By Rumer Godden

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Babur loved Kabul, then the centre of his domain. It stands, an oasis in a plain girdled with ridges of bare, red rock, hills almost fossilised that rise to mountains where the snow seldom melts, yet the city is fertile, a river runs through it and a line of trees marks the old canal. Babur had been pleased to discover a lake and meadows close below the Citadel which was of surprising height and enjoyed a beautiful prospect when the plains were green. In Kabul, ‘there is a great abundance of fruit from citrus to peaches, damsons, almonds; its wines are strong and intoxicating but it is not fertile in grain.’ Above all, Babur found gardens: one at the foot of the citadel, almost fallen into ruin, which he rescued and named the Garden of Fidelity; in another was a small natural hillock from which a stream of water, ‘sufficient to drive a mill, incessantly flows. I made the stream straight and built a fountain but the turning of the millwheel is more soothing.’ To Babur the Garden of Fidelity became ‘the very eye of peace and beauty’. Later, in Kashmir, in the gardens of Nishat and Shalimar, the Mughals had slabs of stones set in a wide water channel carved so that the splashings and runnings of water made subtly different rhythms, but the water must run slowly or the subtlety is lost. ‘Slow is of God,’ runs the Muslim proverb, ‘Hurry is of the devil.’

Kabul was rich in flowers too. Babur’s favourites were narcissi and roses but here he remarked tulips growing wild in the grass: ‘I once directed them to be counted and was brought more than thirty different kinds.’

Kabul did not only give Babur beauty and security; it gave him a new self. All his rough wandering life—even his brief tastes of court fashion in Samarkand had been overlaid with war—his sensitivity must have told him he was ignorant; perhaps he even felt uncouth.
He spoke only Turki; now he found, ‘there are eleven or twelve different languages spoken in Kabul’—it lay in the great trade routes from China, India, to Turkey and beyond and was filled with men of every race, not warriors but merchants. It was Babur’s first real knowledge of the world and its riches, but he was not easily seduced; he quietly assessed what, for instance, came up from India: ‘slaves: fine white cloth’—the muslin for which India is famous—‘sugar: spices: exotic fruits and birds,’ but he found that the merchants were greedy, extortionate, and he was disdainful of them, as he was to be later, when he spent a winter in Herat with his cousins and watched the idleness and extravagance which came from their orgies of drinking—he drank himself but seldom so much as to incapacitate himself as a warrior and leader. Now he was more than a leader; the Tiger had learned how to rule and was on the way to being Emperor and, ‘ordered that people should style me Padshah, Ruler of Kings’, but a padshah had to have a court—and a haram.

Babur’s first love, when he was only a youth himself, had been a boy, ‘a lad belonging to the Camp bazaar, named Bauhari.’ It was a passionate love.

‘I was mad, deranged, nor did I know
That such is his state who is enamoured
of a fairy face. . .’

Babur never, as far as history knows, wrote verses for any of his wives. In spite of his predilection for Bauhari he had been married three times before the days of Kabul; at six he was betrothed to the five-yearold Princess Ayisha of Samarkand but, when they were old enough for marriage, they so disliked one another that Babur’s mother had to ‘drive him to her tent’, and Ayisha soon left him—unusual for a Muslim wife. His mother insisted he take another, Zainab Sultan Begam, but this was not happy either and she died of smallpox. The last was a young princess who had fallen in love with him at the Herat Court; that Babur loved her too is shown by his grief when, within a year, she died in childbirth and he gave her little daughter her name, Ma’suma, Innocent. There had been another baby daughter, Ayisha’s, who did not live—the countless baby and child deaths showed how hard life must have been for the women of those fighting chieftains.

To sire only two girl children, one of them puny, was humbling for a virile man but, says Gulbadan, ‘in taking Kabul, he [my royal father] got a good omen.’ An extremely good omen! An heir was born in 1507 and after this fifteen more children. Babur kept to the strict Muslim rule of only four wives at one time; the size of his haram was because, like other honourable princes, he took under his protection the women of any of his nobles who had been killed or taken prisoner in battle; this was to prevent the women being seized as loot; there were not only wives, but daughters, mothers, aunts, cousins, ladies-in-waiting, servants and dancing girls—some were even the women of his enemies. As the Quran—the holy book
of Islamic rule—lays down:

‘Men are the managers of the affairs of women…
Righteous women are therefore obedient…
and those you fear may be rebellious
admonish them: banish them to their couches
and beat them…’

Probably Babur never knew how many women he was responsible for but, as far as history can tell, he never beat any of them; the precept, though, that each wife ‘must be equal in money, housing and intercourse’, he could not fulfil; Muhammad in his wisdom foresaw that and the same chapter in the Quran goes on:

‘You will not be able to be equitable
between them be you ever so eager.
[but] God is all-forgiving, all-compassionate.’

The one Babur truly loved was Maham, his chief wife; he called her ‘My Moon’, and the first child to be born in Kabul was her son. The name of Humayun—Fortune—was given to him,’ and Babur tells that when his heir was four or five days old, ‘I went out to the Four Gardens to hold the feast of his nativity. All the lords, great and small, brought their gifts. Such a mass of silver coins was heaped up as had never before been seen. It was a splendid feast…’ and it was now perhaps to forecast the future of this son that Babur took the title Emperor.

The second wife; Gulrukh, ‘Rose-Faced’, seems almost to have been disregarded though she was the mother not only of Babur’s second son Prince Kaniran, the troublemaker, and his loyal brother Askari, but of another healthy boy and girl. Babur never mentions her, while his treatment of Dildar, third wife and mother of Gulbadan can only be called callous. The background of all these wives is unknown, except for the fourth—and last—the charming Mubarika Bibi who came to the Emperor in a romantic way. At a feast given by one of his enemies during a campaign, Babur disguised himself as a travelling acrobat and went into the enemy camp, typical of his daring and sense of fun. The daughter of the chieftain, seeing a stranger, courteously sent him food and so captivated Babur by her beauty and manners that he made peace and asked for her in marriage. Bibi was popular in the haram, perhaps because she had no children—always a source of jealousy, as Dildar knew to her cost. Gulbadan, who obviously saw much of Bibi, calls her Afghani Aghacha, the Afghan Lady, as against the Begam or Princess for the other three, meaning that Bibi was not of royal birth. The names Gulbadan gives her elders throw a light on them: Khanzada Begam, Babur’s sister who, after ten years, had come back from Shaibani Khan to the haram, was Dearest Lady or the Smiling One. Maham Begam was My Lady, with an emphasis on the My, which was unfortunately true.

Maham was powerful, moody and spoilt and it seems Babur denied her nothing. After Humayun’s birth this queen lost all her babies which was not only heart-breaking but put her in a precarious position: to be the mother of the heir was a lasting honour but there was always the danger of illness, or even poisoning and assassination. Maham could not bear to think of Gulrukh’s Kamran or Askari taking her own son’s place, added to which, in the custom of those days, at twelve years old, Humayun had to leave the haram to be trained as a warrior and leader and Babur made him ruler and Prince of Badakhshan. Maham went north with the Emperor to install him but came back to an empty palace and her thoughts turned to Dildar, already mother of two healthy ‘rose princesses’, and pregnant again.

Dildar Begam means Heart-Holding Princess, but she, it seems, did not hold Babur’s, and when, on his way to the battle of Bajaur, the first fort he took in Hindustan, he had an urgent letter from Maham, he appears to have given no thought at all to Dildar’s love and pride.

Probably as he read it he was thinking of other things: of strategy or of making wells and irrigation—always his passion—or, in his Babur way, examining flowers or watching the, to him, strange animals, a mongoose perhaps or monkeys at play. Maham’s urgency was about Dildar’s unborn child; ‘Whether it be a boy or a girl is only chance, give this child to me,’ it pleaded. ‘I will declare it mine and bring it up as mine.’

Now and again a childless royal wife has adopted a child, usually from a good but middle-class woman, but never from within the haram, especially not from one of her husband’s own wives, but Babur gave way, to Dildar’s deep resentment. Maham also asked that her Padshah himself should try and foretell the sex of the child and, though he disliked and distrusted superstition, Babur again did as she asked. Two old women were sent for to the camp and used the traditional way of writing two names, a boy’s and a girl’s, on scraps of paper, rolling them in soft clay to make two balls which were dropped into warm water; the first to open would tell the sex. Babur sent a message to say the child would be a boy; it was. He was Dildar’s first son but it was Maham who had the triumph of naming him Hindal—Hind because his father had conquered Hindustan.

It is understandable that Maham should have wanted Hindal but why little Rosebody? ‘I was two years old when My Lady took me.’ Perhaps Maham was still lonely, haunted by the children who had died; she knew too that, just as with Humayun, Hindal would soon be taken from her and the haram, and Gulbadan must have been an exceptionally captivating little person. Children of those high Asian countries are usually healthy and merry; the babies have skins like white-heart cherries, dark hair and black eyes, and beautiful little teeth, and Gulbadan might have inherited her father’s good looks too: a face with fine features, straight eyebrows, straight fine nose, a sensitive mouth without the slight twist of Humayun’s, and eloquent kind eyes. Looking at a group portrait of Babur and his heirs, it is interesting to see how the faces coarsened. Babur’s is thin, fine-boned; Jahangir’s, four generations later, is fleshy and sensual, Dildar probably had beauty, but it seems fitting that this most loved of Babur’s ‘rose’ princesses should have looked, not like her mother, but him. No one knows; perhaps fittingly, as she wanted to be anonymous, there is no miniature or painting that gives even a glimpse of Gulbadan Begam.

Her book shows clearly how self-controlled she was; probably Maham’s temper had something to do with that but it was hard for a baby to be taken from her mother and family; she probably did not see her sisters again until she was old enough to go to the royal schoolrooms. It seems likely that the wives in Kabul lived in separate houses or pavilions with private courtyards inside the haram, a pattern that can still be seen in Fathpur Sikri; even aunts, cousins, concubines had each her own room, her little garden court.

There must have been good etiquette, even affection, between those Muslim women: there was, for instance, no ‘naughty room’, as with the Hindus, in which a disagreeable wife could be shut up, or shut herself up. Babur, it is true, wrote of one such wife, not his own but one of his nobles’, and added, ‘May the Almighty remove such a visitation from every good Muslim.’ Obviously Maham never showed her temper to him and he had no idea how moody ‘My Lady’ could be.

Muslim babies then were not only loved but coddled; the tradition among the tribesmen and Afghans was that a baby did not leave the warmth of its mother’s—or nurse’s-—body until forty days after its birth, so the bond was close and the child was lulled with security and love. Snatched from that love, little Rosebody must have known not only homesickness but, worse for a child, uncertainty; probably slaps and kisses came equally her way, yet it seems only to have made her stoical; she was steadfastly loyal to ‘My Lady’, but in those early days she must often have cried and though swiftly removed by one of her ‘mamas’—a governess lady-in-waiting—she may have been heard by Dildar, who was powerless to intervene: There was no questioning a decision of the Padshah, but who knows what longing, as well as resentment, was hidden in this outwardly gentle lady; that Dildar was ‘heart-holding’ is shown by the affection and respect her children and half-children, even Humayun when he became Emperor, showed her, and her children seemed to have had the same lovable quality, especially Hindal and Gulbadan.

A haram in Mughal India was an ample spaced enclosure guarded inside by women warriors, expert in archery, reinforced by eunuchs and, outside the walls, by trusted armed men. At sunset all its gates were closed except one which had sentinels and was lit by torches; even women were searched when they came in, in case they were men in disguise. When the ‘ladies’ went in and out it was in guarded procession but, in Gulbadan’s childhood, the haram at Kabul was comparatively free; the women were not veiled; they rode, went on picnics, followed shikar, practised archery and perhaps Gulbadan was allowed to join the boys in that play—in the East usually exclusively for boys—of flying kites.

The heights of the Citadel must have been a splendid place for kite flying. Oriental kites are made of thin paper, with struts of fi ne bamboo so that they are light enough to respond to the least touch and are wonderfully manoeuvrable. Best of all are kite battles when the string is coated with a mixture of glue and powdered glass which hardens to razor sharpness. Folk stories of Jaipur and Jodhpur tell that this sport was popular long before the Mughals and in far off days, before there were law courts, disputes over land or money were settled in such a fight. Gulbadan, of course, knew nothing of this but perhaps her inherited fierceness, girl as she was, found an outlet in the feeling of a kite rising, playing the wind, and sending its throbbing message down into the bamboo roller on which the string is wound, turning it seemed almost by magic in the small hands that held it.

Kites were romantic too; often on feast days they would be tethered, left to stay steady some twenty feet in the air and a small paper lantern was tied to the string with a lighted candle inside, then the string was run out another twenty feet and another lantern tied, then another; sometimes there were as many as seven or eight lanterns, all softly glowing in fairy colours and moving gently as the kite stirred in the wind.

She would have had toys, the like of which can be seen in the miniature of her faraway ancestor Timur playing as a little boy at being a king; he had elephants on wheels, painted horses, small bows and arrows; the children in the miniature are all boys so there must have been balls, trumpets, drums—were girls allowed to share these too?

In the Court of Kabul, boys and girls seem to have been educated together, though the girls, sitting on cushions or at the master’s feet, are always shown attended by their ‘mamas’. The schoolrooms were furnished with small crossed bookstands for reading, tablets for writing—they must have used ink as Babur once sent Hindal a jewelled inkstand. The discipline was severe; in one school picture a boy is having his feet bastinadoed by another, while below a nurse is driving a small boy to his lessons with a stick.

The children would have learned calculating, poetry, reading and writing. Like men who have had scant education Babur attached great importance to books; one of his greatest excitements was when he captured the Fort of Milwat and found in the library a number of valuable books. Characteristically, some of them he gave to Humayun and some sent to Kamran. Gulbadan might have known those sent to Kamran, as the Prince, though a boy, was still in charge of the women and, as can be seen later, had a soft spot for his little sister; perhaps, too, this was the beginning of her love of books. Babur wanted his sons to be versed in the art of writing; if he had not been so great and constant a warrior he himself could have been a true poet, as he shows in the parts of his Memoirs that he wrote himself—when he dictated he fell into verbosity and tedium. Even when Humayun was grown up, Babur wrote to him: ‘You certainly do not excel in letter writing and you fail because you have too great a desire to show off. For the future write unaffectedly, clearly and in plain words which give less trouble to writer and reader.’ How surprised he would have been to know that it was his smallest daughter who would be the one to follow him in this love.

Gulbadan certainly did not show off; in fact, she had few of Humayun’s faults, particularly not his superstition; Babur, in spite of the star Suhail despised astrology which had once cost him a battle, but it still governed much of the thought and action of the Court. Humayun was an addict, believing in dreams and omens; at ten years old he had decided, on going out for a walk in the morning, that he would ask the names of the first three people he met on the road and their meanings would show him his future life; everyone advised him to ask only one but he insisted on having his own way and seemed vindicated when the names of the three men he met were Desire, Well-Being and Triumph, but only the first could be said to be true: the second was severely tried and the last came almost too late.

Superstition contradicts faith and Gulbadan was deeply religious. The backbone or core of Muslim school teaching is the Quran and the children of that sixteenth-century royal schoolroom were as obliged to learn it as boys and girls are now in all Muslim schools, even village ones where the children sit crosslegged on mats, rocking backwards and forwards as they chant, after their master, the sacred cadences; in some schools children have to learn the whole six thousand two hundred verses by heart, a parrot effect which usually blunts their minds for life but it seems with Gulbadan, every word of the Message sank deep.

Again, though he did not know it, she was following her father. Even on campaign Babur tried to keep the times of prayer. The Mughals were Sunnis—orthodox Muslims who pray five times a day, at sunset—the Muslim day begins at sunset—then night, dawn, noon and afternoon but on campaign there was sometimes no time to pause, which again Muhammad understood:

‘Thy Lord knows that thou keepest sentinel
nearly two-thirds of the night,
or a half of it, or a third of it…
Therefore recite of the Quran as much as
is feasible.
He knows that some of you are sick, and
others journeying in the land, and
fighting in the way of God,
So recite of it so much as is feasible…
And ask God’s forgiveness;
God is all-forgiving, all-compassionate.’

Absent or not, Babur was the ruling Presence in the haram at Kabul and the messages and letters brought by those runners from Hindustan were surely talked of over and over gain, imprinting themselves even on a little child’s mind. Babur’s letters are vivid. There is one describing the night he was poisoned: ‘Last Friday a strange thing happened. The mother of Ibrahim [the Lodi Emperor Babur had defeated], an ill-omened old lady, heard that as I had never tried Hindustani dishes, I had Ibrahim’s cooks called in, and out of those fifty or sixty cooks four were chosen and taken into service. The Lady heard of this and sent for my … taster… Ahmad and, when he came, gave him a coin’s weight of poison wrapped up in a piece of paper by the hand of a female slave. He took that poison to one of the Hindustani cooks in my kitchen, with the promise of … a gift if he could get it somehow into my food. The old lady sent a second woman to follow the first and see if she gave, or did not give, the poison to Ahmad. . .

‘When we had finished the Friday afternoon prayers, the dishes were set out. I ate a good bit of a plate of hare, and fried carrots, and took some mouthfuls of the poisoned dish without noticing anything unpleasant until I took some of the pieces of fried meat. Then I felt sick… I retched two or three times, and all but vomited on the tablecloth. At last I felt I it wouldn’t do, and got up, retching all the way to the water cabinet. Never before had I vomited after food, or even after much drinking of wine.

‘I became suspicious, and had all the cooks put under guard, and some of the vomit given to a dog, and the dog watched. By the first watch of the next day the dog was sickly and its belly swollen… One or two of my swordsmen had eaten of the poisoned dish, and all vomited—one in a very bad way. In the end all of us escaped.’

It was a treacherous act because, though it was true her son had been killed in the battle, Babur had treated the Lodi Queen with honour, even friendship, giving her land and a palace and putting her on the same level as his own begams. Even now he showed her clemency which seems unfair in view of the terrible retribution that fell on the others: the taster was cut in pieces, the cooks flayed alive; one woman servant was trampled by an elephant, the other shot with a matchlock, but the Queen was simply sent to Kabul. However, rather than face the haram she escaped from her guards and threw herself into the Indus. She was probably wise. The ladies of Kabul would have shown her no mercy.

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