Power Behind the Veil

American Institute of Indian Studies

Centre for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian Studies

Inside the women quarters - a study of the Harem Sara complex at Fatehpur Sikri. The
Harem Sara or the Seraglio of the Mughals, where the ladies of the royal palace
use to live, seems to be a place of seclusion. However, the kind of power these
women yielded from this space was immense. Let us take a sneak peek into these
less frequented spaces.

Jodh Bai's Palace (Principle Harem Sara), Exterior Complex, East entrance (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Exterior Complex, East Entrance, showing arched gate surmounted by Jharokas and Kiosks.

The Mughal harem comprised of the female relatives of the Emperor. It consisted of mother, step mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters of the emperor apart from his wives, concubines, slave girls etc. Seraglio of the Mughals has evoked the interest of many of the contemporary medieval foreign travelers.These spaces had an air of mysteriousness surrounding them perhaps as the entry to them was restricted. This mysteriousness gave rise to various kinds of rumors and gossips related to the inhabitants of the royal harem.

‘Mariam ki Kothi’ /Mariam’s House/ Sunhara Makan -west facade (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

‘Mariam ki Kothi’ /Mariam’s House/ Sunhara Makan to the north east of the Harem Sara:

Mariam makhani, was the honorary title of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s mother Hamida banu Begum, meaning ‘of rank equal to that of Mary’ or ‘dwelling with Mary’, posthumously bestowed on her by her son Akbar (Humayun-Nama, 1902:237). Hamida, exercised considerable power over the Mughal court. She made religious endowments and there are instances when Farmans (Imperial Orders) bearing her name with the seal of her son Emperor Akbar were issued (See Jhaveri, 1928: Doc. No. 2). She interceded for her grandson Prince Salim ( to be Emperor Jahangir), with her son Akbar and also had a part in the plot for disposing Behram Khan (Humayun-Nama,1902: 241), the regent of the Akbar during his early days as Emperor.

Ground floor, NE porch, porch (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Maryam's house(Sunhara Makan), showing heavy brakets on the ceiling, doors and small arched niches.

These palaces also were related to the recreational activities of the ladies as well as the emperor, royal princes etc. Not all inhabitants were provided the luxury of separate buildings, many had to content themselves by sharing together a building. Here, we can see different rooms in the same building.

Grd Floor, N porch, R pillar, painting, wall (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Maryam's House(Sunhara Makan), North side of the porch, front right pillar, showing painting of elephant fight.

Two elephants locking their trunks amidst a fight. This seem to reflect that ladies of the harem took pleasure in animal sport. The inscription to the picture(not visible in the painting), reads ‘Bakht Bali (name of one of the elephant) encounters Partaba, See the strength of the Bakht Bali, whose terrible blow has broken Partaba’s head’. (Rizvi,1975:55)

Grd Floor, N porch, above door, painting, wall (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Maryam's house (Sunhara Makan) to the northeast of Haram Sara ground floor, north side porch, over the entrance door showing painted fragments-gate, domed pavilion.

This house is supposed to be Mariam Makhani’s abode. It was perhaps called Sunhara Makan or Golden house as its walls were supposed to be covered with golden paint and had beautiful frescoes. These frescoes throw light on the tastes and interesting activities of the inhabitants.

First story, painting, wall (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Maryam's House(Sunhara Makan), First Flooor, three rooms, showing painted remains on the walls, niches and dado

These women took keen interest in Political and Religious matters. The paintings adorning the walls of the palaces bear testimony to the fact that they were interested in various matters of significance. Besides, these living spaces also reflects the tastes and preferences of the Women inhabiting them as we can see, the palaces built for the Rajput Ranis were based on Rajput style of architecture. They also had niches for the ladies to keep their images and pray. While the ones built for the Turkish wives of the emperor had ornate Turkish palaces and panels. Thus the taste and preferences of these ladies had a bearing on the architecture of the royal Harem as well.

Ground floor, north porch, porch, pillared (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Maryam's House , Ground Floor, north side of the porch, showing pillars with brackets and lintels with painted remains.

The courtyard extending from the Sunhara Makan, to its private garden was brightened, on the third day of each solar month, by a special market in which all the vendors were women, the day was called Khush ruz (happy day). (Rizvi and Flynn, 1975:56) This Zenana Bazaar (ladies market) or Mina Bazaar, was organized under the supervision of the Royal ladies of the harem and these ladies were prolific organizers. Besides, they would have indulged with and acquired a little bit of know-how of commercial transactions in order to deal with and organize a market at such a grand scale.

Grd Floor, N porch, above door, painting, wall, 1571-1575 CE, From the collection of: American Institute of Indian Studies
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Grd Floor, int. wall niche, painting, wall (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Maryam's House (Sunhara Makan), to the northeast of Haram Sara, rear left showing fragments of a painted female figure.

It seems she is playing a musical instrument like a flute.

Jodh Bai's Palace (Principle Harem Sara), East facade, Jharoka (enclosed balcony), 1571-1575 CE, From the collection of: American Institute of Indian Studies
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east entrance guard room, carved niche, 1571-1575 CE, From the collection of: American Institute of Indian Studies
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Jodh Bai's Palace (principle Harem sara) East Entrance complex- Gaurd's room showing highly ornate niche of Hindu style.

Ornate niches in the house of Jodha Bai, perhaps used for worshiping.

Birbal's House (Northern Harem sara)-West facade (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Birbal's House (Northern Harem Sara) General View of the two storeyed building raised on a low plinth and surmounted by domes-from southwest.

The nomenclature suggest that this was the palace of the Akbar’s famous courtier and one of the ‘Navratana’ (nine gems of his court) Birbal. However, it does not seem plausible that he was accorded a place inside the Zenana. It is surmised, that this could have been a palace belonging to Akbar’s begums whom he held in high affection.

Anup Talao (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Anup Talao and on rear Turkish Sultana's Bath or Pavilion

It was a pleasure pavilion also known as Hujra-i-Anup Talao. The Mughal Queens and Princesses, often entertained the guests and also arranged for feasts and banquets. (Mukherjee, 2001: 34) This pavilion might have served the purpose for some of these activities or used for recreational purposes.

interior chamber wall of Turkish Sultana's House (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Turkish Sultana's House (also known as Anup Talao Pavilion), Interior view of the chamber showing dado carved with depictions of plants, swastika and geometric designs.

North of Sunahra Makan, garden (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

General View of the Structures known as Zanana 'Hospital' situated to the north of the Sunhara Makan

This building, which is called ‘the hospital’ seems to be a misnomer. It is more likely to have been a guest house for those high-born women whom Mughal Emperor Akbar (1541-1604) used to admit into his harem for short stays; Beyond being honoured by an Imperial invitation, the guests would have been able to experience at the hands of Maryam Makhani( Emperor’s Mother), Gulbadan Begum( his aunt) and other finest things in the culture of the Mughal’s distant homeland. (Rizvi and Flynn, 1975: 58)The ladies of the harem were significant contributors towards the formation of cultural ties and public relations at the Mughal court. They were also powerful lobbyists at the court.

Jodh Bai's Kitchen - facade (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

General View of the structure known as JodhBai's kitchen

This building which has been alleged to have served the purpose of ‘Kitchen’, was not the Kitchen but was the office of the Harem Sara, where the Emperor would call to direct the voluminous affairs of the ladies. (Rizvi and Flynn, 1975: 59) The Harem Sara was one of the most organized institutions of the Mughal empire.There exited a hierarchy and rank system in the Mughal harem. The ladies were rewarded and paid salaries according to their ranks and status in the Mughal harem. Abul Fazl, the famous court historian of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court, throws light on this aspect in his celebrated work the Ain-I- Akbari, ‘The women of the highest rank received from 1,610 to 1,028 Rs. per mensem’ (Quoted by Smith, 1898:36-7). The highest rank holder of the Mughal Harem, generally used to be the Mother of the Emperor.

west of Raja Birbal's House, facade (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Gaurd's Houses

The security of the Harem was of the paramount significance for the Mughals. The security to the Harem was multi-tiered. The Eunuchs,(trans- genders) were employed , who acted as interlocutors between the ladies of the harems itself and also sometimes as spies. In the words of Abul Fazl, the court historian of Akbar, ‘The inside of the Harem is guarded by sober and active women. Outside of the enclosure the eunuchs are placed; at the proper distance, there is a guard of faithful Rajputs, beyond whom, are the porters of the gates. Besides, on all the four sides, there are guards of nobles, Ahadis and other troops according to their ranks.’(Quoted by Smith, 1898:36-7).

North of Jodh Bai's palace, court (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

General View of the structures known as Viaduct, situated to the exterior north of the Jodh Bai's Palace

These ornate Jalis (screens) run throughout the Haram Sara in order to provide easy excess to the royal ladies so that they could walk from one apartment to the other without being seen.

A view of the cloisters supposed to be the horse stables (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

View of the cloisters supposed to be the horse stables, to the south of Birbal's house.

These quarters were conceived to be horse stable by some of the scholars, however, the other view holds that, considering the proximity of this area to the principal buildings of the Harem Sara, it might have served as a quarters for the servants of the royal ladies.

Zenana Garden-Bath , NE of Hawa Mahal, pillared pavilion (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

General View of the structure known as Zenana Garden- Bath, situated to the northeast of Hawa Mahal

The quarters also had beautiful gardens and baths attached for the convenience of the ladies. They were a part of leisure activities of the ladies as well as served as an added decoration to the harem.

Abdar Khana (Girl's School?)-Raised pavilion (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Abdar Khana (Girl's School?)
It is surmised that the so called girl’s school/ Abdar khana present at the complex was patronized by Turkish Sultana or Salima Sultana Begum, one of the principal wives of Emperor Akbar. If there is even an iota of truth in the legend, then perhaps the Mughal royal princesses and daughters of high dignitaries would have been educated here. The patronage extended to educational sector was not restricted to the Palace complexes. Mahanmanga, the foster mother of the Emperor Akbar, endowed construction of an Islamic college (madrasa) known as Khair-ul-Manzil- which was attached to a mosque- at Delhi. The ladies of the Mughal Harem were highly inclined towards literary pursuits. Akbar’s Paternal Aunt, Gulbadan Begum, was the writer of Humanyun Nama, a history of her family and brother Humanyun. Shahjahan’s daughter, Jahanara was a great poetess herself.

Panch Mahal- facade (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Panch Mahal, also known as Badgir or Wind tower- A columnar structure consisting of Five stories -in Daulat Khana Complex

The five storied building was the Wind tower, where the ladies of the palace could take leisure in, enjoying wind and coolness of the construction without being seen. This would have been an area providing respite to the ladies during the hot weather of India.

upper story, north, pillared chamber (1571-1575 CE)American Institute of Indian Studies

Jodh Bai's Palace - Upper storey, interior view of the north side pillared chamber showing perforated screens in Hawa Mahal

The ladies of the harem were women of letters and substance. It would be unwise to think of them as mere passive beings living in a separated part of the Royal palace. These ladies had great influence on the working of the Mughal court.They acted as powerful lobbyists at the court. If anyone wanted to approach the Emperor or secure a pardon, the Mughal ladies were a prominent link for approach. The high ranked ladies of the Mughal royal family, received gifts from foreign merchants and ambassadors-like Sir Thomas Roe and William Hawkins- who tried to please them in order to gain Emperor’s favors (Mukherjee,2001:33).They lived a luxurious lifestyle just like their male counterparts. Their contributions to the contemporary literature, cultural exchange,religious and educational endowments etc., are too significant to be overlooked.

Credits: Story

Image Credits: American Institute of Indian Studies

Curator: Swati Goel
Courtesy for Street Views: Archaeological Survey of India

1. Jhaveri, Krishan Lal Mohan Lal (1928) Imperial Farmans (AD. 1577 to A.D. 1805), granted to The Ancestors of His Holiness the Tikayat Maharaj, Bombay: The News Printing Press.
2. Lal, K.S. (1988), The Mughal Harem, New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
3. Mukherjee, Soma (2001) Royal Mughal ladies and their contributions, New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.
4.Rizvi, Saiyid Arthar and Vincent John Flynn, (1975), Fatehpur -Sikri, Bombay: Taraporevala.
5. Humayun-Nama : The History of Humayun by Gulbadan Begum, Tr. by Annette S. Beveridge (1902), London: Royal Asiatic Society.
6. Smith, James (1898) Report of the Archeological Survey of India, Mughal Architecture at Fatehpur Sikri, Vol. IV, Kokil and Co.

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