Author Ira Mukhoty’s peek into the Mughal household

From the resilience of Khanzada Begum to the food habits of Akbar, author Ira Mukhoty reveals many Mughal secrets over a lavish vegetarian meal

Updated - August 31, 2018 03:26 pm IST

Published - August 31, 2018 02:26 pm IST

 Of History and Gastronomy: Ira Mukhoty at Jaypee Vasant Continental’s Paatra restaurant in New Delhi

Of History and Gastronomy: Ira Mukhoty at Jaypee Vasant Continental’s Paatra restaurant in New Delhi

Those who suffer from colonial hangover or know their Mughals through movies have an exotic notion about the haramam or harem – a place where many women were housed to please the most important man in the empire. Author Ira Mukhoty, who scans history and mythology to find the status of women in India, counters the perception through a well-argued book, “Daughters Of The Sun” (Aleph). “This idea of ‘oriental harem’ came through the British historians because they had a long association with Islam right from the times of crusades. For them, the Mughals, the Sultans and the Tughlaqs were all the same – part of one Islamic marauding entity. The idea was completely false.”

The whole harem space, she says, evolved from the time of Babur, who wanted his women to be well-educated and was pragmatic about women who ‘fell’ to an enemy. “Over a period of time, when Mughals absorbed some elements of Rajput culture, it became a little different but even then it was completely alien to the oriental idea of a sexual space. Most of these women were in no way sexually available to the Padshah. The harem had relatives, other noble men’s wives; there were servants and attendants...there was a huge collection of women but not to please the emperor,” says Ira, as we settle for an elaborate lunch at Jaypee Vasant Continental’s Paatra restaurant.

The catalyst came from Ira’s previous book, Heroines , where she wrote about powerful women in myth and history. “One of them was Jahanara Begum. I was interested in finding more women like her associated with the Mughal empire.” She found many. But the one story that is most compelling is that of Khanzada Begam, the sister of Babur, whom he left behind with Shaybani Khan as war conquest when he escaped from Samarkand. She remained with Khan for ten years but remained true to her brother’s cause. And when she eventually returned to Babur’s household, her sacrifice and resilience was celebrated. “In fact, she went on to be anointed Padshah Begum of Hindustan during Humayun’s reign,” says Ira.

Powerful women

Women are a neglected lot in our history. Ira says this is not specific to our country. “Around the world, women stories are neglected to a smaller space – it is not just about Mughals or India. You first talk about the kings and and rajas. Women were treated like wallpapers. It is not that I have found something special here. The resources have been there but they have seldom been used to join the dots. For instance, Gulbadan Begum’s biography of her father Babur and brother Humayun was translated from Persian into English in 1907.” She reminds how Jahanara Begum wrote about her Sufi masters in two books. “Her lines are very powerful and erotically charged for Sufis believe in erotic love as means for union with the divine. A 17th Century Muslim woman writing such a powerful language is extraordinary.” Ira has tried to find out first hand information about these women who engaged in diplomacy and patronised the arts. “ I have written about Mughal women who were highly educated, who advised emperors and traded with foreigners. Babur saw them as symbols of Timur legacy. He wanted them to engage in verbal repartees and write poetry.”

Ira says her study of royal firmans reveal that Jahanara Begum asked for permission to go for Haj but it was denied. “Years before her, Gulbadan Begum had made the famous journey that lasted seven years. But by the time of Jahanara, royal women were not encouraged to take this hazardous journey. But she did make a request. I looked at the date and it was one month after her sister Roshanara Begum had died. I wondered that did something come over her.” It is her ability to join these dots that makes Ira’s work much more engaging and accessible than academic works by the likes of Prof Ruby Lal, whom Ira has extensively quoted.

“I try to find a thread between these stories to make fully-rounded characters. With women’s stories you get that sense. However, I tell the reader where I am not sure and am talking about possibilities.” Ira, who studied Immunology in Cambridge University, says her science background has always helped her in research. “It gives me patience. History brings subtlety and nuances which interest me much more. Science is no good for that,” she chuckles. Having said that, she doesn’t believe in speculating. “You should tell the reader where you are not sure even if it breaks the rhythm of the story. If I say it could have happened, I expect the reader to make his own mind.”

A vegetarian these days, Ira undertook ‘walks’ to the Walled City to understand the fragrances and the language of the time gone by. “They might not help you with facts, but they definitely help in writing about a past whose remains are very much part of our ecosystem.” As she appreciates the lavish spread at Paatra, she remembers the meal she had at the Nizamuddin dargah.

Introduction to ghee

Ira hasn’t written much about the Mughal kitchen but she has mentioned some instances which give us an idea of what was cooking. For instance, she captures Humayun’s exile in Persia with Hamida Banu Begum after the embarrassing defeat to Sher Shah Suri. “At one point they were actually cooking horsemeat to survive. But when they went to Persia, they were greeted as kings. Suddenly, the meal changed from fibrous, overcooked horsemeat to the amazing food that the Shah would offer them. When they were leaving, Shah Tahmasp wanted a banquet in Hindustani fashion prepared by his guests. What he liked the most was something called dal khuske which was like matar ka pulao. He tasted ghee for the first time as Persians used to cook in fat.”

Over the years, Mughal food became more and more refined. “There came a time when hens were massaged so that the chicken would be soft and tender. Akbar was a frugal eater who used to have just one meal a day but the time for it was not fixed. At any given time around 100 dishes were kept almost ready for him so that they could be served to the emperor at a short notice.”

Ira, who is now working on a biography of Akbar, says the emperor turned vegetarian under the influence of his Rajput wives. “Luckily for us, we have the Akbar’s biography of Bada’uni. He was a conservative person and his account is not glowing with praise like that of Abu’l-Fazl’s. He could not do what Akbar expected of him. He wrote the biography in secret and it was published during Jahangir’s rule. It is fascinating because it tells truthful things about Akbar. He writes that Akbar is so influenced by his Rajput wives that he gave up meat and indulged in Hindu rituals.” Similarly, she says, Gulbadan Begum’s account is very honest in comparison to a male biographer because she is not looking for building an image for posterity. “She writes very candidly like she explains why Humayun was very angry one day. He believed in astrology and always made the journey when the stars were in right alignment. One day he told the women in harem that they would go on an expedition at such and such time. Unfortunately, his new wife fell off the horse. It took her some time to get back. He got furious. He said he would need some opium to calm down. A male biographer would not have put all this but Gulbadan mentions all these intimate details so that we would know the man not just as a king and a conqueror but also as a father, a husband and a son.”

Ira has emerged at a time when Akbar’s legacy is being questioned and anecdotal history is gaining currency in mainstream discourse. She says hers is not a political book. “I am not trying to push any agenda. However, in this atmosphere, it is not unimportant to hear these stories also to clear many of the prejudices that we may have had. When things remain in anecdotal form, it is easy to manipulate them.”

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.