The unique memoirs of Mughal princess Gulbadan Begum

Published : May 02, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

The Agra Fort was the first of a network of fortresses and palaces that the Mughal Emperor Akbar built between 1565 and 1571. Here, a view of a section added to the fort by Shah Jahan.

The Agra Fort was the first of a network of fortresses and palaces that the Mughal Emperor Akbar built between 1565 and 1571. Here, a view of a section added to the fort by Shah Jahan. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

As Mughal history unfolds across the reigns of Babar and Humayun, Ruby Lal’s Vagabond Princess tells the story of the womenfolk of this dynasty.

In Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan, Ruby Lal writes that around 1587, the Mughal emperor Akbar decided to commission an official history of his empire. The work, Akbarnama, was to be written by Abul Fazl, but Abul Fazl would need the help of those who had gone before. Among those Akbar requested assistance from was his aunt Gulbadan Bano Begum, Babar’s daughter and Humayun’s half-sister. Gulbadan, then in her early sixties, complied with Akbar’s request to document her memories. The resultant work was called Ahval-i-Humayun Baadshah (Conditions in the Age of Humayun Baadshah), now more commonly referred to as the Humayunnama. An up-close look at Babar and Humayun, and at the lives of the Mughals in the early decades of their sojourn in Hindustan, the Humayunnama is a unique piece of writing: a chronicle that is honest, intimate, and—even more of a rarity—from the point of view of a woman.

Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan
By Ruby Lal
Juggernaut Books, 2024
Pages: 248
Price: Rs. 699

Somewhat ironically, while Gulbadan’s memoir provides an unusual glimpse into the private world of the Mughals, the woman herself remains enigmatic. Who, really, was Gulbadan? What sort of person might she have been, and how did she spend the years between her leaving Hindustan—when Humayun went into exile, leaving the empire for Sher Shah Suri to rule—and her writing of the Humayunnama?

This is the personality whom Ruby Lal sets out to demystify in Vagabond Princess. Beginning with Gulbadan’s birth (in 1523) in Bala Hisar, Lal traces Gulbadan’s life over the following decades, as her father, Babar, establishes the Mughal empire and the (by then 6-year-old) princess follows with the harem to Agra. As Gulbadan and her clan settle into life in Hindustan; as Humayun succeeds Babar and then has to contend with not just Sher Shah Suri but his own ambitious brothers, among them Kamran. As Gulbadan, now married, is forced to return to Kabul, an exile like Humayun.

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Throughout, Lal uses not just Gulbadan’s own memoir to build up a picture of the peripatetic princess but myriad other sources as well: other chroniclers, and details embedded in writings and art, in architecture and artefacts. Like a meticulous and careful detective (as any good historian should be), Lal unearths clues to Gulbadan’s life, especially in the decade or so before she wrote the Humayunnama.

Journey to Arabia

In 1577, Gulbadan led a group of haraman (women from the harem)—including some of her closest relatives—to a hajj, going all the way to Arabia and spending four years there. This trip, including their adventures on the journeys to and fro, forms a large portion of Vagabond Princess. Lal describes, through the eyes of other travellers and pilgrims, through the stories of the Quran and other religious texts, what Gulbadan’s experiences as a haji might have been. Where she might have gone, what she might have seen, the legends and histories she might have encountered. The reason why, at the orders of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, Gulbadan and her party were forced to leave Arabia and return to Hindustan.

Cover of Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan.

Cover of Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan.

Where Lal excels is in her skilful narration of the life and times of Gulbadan Begum. Mughal history unfolds across the reigns of Babar and Humayun, and against this backdrop is told the story of the womenfolk of this dynasty:

“…Gulbadan’s universe was peopled by busy women, brilliant strategists, and peacemakers, advising princes as well as younger women on law, the politics of marriage, and the ethical principles of the dynasty.”

Life in the Mughal harem

Lal writes with authority and panache, detailing not just the family dynamics of the Mughals but the more tangible aspects of life in the harem: the picnics and parties, the celebrations of births and weddings. What the haraman wore, what books they read, how they spent their time. A picture is gradually built up of a close-knit family but with the disagreements and dissensions that are part of all families.

Gulbadan’s character emerges impactfully from this account: strong-willed, deeply loyal to her family, keen-sighted. A woman who had known freedom and adventure in her childhood and youth and perhaps craved some of that old nomadic life in her old age. Lal shows, with empathy and sensitivity, how a changing world might have felt to women like Gulbadan, born and brought up in a milieu quite different from where they found themselves. It is a thought-provoking narration that makes one wonder about the hidden strengths, talents and achievements of Mughal (and other) women from history that may never come to light.

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If there is a niggle here, it is in Lal’s occasional tendency to conjecture about emotion. There can be no certainty about how Gulbadan felt or thought, and to put a definiteness to her feelings can come across as presumptuous. For instance, this seems like conjecture:

“What Gulbadan had was intention, a key ingredient of her upcoming journey. She longed to be in the House of God, far from the court and harem, simmering with intrigue and ambition, and far from structures of confinement in Fatehpur-Sikri, so that she could direct her intention to the desert land where Prophet Muhammad had outlined a rich direction for life and being.”

This, however, is perhaps just a matter of style, and a writing style can be subjective. For a book as informative and entertaining as Vagabond Princess, it is a trivial (and infrequent) annoyance.

Madhulika Liddle is a novelist and short story writer.

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