We now know what went inside the Mughal harems

Rana Safvi
Rana SafviDec 21, 2016 | 13:30

We now know what went inside the Mughal harems

A chance reference in a book by 17th century Italian traveller and writer that many women in the Mughal harem faked illness so that they could have an opportunity to meet and converse and perhaps dally with a male other than the husband or master kindled my curiosity. What exactly was a harem and what happened inside it!

Voyeurism is nothing new and there has been a great deal of inquisitiveness as to the goings on in the royal harems but most could only fantasise in privacy. While the court historians like Abul Fazl could only talk of the formal structure of the harem no such problem existed for the Europeans who let their speculative and erotic instincts run rampant about a section of the palace, which was totally inaccessible to them.

A 17th century Mughal painting. (Credit: Wikipedia)

We have got most of our accounts of the private lives of the Mughal women from them and rarely realise that they not only didn’t have first hand information, they were limited by their lack of knowledge of local customs and language. Their reliance was on bazaar gossip and as a result we have perfectly scandalous descriptions of the goings on inside.

We have Bernier, who relying on bazaar gossip, had gone to the extent of hinting at incest between Jahanara and her father. In reality Bernier was on the side of Aurangzeb in the war of succession and since both sides (Aurangzeb and Dara Shukoh) were leveling charges at each other. Manucci, being a confidante of Dara Shukoh was one of the very few European to have actual access to the Mughal harem soundly repudiated this and said it was ‘founded entirely on the talk of low people.’

The word harem comes from the Arabic word haram, which literally means sacred or forbidden and is used for sacred precincts of Mecca. In Persian it means sanctuary and in Sanskrit harmya means palace.

But in its harem avatar, the word describes the seraglio or the part of the palace reserved for the ladies but it became synonymous for a place of where men lucky and rich enough to afford it, could get sexual access to many females.


This led to pious posturing by European men who were I’m sure a tad bit envious too. Niccalao Manucci wrote that the Muslims were “very fond of women, who are their principal relaxation and almost their only pleasure.”

This overlooks the exigencies of a king’s life which involved a great deal of campaigning and preparation for battle. Shikar or hunting was a regular feature during non-war times as it kept them mentally and physically alert.

There were various estimates of the women inside a harem with Thomas Roe saying there were thousand women in the Mughal harem to Sir Thomas Coryate writing that emperor Jahangir “keepeth a thousand women for his own body.”

The reality, however, was far more mundane and a mere 5 per cent were for sexual pleasure of the kings.  The bulk of the women comprising the female employees needed for smooth functioning of the harem and the female relatives of the emperor. Eunuchs were employed inside the harem for guarding it and ensuring discipline. Since it was important to know at all times what was happening in order to prevent rebellion and overturning, spies were employed everywhere and the espionage in the women quarters was carried on by eunuchs and serving maids.


It was like a well run, well organised department of the Mughal administration and we get an account of its administration and regulations from Abul Fazl while Jahangir, who due to ill health spent a large part of his later years in the harem describes it in his memoirs. The tenor of his memoirs, Tuzuk e Jahangiri, is extremely frank and he provides a lot of information of life inside the harem.

There is some mention during the reign of Shah Jahan and even though under Aurangzeb, there was a strict observance of purdah we get a detailed account of his romance with Zainabadi.

Under the later Mughals we get more details and can see the degeneration of the harem.

Ladies of the harem

A special position was accorded to the emperor’s mother and chief wife with more importance given to the former. Even foster mothers were given a position of importance. The rulers also gave sisters preferential treatment.

When Hamida Banu Begum was travelling from Agra to Lahore, Akbar took his mother’s palanquin on his own shoulders when crossing a river.

There would be a Padshah Begum, which was normally the chief wife, except in case of Jahanara, who got the title on her mother’s demise and held it even in Aurangzeb’s rule.

The large size of the harem was dictated by a number of factors such as marriage and war. A large number of women servants came as part of the dower when the king married the daughter of a local ruler. The entourage of the Rajput wives especially consisted of a large number of singing and dancing girls. Many prisoners of war entered the harem. Slaves were also bought as concubines.

The women did not stay in perpetuity inside the harem and many retired after death of each successive emperor.

Harem employees

As for any other huge organisation, the harem too needed rules and regulations for smooth functioning. Akbar was the first emperor to lay down rules for it and turn it into an institution. The harem was called mahal and the chief officer of the harem was called Nazir e Mahal (in-charge of women quarters) and normally a khwaja sara or eunuch. All the harem officers would be women or eunuchs. Ladies from very respectable and noble families would be given the post of daroghas (supervising officers). Nur Jahan’s mother Asmat begum was a Darogha so one can imagine the prestige involved.

The khwaja sara or eunuch enjoyed a very unique position. He was in charge of the King’s safety inside the harem since royal bodyguards were not allowed inside.The khwajasaras would form a ring around the Emperor whenever he was in the harem. Under the Later Mughals the Khwajasaras controlled the harem.

The khan e saman (lord of stores) looked after the smooth functioning of the royal household. This very important position degenerated to that of a cook — khansamah — under the British, who according to Prof R Nath tried to degrade, denigrate, denounce and defame the Mughal legacy.

Strong built Tartar, Turki and Kashmiri women were employed on guard duties. That they didn’t understand the local language was a plus point.

All the employees in the harem had fixed salaries, whatever their position with the darogahs receiving as much as Rs 1,000 a month to maids getting Rs 2 per month. The royal ladies had properties settled in their names from which they got a regular income. Many were proficient business women.

Estimates for expenditure were drawn up in advance and it functioned like any other royal department with accounts being kept by writers or nawis.

Tahwildars or cash keepers attended to the financial needs of the women who could, as per their sanctioned allowance, apply for cash to them.

Architecture of the harem

William Finch a 16th century traveller describes the palace or mahal and the position of the king’s chamber as “within the second court is the mahal, . . . between each corner and this middle, most are two fair large chambers for his women (so that each mahal receives sixteen) in separate lodgings, without doors to any of them, all keeping open house to the king’s pleasure. . . . in the midst of all the court stands the king’s chamber, where he, like a cock of the game, may crow over all".

The harem complex was enclosed within high walls, keeping observance of purdah in mind and consisted of some of the best buildings. It consisted of a series of annexes designed in such a way that they were airy and comfortable with a central courtyard for joint festivities. There would be fountains, ponds, gardens and orchards for the women, many of whom would spend their whole lives in that complex. All the apartments were interconnected. There was only one strictly guarded entrance door to the harem.

Though when we visit a Mughal fort today we see only hammams for bathing and are left wondering how the women relieved themselves, each annexe had its own toilet system. These would be in the form of a row of toilets on one side of the annexe with underground tunnels for the female scavengers.

Each queen and important concubine had her own set of apartments where she maintained her own household and competed to entertain the king.

The rest of the women lived in dormitories and the verandahs.

There was a complex underground system of well-ventilated chambers and passages, whichopened into the apartments and were used for keeping an eye and controlling the harem. Apart from this were the tehkhanas or basements used during summers.

There was even an underground cell with a gallows erected in it or Phansighar, which was used for executing offenders. According to Prof R Nath this was connected to a deep well and the body was dropped into it without anyone being the wiser. Since many of the offenders would be punished for crimes of passion I suppose secrecy was paramount.


The Mughal women were very well educated not just in the religious texts but arts, sciences and warfare.

Monserrate writes that Akbar was very interested in women’s education and gave good care and attention to the education of the princesses. “They were taught to read and write and trained in other ways by the matrons.” There were libraries inside the harem for their use and many of them were skilled writers and poets.

Visit of physicians

Manucci writes, “it is the custom in the royal household, when a physician is called within the mahal, for the eunuch to cover his head with a cloth, which hangs down to his waist. They then conduct him to the patient’s room, and he is taken out in the same manner".

The emperor was the only adult male who entered the harem freely. Royal princes who attained puberty had to live outside and were barred entry. The only men who could come in were physicians and that too they came in heavily veiled and covered. The hakeems and later the European physicians would diagnose by feeling the pulse.

It was also an occasion for some dalliance according to Manucci as he writes that when the physician stretched his hand inside the curtain where the woman lay, she would “lay hold of it, kiss it, and softly bite it. Some, out of curiosity, apply it to their breast, which has happened to me several times; but I pretended not to notice, in order to conceal what was passing from the matrons and eunuchs then present, and not arouse their suspicions".

Another way of diagnosis according to English traveller John Marshall without seeing the patient’s face or feeling her pulse was that a handkerchief was rubbed all over the body of the patient and then put into a jar of water. By its smell the doctor judged the cause of illness and prescribed the medicine.

Portraits of queens and princesses

One of the most popular account of history is said to be via paintings. However, when we see portraits of Mughal ladies we must remember the strict purdah and protocol they lived in and realise that it is highly improbable that any of the ladies sat for it themselves. That is why we see a very stylised version of all the women with high bridged nose and slanting eyes. Manucci clarifies this by writing, “I do not being forward any portraits of queens or princesses, for it is impossible to see them. Thanks to their, being always concealed. If any one has produced such portraits, these should not be accepted, being only likeness of concubines and dancing girls, which they have been drawn according to the artist fancy.”


It was left to the women to entertain themselves in whichever manner they thought fit as long as it was within the four walls of the harem. Some were illicit or stolen moments and the emperor sanctioned some.

Once a month they would participate in a khushroz or Meena bazaar, which was a kind of fair where the ladies would put up stalls and the emperor would attend.

Women would participate in garden parties and go out for outings and hunts with the emperor. Of course the outings were only for a chosen few and were always in strict purdah. Women accompanied the ruler on campaigns along with their retinue and stayed in tents.

There was another kind of entertainment, which was arranged daily for the emperor and that were the singing and dancing. Elaborate soirees would be arranged by the lady whom the Emperor was visiting that night. Some of the concubines were skilled singers and dancers themselves and may have performed for their patron.  However, these were for the pleasure of the man and not the women.

The harems of the princes and nobles would be more or less organised on the same lines as per their financial ability and status.


Last updated: December 24, 2016 | 17:38
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