It could be argued that recent discourse in the Indian socio-political milieu suggests a movement towards narratives that favour a particular interpretation of history at the expense of others, in order to further a specific ideological agenda. These narratives which thrive on the stereotyping of certain communities and historical figures have inundated mass media and even academic circles are not immune to them. Medieval Indian history, in particular, has been instrumentalized to vilify Muslims, portraying them as sybaritic usurpers, determined to destroy an idealized, pristine civilization. Subhadra Sen Gupta’s Mahal focuses on debunking some of the myths which shape our understanding of the Mughal empire, particularly focusing on the Mughal harem. The author reveals the contours of the fetishized Mughal harem and the voyeuristic tendencies that go into exploring its mysteries. Rather than offering a monolithic perspective on the women of the Mughal harem as uniformly oppressed, the book chooses to portray them as powerful, independent women with their own unique sufferings and triumphs. Not only did these women act as peacemakers and loyal confidants of the rulers, but they also shared the powers of the emperor like in the case of Nur Jahan, who showed a keen political acumen and could issue firmans or edicts at the behest of Jahangir. Mariam-us-Zamani and Jahanara Begum were businesswomen who supplemented the income that the emperors granted them by engaging in trade. Mumtaz Mahal was an invaluable companion and advisor to Shah Jahan and accompanied him in all his travels till her death. In an era when women enjoyed very few privileges, the inmates of the Mughal harem lived a very comfortable and lavish life; sequestered in one of the most prosperous kingdoms of the world at the time.
Undercutting this narrative in the book is that of a patriarchal Mughal leadership, which became increasingly more rigid as the centuries passed. Women in Babur’s harem enjoyed far more privileges than their successors. The concept of purdah was more flexible, and women were seen to mingle with men in paintings belonging to the era, with their faces uncovered. They were allowed to marry, even multiple times if they chose to; a practice that started to decline after the reign of Akbar, when princesses mostly died unwed. According to the author, increasing Rajput influence led to an almost fanatical preoccupation with purdah among the Mughals during the reign of Akbar and his successors. The cultural influence of the Rajputs is also very important in tracing the changes in the socio-cultural landscape of the mahal. Rajput princesses entered the mahal, not as slaves, but as respected wives and mothers, often as a result of political alliances between the Mughals and the Rajputs. A woman who bore sons to the king commanded tremendous respect as a future matriarch, no matter what her religion. Nevertheless, the women of the harem could not afford to antagonize the king for fear of very grave repercussions both within and outside the mahal. The mahal was a safe space but also a place of vast political intrigues where the women had to learn to hold their own in order to survive. The king consulted the women on important matters, but the harem continued to depend on the whims of the rulers for power and recognition. Thus, in the reign of Aurangzeb the power that the harem had hitherto enjoyed started to wane. There are stories of women whose children were taken away and others who were punished for their supposed promiscuity, like Aurangzeb’s sister Roshanara Begum. The mahal had to achieve a very delicate balance between power and powerlessness in order to remain relevant, while their struggles were mostly shrouded in a mantle of silence.