harem, which has lately become synonymous with promiscuity in popular thought.
*At the time of publication of this blog, there was no information about the discovery of any other record written by a woman in the Mughal period
1. Gulbadan Begum began her memoir with the words: “there was an order issued— write down whatever you know of the doings of Babur and Humayun.” (Gascoigne, The Great Moghuls p.90)
2. In a webinar, Prof. Ruby Lal mentioned that Gulbadan’s memoir had intentionally been destroyed.
3. As quoted by Lal, Historicizing the Harem, p.604.
4. The retinue was chaperoned by a few men. Although Haji begum, one of Humayun’s wives had already undertaken the hajj at least once, the instance of more than eighty royal women doing so was a first.
5. Fazl as quoted by Mukhoty, Daughters of the Sun, p.107
Gascoigne, Bamber. The Great Moghuls. London: Robinson, 1971. Print
Mukhoty, Ira. Daughters of the Sun. Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2016. Print
Schimmel, Annemarie. The Empire of the Great Mughals, trans. Corinne Attwood. Special ed. London: Reaktion Books, 2004. Print
Lal, Ruby. “Historicizing the Harem: The Challenge of a Princess’s Memoir.” Feminist Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, Feminist Studies, Inc., 2004, pp. 590–616.
- WEB PAGES
Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative: ‘In Conversation with Historian Prof. Ruby Lal.’ YouTube, lecture by Prof. Ruby Lal. 17 Nov. 2020. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyUwtGriNKs)
Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative: ‘Karwaan LIVE: Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire.’ YouTube, lecture by Ira Mukhoty. 26 June 2020. (https://youtube.com/watch?v=-7rljAyBnRY&feature=share)