Princess Gulbadan, the royal biographer

July 14, 2019

A scholarly matriarch, Princess Gulbadan was the first Mughal woman to write a book on her own -- Humayun Nama -- which has been translated into many languages

Princess Gulbadan, the royal biographer

Princess Gulbadan was born in 1523 to Emperor Babur -- the lord of Kabul, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Bajaur, Swat, and Qandahar -- and Queen Dildar Begum. She was the fourth child among Gulrang, Gulchehra, Abu Nasir (Hindal) and Alwar.

The reason why Gulbadan’s name is counted amongst the more popular royal ladies in Mughal history is her being the first Mughal woman to write a book on her own -- Humayun Nama (or history of Humayun) -- which has been translated into many languages. Its English version, translated by Annette S Beveridge, is still in print, with Gulbadan Begum’s name on its title. (Beveridge also had to her credit the translated of the Turkic script of Babur Nama (or history of Babur), which was written by Emperor Babur himself.)

In the introduction of Humayun Nama, Beveridge writes, "It is not only her [Gulbadan’s] book that lets us know she had a lively mind, but the fact of its composition at an age when wits are apt to be rusted by domestic peace."

Gulbadan fondly remembers her father sitting on a chowkandi (a stone seat) "under a gauze, where he used to sit and write his book." To quote Ira Mukhoty, from her book, Daughter of the Sun, "That Gulbadan sees her father writing a book in the middle of the convulsion of empire formation, must have affected her deeply. She herself grows up to be a highly educated woman, writing in both Persian and Turkish. She owns an impressive library and is considered a scholar. It was because of her reputation as a learned woman that her grandson Akbar, many years later, will ask her to write down her memories of Babur and Humayun. That biography will be a unique document."

Indeed, unique is the most appropriate word to describe Humayun Nama, now part of Hamilton Collection in the British Museum. It is classed amongst the most remarkable of the 352 manuscripts which were selected for purchase out of the 1,000 gathered by Colonel Hamilton from Lucknow and Delhi. (Beveridge; 1901).

Gulbadan begins the tale with the following words: "There had been an order issued, ‘Write down whatever you know of the doings of Firdaus-makani (Dweller of Paradise, a posthumous name for Babur) and Jannat Ashiyani (One who lives in Heaven, a posthumous title for Humayun). At the time when his Majesty Firdaus-makani passed from this perishable world to the everlasting home, I, this lowly one, was eight years old, so it may well be that I do not remember much. However, in obedience to the royal command, I set down whatever there is that I have heard and remember."

Gulbadan’s introductory passage is a sound abstract of the book that offers very little details of Babur. This is not only to be blamed on Gulbadan’s memory but to the fact that she had very little to see of her father, since she was two years of age when he went out on his expedition to conquer Hindustan from what is now Afghanistan. She recalls the first time she travelled to Fatehpur Sikri to see her father, and received currency (shahrukhs), horses, and gifts.

Apart from such happy anecdotes, the prime figures of Gulbadan’s memoirs are her brothers -- Emperor Humayun, his blood-brother Hindal, and Kamran Mirza and Askari, Humayun’s half-brothers, and a constant source of worldly tests. Gulbadan, from her book, appears to be a favourite of her brothers, whom she never saw together in one place, physically or mentally, except for in Lahore, when Sher Shah Suri chased Humayun out of Agra, and all four of Gulbadan’s brothers set up camps in Lahore, by the River Ravi, a soothing retreat for troubled minds. This is the same point where a summer house, that goes by the name of Kamran ki Bara Dari, was erected, which stands tall to this day, although dilapidated and full of junkies.

A thing of beauty, the Bara Dari (a twelve-door pavilion) has marble floors, arched doorways, Persian motifs on the walls, a verandah, fountains, and all the exotic details of a typical Mughal garden. At that time, the river Ravi flowed through the gardens, which is why enormous pools and fountains, waterways and causeways were built in the Bara Dari for beauty as well as respite.

Gulbadan had an objective style of writing; she added flypapers -- today’s sticky notes -- to add prefixes and suffixes to her recollections. Her manuscript abruptly ends at the point where Humayun defeated Suri’s progeny, and reclaimed his throne.

 Gardens were important to Babur and his progeny. Upon reaching Agra, he was "disappointed with the utter lack of scenery there," (Beveridge; 1901)

Although Agra, Delhi, and Lahore are three major cities which went through architectural development during the Mughal rule, starting with Babur, Gulbadan’s father, a particular fan of the Chahar Bagh -- four gardens separated by four pathways, leading to a central building.

Gulbadan, who as a child left Kabul for Agra to see her father, and her brother Kamran Mirza. In her book, she writes of what happened when she came to Lahore: Sher Shah Suri had attacked Agra, and everyone was fleeing, especially Kamran who also pulled out his soldiers from Humayun’s army and rode off to Lahore. Before leaving, he commanded Gulbadan to leave with her. Gulbadan writes, she cried and lamented and implored but "He took me by main force, with a hundred weepings and complaints and laments, away from my mothers, and my own mother, and sisters, and my father’s people and my brothers, and parted us all who had grown up together from infancy."

She wrote to Humayun to complain about the forceful voyage she had to go on, and Humayun tried to cool things between herself and Kamran by saying her brother Kamran cared too much for her.

So, Gulbadan came to Lahore where she spent her youth, for it was Kamran’s will and desire to "have the presence of a young but influential member of the harem with him. She returned to Agra after Humayun’s death." (Ira Mukhoty; Daughters of the Sun).

In a way, Gulbadan was saved from the heartless way Sher Shah’s armies plundered Agra’s peace and women. Aqiqa (Gulbadan’s niece and Hindal’s daughter), was taken away and never seen again. Hindal and his women, as well as Humayun and Askari, went to Lahore for a reunion.

Gulbadan writes about an incident of nose-picking of her brothers in a gently humorous way: "His majesty (Humayun) said, ‘Bring the ewer and basin so that we may wash our hands and eat together.’ Going by the seniority, Humayun washed his hands, then Kamran did, but before Hindal and Askari could, Mirza Sulaiman (son of a loyalist) washed his hands in the basin. He did something improper with his nose. Mirza Askari and Mirza Hindal were much put off, and said: ‘What rusticity is this? What sense is there in these nose-wagging performances?’ Then the two Mirzas went and washed their hands outside. Mirza Sulaiman was very much ashamed. They all ate at one tablecloth. At the gathering, his Majesty graciously remembered this lowly person (Gulbadan speaks of herself) and said to the brothers: Gulbadan Begam used to say, ‘I wish I could see all my brothers together’."

Humayun pardoned all his brothers who had gone rogue on him one time or the other. Especially when Sher Shah Suri planned to attack them in Lahore, Humayun sent him a message to "Leave me Punjab," to which Suri replied, "I have left Kabul for you."

Even Kamran offered Suri the arrest of Humayun if he was given Lahore, but Suri rejected the offer. Such was the status of Lahore for those who desired to claim the imperial throne, that it turned a younger brother against the older one.

Having nowhere else to go, Kamran left for Kabul -- the empire handed down to him by his father, where he took Gulbadan and his wives but banned the entrance of Humayun who sought refuge with the Shah of Persia.

Zakir Hussain, in a research paper published by the Indian History Congress (1994), gives credence to Gulbadan’s statement of Kamran’s desire to claim ‘sovereignty’ for himself.


Gulbadan hardly writes about herself. She was married at the age of seventeen to a Chaghtai Mughal, her second cousin Khizr Khawaja Khan, but she never mentions him in the manuscript, except for when Kamran murdered her favourite brother, Hindal - Abu Nasir. She says she would not have grieved this much had her husband been taken away instead of her brother.

Despite having lived with Kamran for a long time, the only fond memory she has of him is when upon coming from Kabul to Agra he could not recognise her, and when she complained about it, he said, "When you left, you wore a taaq (girlie cap) and now you wear a lachak (coiffure worn by wives)."

Beveridge mentions that Kamran, however disloyal to Humayun, deserved a historian of his own but Princess Gulbadan had an objective style of writing; she added flypapers -- today’s sticky notes -- to add prefixes and suffixes to her recollections. Her manuscript abruptly ends at the point where Humayun defeated Suri’s progeny, and reclaimed his throne. He was advised by his counsel to have Kamran killed after the numerous times the latter had defected, but Humayun, reluctantly, had him blinded instead and sent off to Makkah for pilgrimage, where Kamran died a couple of years later.

Through Akbar Nama, written by one Abul Fazl, it is known that Gulbadan’s book is quoted throughout the generations of the Mughals, in their biographies. The manuscript of Humayun Nama even carries an autograph -- in modern jargon, a blurb -- by Emperor Shah Jahan, the fourth emperor down the line after Humayun. It is through Akbar Nama (translated by Henry Beveridge) that we know that when Akbar was Emperor Gulbadan returned to Agra and set sail for a pilgrimage to Makkah, which took her seven years, since she stayed in the holy city for five years to perform Hajj (every year).

When she returned, Akbar had shifted the imperial throne to Lahore in the Mughal’s fort that carries several stories in it -- some discovered and some not. It was after her Hajj that Gulbadan started writing her book, until her death, in the winter of 1603, after a brief bout of fever.

One of her companions of youth, Hamida Bano Begum, Akbar’s biological mother, kept her company and as soon as her eyes shut, Hamida called her out, "Jiu!" (elder sister!) To which Gulbadan responded, "I die, may you live!" and closed her eyes forever.

According to Beveridge, Akbar mourned for his favourite aunt, and even shouldered her bier for some distance.

Since Humayun was an Emperor of peace only for two years, and kept battling his own kin and foes all his life, there is very little architecture attributed to him. Kamran ki Bara Dari, however, is a work of art which has survived the test of time and the heartbreaking disregard. It is also a reminder of the rivalry between the two brothers, who were both loved dearly by their sister Gulbadan, the only published historian/chronicler/biographer to have told their stories to the world to date.

Princess Gulbadan, the royal biographer