Vol. 5 Num 31 Sun. June 27, 2004  

Talking books
The Humayun Nama: Gulbadan Begum's forgotten chronicle

The Mughal rulers of India, like others before them, have left behind monuments to their reign in the beautiful gardens and splendid buildings dotted about the landscape of South Asia, but they also craved immortality in the pages of history. To this end they commissioned eminent historians and writers to pen the chronicles of their times.

In the case of Babar, of course, there was his own inimitable Journal to serve as a frank and revealing eye witness to his turbulent era, but his successors demanded more praiseful accounts from their scribes. Akbar commissioned his courtier Abul Fazl to write the well known "Akbarnama" in 1587. Probably at about the same time Gulbadan Begum, whom her translator Annette Beveridge calls "Princess Rosebody," a daughter of Babar and Humayun's sister, began to write her own account of the reigns of her father and brother. This was the Humayun Nama, which was first published in 1902, but a new paperback edition published by Goodword Books, India 2001, is now available.

There were apparently very few copies of this memoir and contemporary accounts or even later ones do not mention it. Annette Beveridge could find only one rather battered copy which is now in the British Museum. The Manuscript appears to be incomplete -- inexpertly bound probably at a much later date, with pages missing and the last chapter out of place -- it breaks off abruptly in 1552 although historical records indicate that Gulbadan Begum died in 1608 when she was eighty years old and was buried with the respect accorded to a daughter of the founder of the dynasty.

Little known and forgotten, the memoir was found among the collection of manuscripts of the period gathered by Colonel G.W. Hamilton and sold by his widow to the British Museum in 1868. It was catalogued by the historian Dr. Rieu who declared it among the most remarkable of the Hamilton Collection of 1000 manuscripts. It remained largely unknown until 1901 when the Annette Beveridge translation, which terms it "a literary pardah nashin," brought it to the attention of other writers and historians of the period.

Gulbadan writes simply and naturally following her father's style rather than the more ornate style of the courts of the later emperors. She begins thus, "There had been an order issued, Write down whatever you know of the doings of Firdous-Makani (Babar) 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."

The memoir is fascinating in that it adds an authentic voice to the chronicles of those times giving intimate glimpses of the families of Babar and Humayun and an insight into early Mughal life. That it was written by a woman is extraordinary in itself, but that it is also rich in detail and balanced in tone sets it apart from other accounts of the time. The women in the narrative are not pampered princesses of a royal court but hardy women, just a little removed from their nomadic forbears. They undertook long journeys and considerable hardship, as they moved about Central Asia and North India, according to the changing fortunes of their male relatives. Humayun's flight from India with a pregnant wife, only one female to attend upon her, and a handful of male followers, closely pursued by the armies of Sher Shah, is but one example of the amazing resilience shown by these women.

Gulbadan lived her life at the behest of father, brother, or nephew, yet she retains a sense of perspective and an active understanding of the complex relationships and activities which made up her world. Indeed, it is difficult to read the memoir and keep track of personalities, relationships and events without frequent recourse to genealogical tables and charts. The Mughals were a fractious lot and the internecine wars among Babar's sons and the nobles that made up the different factions were events that the women of the family endured with patience and resignation although many of the savage and bloodthirsty actions must have caused them considerable pain. That they also retained a sense of independence is amazing given the climate of the times, but the following story reveals that within the boundaries of familial obligations they managed to hold on to some autonomy especially when it came to marriage. This was perhaps a legacy of their nomadic past rather than the limiting restrictions which Islamisation was to impose in later years.

In her description of Humayun's marriage to Hamida-banu Begum who was to become the mother of the Great Emperor Akbar, Gulbadan writes, "The Emperor came to see her Highness, my mother (when we were encamped at Bhakkar). Shah Husain Mirza's harem and all his people paid their respects to his Majesty at this meeting. When he saw Hamida-banu Begam, his Majesty asked: 'Who is this?' They said: 'The daughter of Mir Baba Dost.'

In those days Hamida-banu Begam was often in the Mirza's residence. Another day when his Majesty came to see her Highness my mother, he remarked: 'Mir Baba Dost is related to us. It is fitting that you should give me his daughter in marriage.' On another day he came to my mother, and said: 'Send someone to call Hamida-banu Begam here.' When my mother sent the message, Hamida-banu Begam did not come, but said: 'If it is to pay my respects, I was exalted by paying my respects the other day. Why should I come again?' Another time his Majesty sent Subhan Quli, and said: 'Go to Shah Husain Mirza and tell him to send the Begam.' The Mirza said: 'Whatever I may say, she will not go. Go yourself and tell her.' When Subhan Quli went and spoke, the Begam replied: 'To see kings once is lawful; a second time it is forbidden. I shall not come.' On this Subhan Quli went and represented what she had said. His Majesty remarked: 'If she is na mahram, we will make her mahram.'

To cut the story short: For forty days the Begam resisted and discussed and disagreed. At last her Highness my mother, Dildar Begam, advised her, saying: 'After all you will marry someone. Better than a king, who is there?' And finally the Begum consented. His Majesty took the astrolabe into his own blessed hand and, having chosen a propitious hour, summoned Mir Abu'l-baqa and ordered him to make fast the marriage bond."

This anecdote, among others, is what gives vivid life to Mughal family relationships and brings these remote figures of history closer to us in emotion and feeling. How often, even today and not only in Asia but around the world, women marry because their circumstances limit choices, and marriage is seen to be the end all and be all of their existence. Of course very often these marriages go on to become loving relationships as did Hamida and Humayun's own marriage, but it is a gamble that women enter into often out of necessity not choice.

Yasmeen Murshed is a full-time bookworm and a part-time educationist. She is also the founder of Scholastica School.