A lot of mystique has been associated with the daily lives and activities of women in the Mughal court. The lives of these royal women are mostly written through the lens of beauty and pleasure with not much attention given to activities that extend beyond the domestic realm.

Considerable academic research has also focused on the agency and authority they held. To know more about their lives, it is crucial to begin from their residential quarters, which are called the harem or the zenana. A practice commonly associated with Muslim empires, harems were private living quarters inside the imperial palace that were reserved for women.

Harems in the Muslim World

A painting rendered in opaque watercolor and gold on paper depicts a scene from a zenana's or harem’s terrace (a women's section of a house), flanked by pavilions, featuring a fountain and bathing pool in the forefront. One lady bathes her feet in the pool, another leans on two attendants to the left, and a third woman, in the background, enjoys her huqqa while listening to musicians. Fruit trees and a grey sky form the backdrop of the terrace scene.
Harem or Zenana (Women’s Quarters of a House), Mughal Empire, 1760 – 1770, Victoria and Albert Museum

Harems were exquisitely designed physical spaces surrounded by lush green gardens that were filled with fragrant flowers and running water. These spaces were home to royal family members, distant relatives of the royal family, unmarried aunts, respected grandmothers, widowed wives of important generals, and Rajput princesses. Contemporary scholars refer to the harem as a “small city”, where every single person had a rank and a purpose. Females served as guards, cooks, maids, and tutors in this city, where all activities were effectively managed by the senior most members of the royal family. 

However, this is not how harems have always been understood. In mainstream media and literature, these quarters are often depicted as exotic spaces, where hundreds of young and beautiful women were solely kept for the king’s pleasure and entertainment. These women are viewed as docile and submissive, who strived to get the King’s attention so that they might increase their status from a slave to a beloved concubine or wife of the king. If one of them got very lucky then she would give birth to a child and in an instant become one of the most important members of the royal family. 

An opaque watercolor painting on paper depicting a Mughal prince being celebrated by the women of the palace, harem, or zenana. The prince stands at the center, surrounded by a group of elegantly dressed women who appear to be greeting or honoring him. The intricately detailed scene captures the rich attire and cultural setting of the period.
Mughal Prince Acclaimed by Ladies Of The Palace, 1730, Victoria and Albert Museum

With little mobility in the outside world, orientalist writings presume that these women only had two kinds of futures ahead of them. One was that they could either climb up the social and economic ranks by becoming a favorite concubine of the King or they could serve as a slave until they got old and one of the higher ranking women in the palace decided to get them married to someone else. Thus, the widespread understanding is that women in the harems were in constant competition with each other with beauty and youth as their only weapon. 

There might be some truth to this Orientalist perspective as without a doubt marriage and childbearing were significant aspects of a woman’s life during the time. However, it can not be considered completely accurate as contemporary research tells us that the day-to-day lives of women were filled with many activities that extended beyond domestic duties. The issue is that by relegating the women inside the confines of the harem and solely focusing on aspects of beauty, marriage, and child-rearing we are assuming a rigid boundary between the public and private spheres in Mughal India, which was not the case. Scholars are now painting a new picture depicting the multi-faceted nature of domestic life during those times, where the boundary between public and private was often blurred.

Beyond the Domestic Sphere

Recent historical work about women in the Mughal era challenges this stereotypical narrative by presenting a complex account of a dynamic Mughal domestic life, where noblewomen were simultaneously involved in many administrative and recreational activities like trade, politics, calligraphy, weaving, and painting. Members of the royal family enjoyed a lifestyle full of luxury and comfort, where each of them had several servants around them at all times attending to their needs. From bathing them to playing music on a Tambora, the servants rarely left the side of the princess, where they even watched her while she slept or sometimes even during lovemaking. 

A painting from the early 18th century Mughal Dynasty, illustrating a scene where a princess is entertained by a dancer. The image captures the princess seated on a lavish carpet, surrounded by attendants and musicians in a spacious terrace under a night sky. The setting is framed by a detailed floral border, adding to the richness of the scene.
A Princess Entertained by a Dancer; Attendants and Musicians, Mughal Dynasty, early 18th century, The Smithsonian Institution

Other than members of the royal family, there were also other higher-ranking women living in the harem whose power was determined by their wealth and status in society along with their connection to the royal family. Depending on one’s rank, these women were provided separate living quarters and gardens where they indulged in various entertainment activities like musical and poetry nights and holding their own courts and salons. However, the lives of these women were not only about wealth and comfort, as these material possessions were not an anomaly for them. Historical stories attest to their personal ambitions and versatile personalities, where they were key players in the growth of the empire.

Mobility and Literacy

The women often engaged themselves in public affairs, such as funding the construction of mosques. Unlike European women, Mughal women could own property and participate in trade. Princesses received a sizable allowance and they could leave their wealth to whoever they wanted to. Thus according to sources, most mosques constructed during Jahangir’s reign (1605 to 1627)  were commissioned by women, which gives an insight about one of the multiple public affairs women were participating in. 

Women regularly joined the King on trips to picturesque locations across the kingdom for leisure or official duties. For a long time, women also accompanied men to wars, where they overlooked the battle from the top of an elephant. Additionally, concubines and slaves in the harem frequently spent their time in setting up bazaars in the palace grounds for the King and his companions. This festival was usually held on important occasions like birthdays and weddings.

An illustration showcasing female literacy within the context of a harem library, where a woman is seated comfortably on an ornate couch, engrossed in reading a book. The setting suggests a private chamber, with a view of a serene blue landscape through a window. The rich detail of the room and the vibrant colors of the carpet, as well as the intricate design of the woman's attire, emphasize the cultural and educational aspects of the time.
Reflections, 1900, Victoria and Albert Museum

Female literacy was also not an oddity in these times. The harem had massive libraries, which ensured that all women were literate. Historical sources provide us with solid examples demonstrating female agency and literacy in the Mughal times. So, for instance, Isan Daulat Begum – grandmother of the founder of the Mughal empire Babur – looked after the administration and politics of Babur’s territories after the death of his father. In Babur’s words, “When it comes to tactics and strategy, there were few women like my grandmother Isan Daulat Begum.” This statement is a testament to the political savviness of the royal women in the Mughal court.  

Another notable example is of Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara who was an accomplished writer and poet. Inclined toward the Sufi path, Jahanara wrote a detailed account of her journey and experience toward spirituality. She was also interested in music and architecture and frequently held courts and salons with prominent individuals in these fields.

Nur Jehan – Epitome of Ambition and Grace

Of all the Mughal noblewomen, the most revered has been Nur Jehan. A widow in her thirties, Nur Jehan was the twentieth and the most beloved wife of the fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir. She was undoubtedly the most powerful and influential woman of her time. Possessing great political ambition and talent, she looked after the administration of the empire when Jahangir was facing health issues due to his severe alcoholism. 

A painting from 1627, titled "Nur Jahan Holding a Portrait of Emperor Jahangir," showcases the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan elegantly holding a framed portrait of her husband, Emperor Jahangir. The Empress is adorned with intricate jewelry and fine garments, standing against a lush green background that emphasizes her stature and the intimate connection to the Emperor. Her pose and expression convey a sense of reverence and affection towards the portrait she is presenting.
Nur Jahan Holding a Portrait of Emperor Jahangir, 1627, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Her influence was such that she passed imperial orders and held the court. She even had coins minted in her name. In the words of the court historian Inayat Khan, “She acquired such unbounded influence over His Majesty’s mind that she seized the reigns of government, and assuming to herself the supreme civil and financial administration of the realm ruled with absolute authority till the conclusion of his reign.” 

This is quite a blunt account by the historian, where even he seems slightly stunned by Nur Jehan’s tremendous influence. However, it also tells us that in the absence of King Nur Jehan stepped up to take over authority and ensured stability in the empire. Other than this, she was also a gifted poet, sportswoman, and trader, which depicts the diverse skills women acquired during those times.

Status of Women in the Harem from an Islamic Lens

It’s important to note here that women’s life in the harem was an extension of their general social status in Mughal society and the larger Islamic world. Their power and agency are a testament to their revered status, where mothers particularly were held in high regard. The respect and admiration towards mothers is rooted in Islamic dictums, which was the dominant religion during the Mughal era. Thus, the noblewoman’s immense wealth and grandiosity along with enjoyment of rights similar to that of men is a result of the influence of Islamic religious philosophy. Additionally, it wasn’t only the noblewomen who enjoyed the privileges of luxury and literacy; rather, women across classes had a social system in place that allowed them to build a life for themselves as they liked. 

A painting from 1760, depicting a princess from Provincial Mughal India in Lucknow, elegantly holding a candle. She stands against a dark, cloudy backdrop, highlighted by a decorative border with leaf motifs. The princess is dressed in traditional attire with vibrant colors and detailed patterns, conveying her royal status and the artistry of the period. Her posture and the act of holding the candle suggest a ceremonial or symbolic significance.
A Princess Holding A Candle, Lucknow, Provincial Mughal India, 1760, Christie’s

Recent historical work provides us with a fresh perspective in understanding the life of women in the Mughal world. We observe the stark difference between the old and revised understandings of life in the harem, where recent findings completely shift our perspective about the Mughals as rulers. It is crucial to study historical sources critically so that we can craft stories about the past that are close to the truth.