The Imperial Harem Complex, Fatehpur Sikri

Akbar is remembered as a liberal ruler who expanded Mughal Empire to the vast region but his lust for women is lesser known. The royal complex of Fatehpur Sikri was witness to his attitude towards women. The number of women in his harem increased with every victorious expedition. The defeated kings and nobles were forced to gift their most beautiful daughters, who together with their maidservants were installed in Royal Zenana. Akbar collected and amassed women like an antique collector. At its height of splendor the royal harem at Fatehpur is said to have around 5000 women, guarded by an army of eunuchs and no man was allowed inside. Akbar had Hindu, Muslim and even Christian wives. These women were brought from all corners of his kingdom and even from far away places like Russia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran and Tibet. There is even mention of a Portuguese woman gifted to him.

I read a book “Goli” by Acharya Chatursen. This novel details the life inside Zenana Dyodi of Rajput kings; situation in Mughal harem should be similar. King’s arrival to the harem was a reason for celebration. The usage of drugs and liquor was common among the inmates. Baring the queen and the favorite concubines, other women were quite vulnerable to exploitation.

However, it is not correct to believe that all of them had pitiable life, some women in harem were powerful and rich too. It is believed that during Jahangir’s reign, it was Nurjahan who managed the empire from Harem. Jahangir was mostly too drunk to manage the daily affairs. As money and power were limited to a few women’s disposal, jealousies in the harem was rife. The work of maintaining law and order among all of king’s wives, minor wives, their kaneez and baandis, paramour, musicians, dancers & whatnot was a difficult task and a major preoccupation of the authorities. It was noted by Abul Fazal that the governance of the kingdom was an amusement compared with such an arduous task. I don’t think anybody (even with limited exposure) would disagree.

Detail from a pillar outside  the House of Turkish Sultana

Detail from a pillar outside the House of Turkish Sultana

In my last article, I left you on the Pachisi court, on its left hand side, is the house of Turkish Sultana. The building is believed to be the palace of one of Akbar’s favorite wife, Sultana Ruqayya Begum. However, the probability of a queen’s residence so close to the mardana section of the imperial palace is low. In all possibility it was used for repose.

It has one large room surrounded by pillars with beautiful designs of trees and flowers. The design on the pillars and walls of the room, built with red-stone, is minute and delicate as if done by wood-carver than by stonemason.

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On one side of the house of the Turkish Sultana, is Anup Talao, a pretty tank. In its center is balustrade platform approached by four causeways supported on narrow stone pillars. It was intended for imperial amusement and private functions. During Akbar’s reign it was filled with perfumed water. The depth of Anup Talao was reduced in 1840 with the construction of a new floor. Now it is only one and half meter deep.

Clearance work at Anup Talao revealed an underground corridor and a chamber beneath it, increasing the speculations that the chamber was used to relax and to get respite from the hot summers of North.

Anoop Talav

It is said that sitting on central platform, Akbar’s another Nauratna & greatest composer musician in Hindustani classical music, Mian Tansen would perform different ragas at different times of day, and the Emperor and his select audience would honor him with coins. Legend is that once on Akbar’s continuous insistence, Tansen sang Deepak raga sitting on the dais of this platform. Deepak raga is a raga of Indian classical music that generates so much heat that can even light candles but the heat generated could be fatal for the performer. He was successful in lighting the candles but he himself grew hotter and hotter. In order to save his father from burning, his daughter, Saraswati Devi, performed Megha Malhar Raga. It is a Raga associated with rains. Understandably, nervous at this great responsibility, she faltered on the seventh note of the scale and this deviation from main note is called “Mian ki Malhar” – one of the famous and stirrings raga. Finally, she succeeded in bringing the desired effect; rain fell and cooled down master performer’s body and soul.

Facing Anup Talo from other side of gardens were Akbar’s private quarters – Deewan-Khana-I-Khaas , Daulat Khana and the Khawabghah. This imperial residential complex is composed of two rooms on the ground floor and a well-ventilated pavilion on the first floor. The room on the ground floor was the Emperor’s library, where he would be read to, from a collection of 50,000 manuscripts. Akbar was an illiterate, but he had enormous interest in books. He was very possessive about his books and allegedly took them with him, wherever he went. On side note, I feel “Daulatkhana” is a perfect name for a library. This room also served as the dining hall. Is it possible that Akbar was read from the books/manuscripts while he was eating? Rachit would definitely sigh, lucky him 🙂 The lower walls of this room are hollow and were covered with sliding stones. Historians believe that the space was used to hide Akbar’s treasure – his valued books and manuscripts.

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On the first floor of Deewan-Khana-I-Khaas

A room behind this chamber had a raised platform. it is believed that this was the place where Akbar sat cross-legged for hours, in discussion with his close advisers (hence the name Deewan-i-khaas). This platform was once covered with carpets and cushions suiting his stature. It was very high. The Emperor used to reach over it on portable wooden or marble stairs that was then slid under the platform.

In Fatehpur-Sikri, Akbar started the practice of ‘Jharokha Darshan ‘. Everyday morning he presented himself to his subjects from a window on the southern wall of the larger chamber on the ground floor. It is believed that some of his subjects ate only after having his darshan. The fact that some of his subjects used to eat only after seeing him, makes me wonder, were they followers of “Deen-i-Elaahi“! As the proposed religion considered the Emperor as ‘Insaan-i-Kaamil’ – the perfect man.

Learning more and more about it, one thing is for sure, it generates strong admiration for Akbar, for not forcing his religious inclination on others.

Akbar’s Khawabgah was on the first floor of this building. It is recorded that while resting there, when the Emperor was interested in being read from books, the scholars sitting on the charpais were lifted up, brought in level with Akbar’s khawabgah, and hanging there in the air, they used to tell him the anecdotes, and read to him from his favorite books and the manuscripts. I am sure my kid’s comment would be, reading while eating, reading before sleeping as well, Wow! the Emperor’s life was impressive.

Akbar’s khawabgah was connected through a passage, covered with stone jaalis, to the harem. If the Emperor wished, the ladies of his harem could easily reach him through this passage.

From here we moved towards Akbar’s main harem – Jodhabai’s Palace. Rani Jodhabai was daughter of the king of Amber. It was through this high-profile marriage Akbar secured and strengthened his alliance with the brave and fierce Rajputs. The palace blends traditional Islamic architecture with Hindu elements from Gujarat and Rajasthan. It had a very big courtyard with many rooms around it. On north and south sides there was a thatched roof kind of structure that was tiled in blue color bricks. The Hindu wives of Akbar used it as their worship place. It is also believed by some that this building was Akbar’s main harem that might be wrongly attributed as Jodhabai’s Palace.

View of Jodha Bai's Palace

View of Jodha Bai’s Palace

I peeped into one room, it was perfectly dark, no provision for any light. I am writing this to emphasize the kind of accommodations women in harem used to live in. On lighter note, with the kind of news we get on 24 hours news channel I would not be surprised if one day TV channels would reach there and show us the dark rooms as evidence that Maharani Jodhabai was a photographic enthusiast and those were the dark rooms where she developed them.

From Jodhabai’s Palace, we moved toward Birbal’s palace. On the way, we saw a bath. It was not as open as it appears today. The current appearance is because of demolition of the walls covering it.

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The Bath

The decoration of Birbal’s Palace is in Hindu architectural style, probably this is the reason why it is believed to be Birbal’s residence. However, it’s unimaginable that Birbal or for that matter any other man, could have occupied this building, as this building was an integral part of Akbar’s harem. This building has two rooms placed corner to corner on its first floor. The plan of these two rooms make historians believe that they were inhabited by two friendly senior queens, who were keen towards maintaining their separate existence as well. Most probably Akbar’s first wife Ruquyaa Begum and his second wife Salima Sultan Begum lived in this house.

Birbal Palace fronts into lower Haramsara. In the beginning this large colonnaded structure was thought to be camel, elephant or a horse stable. There are stone rings in front of the bay that well suits to the purpose of tying animals. However, it is not possible that this structure that lies close to the women quarters could have been used as stable. After all, the stable means the strong smell, hustle-bustle and the accessibility to a large number of men to the close quarters of harem.

In my opinion, it is correct to believe that this place was probably intended for housing the servicing maids of the ladies harem. The stone rings in evidence might be used for partitioning the space by fixing curtains rather than to fetter pachyderm. This opinion is further augmented by the fact that these rings show little wear and tear (not possible, if they were used for tying animals).

Lower Haramsara

Lower Haramsara

While writing about lower Haramsara, a sudden realization stuck me. I am loafing around in the Royal Harem and I am not alone. I am taking my readers, regardless of their gender, along with me. I can sense Akbar’s irritation and the frown on his face is giving me goosebumps. I have to stop here. Before anyone of bygone era notice our presence, we have to run to take refuge in almighty’s abode 🙂

See you soon in the spiritual abode of Fatehpur Sikri-the Mosque complex.

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