The adventurous princess (book review)

by GIRIJA SANKAR

IMAGE/Barnes & Noble

Ruby Lal, professor of South Asian Studies at Emory University, specializes in pre-colonial Indian and feminist history. Vagabond Princess, her latest book, takes readers on an exhilarating journey to the subcontinent and beyond during the early Mughal era. The story is narrated by emperor Babur’s “rose-bodied” daughter, Gulbadan Begum, a spirited wanderer and an astute observer of life in the Mughal court.

The lineage of the great Mughal emperors is forever etched in my memory, thanks to an excellent middle school history textbook for the CBSE curriculum and inspired lectures by Umashankari Miss, my history teacher. We memorized the lineage: Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, ending with Bahadur Shah Zafar. We learned about Birbal (the witty advisor), Abul Fazl (the chronicler), and Fatehpur Sikri (the capital city that grew under Akbar’s regime). There were no women in this remembered lineage—women were parenthetical, mere footnotes. Even in the legends about the Taj Mahal, the monument is presented as Shah Jahan’s symbol of undying love for his consort, with the queen Mumtaz Mahal depicted more as an object of the emperor’s adulation than as a shaper of history.

Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan (Yale University Press) is a fascinating historical tale and the first-ever biography of Gulbadan Begum. Born in 1523 in a Kabul fort called Bala Hisar, Gulbadan was the daughter of Babur, the first Mughal emperor. She went on to lead a life that was at once remarkable and ordinary. She was remarkable because we gain an appreciation for the lives of such women—seldom captured in official histories or historiographies—and yet ordinary because Gulbadan was arguably just another example of a Mughal woman who shaped history. She died in 1603.

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(Thanks to reader)

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