Although remembered primarily for his liberal approach to religion, Akbar was typically Mughal in his attitudes to women, whom he collected in much the same way as a philatelist amasses stamps. At its height of splendour, the royal harem at Fatehpur Sikri held around five thousand women, guarded by a legion of eunuchs. Its doors were closed to outsiders, but rumours permeated the sandstone walls and several notable travellers were smuggled inside the Great Mughals’ seraglios, leaving for posterity often lurid accounts of the emperors’ private lives.
The size of Akbar’s harem grew in direct proportion to his empire. With each new conquest, he would be gifted by the defeated rulers and nobles their most beautiful daughters, who, together with their maidservants, would be installed in the luxurious royal zenana. In all, the emperor is thought to have kept three hundred wives; their ranks were swollen by a constant flow of concubines (kaniz), dancing girls (kanchni) and female slaves (bandis), or “silver bodied damsels with musky tresses” as one chronicler described them, purchased from markets across Asia. Screened from public view by ornately pierced stone jali windows were women from the four corners of the Mughal empire, as well as Afghans, Turks, Iranians, Arabs, Tibetans, Russians and Abyssinians, and even one Portuguese, sent as presents or tribute.
The eunuchs who presided over them came from similarly diverse backgrounds. While some were hermaphrodites, others had been forcibly castrated, either as punishment following defeat on the battlefield, or after having been donated by their fathers as payment of backdated revenue – an all too common custom at the time.
Akbar is said to have consumed prodigious quantities of Persian wine, araq (a spirit distilled from sugar cane), bhang and opium. The lavish dance recitals held in the harem, as well as sexual liaisons conducted on the top pavilion of the Panch Mahal and in the zenana itself, would have been fuelled by these substances. Over time, Akbar’s hedonistic ways incurred the disapproval of his highest clerics – the Ulema. The Koran expressly limits the number of wives a man may take to four, but one verse also admits a lower form of marriage, known as muta, more like an informal pact, which could be entered into with non-Muslims. Akbar’s abuse of this long-lapsed law was heavily criticized by his Sunni head priest during their religious disquisitions.
What life must actually have been like for the women who lived in Akbar’s harem one can only imagine, but it is known that alcoholism and drug addiction were widespread, and that some also risked their lives to conduct illicit affairs with male lovers, smuggled in disguised as physicians or under heavy Muslim veils.
In fact, the notion that the harem was a gilded prison whose inmates whiled their lifetimes away in idle vanity and dalliance is something of a myth. Many women in the zenana were immensely rich in their own right, and wielded enormous influence on the court. Jahangir’s wife, Nur Jahan, virtually ran the empire from behind the screen of purdah during the last five years of her husband’s ailing reign, while her mother-in-law owned a ship that traded between Surat and the Red Sea, a tradition continued by Shah Jahan’s daughter, who grew immensely wealthy through her business enterprises.
Partly as a result of the money and power at the women’s disposal, jealousies in the harem were also rife, and the work of maintaining order and calm among the thousands of foster mothers, aunties, the emperor’s relatives and all his wives, minor wives, paramours, musicians, dancers, amazons and slaves, was a major preoccupation. As Akbar’s court chronicler wryly observed, “The government of the kingdom is but an amusement compared with such a task, for it is within the (harem) that intrigue is enthroned.”