Down Memory Lane: Midwives and the harem rulers

Macduff, the Thane of Fife was pulled out of his dead mother’s womb and lived to kill Macbeth. Akbar the Great was born in the desert of Umarkot after his mother, the teenaged Hamida Banu Begum was helped in the difficult delivery by a faithful midwife. Jahangir had 300 women to share his bed and so a lot of conceptions took place in the harem with subsequent demand for midwives. During Akbar’s reign the seraglio had as its chief matron and nurse, the Portuguese Juliana. The midwife who delivered Salim (Jahangir) is believed to have been the mother of his later sweetheart, Anarkali. Mumtaz Mahal gave birth to 14 children, eight sons and six daughters of whom only four sons and two daughters survived. As a matter of fact, Mumtaz died in her last pregnancy despite the best efforts of the old dai in Burhanpur. During Gardi-ka-Waqt, when the twilight of the Mughals began, licentiousness increased (as per Dr R. Nath) and with it a large number of pregnancies. No wonder dais, wet nurses and lori or lullaby singers were greatly sought after.

In the early 1950s, 88-year-old Rabbo Dai, who lived in Jama Masjid’s fish market of Macchliwalan, used to say that her great-grandmother and grandmother were frequently called to the Salatan or poor quarters of the harem in the fort to deliver babies, treat women after a miscarriage or to carry out abortions, as a result of incestuous liaisons. Jahandar Shah and Mohammad Shah were known for their promiscuity. But the latter was not lax in enforcing rules of propriety for the Salatan. Hence the hush-hush visits of midwives to the fort. Rabbo used to say that an illegitimate child, especially if it was a girl, was suffocated at birth by the midwife on the orders of the family elders to save the mother’s honour and keep the possibility of a decent marriage alive. She claimed that the portion of the fort near the Yamuna, to which a gate leads from below the Rang Mahal and Dewan-e-Khas, was used to either bury the bodies of new-borns in the sand or to throw them into the river.

Such happenings during the time of the puppet emperors were an unfortunate reflection on the problems faced by young men and women who, born of concubines, were a neglected lot. Unable to get married because of poverty, they had to take recourse to either unnatural sex or illicit cohabitation. Midwives usually got a pittance for their labours but there were rich and influential women too in the zenana who paid some handsomely. If Rabbo dai was to be believed, prosperous dais were able to buy houses in the Walled City and become landladies. Their detractors called these properties “haram bacchon ki jaidad” or the property of illegitimate children.

Wet-nurses were in demand for the inmates of the harem as many of them were anaemic and could not produce enough milk for their babies. However, there were also cases of princes preventing their wives from breast-feeding the infants as they thought it would mar their beauty. As Raboo Dai put it, “Which prince would like a woman with sagging breasts?” Talking of wet-nurses, even Akbar had two –– Maham Anga and Jiji Anga. There was intense rivalry between them. Maham Anga’s son Adham Khan was provoked to murder Jiji Anga’s husband, Shamsuddin Atgah Khan, whose mausoleum in situated near Humayun’s Tomb while Adham Khan, who had to pay with his life on the orders of Akbar, is buried in Mehrauli.

Along with wet-nurses, lori singers were also welcomed to sing lullabies to royal babies. They were hired from the city but some were housed in the fort as they had to sing both in the afternoon and night. One popular lullaby was: “Chandan ka hai palna/resham ki hai dor/Aur Kabul se Mughlanian/khadi hilawein dor” (a reference to Pathan women lulling the infants to sleep in gilded cradles). Lories even find mention in Saros Cowasjee’s Anthology of the Raj.

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Printable version | Jan 10, 2021 7:52:21 PM |

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