The Sex Lives of Women in a Mughal Harem
The Mughal harem is a complex amalgamation of women from different regions, different religions, diverse cultures, and speaking different languages but all staying under a single roof.
“A man should marry four wives; a Persian one to talk to and make love, a khurasani to do housework, a Hindu to caress the husband and nurse the children, and a strong woman of Mawar-ul-nahr to whip the other three and keep them in control.”
While this proverb reeks of male chauvinism and is highly derogatory towards women, to understand this more, we need to understand the condition and the mindset towards women in the medieval ages especially in the Mughal and Ottoman cultures.
The Mughals were Sunni Muslims and as per the Shariat rules, they were entitled to keep a maximum of four wives (by legal contract or nikah). But then, here is the catch; in the medieval era, the women were easily available and were treated as spoils of war.
Women of the enemies were captured and sold in the slave market and also in addition to that there was a thriving slave market where women as young as fourteen years were sold into rich men’s harems. Women had absolutely no right to protest or even to be heard.
And because of this, the rich were polygamous and many of them could even afford more than four wives. This resulted in the bending of rules in the form of mut'ah marriages which were contractual marriages of convenience by giving large sums of money. Besides the legal and the contract ones, there was also a large number of slave girls who were kept as concubines for pleasure and entertainment.
And the harem of a Mughal emperor was one of the most complex institutions in the world and a melting pot of diverse cultures, intrigue, and sensitivity with the emperor personally taking interest in the affairs of the harem.
The first organized harem with rules, regulations, and procedures was created by the Mughal emperor Akbar which was then religiously maintained by his descendants Jahangir, Shah Jahan to Aurangzeb. That said, the life of the women in the harem was like a parrot imprisoned in a golden cage with every activity and action dependant on the whims, fancies, and the mood of the emperor at that point in time.
The life of women inside a harem
The harem as an institution was first created by Akbar who made it into a fully functioning government department with security officials, finance officials, and even a human resource and recreation department for the entertainment of the ladies. Every activity revolved around the satisfaction of the emperor while maintaining the purdah rules or concealment as per the Islamic guidelines.
And once a girl enters the harem, she cuts all ties with the outside world and cannot leave it until she dies. Even if the emperor dies, she cannot leave the harem or remarry but would be kept secluded into an independent portion of the harem called ‘suhagpura’ where she will spend the rest of her life in isolation.
Francisco Pelseart, the Dutch merchant who visited India during the rule of Jahangir makes some interesting observations about the life of the women in the harem. According to him, Jahangir was the most lustful of all the Mughal kings and even at a young age of twenty-five years, he had as many as 20 wives and nearly 300 slave girls in his ever-expanding harem.
Jahangir placed a lot of emphasis on richly decorated ‘mahals’, infusing lascivious sensuality in the women by making them wear extravagant dresses, perfumes, and ornaments, and then wooing him. He loved the attention he got when women competed for his attention.
Every wife had a separate apartment of her own which was managed by 10 to 20 slave girls at her disposal. There was a generous monthly allowance given for buying jewels and clothes and women vied for his attention by making special foods and sweetmeats as per his taste in their apartments. The objective was to entice him to have sex by creating the right environment.
Every night, whenever he will visit a particular wife, the ‘mahal’ or her ‘palace’ will be richly decorated and infused with various perfumes and the slave girls will be sent to fetch the choicest fruits and sorbets for the emperor. As the weather in India is mostly hot, he will be quickly undressed and made comfortable as the wife along with the slave girls would rub sandalwood and rosewood creams all over his body.
Cloth fans made of silk or ‘punkahs’ will be run continuously overhead, sprinkling a gentle rain of rose water all over his body. Beautiful slave girls would massage his body, starting from the feet and gradually moving upwards as the wife will converse sweetly with the emperor on the day-to-day happenings and ‘praise’ his bravery on certain issues, feeding his ego.
A great deal of wine would be consumed and served in the process of arousing the emperor along with other intoxicants like opium, amber, and other stimulants. The emperor sits naked between all the girls surrounding him doing his bidding. If any slave girl catches his fancy, the wife cannot object but may have to ‘facilitate’ the same.
The night of pleasure goes on until the wee hours of the morning with the emperor thoroughly intoxicated and satisfied. The morning will be the moment of truth; if the emperor is happy, he will come back, and the status of the wife or slave girl will be elevated to be the emperor’s favorite. If the emperor is displeased, she will be consigned to oblivion.
Most of the women end up wearing the best clothes, eating the best foods, and even living in the best mahals but are deprived of basic sexual pleasures throughout their lives if they do not catch the fancy of the emperor. Some of them even enter into illicit affairs with officers of the harem at the cost of losing their lives if caught.
Last days and death
The harem is a place for pleasure and topics like disease and death are not discussed.
There is a separate facility called ‘bimarkhana’ where the sick and the ailing are treated and kept away from the other pomp and show happenings of the harem. Yes, all care is given but the ailing women generally lead a lonely, isolated life with nobody even visiting them except for the slave girls. If the woman is the emperor’s favorite, he might visit once, that is all.
There is no place for sentiments like sorrow, illness, and death in the colorful world of the harem. It is a woman-eat-woman world. As long as one is young and fit, make the best use of it and survive. It is the bitter truth of a polygamous Mughal world where there is no dearth of fresh youthful faces replacing the older ones.
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