It is said that to understand the mentality of the Mughals, it is important to examine the complex institution of the harem. The appeasement of the royal sexual appetite was a small part of the harem’s function. The harem was not just a place where women lived. Babies were born and children grew up there. Within the precincts of the harem were markets, bazaars, laundries, kitchens, playgrounds, schools and baths.
The treasury was housed there along with secret documents and seals. It served as a quiet spot where the emperor could work undisturbed and where he sometimes slept at night. It was in effect a domestic household on a grand scale — existing not only to house the imperial ladies but also to protect them from the gaze and molestations of an outside world where unaccompanied and unveiled women were, ipso facto, prostitutes.
The harem had a hierarchy, its chief authorities being the wives and relatives of the emperor. Below them were thousands of ladies like concubines and scullery slaves. So large were the confines of this veritable city of women that the lowest of these slaves might never lay eyes on the emperor himself.
The harem was guarded by three lines of defence. The first were Tatar women, Uzbegs of gargantuan proportions and deadly with spears and bows, supposedly brought from the secret valleys of Turkestan in comparison with whom the Amazons were soft and timorous. Next came the eunuchs whose job was to maintain discipline in the harem. They were an exotic lot, of Asian-African extraction, some recruited as children locally or received as gifts from Turkish and North African kings.
An accomplished eunuch could be invaluable to his master. To be particularly invaluable to his master, he had to possess impeccable accuracy in his judgement of men and be an expert at gathering news from the court. Above all, he had to be shrewd with his political advice. If he possessed all these qualities, he might assume great political power in the government. So at times a great friendship could arise between a ruler and his eunuch who was often the only person the sovereign felt that he could truly trust. In Agra, there were a few lofty mausoleums built for these “men less than men” who had won royal favour.
The third line of defence, stationed outside the walls, were rugged male foot soldiers equipped with rifles and ordered to open fire on any suspicious intruder. There are stories of these brutal custodians tossing men off high walls or boiling them in oil and it is certain that with these formidable defence lines the sanctity of the harem was rarely violated.
Inside the harem, life was absurdly luxurious. Every morning new garments arrived for the royal ladies. They were worn once and once only and then given away to the slaves. The women amused themselves with varied entertainments or lay quietly in open-air pavilions watching carp with gold rings in their noses swim in marble fountains. Fireworks, gazelle fights, pigeon flying, wrestling matches, acrobats, card games, musicians, arhery, dancing bears, snake charmers, storytelling were all a part of the day’s diversions.
However, as expected, the psychology of women confined to a gilded prison was often perverse. Jealousies and petty hatred were endemic and competition for the attention of the emperor often led to hideous crimes.
A European traveller at Jahangir’s court has left us with this description: Each wife had apartments to herself and her slaves ranging from 10 to 100 according to her fortunes.
Each had a monthly allowance with jewels and clothes provided by the husband according to the extent of his affection. Their food came from one kitchen but each wife took it to her apartments because they hated each other secretly although they seldom allowed this to be apparent in order to retain the favours of the husband whom they feared.
Each night he visited a particular wife or Mahal and was received warmly by the wife and slaves who dressed for the special occasion, seemed to fly rather than run about their duties. In hot weather, they undressed the husband and rubbed his body with pounded sandalwood and rose water or some other scented or cooling oil. Some slaves chafed the master’s hands and feet or sang, played music or danced. The wife sat nearby all along. In the evening, they drank a great deal of wine for the women learnt the habit from the husbands and drinking had become fashionable in the last few years. The husband sat like this until midnight, until drink or passion sent him to bed. Then if one of the pretty slave girls caught his fancy, he called her and enjoyed her, his wife not daring to show any signs of displeasure, though she would take it out on the girl later.
References: The Taj Mahal by David Carroll