Excerpt: Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty
When Umar Shaikh Mirza, the Timurid ruler of Ferghana, dies in 1494, falling through the dovecote of his fortress at the top of a ravine in modern-day Uzbekistan, he is only thirty-nine years old and his eldest son and heir, Babur, is just twelve. As befits a man who would profoundly love gardens and whose endless quest for a suitable garden site in the arid wastes of northern Hindustan, even in the midst of precarious empire-building, would drive him to distraction, the young Babur is in a charbagh in neighbouring Andizhan when he hears of his father’s death.
Almost the first thought the young mirza has on learning this calamitous news is that if his uncle, Sultan Ahmad Mirza, ‘were to come with a large army, the begs would turn both me and the province over to him’. The prosaic reality of succession politics in the region known as Mawarannahr, as scholar Lisa Balabanlilar has noted, is that ‘it was not outsiders but Babur’s rapacious Timurid-Mongol uncles who posed the first and most immediate threat to the boy’s inheritance’. Indeed in this volatile and fractious situation, the only unconditional support Babur can count on is that of his female relatives — his grandmother, mother and sister.
When Babur’s great ancestor Timur came to power in Central Asia in 1370, some 150 years after the death of Chinghiz Khan, the enduring charisma of the Great Khan still lingered, though none of Chinghiz Khan’s descendants were strong enough to wield effective power. Timur himself was a tribal nobleman but could not claim direct descent from Chinghiz Khan and, in recognition of that, never took the imperial title of khan, but called himself amir, commander. He did, however, carefully cultivate a Chingizid connection by marrying powerful Chingizid women. From then on, Timur added the title guregen, son-in-law, as an implacable addendum to his power, and also married all his sons and grandsons to Chingizid women. But by the fourteenth century in Central Asia, Timur also had to incorporate a powerful new symbol of legitimacy into his mantle—Islam. In an audacious balancing act between his old Turco-Mongol yasa, and the new Islamic Shari’a, he wrought together the allegiance of a diverse group of followers and had in his army ‘Turks that worshipped idols and men who worshipped fire, Persian magi, soothsayers and wicked enchanters and unbelievers’. So successful was Timur’s strategy of catastrophic acts of violence and conquest combined with a careful nurturing of cultural symbols that, for his successors, there was no longer any need to invoke the Chingizid charisma at all. The Timurid legacy, for all its guregen humility, was incandescent enough.
By the time Babur’s father dies, the sprawling empire of Timur has long since splintered into semi-autonomous provinces ruled by Timurid mirzas, ever more numerous and volatile. Which is why when Babur rushes to Ferghana to consolidate his inheritance, according to writer Amitav Ghosh, he is hardly alone, for ‘the valleys and steppes of Central Asia teemed with Timurid princes in search of realms to rule’.
Babur’s immediate strategy at this time of precarious reckoning is to meet with his close advisers and his grandmother, Aisan Daulat Begum. ‘For tactics and strategy’, Babur famously declares in his Baburnama, ‘there were few women like my grandmother’, before adding, ‘she was intelligent and a good planner. Most affairs were settled with her counsel.’ In contrast, when Babur talks about his father in his extraordinarily frank and evocative biography, though he acknowledges his ability to rule, he is not particularly tender. ‘He was short in stature’, Babur writes unsentimentally, ‘had a round beard and a fleshy face, and was fat’. We are also told that ‘he used to drink a lot’, and that ‘he grew rather fond of ma’jun and under its influence would lose his head’. In talking about his mother, grandmother and his sisters, however, Babur is never anything other than deferential and loving. Babur’s clear reverence for his grandmother Aisan Daulat Begum is not surprising, for even in a land of strong and independent women, she was extraordinary. Earlier in her peregrinations with her husband, Yunus Khan, the two were taken captive by a certain Sheikh Jamal-ud-din Khan. Aisan Daulat was then handed over as prize to one of the sheikh’s officers, Khwaja Kalan. According to the sixteenth-century general and chronicler Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat, ‘she made no objections, but appeared pleased’. However, when Khwaja Kalan went to Aisan Daulat’s rooms in the evening, hoping to enjoy his new ‘gift’, he found the door precipitously locked behind him and the begum’s servants ‘laid hold of him and put him to death, by stabbing him with knives’.
This plan had been masterminded by the begum and ‘when day broke, they threw his body outside’. When the horrified Sheikh Jamal went to the begum for an explanation, she replied with matchless self-possession and pride: ‘I am the wife of Sultan Yunus Khan; Shaikh Jamal gave me to some one else; this is not allowed by Muhammaden law, so I killed the man, and Shaikh Jamal Khan may kill me also if he likes.’ But the sheikh, recognizing an indomitable adversary, sent her back with honour to her husband.
This, then, is the flinty and uncompromising woman who immediately stepped beside her young grandson upon the death of his father, guiding his next crucial steps and leading him to a place of safety. With the begum is her daughter and Babur’s mother, Qutlugh Nigar Khanum, who, Babur says, ‘was with me during most of my guerilla engagements and interregna’. With them also is his oldest sibling, Khanzada, elder to him by five years. The next few years are indeed a time of untethered wanderings, full of dangers and betrayals and physical hardships. Babur lays siege to Samarkand, ancient capital of Timur, several times, and spends restless years as an exile, a prince without a kingdom. The women wander with him in these grim conditions, consoling and supportive, even in the stark midwinter of Mawarannahr.
And yet life goes on, even in this unlikeliest of households, and in 1500, when Babur is seventeen, he marries for the first time. The bride is Ayisha Sultan Begum and Babur admits with painful honesty that ‘although my affection for her was not lacking, since it was my first marriage and I was bashful, I went to her only once every ten, fifteen or twenty days’.
Things only get worse for Babur in his amorous plans and ‘I lost my fondness for her altogether’, he admits sadly. It requires the intervention of his mother, who ‘drove me to her with all the severity of a quartermaster’.
Meanwhile the haraman, Babur’s entourage of wives, children, family retainers and other dependents, are driven through these unstable lands like flotsam in a stormy sea. Notwithstanding Babur’s reluctance, Ayisha Sultan finds herself eventually pregnant and travels in difficult conditions to Samarkand. Babur’s firstborn child is a daughter, Fakhr-un-Nisa, but she dies within forty days and Babur is now confronted with his most relentless enemy. This enemy, in mercilessly evicting Babur and his family forever from their beloved homeland of Samarkand, will create a hopeless nostalgia in Babur for the lands of his childhood.
By 1500, Babur’s greatest foes are no longer his own family, but his hereditary enemies, the Uzbeks, who have a premonition that the age of the Timurids is coming to an end in Central Asia and have stepped in to stake their own claim to these fabled lands. ‘For nearly 140 years the capital Samarkand had been in our family’, writes Babur bitterly. ‘Then came the Uzbeks, the foreign foe from God knows where, and took over.’
For six months, the Uzbek chief Shaybani Khan lays siege to Babur and his entourage at Samarkand. Babur’s many uncles and cousins desert the young mirza and refuse to send him any help. Babur ‘decided to make the Samarkand fortress fast and defend it to the last’, and moreover ‘[his] mother and sisters stayed in the fortress’. As the siege wears on, however, conditions grow desperate and ‘the poor and unfortunate began to eat dogs and donkeys’.
Now, as hopes of any sort of honourable victory fade for Babur, he makes a decision which will irrevocably alter the fate of a beloved member of his family. It is a decision so compromised and shameful that he will never admit to it, even in his searingly honest autobiography.
As the eighteen-year-old Babur waits in febrile despair for the help that will never come from his uncles, Shaybani Khan sends a message to Babur. ‘If you would marry your sister Khanzada Begam to me,’ he writes to the young man, ‘there might be peace and a lasting alliance between us.’ And so Khanzada, at twenty-three years of age, is left behind with Shaybani Khan as ransom and war conquest because ‘at length it had to be done’. Deserted by old retainers and soldiers, abandoned by his family, Babur ‘gave the Begam to the khan, and came out himself (from Samarqand). With 200 followers on foot, wearing long frocks on their shoulders and peasants’ brogues on their feet...in this plight, unarmed, and relying on God, he went towards the lands of Badakhshan and Kabul.
Babur himself in his Baburnama stutters unconvincingly around the episode of his escape from Shaybani Khan. ‘Wormwood Khan [Shaybani] initiated truce talks’, Babur claims. ‘There was nothing to be done. We made peace...I took my mother the khanim with me.... My elder sister Khanzada Begim fell into Wormwood Khan’s hands while we were leaving.’
This truncated, staccato account is revealing. Shaybani Khan had decisively starved and surrounded Babur and his people for over six months. There was no reason for him to offer an unconditional truce. Had there been a truce, there would have been no need for Babur to escape at night and for Khanzada to ‘fall’ into Shaybani’s hands. ‘Babar Padishah gave up Khanzada Begum in exchange for his own life’, writes Mirza Haidar succinctly, ‘and escaped’. Babur shifts and slides around the issue of Khanzada’s fate because it was an outrageous violation of her dignity and demonstrated his inability to protect her. In fact, with the rise of the Uzbek confederacy, the number of forced marriages between Uzbek warriors and Timurid noblewomen became astonishingly high. Though the Uzbeks are direct descendants of Chinghiz Khan themselves, by the end of the fifteenth century they recognize the equally luminous allure of the Timurid name, and resolve to cleave it to themselves.
Khanzada now joins Shaybani’s haraman and eventually bears him a son, Khurram, who dies in childhood. Shaybani divorces Khanzada after a few years, accusing her of remaining partisan to the cause of Babur and her Timurid family, an accusation that bears testimony to her undaunted spirit and pride in her own Timurid family. He then gives her in marriage to a lower ranked man, a certain Sayyid Hada. Altogether, Khanzada lives in enforced exile for more than ten years. Finally in 1510 Shah Ismail, a Shi’a religious leader and the founder of the Safavid dynasty, brings together all of modern Iran through a succession of conquests and then turns his attention to the Sunni Uzbek tribes. At the battle of Merv in 1510 he kills both Sayyid Hada and Shaybani Khan and in a gesture worthy of any Mongol excess, converts Shaybani Khan’s skull into a jewelled drinking goblet. After the battle, when Shah Ismail realizes that Khanzada is Babur Mirza’s sister, he has her returned to Babur, 600 kilometres south at Kunduz, with an escort of soldiers. Khanzada is now thirty-three years old and has lived for ten years a life in abeyance, safeguarding the honour and the future of her brother. Babur, we are told by Mirza Haidar, ‘is overjoyed’ and there is no reason to disbelieve him. It is a testament to Khanzada’s resilience and the Timurids’ gruff pragmatism that no stigma is ever attached to Khanzada, nor indeed to any other Timurid woman who ‘falls’ to an enemy. On the contrary, Khanzada reintegrated into Babur’s household as a woman whose sacrifice for the safety of the padshah will be celebrated not only by Babur and his entire haraman, but by his son Humayun and into future generations.
When Humayun becomes Padshah Ghazi of Hindustan, Khanzada, along with some of the other older women of the haraman, becomes a living repository of the memory of Babur and the Timurid dream. She is the guardian of those threshold stories that the early Mughals told themselves as they wandered ever further away from Samarkand in search of consolation. As a testament to the value of those dreams, she will become the most revered and respected member of Humayun’s haraman. Long after Babur himself is dead, Khanzada will become the most powerful woman of the Mughals when she is named ‘Padshah Begum of Hindustan’. There are times in the 200 years of the great Mughal empire that no padshah begum is named at all, so it is not an obligatory position. It is, instead, a mark of respect given to truly remarkable women who command enormous authority. In 1535 it is Khanzada, childless and twice-widowed, un-bolstered by son or husband, who holds this title in recognition of the valour of her sacrifice and the legitimacy of her memories.