READ BETWEEN DESTINATIONS.
Though divided by a wide chasm of four hundred years that separated her more than just physically and culturally, British orientalist Annette.S.Beveridge had formed a close companionship with Mughal princess Gulbadan Begum in the closing years of the eighteenth century without having actually met her in person or interacting in any which way. Just as two incredible women of substance who one fine day wake up to find their lives braided together by fate, to discover shared loves and interests – in this case for languages, history and a passion for the betterment of humanity.
Later famous as the English author who learnt Persian and Turki from scratch to translate a book that prior to 1902 had been cherished by only those fluent in the languages, Annette.S.Beveridge (1842-1929) had initially sailed down to India at the age of 33 spurred by her passion to promote women empowerment and eventually become an instrumental force behind the founding of the Hindu Mahila Vidyala in 1873. One of the earliest schools for women in the subcontinent yet a short lived institution that had been ultimately merged with the Bethune college for women barely four years later in city of Calcutta, the capital of British India till 1911, and presently Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
On the other hand, her companion the Mughal princess Gulbadan Begum (1523-1603), had been an illustrious daughter of Babur, the founder of the Gurkani empire in Hindustan, and an equally cultured and educated woman of her time. Proficient in several languages and endowed with a wonderful charitable heart that often donated generously to the pious and poor – and who may perhaps have also encouraged education like other royal princesses of the Gurkani household known to have sponsored the building of Madrasas (educational dwellings) and providing patronage for the study of medicines and the upliftment of the arts.
Annette and Gulbadan’s friendship had begun sometime towards the closing years of 18th century after Annette in 1875 had wed Scotsmen Henry. S. Beveridge, a civil servant attached with the judicial arm of the British Indian Government, and found her husband’s hobby of translating medieval Mughal history inspiring enough to one day procure an existing copy of the Humayun-nama – a vividly detailed manuscript of historical value, Gulbadan had compiled somewhere around 1587 A.D. documenting the reign of her father and half brother Humayun.
Learning Persian and Turki from the first syllable and helped by her husband at places she floundered, as Annette had set out to painstakingly translate the historical work with strict emphasis on reproducing Gulbadan’s exact phrases, sentences and sentiments that filled her little manuscript of 83 folios, the work had gradually opened her eyes and heart to the world of the Gurkani emperors, particularly of their beautiful and hardy women whose lives had been intimately intertwined with that of their men – equal partners in the rise and fall of fortunes.
Gulbadan’s description of intricate details pertaining to the life and times of the Gurkani court, the customs and manners of the medieval society, and her relation with other members of the royal family particularly her father, Babur, who had seated her on his lap when she had first arrived in Hindustan as a child of five in 1527 A.D., had not only ushered Annette, deeper into the warm and emotional bonds that hitherto had remained shrouded behind the brutal wars and politics of the eras but also lighted in her a respect for the Mughal princess, who in her diary with uncensored honesty had expressed her own position in the royal harem (inspite her status and influence) ‘as the insignificant one’, grateful for her adoption my Babur’s chief consort Maham, and never shied away from mentioning her brother’s addiction to opium yet simultaneously with the love only a sister can feel, expressed her disdain for his enemies.
The bond that had gradually grown between the two women had allowed Annette to view the twists and turns of the period through Gulbadan eyes and experience her joy, pain and anguish as her world with Humayun’s defeat in the fateful battle of Kannuj in 1540 A.D., had come tumbling down – an exodus Annette would later describe in the following words:
“In order to realize how fully the fate of the ladies was involved in that of the Emperor, it must be remembered that his occupation of Hindustan was unrooted, military and the spoil of war. When we in Britain have to lament a reverse of arms, we do it in safe homes and we brace ourselves to what will come next, in the familiar surroundings of the daily tradesman, the usual postman, and the trivial comforts of the hearth. Even Colonials had a refuge under the flag at measurable distance from their outraged homes in 1899-1900. But when the Timurids were defeated in 1539-40, and driven from Agra and Dilli, there was no refuge open to all. Their head, Humayun, had none; a brother took his last. And like the Israelites, he and his followers then wandered in deserts; hungered and thirsted; dwelt in strange lands, pursued and attacked, exiled and humiliated. The course of events was less historic than biographical, was individual and not national. There were no nations behind Babar and Humayun; there were only ruling families who came and went as they could or could not get the upper hand of other houses; and there was the dumb mass whom the earth nourished, and labour of whom fed, in luxury of life and strength of alien arms, whatever dynasty had just struck hardest”.
– Annette. S. Beveridge, Humayun-nama.
Although Gulbadan’s Humayun-nama is generally thought to have been produced as reference material for the lager Akbar-nama, another document created in the same period by the court chronicler Abu’l Fazal ibn Mubarak in a speculated span of seven years. The historical work, in its own right, is a bonafide factual introspection of the early Gurkani era. Unrivaled in its revelation of intimate and intricate details only someone who lived in the thick of the passing years could have possibly furnished. Filled as it is with names, parentage, events and occurrences. And a book modern historians and scholars have been urged to use as a guide before putting forward their own views of Gurkani history.
Compiled at the request of her nephew, the Gurkani emperor Akbar, who sometime around 1587, had wished his cherished and highly educated aunt to jot down whatever she remembered of his grandfather and father. Gulbadan had begun and completed her biography in a few short months, after her return to Hindustan from a visit to the holy city of Mecca that resides on the coast of the Red Sea in what is today the Tihamah region of present day Saudi Arabia – and a pious journey that had kept her away from 1574 to 1579.
Penned down by the princess in the same manner as she spoke in court and within the royal household, the Humayu-nama is in essence a fluent and spontaneous biographical narrative of Gulbadan, who was an eye witness to many events during her brother Humayun’s turbulent reign or closely associated with those who knew him, specially his forth wife, Hamida Banu Begum, with whom she had formed a very close friendship.
Like other historical documents to emerge out of Akbar’s reign, it is often theorized nine original copies of the Humayun-nama existed at the time of its creation, specifically meant for the private libraries of royalty and handpicked nobility. Only reproduced in larger numbers after the lapse of centuries, as later kings and nobles had acquired the desire to bejewel their own private collections with the work of the princess who by then may have possibly become somewhat of a legend like her father, brothers and later descendants.
The copy of Humayun-nama, Annette had put on her desk for translating the Persian manuscript to English can be found today in the British Museum in London which in 1868 had been purchased from the widow of one British Colonel by the name of George William Hamilton, who incidentally in his lifetime had acquired almost 1,000 copies of the manuscript from the cities of Delhi and Lucknow, during his tenure in India. The version is believed to be an incomplete one as it ends abruptly after the blinding of the prince Kamran Mirza at the end of his eight year feud with Humayun, both of whom Gulbadan had been attached to as a sister, loved dearly, and yet in her biography never hesitated to mention their vices.
Of what can be gleaned of Gulbadan Begum’s own life from her biography and what is recorded in other chronicles is that she was in reality the daughter of Babur’s lesser wife Dildar Aghacha and her blood brother was the prince Hindal, both of whom had been adopted by Humayun’s mother, Maham, to raise as her own after three of her own children had died at infancy. Prompting a distressed Babur, enable to witness the inconsolable grief of his chief consort, to pass the decree without a moment’s thought to Dildar’s sentiments as a mother.
Raised by the worthy king who believed in educating daughters as well as his sons, she had grown to be a cultured and extremely educated personality in possession of her very own personal library filled with books and manuscripts. Well treated and respected during the reign of her brother Humayun and later his son, the emperor Akbar, who had been so fond of his aunt that it is recorded he had ordered her tent to be pitched close to his, signifying her importance in the royal household.
The princess had been born in Kabul just like most of Babur’s children and in her mature years wed the noble Khizr Khwaja Sultan of whom she mentions little. Surviving her childhood and later the tumultuous period of Humayun’s reign, she had lived long enough to see a grandson of her’s disgraced and expelled from Akbar’s royal court sometime past the age of seventy. Her death is recorded in February 1603 at the ripe old age of 82. In respect of his beloved aunt, Akbar had carried her bier a short distance.
To Annette, Gulbadan was more than a princess. She was a companion, the author fondly refereed to as Princess Rosebody and possibly forever remained grateful for opening her eyes to the long gone world of the Gurkani emperors, specially of their women. As have other scholars versed in Persian and Turki who flipped through the pages of her biography. To learn through Gulbadan the warm and touching story of Babur’s sacrifice for his son, her brother Kamran’s scandalous proposal to their sister-in-law Haram Begum, of Bairam Beg’s unfaltering loyalty to her half brother Humayun, and several other minor and major occurrences only a woman could possibly remember.
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