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  • Writer's pictureNajia Aiman Rizvi

Humayun Nama: Memoir of a Timurid Princess


Gulbadan Banu Begum wrote the first female-authored account of life at the Mughal Court, the Humayun-nama. Although best classed as historiography, it is a genre-crossing the usual historiographic memoir. Gulbadan was asked by Akbar to pen down her memories of her father Babur and her brother Humayun, it was an effort to help the court historian Abul Fazl to compile the official history.

Several sources can be referred to for the reign of Humayun, there are contemporary sources, such as Khwandamir’s Qanun-i-Humayuni, (1534). It is an eyewitness’s account of the rules an ordinances of Humayun’s reign along with the description of court festivities. Another source of relevance is Jauhar Aftabchi’s Tazkirat-ul-Waqiat (1587). It is a candid account penned down in rustic Persian by one of the closest servants of Humayun, his washcup bearer, Jauhar. It was edited by Faizi Sarhindi. It tells us vividly about the life of the second Mughal Padshah. Next, there is Bayazid Bayat’s Tazkira-i-Humayin wa Akbar. It deals with the history of Humayun and Akbar(1542-1591) and was completed in 1591. The accounts of Jauhar Aftabchi and Bayazid Bayat were written on orders of Akbar when an attempt was made to write an official history during his reign. It was in this context that Gulbadan Banu Begum wrote her memoir, Aihval-IHumayun Padshah, which we commonly know as the Humayun-Nama.

Like its author, this contemporary source has remained behind the veil for a very long time. It was a literary pardah-nashin. In the preface, Annette Beveridge writes metaphorically that the book had been like a veiled woman, a woman in purdah until it was catalogued in the 1870s and even renowned scholars like Heinrich Blochmann and William Erskine was unaware of the book’s existence. It was only in April 1898 that Annette S. Beveridge published an article on the princess in the Calcutta Review, and in 1902 the translation was published by the Royal Asiatic Society. A revised version of this article now serves as the introduction.

This study aims to attempt to enquire into the nature of this contemporary source and critically analyze its scope. The various themes it brings into light shape the trajectory in which Mughal historiography has been studied until now. All these themes, other than the conventional ones are also taken into consideration. Thereby, the questions taken into consideration in this paper are as follows: firstly, what have been the possible causes for this account to have been relegated into the background? Secondly, what themes does it represent which are different from the conventional approach?

An Ambassador before Humayun, c. 1610. Attributed to Miskin (Indian, active 1570s–c. 1604). Opaque watercolor with gold on paper; painting: 20.9 x 11.7 cm (8 1/4 x 4 5/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift in honor of Madeline Neves Clapp; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund; From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection 2013.320

To address these questions, an inter-causal relationship between the different themes that are promoted and the reasons they retain focus is studied. Besides this the way this source sets a new prominent theme of social life in its background, as per which the conventional history, the political and military course taken by Humayun is narrated by Gulbadan also retained. Thereupon, the nature and scope of Gulbadan’s work are also studied which further helps us in analyzing the themes the princess covers in her account. Praising Gulbadan’s writing, Annette Beveridge states, “It is not only her book that lets us know that she had a lively mind, but is composition at an age when the wits are apt to be rusted by domestic peace.”

Ruby Lal, eloquently describes the significance of the memoir. According to her, “This memoir, related both to the coming into being of an empire, and to the simultaneous institution of an archive. By making it possible for us to see how one of the most wanted Mughal sources (the Akbarnama) came into being, rendering its own 'sources' peripheral as it did so, the memoir opens up the question of the making of sources, even as it raises questions about the assigned limits of Mughal history.” According to Rebecca Gould, it dwells not on battles as did its male pre-predecessors but rather in domestic life. Gulbadan’s contemporary male writers, like Babur in Baburnama and Abul Fazl in Akbarnama, could not so easily bridge the memory/history divide. For Gulbadan’s case, however, Taymiyya Zaman argues that “ Humayun-nama functions as a space within which the line between history and memory comes to be blurred.” Memoirs of Babur and the work of Abul Fazl are heavily invested in conquest, memory is used only in an ancillary fashion, in a way of providing a consolidated image of sovereignty.

Causes for Aihval-i-Humayun Padshah to have remained under the veil.

Gulbadan’s memoir has a multiplex character, which helps us to read the Mughal chronicles from a diverse perspective, it opens before us multiple fascinating arenas which delve into discourses historians have seldom concerned themselves about. The general idea of Mughal history revolved around the personality, political, military and economic aspects of the monarch. The emperor, his nobles, the administrative machinery and the conquests formed the major portion of historical discourse. This norm must have persisted due to several reasons.

Firstly, there were two types of historical narratives being promoted, one was the version promoted by the British colonial narrative and their communalist acolytes and the other was a counter-posing nationalist perspective. The nationalist perspective was built around the state that was under attack by the colonial perspective. Hence it mainly focused on the predecessors of the British, i.e. the Mughal Empire. To pose a challenge to the colonial communal narratives, the administration, polity, economy and religious policy of the rulers were studied as a consequence. Saleem Kidwai in his review of Ruby Lal’s monograph suggests that this was done because history at this point was treated as a nation-building exercise and also because courtly histories were available in abundance. So, domestic points of view were seldom considered.

If we consider Harbans Mukhia’s study entitled Historians and Historiography under the Reign of Akbar, the arrangement of the book betrays a certain perception regarding Gulbadan’s account of Humayun. In the three central chapters of the book, the author discusses the three ‘major’ historians of Akbar’s Empire: the court-chronicler Abu’l Fazl, the critic ‘Abd-ul-Qadir Badauni, and Nizam al-Din Ahmad, the moderator. In his penultimate chapter, entitled “Some Minor Historical Works written During Akbar’s Reign,” he discusses the Tazkirat- ul-Waqi’at by Jawhar, Humayun’s ewer-bearer, the Tazkireh-i-Humayun wa Akbar by Bayazid Bayat, and the Tuhfa-I Akbar Shahi by Abbas Khan Sarwani. He omits Gulbadan Banu Begum’s Aihval-i-Humayun Padshah, and the reason he gives for this is in the footnotes.

The author says, “I have not included a study of the Humayun Nama of Gulbadan Begum in this chapter though it falls in the same class of works as the three mentioned above. The reason is that I feel I have practically nothing to add to what its translator, Beveridge, has said in her Introduction to the translation.”

Harbans Mukhia gives reasons for not including Begum’s memoir in his monograph. He differentiates between (political-administrative, and emperor-centred) and minor (of royal women, servants, and so forth) sources. He prefers the ‘hard politics’ of the former against the ‘soft society ‘of the latter and thus neglects the power relations that go into the making of such categories. He assigns a central character to some sources and peripheral or minor status to others, thereby evolving an understanding that sources like the Akbarnama, for instance, are authentic because they were based upon “official documents as well as memoirs of persons involved in, or witness to, the events.”

Nature and scope of the Memoir

Gulbadan was no panegyrist. While others writing in the court of Akbar covered genres like Tarikh (annals, history or chronological narrative), Tazkireh written as biographies or memoirs, Waqiat which were narratives of events and happenings,, which were biographies or exemplary accounts, Qanun, which were normative accounts and legal texts, Gulbadan wrote Aihva, a word that denotes conditions, circumstances and situations. Unfortunately, only one copy of Gulbadan’s Aihval survives and that too is incomplete. Her chronicle differs from all other works of her time for she adheres to no marked format. It is difficult to determine what model she drew for her work. Beveridge writes that Gulbadan had copies of Khwandamir’s Qanun-i-Humayuni and Bayazid Bayat’s Tazkirat-i-Humayun wa Akbar in her name, but she does not imitate their style.

Babur and Humayun with Courtiers, from the Late Shah Jahan Album, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (accessed 3/4/2023, 10:23:34 pm)

This Memoir is divided into two parts. The first is about the times of Babur and provides similar details as are evident in Babur’s autobiography. The second deals with the reign of Humayun and abruptly ends at the blinding of Kamran. On the folio of the MS, there are two Persian titles, Humayun-nama and Aihval-i-Humayun Padshah.

Gulbadan provides extensive information about Babur’s marriages, his home, his wives and children, and his relations with his kith and kin. It remarkably deals with aspects of domestic life and provides a complex nature to the memoir.

The scope of her memoir is elaborately concerned with the domestic point of view. She has a variety of themes in her work. Besides conquests and circumstances of Humayun, she also tells about the women lost in wars, the incident of Akbar’s birth, Hamida Banu Begum’s itinerant life and impressive details about celebrations and feasts. Besides the camp, she brings the lost world of the court to life. She gives an insight into the rules, the arrangements of the tents of women, the visitations of the Emperor and the adab of accompaniment.

Examples of incidents captured in Gulbadan’s writings provide a clear idea of the themes she covers. At the beginning of the text, she describes Babur’s ouster from Samarqand by Shaibani Khan, the English translation states,

“With 200 followers on foot, wearing long frocks on their shoulders and peasants’ brogues on their feet, and carrying clubs in their hands, in this plight, unarmed, and relying on God, he went towards the lands of Badakhshan and Kabul.”

The circumstances and situations of Babur are beautifully and eloquently described. She tells of Babur’soccupation of Kabul and even notes the death of Qutluq Nigar, mother of Babur in Kabul in June 1505. She also gives an account of Babur’s recapture of Kabul, after Mirza Khan and Mirza Hussain tried their hand at usurpation. She recounts the pardon granted to the culprits on account of their connection. One was the son of his maternal aunt the other was the husband of his younger maternal aunt. This provides us with a glimpse of the power of intercession that women of the family wielded.

She provides details about the lineage as well by writing about the birth of Babur’s children. Most enchanting is her description of the gifts Babur sent for the haram and his kinsfolk.

“To each begam is to be delivered as follows: one special dancing-girl of the dancing-girls of Sultan Ibrahim, with one gold plate full of jewels-ruby and pearl, cornelian and diamond, emerald and turquoise, topaz and cat’s-eye-and two small mother-o’-pearl trays full of ashrafis, and on. Two other trays shahrukhis,”

This shows a side to Mughal Emperors and their family life. Babur provided a list of names according to which the gifts were prepared and delivered.

Gulbadan also tells of buildings constructed on orders of Babur under the instruction of architect Khwaja Qasim in Agra and mentions a tank in Dholpur. She mentions a chaukandi constructed in the Sikri garden where Babur also had a tūr khana where Babur used to write his book.

About the wars and conquests, Gulbadan was well placed to hear accounts of battles right from those who were present in them. Beveridge in her translation provides a feminine touch to the description of wars. Gulbadan effectively describes struggles at Khanwa. She mentions Babur’s gathering of the men that were left in his camp after numerous had deserted, his motivational speech for fighting for salvation and also the battle.

Gulbadan further describes death with a melancholic time, describing the sorrow of Dildar Begum at the death of Prince Alwar, the sorrow of Maham at dire state of Humayun during his illness. She mentions Babur’s deteriorating health and his disorder of bowels, his wasiat, the sorrow of Humayun at the death of Babur in a manner that connects the reader to the rulers as a person. While Abul Fazl, and his predecessors described their Padshahs through their divine status, Gulbadan introduced us to their humane side.

About the domestic sphere, Gulbadan points out the role of Mughal women in the making of the Mughal imperium, and in the construction of royal genealogies when the threat of disappearance of the family line under tumultuous times was great. A significant role is played by women in arranging marriages, an example is her detailed description of the elaborate marriage feast arranged by Khanzadah Begum for Mirza Hinal and Sultan Begum. She also describes their role in enforcing kinship solidarity, the best example is when Khanzadah Begum ensures that khutba is read in the name of Humayun and admonishes Kamran for acting against the will of Babur.

Her text deals majorly with Humayun’s early difficulties, his conflict with Afghans and the rivalry between brothers. The instability of the Empire is depicted in her memoir. Abul Fazl’s work deals with an empire already in place and provides its institutionalized history. But Gulbadan’s text shows the formation of the Empire and thus it helps us to look at the other sources in a new light.

Being a theorist of domestic life, Gulbadan establishes how sovereignty is established through family relations, she remarkably illuminates life, death and birth through the experiences of those who are the protagonists in her text. According to Rebecca Gould, her text falls into the early modern vogue of self-evasion, yet she successfully asserts the “ethics of sovereignty via a theory of domesticity.” Gulbadan’s memoir is thus of immense importance. In an unparalleled fashion Gulbadan’s Humayun nama, provides space for female domesticity to become a locus of political sovereignty. Rebecca Gould suggests that despite being linguistically transparent, the text has a stylistic feature which is accentuated by the author’s relation to Persian as a second language and her consequent reliance on a simple, straightforward lexicon. The empirical conditions are highlighted by the text however so has been the complexities of domestic notions. Rebecca Gould rightly observes that the Book of Humayun rewrites the empirical conditions for Mughal sovereignty, adding in the process new woman-centred forms of thinking and living. This memoir remains significant for it gives us valuable details about the formation of one of the most glorious empires in the history of South Asia. It provides a different yet refreshing perspective and deals with multiple themes all inter-woven in an excellent manner and helps to extend the frontiers of Mughal history to a new level.


Books Cited:

1. Begum, Gulbadan Bano. Humayun nama, Translation by Annette S. Beveridge, The History of Humayun, (Hūmāyūn nama) by Gulbadan Begam, (princess Rose-body), printed and published under the patronage of THE Royal Asoatic Society. 22, Albemarle Street, London, 1902.

Papers Cited:

2. Lal, Ruby. “Rethinking Mughal India: Challenge of a Princess’ Memoir.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 38, no. 1, Economic and Political Weekly, 2003, pp. 53–65,

3. Scherer, M. A. “Woman to Woman: Annette, the Princess, and the Bibi.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 6, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 197–220,

4. Gould, Rebecca. “How Gulbadan Remembered: The ‘Book of Humāyūn’ as an Act of Representation.” Early Modern Women, vol. 6, Arizona State University, 2011, pp. 187– 93,

5. 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

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