The Great Adventures of Gulbadan: A fascinating portrait of a brave princess

The Great Adventures of Gulbadan: A fascinating portrait of a brave princess
Book Club: In this first-ever biography of Princess Gulbadan, acclaimed historian Ruby Lal revives the captivating adventures of the daring Mughal Princess.
5 min read
01 May, 2024

Mughal Emperor Babur’s heart-rending gesture of offering his life to the divine in exchange for his son’s is a well-known incident in Mughal history.

But the exact details of the rituals that Babur performed in the royal chamber, where the gravely ill Humayun lay, come to us through the writing left behind by Princess Gulbadan.

She writes about how her despondent father walked around Humayun’s bed three times, praying out loud:

“Oh God! If a life can be exchanged for life, I, Babur, give my life and soul to Humayun.”

Ruby Lal’s Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan brings us many such moments recorded by Babur’s daughter in her book, Ahval-i Humayun Badshah or Conditions in the Age of Humayun Badshah, popularly referred to as the Humayun Nama.

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In 1587, when Gulbadan was 63 years old, Emperor Akbar decided to commission a state-sponsored record of the growth and glory of the Mughal empire from the time Babur, his grandfather, founded it.

To make the work as comprehensive as possible, Akbar invited courtiers and elders in the family to send in their contributions so that these could be incorporated into the grand tome by the historian Abul Fazal, who was entrusted with the task of writing the book.

"Gulbadan’s book was unique because it is the only work of prose written by a woman from a Muslim royal house, including Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran and Mughal Iran"

The Emperor made a special request to his aunt, Gulbadan, to record her memories since she was not only a direct witness to the growth of the empire but also an erudite and astute scholar.

Lal, an acclaimed historian whose books include Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, Coming of Age in the Nineteenth-Century India: The Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness, had come across Gulbadan’s work while researching for her doctoral thesis.

Gulbadan’s book was unique because it is the only work of prose written by a woman from a Muslim royal house, including Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran and Mughal Iran.

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Written in conversational Persian and interspersed with Turkish and Hindavi phrases and words, Gulbadan compiled her memoir by holding storytelling sessions, tapping into the collective memories of the women in the harem besides looking at books and paintings available to them.

The non-linear narrative describes events from different periods drawing up meaningful connections and providing an overarching view of an empire taking shape.

It provides a record not only of political upheavals, the tussle for power from within and outside forces but also of personal details often mislaid while recording histories — details of children lost in infancy and wars, stories of love, loss and unabashed ambition, urgent dispatches to restrain wayward family members, the nuanced role of Mughal women who played the role of peacekeepers and advisers, paving the way for the empire to flourish.

"The princess, who is the first and only woman historian from the Mughal period, also has the distinction of being the first royal Muslim woman in the history of Islamic courts to lead a group pilgrimage for women"

They were accompanied by a few men to comply with the Islamic tradition of male chaperones escorting women travellers.

Gulbadan had expressed her wish to perform the hajj to Akbar who gave his permission. However, the journey could commence only after protracted preparations that included getting permission from the Portuguese who controlled the sea route to Makkah.

Gulbadan and her companions stayed in Arabia for four years before they were ordered by the Ottoman sultan, the custodian of the holy mosques at the time, to leave.

Gulbadan ignored the edicts to leave four times and by the time the fifth one came their way, they were already on their way home.

But their adventures were far from over. Their ship got wrecked near the coast of Aden and it would take them seven months to get another vessel that would take them back.

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There is no mention of the incident-rich journey of pilgrimage in the Humayun Nama written by Gulbadan. This could be because her book ends abruptly at a point where Humayun was being persuaded by his courtiers to punish his younger brother for his crimes which included murder and several attempts to unseat the emperor.  

Ruby Lal writes about the abrupt ending of Gulbadan’s memoir: “Were the latter pages of Gulbadan’s manuscript lost or deliberately removed?”

Musing further on the disappearance, Lal postures whether the incidents in the holy city made Akbar uncomfortable and he did not want history to have a record of Mughal women against the background of a scandal on holy land.

Lending credence to this line of thought is that in Akbarnama (the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar), Author Abul Fazal mentions the pilgrimage undertaken by Gulbadan and the royal women without any reference to the Ottoman edicts sent to the women.

There is also the fact that only one copy of the book exists today, which contradicts the normal Mughal practice of making multiple copies of royal biographies.

Suppose Gulbadan had indeed recorded the challenging journey to and from the holy cities, along with the remarkable gifts they presented that caught the attention of the Ottoman sultan. In that case, the lost pages have resulted in the erasure of positive and negative experiences of the Mughal women as they travelled through land and sea and set foot on the sacred sands of the Arabian desert.

Ruby Lal has attempted to fill in the blanks to recreate the pilgrimage undertaken by the royal women by looking at varied official and nonofficial sources, letters, paintings, royal orders, and books in this first-ever biography of Princess Gulbadan.

In Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan readers get a fascinating portrait of a brave princess who used all the available resources to make her life significant and exciting. 

Fehmida Zakeer is an independent writer and author based in Chennai, India. Her articles have been published in various Indian and international publications, including The Hindu Literary Review, The Hindu Young World, New Indian Express, Prevention, Better Homes and Garden, Women’s Feature Service, Women’s International Perspective, Azizah, Herbs for Health, and Good Housekeeping

Follow her on X: @FehmidaZakeer