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How the imperial wives & daughters of Shah Jahan & Aurangzeb built Old Delhi

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Of the nineteen major structures that Mughal women built in Shahjahanabad, fourteen are completed by 1650 by the wives and daughters of Shah Jahan.

In 1650, Shahjahanabad is being shaped in the furnace of the imperial women’s ambition. Of the nineteen major structures that Mughal women will build in the city, fourteen are completed by 1650 by the wives and daughters of Shah Jahan. It will be fully fifty years before construction work is sponsored again by Aurangzeb’s daughter and wife, who between them will build only three structures in 1703. There is a quickening in this mid-seventeenth century, a fortuitous meeting of various elements that leads to this unprecedented, and never to be repeated, cacophony of construction. There is the unimaginable wealth, independently controlled by women, which makes the grandest schemes feasible. There are the slowly accruing previous examples of Mughal women builders: Bega Begum, Maham Anaga, Noor Jahan. There is the example of Shah Jahan himself, the great Mughal builder par excellence. There is also the porosity of the Mughal zenana, wherein the honour of the padshah is not so inviolably linked to the invisibility of his women. In Mughal India the imperial women are allowed a far greater degree of independence than in their other contemporary Muslim empire, the Safavid empire, where imperial women have a much more humble impact on the capital at Isfahan. There is a certain respect, even deference at times, for the opinions and wishes of the Mughal women, which is a cherished reminder of their ancient Timurid, nomadic lineage. Finally, there is the confident, glittering ambition of the women themselves, who are determined to carve their destinies into the stone of this city, which is to be paradise itself, here on earth.

For Jahanara, it is not individual projects that will suffice as testament to her incandescent ambition. It is entire swathes of the city which are hers to shape. North and south of Chandni Chowk, square monumental structures are patronised by her so that this entire central quadrant of the walled city bears her name. At one end of the Chandni Chowk, Jahanara commissions a magnificent double-storeyed caravanserai, following on the example of Noor Jahan. It is a large and imposing arcaded structure, with towers at each corner of the square building and, according to Bernier, it is second only to the Jama Masjid in magnificence. Apart from the ninety rooms for the travellers, beautifully painted and appointed, the serai contains a mosque, a garden and a large courtyard. The garden is planted in the classic Mughal style, with watercourses, flowers and fruit-bearing trees. The caravanserai is a city hotel and ‘is the rendezvous of the rich Persian, Uzbek, and other foreign merchants’, primarily for the caravans and merchants coming from Iran and Central Asia to be lodged comfortably and safely, ‘the gate being closed at night’. Bernier is moved to lament at the lack of such facilities in Paris, for he feels that ‘strangers on their first arrival would be less embarrassed than at present to find safe and reasonable lodgings’. With the construction of her Chandni Chowk and caravanserai, as well as her interests in trade and her trading ships, Jahanara is anchoring her name to the commerce of the city. ‘I will build a serai,’ Jahanara says, ‘large and fine like no other in Hindustan. The wanderer who enters its courts will be restored in body and soul and my name will never be forgotten.’ The gauntlet has been thrown to posterity: it is immortality that Jahanara seeks.

Having built the Faiz Bazaar, Akbarabadi Begum now also builds a caravanserai, though not as magnificent as Jahanara’s, as well as a mosque and a hammam. Her buildings are all concentrated in the area around Akbarabadi gate, near the Jama Masjid, and she is the second most important builder in the city after Jahanara. The Akbarabadi mosque is a particularly fine structure of black, red and creamy white stone and is called the Usrat Panahi (Great Protection). Two other wives of Shah Jahan, Sirhindi Begum and Fatehpuri Begum, also build a further two mosques, a caravanserai and a garden.

The city fizzes and heaves with the changes taking place within it and new buildings coming up seemingly every day in 1650. While the yearly salary of the President of the EIC at Surat is 5,000 rupees, fortunes are spent by the imperial women and marble streams into Shahjahanabad from Kachhawaha in Rajasthan, Harkha Bai’s old hometown. Across from the caravanserai at one end of Chandni Chowk, Jahanara builds a public hammam, the largest in the city, 180 feet long. These public baths are greatly appreciated by the gentry and the well-born visitors, and ‘many diseases are cured by the bath, such as disorder of the brain, heaviness of the limbs, yawning caused by crop-sickness, and dullness of the system’. While the Chandni Chowk, the bazaar, the caravanserai and the hammam are public structures, for the benefit of the gentry and the citizens of Shahjahanabad, her next and final building is the grandest, and the most personal, of all Jahanara’s endeavours. To the north of her caravanserai, in the centre of the walled city, Jahanara develops an enormous pleasure garden, the Sahibabad, 3,000 feet long and enclosing an area of 50 acres. There are towers at the four corners of the walled garden and summer pavilions set within ponds, hidden behind fountains. The gardens are planted thickly with fragrant flowers and fruit trees and thus, right in the middle of the boisterous, roiling city is a cool and secluded place for the women and children of the palace. The fruit from the trees supply the imperial table and all the surplus fruit is sold, for these are not ornamental arrangements of plants but densely planted trees whose interlaced foliage provides a green canopy through which the sunlight filters gently. Just like her ship, the Sahibi, and her treatise, the Risala-i-Sahibiya, this garden also bears her title—Sahibabad. Shah Jahan’s wives, rather cavalierly, are now only known by their city of origin—Fatehpur Sikri, Akbarabad or Sirhind. But Jahanara is almost beyond name, and even gender, and is simply Sahib.

Excerpted, with due permission, from Daughters of the Sun. Publisher: Aleph Book Company

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