Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor lost the kingdom that his Kabul born father Babur had established in India in the year. During the tenth year of his rule, in 1540, Humayun, who had a tendency to be complacent and lazy, lost his empire to Sher Khan Sur, an upstart from Bihar. With only his close family, Humayun first fled to Lahore, and then later to Kabul. With his entourage of his pregnant wife, one female attendant and a few good men Humayun fled. He was in exile for the next fifteen years in Afghanistan and Persia.
One of Humayun’s sisters, Gulbadan Begum had traveled to India when her father Babur had made substantial gains and established a kingdom. She was six years old then and later lived in Kabul again during the years when Humayun had fled Delhi. Her life, like all the other Mughal women of the harem, was intricately intertwined with three Mughal kings – her father Babur, brother Humayun and nephew Akbar. Two years after Humayun re-established the Delhi Empire, she accompanied other Mughal women of the harem back to Agra at the behest of Akbar, who had begun his rule.
Gulbadan Begum was commissioned by her nephew Akbar to chronicle the story of her brother Humayun. Akbar was fond of his aunt and knew of her storytelling skills. It was fashionable for the Mughals to engage writers to document their own reigns (Akbar’s own history, Akbarnama, was written by the well known Persian scholar Abul Fazl). Akbar asked his aunt to write whatever she remembered about her brother’s life - Humayun’s glory days of victories and agonies of his defeats, his joys and trepidations. Gulbadan Begum took the challenge and produced a special document that came to be called Humayun namah. The original title of her work is:Ahwal Humayun Padshah Jamah Kardom Gulbadan Begum bint Babur Padshah amma Akbar Padshah. It came to be known as Humayun-nama.
Gulbadan wrote in simple Persian without the erudite language used by better known writers. Her father Babur had written Babur-nama in the same style and she took his cue and wrote down from her memory. Unlike some of her contemporary writers, Gulbadan wrote a factual account of what she remembered, without embellishment. In contrast to the laudatory encomium written by the better known writers, Gulbadan’s account seems to be fresh and from the heart. What she produced not only chronicles the uncertainty of Humayun’s rule, its trials and tribulations, but also gives us a glimpse of life in the Mughal harem. It is the only writing penned by a woman of Mughal royalty in the sixteenth century.
The memoir had been lost for several centuries and what has been found is not well preserved, poorly bound with many pages missing. It also appears to be incomplete, with the last chapters missing. Yet, whatever has remained tells a remarkable story of a woman of privilege, with an insight to the life in the harem of Mughal emperors. There must have been very few copies of the manuscript, and for this reason it did not receive the recognition it deserved. It is the forgotten document of the Mughal history.
A battered copy of the manuscript is kept in the British museum. Annette S. Beveridge translated Gulabadan’s Persian work to English in 1902. (A paperback edition of Beveridge’s English translation was published in India in 2001.) The manuscript was originally collected and gathered by an Englishman, Colonel G. W. Hamilton. It was then sold to the British museum by his widow in 1868. Its existence was little known until 1901, when Annette Beveridge undertook the task of translating it (Beveridge affectionately called her ‘Princess Rosebud‘). Historian Dr. Rieu called it one of the most remarkable manuscripts in the collection of Colonel Hamilton (who had collected more than 1000 manuscripts).
Upon being entrusted with the directive by Akbar to write the manuscript, Gulbadan Begum begins thus: "There had been an order issued, ‘Write down whatever you know of the doings of Firdous-Makani (Babur) and Jannat-Ashyani (Humayun)’. At this time when his Majesty Firdaus-Makani passed from this perishable world to the everlasting home, I, this lowly one, was eight years old, so it may well be that I do not remember much. However in obedience to the royal command, I set down whatever there is that I have heard and remember."
From her account we know that Gulbadan was married by the age of seventeen to Khizr Khwaja Khan, a Chagtai Mughal by ancestry and her second cousin. She had at least one son. She had moved to Delhi/Agra in 1528 from Kabul with here foster mother. After Humayun was defeated in 1540 By Sher Khan Sur, she moved back to Kabul to live with one her half brothers. She did not return to Agra immediately after Humayun won back his kingdom. Instead, she stayed behind in Kabul until she was brought back to Agra by Akbar, two years after Humayun died in a tragic accident in 1556. Gulbadan Begum lived in Agra and then Sikri for the rest of her life, except for a period of seven years, when she undertook an arduous pilgrimage to Mecca.
She appears to have been an educated, pious, and cultured woman of royalty. She was fond of reading and she had enjoyed the confidence of both her brother Humayun and nephew Akbar. From her account it is also apparent that she was an astute observer, well versed with the intricacies of warfare, and the intrigues of royal deal making. The first part of her story deals with Humayun’s rule after her father’s death and the travails of Humayun after his defeat. She had written little about her father Babur, as she was too young to remember her father when he died. However, there are anecdotes and stories she had heard about him from her companions in the Mahal (harem) that she included in her account. The latter part also deals with life in the Mughal harem.
There is one light-hearted incident that she elaborates about Babur. Babur had minted a large gold coin, as he was fond of doing, after he established his kingdom in India. This heavy gold coin was sent to Kabul, with special instructions to play a practical joke on the court jester Asas, who had stayed behind in Kabul. Asas was to be blindfolded and the coin was to be hung around his neck. Asas was intrigued and worried about the heavy weight around his neck, not knowing what it was. However, when he realized that it was a gold coin, Asas jumped with joy and pranced around the room, repeatedly saying that no one shall ever take it from him.
Gulbadan Begum describes her father’s death when her brother had fallen ill at a young age of twenty-two. Babur was downtrodden to see his son seriously ill and dying. For four days he circumambulated the bed of his son repeatedly, praying to Allah, begging to be taken to the eternal world in his son’s place. As if by miracle, his prayers were answered. The son recovered and the forty-seven year old father died soon after. Gulbadan Begum was eight years old then.
Soon after his exile, Humayun had seen and fallen in love with a young thirteen year old doe-eyed girl named Hamida Banu. It was in the harem of Shah Husain Mirza that Humayun first saw the young girl. Hamida Banu was still a giggling young girl and refused to come to see the Emperor, who was much older to her. Finally she was advised by the other women of the harem to reconsider, and she consented to marry the Emperor. Two years later, in 1542, she bore Humayun a son named Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal rulers. Gulbadan Begum described the details of this incident and the marriage of Humayun and Hamida Banu with glee, and a hint of naughty mischievousness in her manuscript.
Gulbadan also records the nomadic life style of Mughal women. Her younger days were spent in the typical style of the peripatetic Mughal family, wandering from Kabul to Delhi and then back to Kabul. During Humayun’s exile the problem was further exaggerated. She had to live in Kabul with one of her step brothers, who later tried to recruit her husband to join him against Humayun. Gulbadan Begum persuaded her husband not to do so.
Gulbadan Begum described in her memoir a pilgrimage she took to Mecca, a distance of three thousand miles, crossing treacherous mountains and hostile deserts. Though they were of royal birth, the women of the harem were hardy women, prepared to face hardships, especially since their lives were so intimately intertwined with the men and their fortunes. Gulbadan Begum stayed in Mecca for nearly four years and during her return a mishap of a shipwreck in Aden kept her from returning to Agra for several months. She finally came back in 1582, seven years after she had set forth on her journey.
Akbar had provided for safe passage of his aunt on her Hajj and sent a noble as escort with several ladies in attendance. Lavish gifts were packed with her entourage that could be used as alms. Her arrival in Mecca caused quite a stir and people from as far as Syria, and Asia Minor swarmed to Mecca to get a share of the bounty.
If Gulbadan Begum had written about the tragic death of Humayun, when he tumbled down the steps in Purana Qila in Delhi, it has been lost. The manuscript seems to end abruptly in the year 1552, four years before the death of Humayun. It ends in mid-sentence, describing the blinding of Prince Kamran. As we know that Gulbadan Begum had received the directive to write the story of Humayun’s rule by Akbar, long after the death of Humayun, it is reasonable to believe that the only available manuscript is an incomplete version of her writing. It is also believed that Akbar asked his aunt to write down from her memory so that Abul Fazl could use the information in his own writings about the Emperor (the well known Akbarnama).
Akbar was so fond of his aunt that he showed her respect by carrying her bier on his shoulders for a short distance when she died in 1603, after a brief illness. Akbar lamented constantly that he missed his favorite aunt Gulbadan for the next two years, until his own death in 1605. Gulbadan was also said to be a poet, fluent in both Persian and Turkish. None of her poems have survived. It is said that she along with one of Akbar’s wives, Salima, were the driving force behind Akbar’s well know patronage of the arts and literature.
For much of history the manuscript of Gulbadan Begum remained in obscurity. There is little mention of it in contemporary literature of other Mughal writers, especially the authors who chronicled Akbar’s rule. Yet, the little known account of Gulbadan Begum is an important document for historians, with its window into a woman’s perspective from inside the Mughal harem.