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GULBADAN BEGUM (1523-1603)

Gulabdan Begum was the sister of the famous Mughal emperor Humayun and the daughter of Babur, and has left an account of her brother and father in her Persian memoir Humayun Nama. Women of the Mughal dynasty learnt Persian as an accomplishment and spoke Turkish, the intimate domestic language of the Timurid families. The Humayun Nama was completed around 1587, when Gulbadan was well into old age. Gulbadan Begum’s account is considered to be ‘the most valuable contemporary record of the period’. It is an outstanding historical document and places her among the world’s renowned scholars. In it we have an insider’s view of one of the most fascinating families the subcontinent has known – nomadic and used to rough living, highly cultured; feared and fearless in war, yet sentimental and tender with each other. They were the early Mughals, descended from two of the most fabled and feared leaders of Asia, Chinghiz Khan and Timur the Lame.

Gulbadan was the daughter of Dildar Begum, the junior wife of Babar, the first ruler of the Mughal Empire. Gulbadan, with her brother Hindal, was adopted by Babar’s first queen, Maham Begum, mother of Humayun. Babar was a statesman of distinction and a sensitive poet. He spent 19 years ruling Kabul as preparation for the realisation of his dream, the conquest of India. Yet he loved his home so much that, in his camp in Sikri, he burst into tears at the sight of melons from Kabul. He wrote his autobiography Babar Nama in the Turkish language. He would perhaps have been surprised to know that of all his children, it was the youngest daughter who would follow his example. Gulbadan’s account begins with an affectionate portrayal of Babar, then goes on to detail his relations with his many sons, not omitting an honest yet indulgent and understanding description of Humayun’s many mistakes and failings. As Babar became Emperor of India when she was a mere toddler, and her teens encompassed the time of strife and suffering when Sher Shah Suri threatened to drive the Mughals, with Humayun at their head, back to Kabul, Gulbadan was well placed to serve as historian. As for her own life, she married Khwaja Khizr Khan. Her daughter, Ruqayya Sultan, grew up to marry Emperor Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor. Akbar admired the literary talent of Gulbadan Begum and encouraged her to write about the reign of Humayun.

A devout Muslim, she made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1575, returning in 1577. The details of her haj are mentioned in Humayun Nama. Gulbadan lived a full life and died at the age of 80 in 1603. Akbar was fond of her, though as an orthodox Muslim she did not approve of his freethinking ways, and Humayun appears, after her royal father Babar, to have been her favourite Mughal. Humayun’s wife Hamida, who features largely in the book, was with Gulbadan till the last days of her life. At her funeral Akbar accompanied her bier and carried it on his shoulders for part of the journey.

Only one copy of the Humayun Nama has survived, and that was lost for three hundred years. Annette Beveridge, a Persian scholar, translated it into English in 1899 and the Royal Asiatic Society published it in London in 1902. The original manuscript has been preserved intact in the Museum of the Asiatic Society in Kolkata.
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