Mughal Dynasty: daughters broke chastity norms but had limited agency

My Times Today.Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal, the world’s best known monument dedicated to love, in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. But, the emperor was not half as generous when it came to his daughters’ choices—he got one of Jahanara’s lovers boiled to bits. Shah Jahan’s grandfather Akbar, who opened himself to other religions and liberally patronised art and literature, was a purist when it came to women. He insisted they be veiled and confined to the harem, the domestic space reserved for women.

At a time when a debate rages over women’s place in history, the lives of Mughal daughters offer us a glimpse into a burdened existence, one that singularly bore the weight of chastity, lineage and purity. Sexual freedom was not welcomed or unacceptable. Daughters are perceived as being the bearers of izzat (honour) in any household, and the Mughals were no exception. While matrimonial alliances with Rajput women were wide-spread, Mughal daughters were not allowed non-Mughal partners. It was a serious threat to the patriarchal Mughals and was dealt with sternly.

Take the example of Jahanara Begum, who was talented and someone her father had come to rely on, after Mumtaz Mahal’s death. She was her father’s daughter—a builder of mosques and gardens, a poet and had a string of lovers, like her father who, as was the practice, had several wives and many more concubines. She was in love with a handsome young man, the son of her chief dancer who charmed the princess with his singing, writes Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci. A smitten Jahanara bestowed on him the title of ‘Dulera‘ (colloquial Hindi for ‘groom’ or ‘lover’) and a rank equivalent of a commander.

Another lover was a commoner too. When Shah Jahan, who was born of a Rajput mother, heard of the affair, he reached his daughter’s palace, unannounced. Caught unawares, Jahanara hid the man in a cauldron used for baths, write Manucci and Francois Bernier, a French traveller who for some time was the personal physician to the princess’ brother Dara Shikoh. The emperor commanded the harem eunuchs to light fire under the cauldron “for the princess’ bath” and did not leave until the young man had been boiled to a gory death.

Such instances find no mention in Mughal documents or official sources. As the Mughal women were circumscribed to the domestic sphere, little is written about their sexuality in texts representative of that period. They, however, have been written about by foreigners. Their travelogues and some contemporary literature shed a light on sexual relations in the Mughal harem. These accounts also testify to the failure of the chastity norm.

An emperor’s need to suppress a daughter’s sexuality was an important tool for maintaining chastity. And to keep up the chaste image, seclusion of the women, especially the royal daughters, was vital. There were broadly two reasons for keeping the daughters “pure”. First, to maintain the nasab, or the lineage, pedigree. Second, nasab was through the male line, so relationships with non-Mughals were out of question

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