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Debasish Das’ Book ‘Red Fort’ Gives Access To Mysterious Zenana With Poetic Sincerity

  • IWB Post
  •  March 7, 2020

When we think of a Fort, it evokes a picture of a massive military edifice with impregnable defenses against any aggression. However, the Red Fort of Shah Jahan, the Emperor who invested his life in furthering arts and culture, was built as a pinnacle of the Mughal soft power.

Author of Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent MughalsDebasish Das excursions the reader through the forgotten and much misunderstood period in history with rare for a researcher eloquence of fictional imagery that makes it an easy read. The book is fluent in facts and effortless in their delivery while letting the ray of imagination play on illusionary verandahs.

This excerpt from Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals has been reproduced here with kind permission from the author. 

Names of royal ladies began to be dropped to put veils on their real identities and were given names such as Udaipuri Begum, Qandahari Mahal, Fatehpuri Begum, Akbarabadi Begum, Sirhindi Begum and so on, as per their places of origin. During Shahjahan’s reign, royal princesses remained unmarried, despite being highly talented such as Jahanara and Roshanara.

Prof. Harbans Mukhia explains a ‘two-pronged cultural seepage’ for such a desperate situation. First, it was the dilemma of social hierarchy that dictated the bride’s family to be of lower social status than that of the groom after marriage, and secondly, the possibility of a new family joining in the succession politics acting against the royal princes. Even if marriages happened, they were limited to first cousins – such as between the children of Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb’s daughter Zubdat al-Nisa was married to Dara’s son Siphir Shukoh who was paraded through the streets of Delhi with his father after their capture; Aurangzeb’s son Azam was married to Dara’s daughter Jahan Zeb Banu, and so on.

Interesting to note that with the passage of time, as the Mughal Empire started fall apart, the stranglehold on women’s behaviour loosened up. A new libertarian outlook reflected the popular culture catching up with that of the Mughal zenana. It was as if a ‘letting up of steam’ of years of pent up emotions was happening right inside the Empire’s heart. Three examples of such a bottoms-up cultural manifestation were: popularity of Urdu, tradition of mushaira and sexuality.  In the eighteenth century, Urdu was elevated to a court language, mushairas started to be held with common people as regular audiences, and sexuality became explicit in Mughal miniatures. Muhhamad Shah Rangeela’s famous depiction of lovemaking is one such example, with the Emperor in the act shown with his solar halo! Women were depicted with cups of wine, revealing dresses or holding Narcissus flowers – all symbols of sensuality. This was also the time when the popularity of Sanskrit started to spiral down with the corresponding rise of Hindi.

The princesses were very wealthy and powerful. They received official grants from the treasury of around 1000–1600 rupees a month each. They also earned from trade and landed properties. Jahanara traded with the Dutch and collected vast customs duties from the busy port of Surat, following the footsteps of her niece Nur Jahan who had her own fleet of ships and imported Europeans goods like English embroidery while exporting indigo and textiles. They also received gifts from merchants, traders and foreign dignitaries: Sir Thomas Roe brought presents for Nur Jahan and other ladies. The King of Portugal sent expensive gifts to the zenana superintendent Donna Juliana for her services to Christianity in the Mughal court.


Coming from humble roots, Nur Jahan’s family’s ascendance was nothing short of meteoric. She was the daughter of a penniless Persian adventurer Ghiyas Beg who came to India during Akbar’s reign. He soon rose high and in Jahangir’s court, was conferred the title of Itimad-ud-daulah, ‘Pillar of the Government’. In 1611, Jahangir married his widowed daughter, calling her Nur Mahal, ‘Light of the Palace’ and later as Nur Jahan, ‘Light of the World.’ Her brother Asaf Khan too rose in the echelons of power and became Shah Jahan’s chief minister. Nur Jahan, Ghiyas Beg, Asaf Khan and Prince Khurram (the future Shah Jahan) formed a power-quartet that over-shadowed Emperor Jahangir himself. Asaf Khan’s daughter Mumtaz Mahal was the famous wife of Shah Jahan in whose memory the Taj Mahal was commissioned. In fact, the two most exquisite Mughal monuments are dedicated to this family rather than to any Mughal emperor – the tomb of Itimad-ud-daulah and the Taj Mahal built for the Persian and his grand-daughter exemplify the hold that they had on the empire.

Nur Jahan is credited with shooting tigers from a closed howdah on her elephant. Once four tigers had been caught and Nur Jahan shot them one by one with a musket without missing a shot. Jahangir presented her a thousand ashrafis for her act and a poet made the following verse on the spur of the moment:

“Though Nur Jahan is a woman, she is in the array of men who throws down (afkan) tigers (sher), zan-i-sher-afkan.”

She even went once to battlefield in 1626, issuing orders through eunuchs from a conveyance hung between two elephants. During the final years of Jahangir, it was Nur Jahan who ruled the empire from the harem. However, during the succession war after Jahangir’s death, the brother and sister fell out with each other. Asaf Khan supported his son-in-law Shah Jahan, while Nur Jahan supported the prince Shahriyar, who was married with her daughter Ladli Nagum from her first marriage. On being out-witted by her brother Asaf Khan who successfully installed Shah Jahan on the throne, Nur Jahan accepted retirement at Lahore with a pension of two hundred thousand rupees a year. She spent her time building a pair of tombs for her husband and herself.

The powerful ladies of harem built public edifices like mosques, caravan-inns (serais) and bath-houses (hamams). Even Fatehpuri Begum, a lesser-known wife of Shah Jahan, built the famous mosque at the end of Chandni Chowk. The ‘Moonlit Street’ was designed by Jahanara, with her fabled caravan serai standing near its centre. The beautiful serai had 90 well-appointed rooms on two floors and was reserved for wealthy traders from abroad.

Inside the zenana, the ladies engaged themselves in games like chess and chaupasi, chandal-mandal, ganjifa, apart from playing with their pet cats and birds. The women were taught Persian poetry and Quran recitations, allowing them to pursue literary interests. Gup-bazi or story-telling and puppet shows were arranged inside. Favourite pastimes included copying the Quran, embroidery and sewing, composing verses, reading books, painting, and playing instrumental music. Birds like shuk and sarika (parakeet and mynah) who could be taught to speak fluently Quranic verses as well as Sanskrit shlokas, were kept in beautiful cages made in delicate gold and silver wires and were constant companions to the lonely ladies.

When a nervous Donna Juliana (also referred to as Juliana Dias da Costa), uprooted from her native Cochin and looking for shelter in the Mughal court, stood before Aurangzeb for shelter, she was pleasantly surprised when she was accepted as the Superintendent of zenana. She was tasked with supervising young princes, princesses as well as harem inmates. Born in Cochin, her family had to flee Kerala following the Dutch invasion of 1663. She landed up at the Diwan-e-Aam of Delhi in an audience granted by the Great Mughal, after moving from Cochin to Goa to Calcutta and then to Agra. However, in his book The First Firangis, Jonathan Gil Harris discounts the certainty about her childhood, saying that her initial years are shrouded in mystery and she became well known only after she joined the Mughal harem in Delhi’s Red Fort.

In Delhi, she became a confidant, surgical and medical expert, teacher, Christian miracle healer (whose touch alone was thought to heal patients) and political advisor till she died in 1732, during the reign of Muhammad Shah Rangeela. Many princes and princesses called her ‘mother’ or ‘grand-mother.’

In the account of Dutchman Francois Valentijn, she became so powerful in the scheme of things that after Aurangzeb’s death, when the war of succession broke out among his sons, she rode an elephant to the battlefield along with Bahadur Shah I. She constantly encouraged the prince on the battlefield by telling him that her prayers to St John would make him the Emperor. When it prophetically came true, she was awarded the title of Juliana Fidavi Duagoh or ‘Juliana the Faithful and Devout’ and was awarded the ownership of the late Dara Shukoh’s palace. She was also granted a village in Goa and few villages in Delhi measuring around 170 acres that includes the present areas of Okhla where she built a church, upon which site the present Masihgarh (meaning Christ Citadel) church was rebuilt in 1918. Sarai Jullena near New Friends Colony and Jogabai (‘Juliana’ becoming ‘Joga’ ‘Bai’) village in Jamia Nagar also belonged to her.

She often went out with two richly caparisoned elephants that carried red flags with the Christian Cross embroidered on them in white. During his reign of Bahadur Shah, Juliana was the real wielder of power. The Emperor prayed to images of Jesus Christ in times of despair, such was her influence.

Bahadur Shah’s reverence for Christianity had sprung from an event that saved his life when he was young, under the watch of the newly-arrived Juliana. Ippolito Desideri, the Italian Jesuit missionary who visited the Mughal Empire in 1714 on way to Tibet describes Juliana as a miracle-worker. As a devout Christian, she always kept a few palm leaves or fronds in her room as holy symbols of her faith. One day, a surging fire spread in the palace. Courtiers and palace attendants were helpless as the flames engulfed the apartments of the prince Muazzam Shah Alam (later to become Emperor Bahadur Shah I). Juliana rushed to her room and picked up the palm fronds consecrated on the Day of St John the Baptist. She raised her hands in prayer to her God and beat the fire with the palm fronds. A miracle occurred: the fire was extinguished and as the amazed gathering asked how she did it, she credited it to St John. From that day, the Prince started keeping the holy leaves in his room as omens of good luck.

It is believed that she was instrumental in making Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ successful in the succession battle as the next Emperor. In 1719, she crowned him Emperor on the Day of St John by personally placing the crown on the head of Prince Muhammad Shah.

The Italian traveller Niccolo Manucci who served as a physician in the court of young prince Bahadur Shah during 1680 to 1685, narrates an anecdote. The prince was so interested to keep Manucci engaged in Delhi that he offered him the hand of a pretty European lady from his harem. The girl turned out to be the unmarried Juliana Dias da Costa, who appeared in the costume of a man to allow her access outside the zenana. The lecherous Manucci spoke to her in French and wanted to embrace and kiss the ‘young man’, ticking off Juliana.

Not only the royals, even amirs and mansabdars had many wives in their harems. Mirza Aziz Koka is known to have said that a man should have four wives: a Hindu to raise children, a Persian to converse, one from Khurasan to do household chores, and one from Transoxiana to beat as an example to others!

The zenana supervisor or head-woman was called mahaldar who was immensely respected. Female secretaries were allocated to important ladies, who presented daily reports to the Emperor when he visited the zenana at noon.

The zenana was guarded zealously by Ethiopian and Uzbek women, mainly because these foreigners could not be privy to the sensitive discussions inside the zenana, also they could not be easily won over by scheming begums. Sometimes, deaf and dumb women were also employed as maids. These guards directly reported to the khwajasara or the harem superintendent. The complex was guarded by eunuchs or castrated men who were placed outside the zenana. They worked as bridge between the zenana maids and the officials of the zenana. Beyond them, faithful Rajputs and imperial troops (ahadis) stood guard.

The eunuchs were described in contemporary accounts as plump, beardless Africans, while Georgians and Portuguese women were enrolled as zenana employees.

No men were permitted entry to the zenana. Even doctors were allowed only when the woman was so seriously sick that she could not be moved near the outer gate of zenana. Resident female hakims attended the sick and advanced medical care by specialists was extended only to exceptionally important patients. The French doctor Bernier recalls one incident when he was covered from head to toe in a Kashmiri shawl and was led by a eunuch as if he was a blind man.

The women were so powerful that the round seal of the Emperor – the uzuk– used to issue decrees or farmans, was kept inside the zenana. Emperors even granted their favourite women the right to use the official seal. For example, once the state documents were ready, they were sent into the harem for Mumtaz Mahal to see and put the royal seal. After Mumtaz Mahal’s death, Shah Jahan granted his daughter Jahanara the title of  Sahibat-uz-Zamanai or ‘Mistress of the Age’ and allowed her to keep and use the imperial seal to issue farmans, nishan and hukums. Farmans were imperial orders, nishan was the sign issued by princes of royal blood, and hukums were privileged orders issued by a queen. Jahanara was, in fact, the first unmarried woman to be honoured as the ‘keeper of the imperial seal.’  In later times, Koki Jiu, or Rahim-un-Nisa – daughter of a dervish during the reign of Muhammad Shah Rangeela who had been granted the title of foster sister – too had the same privileges.

Just like Jahanara, Aurangzeb’s daughter Zib-un-Nissa, who was born in the same year that construction of the Red Fort commenced, was a religious lady and was a patron of poets and writers. In the days of the later Mughals, as the rulers became weak, near-absolute power emanated from these powerful women of the zenana. Examples are galore: Juliana during the reign of Bahadur Shah I; Qudsiya Begum, the dancing girl turned matriarchal ruler; and the emperor’s foster sister Koki Jiu in the reign of Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela. Later after Muhammad Shah, Qudsiya Begum tried to continue her hold on power by forging a romantic alliance with Jawed Khan, the eunuch chief of zenana, but soon ended up in jail.

Entry to the zenana being severely restricted, not many authentic accounts or eye-witness texts exist today. Rumours and scandalous stories, on the other hand, are aplenty, but one can’t deny them altogether because the young unmarried princesses must have had their human urges too. For example, how Shah Jahan once boiled alive a young man whom Jahanara called Dulera (‘lover’) and was entertaining him in her chambers, the story being repeated for her niece Zib-un-Nissa. Jahanara’s sister Raushanara, rumours said, used to hide men in her chambers by clothing them in women’s dresses and she went riding with them in a covered howdah on elephant-back! Raushanara, whom Manucci called as “not very beautiful, but very clever”, once hid nine young men in her apartment for days. Her niece, Aurangzeb’s third daughter, on coming to know of it, wanted one of them for herself. When Roshanara refused her peculiar request, she divulged the matter to the Emperor. Aurangzeb then ordered slow poisoning to get rid of his audacious sister.

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