Review of Ruby Lal’s Vagabond Princess — The Great Adventures of Gulbadan: The Mughals’ memory keeper

At 63, Gulbadan Banu Begum, the only woman historian of the Mughals, was prompted by her nephew Emperor Akbar to write about his dynasty

March 14, 2024 10:36 am | Updated 10:36 am IST

Vintage illustration of women in the Mughal era.

Vintage illustration of women in the Mughal era. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/istock

Most people tend to have cliched ideas about the role of women in the Mughal empire. The royal women were not cloistered away in zenanas. They lived separately, but were much respected; they were educated and had a voice of their own. The emperors often turned to them for guidance and advice.

Historian Ruby Lal’s book, Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan, is an account of Gulbadan Banu Begum, literally ‘Rosebody’, Babur’s daughter and an exceptional but under-appreciated figure. Gulbadan wrote a historical memoir of the Mughals when she was in her sixties, ‘Ahval-i Humayun Badshah’ or the ‘Humayun Nama’, providing an insight on life under her father Babur, brother Humayun and nephew Akbar. Gulbadan is the first and only woman historian of the Mughal era.

Gulbadan in the palace.

Gulbadan in the palace. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

A peripatetic life

Akbar asked his aunt to write the book as she had known and interacted with three Mughal emperors. Her book is not political unlike the other accounts of the time. It provides details of everyday life in the royal palace and is also an account of the empire as it was taking shape. The princess travelled, crossed the seas, was showered with gold and diamonds, and led an adventurous life.

A Mughal woman in a Chaghtai hat, c. 1740-50.

A Mughal woman in a Chaghtai hat, c. 1740-50. | Photo Credit: Getty images

Gulbadan’s peripatetic life started early. Humayun consulted the women in the palace on how to deal with his rebellious son Hindal who had fled to Agra from Alwar. When he decided to forgive him, he asked Gulbadan, who had just got married, to go and fetch him. Her mother Dildar did not allow her to do so as she was too young. Gulbadan, however, took many trips between Kabul, Agra and other places with her family as and when politics and war demanded.

Gulbadan was very fond of her father who spent a lot of time with his wives in Agra when he was not warring and expanding his empire. She does not talk about how stressful this situation of many women and many wives could have been. However, she mentions that Maham, the senior wife of Babur, and also her guardian mother, got agitated when other women moved in with them.

Humayun’s tomb in Delhi is a splendid architectural marvel and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Humayun’s tomb in Delhi is a splendid architectural marvel and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/istock

The family took short trips for various reasons. To get over a family tragedy, Babur sent the women to Dholapur 35 miles south of Agra. They travelled by royal boats from the banks of the Yamuna. Shortly after Humayun fell critically ill, Gulbadan mentions the well-known episode of Babur offering his life in exchange for Humayun’s — Humayun got better and Babur passed away.

 Mughal women display their archery skills by shooting arrows through a ring in the palace.

 Mughal women display their archery skills by shooting arrows through a ring in the palace. | Photo Credit: Getty images

It was a period when men interacted with men, and women with women. Lal says the homo social arrangement at the heart of Mughal life persisted in Agra. It was also a time when the royals lived in tents and camps. For generations, Mughal women had convoyed with their men in battle zones which meant travel. During conflicts, “elders gave advice and the younger women brought solace.”

A pilgrimage to Mecca

The women of royal families went on holy pilgrimages as these journeys were considered too risky for the kings. Gulbadan sought Akbar’s permission to visit Mecca and Medina. Her entire life had been spent in moving from one place to another till Akbar settled the women in harems. Akbar consented to her request and Gulbadan set forth with a group of 15 women to western Arabia. This was a great adventure.

Pilgrims at Mecca.

Pilgrims at Mecca. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lal brings alive Mecca as Gulbadan saw it: “Mud-built lattice-windowed houses with balconies jutting out over streets, bazaar lanes jingling with goods, the scent of fragrant olives, dates, sweetmeats, sherbets and pilafs, and throngs of rich and poor travellers, pilgrims and merchants from around the world, characterised the monumental gateways of the Great Mosque of Mecca.”

Mecca was a crowded city for everyone, rich and poor. The generosity of the Mughal royals towards the poor in the holy city knew no bounds. Gulbadan and her companions stayed on in Arabia for four years before they were literally asked to leave.

The tomb of Akbar in Agra.

The tomb of Akbar in Agra. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A few years after her return, Akbar decided to “compile a monumental history of his empire so that posterity would never forget his grandeur or his dynasty.” Among others, the emperor also approached his accomplished aunt Gulbadan, then 63 years old, and an astute witness of the events of the Mughal dynasty. He saw her as a dynamic memory keeper.

In Gulbadan’s biography, details of the four-year pilgrimage to Mecca and some other parts are missing. Lal surmises that it might have been removed by male authorities. She has painstakingly researched and tried to fill in the gaps. What we get is a fascinating account of an exciting woman from an interesting period of Mughal history.

Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan; Ruby Lal, Juggernaut, ₹699.

The reviewer is a journalist and writer.

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