Power Behind the Veil

Indu Sundaresan is the author of the Taj Trilogy—The Twentieth WifeThe Feast of Roses and Shadow Princess, and three other books. I came across her novels when I read The Mountain of Light, a fabulous story about the Koh-i-noor diamond and interviewed Indu on the blog. Indu’s recent newsletter prompted me to invite her once again.

Power Behind the Veil: In the harems of India’s Mughal Empire (1526-1857 A.D)

On the 17th of June, 1631, Empress Mumtaz Mahal died in the palaces at Burhanpur giving birth to her fourteenth child. She was originally buried there, and then, six months later, taken to a property on the banks of the Yamuna River in Agra and interred again on the spot where her husband, Emperor Shah Jahan, was building a tomb for her.

The main tomb took sixteen years to complete. It was constructed of white marble with a pietra dura inlay of semi-precious stones—jasper, onyx, carnelian—on a marble platform with four freestanding minarets on each corner. During the building and after, it was called the rauza-i-munnavara—the Luminous Tomb. When the British took over India, the name changed, perhaps into Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb…or a contraction of her name, Taz Mahal.

This building is one of the modern wonders of the world—the Taj Mahal.

The pietra dura inlay on the entrance wall of the Taj Mahal – author photos

Although Mumtaz Mahal is the most famous woman from Mughal India, her life was largely uneventful, except in one thing. Her husband had two other wives, but she had fourteen children from him. She was very obviously a favorite. 

Two (other) influential women:

In the harems of Mughal India, women were hidden from the outside, faceless and for the most part, voiceless. But two women were quietly powerful within these constraints. They are the protagonists of the novels of my Taj Trilogy—Mehrunissa, Empress Nur Jahan, who was Mumtaz’s aunt and married to Emperor Jahangir (Mumtaz’s father-in-law), and Mumtaz’s daughter, Princess Jahanara.

A vast city of women:

Every woman who could claim a relationship to the emperor, or a patronage from him, was given shelter within the walls of the harem. So, aunts, cousins, all the mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and nieces. And, of course, the reigning wives who held the most preeminent position.

Added to this was substantial army of servants, slaves, and entertainers, mostly women; the few men were eunuchs and important in their own way, with the ability to move beyond the walls of the palaces to transact business and carry messages for the royal women.

Mehrunnisa and Jahanara stand out because they did not bow to the dictates prescribed for the women of Mughal India—their concerns were as much at court, in the politics and succession of the empire, as in carefully navigating relationships with the sea of women they lived with.

The harem apartments at Fatehpur Sikri – author photo

The existing Mughal palaces at Agra, Delhi and Fatehpur Sikri show that vast areas were set aside for these private spaces for women, which the emperor himself inhabited for most of his day. They had lavish apartments, silken divans, cushions and curtains, fountains and pools to ward off the immense heat of the Indo-Gangetic plains, lush gardens, servants at their bidding, superb kitchens, spectacular jewels and rich clothing.

All play and no work?

Every woman had an income, typically in cash and land, and they administered their estates (which they probably never saw in their lifetimes) by appointing stewards. They also owned whole cities from which they collected taxes and duties, and ships—a substantial part of Mehrunnisa’s income came from overseas trade.

Education was freely available for any woman who chose to pursue it—she could learn to hunt (tigers were a preferred and extremely dangerous sport), shoot, ride, study languages (Persian or Sanskrit), mathematics, astronomy, music or painting. There were masters for every subject, and while men not related to the emperor could not enter the harem, the women found ways to circumvent this rule. In one instance, in The Feast of Roses, Mehrunnisa has a teacher hauled up on a wooden platform to the level of her upper-floor apartment window and he teaches her thus, hanging in mid-air outside.

Security was diligent, and 24/7, with armed guards all around the palaces. A female supervisor watched the movements of the lesser women, and a writer jotted down everything that happened in the harem, and recorded every conversation—heard or overheard.

All the Mughal emperors professed Islam, but they not only married women who were Hindu (Hinduism was, and is, India’s predominant religion), they also allowed them to practice their religion. These marriages were political; as the empire expanded, the emperors married the sisters, daughters, and cousins of newly conquered Hindu kings. The Hindu princesses’ sons, potential Mughal emperors, were, of course Muslim. There was no law of primogeniture in Mughal India—all sons had equal rights to the throne, and depended on how potent their mothers were, and how much support they had from nobles at court. It was—upon the death of the emperor—essentially a free-for-all.

The marble palaces in Agra fort – author photo

Given all these restraints, only two women, figuratively, stepped beyond the bounds of the harem. Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan, had coins minted in her name, signed on official documents, dabbled in politics with Portuguese and English ambassadors, and tried to put a favorite stepson (who was married to her daughter) on the throne. Princess Jahanara had fewer powers, since she was the daughter and not the wife of the ruling emperor, but she too attempted to crown a brother after their father…and she failed.

Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj Mahal is named and built, sandwiched between these two women—aunt and daughter—created only a small blip in history, because she obeyed the tenets of her society. And, did not flaunt the rules of the world she lived in.

Many thanks for sharing this fascinating history, Indu. I’ve had the good fortune to visit both the Taj Mahal and Agra fort. India is truly incredible.

Indu Sundaresan’s work has been translated into twenty-three languages. The Twentieth Wife won the Washington State Book Award and was converted into a forty-two hour long episodic television series titled Siyaasat, currently running on Amazon Prime. You can find out more at her website. www.indusundaresan.com

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

An enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India’s most controversial empresses — a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal Empire. Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, The Twentieth Wife sweeps readers up in Mehrunnisa’s embattled love with Prince Salim, and in the bedazzling destiny of a woman — a legend in her own time — who was all but lost to history until now.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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