Mughal Harem

Entrance to the harem at the Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri

The Mughal Harem (Urdu: مغل حرم) was the harem of Mughal emperors of the Indian subcontinent. The term originated with the Near East, meaning a "forbidden place; sacrosanct, sanctum", and etymologically related to the Arabic حريم ḥarīm, "a sacred inviolable place; female members of the family" and حرام ḥarām, "forbidden; sacred". It has the same meaning as the Turkish word seraglio and Persian word zenana. It is also similar to the Sanskrit word anthapura, meaning ‘the inner apartment’ of the household.The Harem being a forbidden place was constant topic of speculation and curiosity. It was a vibrant and a big physical space where women were arranged in regard to their proximity to the Emperor. Most women usually entered the Harem through marriage, birth, appointments or as gifts.[1] It came to mean the sphere of women in what was usually a polygynous household and their segregated quarters which were forbidden to men. Harems were composed of wives, female relatives, concubines, and male infants. The women were governed through strict rules of Purdah, and they could not move out of the harem as they liked, but many women travelled for affairs of pilgrimage to local shrines, hunting and sightseeing with the Emperor. They always moved out in beautifully decorated palanquins or on the back of the elephants. Inside the Harem they led a luxurious and a comfortable life. The Harem had gardens, fountains and water channels attached to it. There were various departments within the Mughal Harem that fulfilled the basic needs of its inmates, The food was provided from the Royal Kitchen known as Maktabh and the Akbar Khanah provided drinking water and wine. The Ritab Khanah was in charge of supplying bread and the Maywa Khanah provided fruits to the household. Things of personal use of the women such as Beautiful dresses, jewellery, fancy articles and other household items were provided by the Imperial Karkhanah.[2]

The harem was not just a place where women lived. Babies were born and children grew up there. Within the precincts of the harem were markets, bazaars, laundries, kitchens, playgrounds, schools and baths. The harem had a hierarchy, its chief authorities being the wives and female relatives of the emperor and below them were the concubines.[3] Mothers, step-mothers, aunts, grandmothers, step-sisters, sisters, daughters and other female relatives lived in the harem. There were also ladies-in-waiting, servants, maids, cooks, women, officials, and guards.[4]

The Humayun Nama provides an interesting insight into the lives of Mughal women. It was written by Gulbadan Begum, who was Babur’s daughter. She describes in great detail the conflicts and tensions in the empire and how women played a mediating role in resolving them.[5]For instance, Gulbadan Begum and Hamida Bano brought about peace in the household when Salim revolted against his father in1601 AD.[6] She also indicates that women knew about the political changes going on in their world and how they played a role in them. For example, She was approached by the traitor Mirza Kamran to write a letter to his brother asking him to join Kamran’s campaign against the emperor.[7]

The harem of the Mughal Empire was guarded by Eunuchs, as well as female warriors called Urdubegis.[8]

With the construction of Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar saw need to organize the administration of his Zenana. This portion of the palace was reputably home to more than five thousand women.[9] While Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak claims in the Akbarnama that each woman had her own suite of rooms, it is more likely that only members of the royal family and favorites of the emperor had their own apartments.[10] The zenana was divided into sections, with (female) daroghas tending to the organizational needs of the residents, and working to keep the peace. Other administrative positions within the zenana included the tehwildars, or accounts officers responsible for the salaries and financial requests of the zenana inhabitants. The Mahaldar, the female servant of highest authority, often acted as an intelligence source from the zenana directly to the emperor. The anagas, or royal wet-nurses, were elevated to positions of rank though their purpose was not strictly administrative.[11]

Mughal women had a noteworthy control over the financial resources and were involved in various economic activities. They enjoyed annual incomes and used eunuchs as agents of commerce. Many women also commissioned buildings and gardens. Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara contributed in many architectural projects of Shah Jahan’s new capital, Shahjahanabad and she as well as her sister, Roshanara enjoyed an annual income often equal to that of high imperial mansabdars.[12]They also had a strong administrative control over the domestic trade and gained large revenues from various towns. Jahanara received revenues from the port city of Surat, which was a profitable centre of overseas trade, Nur Jahan by system of tolls from internal trade had an income of 230,000 mahmudis. They combined their Economic sense with Political Activities to strengthen the monarchy and the empire.[13]

See also


  1. Karuna Sharma (2009) A Visit to the Mughal Harem: Lives of Royal Women, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 32:2, 155-169, DOI: 10.1080/00856400903049457
  2. Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions
  3. Inside the Harem of the Mughals
  4. Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions
  5. Gulbadan Begum,Humayun Nama.
  6. SAI Tirmizi,Edicts from the Mughal harem.
  7. Gulbadan Begum,Humayun Nama.
  8. Hambly, Gavin (1998). "Chapter 19: Armed Women Retainers in the Zenanas of Indo-Muslim Rulers: The case of Bibi Fatima". In Hambly, Gavin. Women in the medieval Islamic world : Power, patronage, and piety (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 429–467. ISBN 0312224516.
  9. Abu 'l-Fazl Allami; Blochman, H (1977). Phillot, Lieut. Colonel D.C., ed. The Ain-i Akbari (3rd ed.). New Delhi: Munishram Manoharlal. pp. 45–47.
  10. Lal, Ruby (2005). Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 166. ISBN 0521850223.
  11. Lal, K.S. (1988). The Mughal Harem. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. pp. 14, 52. ISBN 8185179034.
  12. National Council of Education Research and Training.Themes in Indian History. Publication Division, Secretary.
  13. Karuna Sharma (2009) A Visit to the Mughal Harem: Lives of Royal Women,South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 32:2, 155-169, DOI: 10.1080/00856400903049457
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