“Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan” by Ruby Lal

Detail: Gulbadan Begum smoking on the terrace , ca 1800 (via Wikimedia Commons Detail: Gulbadan Begum smoking on the terrace , ca 1800 (via Wikimedia Commons

While not exactly lost to history, Mughal Princess Gulbadan (with an extensive Wikipedia page and a biography by the prolific Rumer Godden), is not nearly as well-known as her father Babur, (half) brother Humayun and nephew Akbar nor even Nur Jahan, the subject of self-styled feminist historian Ruby Lal’s previous book. But Gulbadan, uniquely among Mughal women of that period, has a book to her name: the “Ahval-i Humayun Badshah or ‘Conditions in the Age of Humayun Badshah’, popularly called the Humayun-nama.”


Her book is unique also as the only prose work written by a woman of the Muslim courts, including Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran, and Mughal India, where women mostly wrote poetry… Not surprisingly, it yields information otherwise effaced from the official Mughal record.


Lal herself has history with Gulbadan. Her book was a source for Lal’s doctoral thesis and


her work informed my first book, a feminist history that brought to the fore the deeply embedded politics in the creation of the stone-walled Mughal harem whose dynamic denizens engaged in the advancement of the grand empire.


Gulbadan, literate, observant, intelligent, a central observer to the establishment of the Mughal Empire, is a historical figure well-worth discovering. Lal’s enthusiasm for her is infectious.


Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan, Ruby Lal (Yale University Press, February 2024)
Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan, Ruby Lal (Yale University Press, February 2024)

Vagabond Princess is to some extent two books. The first part, informed in large part by Humayun-nama, is a run-through of the history of the first Mughals, with an emphasis (albeit by no means exclusive) on the women, the wives, sisters and daughters of the first emperors: Khanzada, the sister Babur left behind in his flight from Samarkand; Hamida, Akbar’s mother; Dilda, Gulbadan’s birth mother; Buwa, not a Mughal but the mother of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi of Delhi, who poisoned Babur; Maham, Humayun’s mother, who took Gulbadan from Dildar to raise her as her own. All women of character, Lal would have us think, and women with character. Given the times through which they lived, which Lal vividly recounts, it is hard to see how they could have been otherwise.

This story, if not necessarily quite this perspective, is quite well-known. (Humayun, however, seems to come off a bit better in this version than elsewhere, where he can be portrayed as rather hapless.) Lal presents it as a life journey that starts with peripatetic travels in tents and ends in a harem with rooms and walls.

So no wonder, then, that Gulbadan would propose leading a group of Mughal women on what became a four-year-long visit to Mecca on hajj. As Lal has it, Gulbadan had understandably had enough of life behind walls; the trip to Arabia was as much an escape as religious duty.

Gulbadan seems to have created a diplomatic incident of some kind.

This second second part of the story seems to have been what piqued Lal’s interest more than anything else. The difficulty is that Gulbadan’s book itself cuts out in mid-sentence when Humayun blinded his half-brother Kamran (admittedly after a great deal of provocation):


 “The order was executed at once,” wrote Gulbadan. I read on. “After the blinding, His Majesty the emperor …”


… well before, in other words, Gulbadan’s hajj and even Akbar’s accession. This left Lal with both a challenge and a mystery, or perhaps two. The challenge is that Gulbadan’s unprecedented trip to the Arabian Peninsula isn’t mentioned by Gulbadan herself and with little detail in Mughal sources. But she seems to have created a diplomatic incident of some kind:


Within a year of the princess’s arrival in Mecca in 1578, Sultan Murad III of Turkey, the sovereign of the Holy Land (the Ottomans had been masters of Egypt and the Hijaz area since 1517), issued an imperial order to evict Gulbadan and her companions. He did so again two years later, in 1580. Five such orders are preserved in the National Archives in Istanbul, Turkey. There may have been more.


Teasing out the actual history took a willingness to look for dots to connect.


The first mystery is exactly what Gulbadan did to get herself ejected from Islam’s holy places. In Lal’s reconstruction, Gulbadan and her party were being too generous and visible in their alms-giving, putting the Sultan’s nose out of joint. While reasonable (Akbar was, Lal says, making a play for the Khilafat and hence was Murad’s political competitor), this is inference rather than explicitly documented fact.

The second and related mystery is why Gulbadan’s book cuts off in the middle, and why there is only one copy:


It is also mysterious that Gulbadan’s manuscript breaks off mid-sentence, as she describes the 1553 blinding of her stepbrother. Is this Gulbadan’s ellipsis, an abridgement of a scene well known, or someone else’s redaction? … Did Gulbadan write more? What was in those pages, and what happened to them?


Lal believes that Gulbadan, her book and her trip to Arabia were deliberately erased:


In 1580, when the Ottoman emperor insisted on the expulsion of Mughal women from the Hijaz, Akbar ignored Murad’s complaints, which likely reached him from his own officials. His ambition to dominate the Islamic world and be the next millennial sovereign was so great that the mention of “un-Islamic” acts committed by Mughal women, let alone any record of them, would be shameful.


It could well be. Official histories have been edited since time memorial (and still are).

Gulbadan, a central observer to the establishment of the Mughal Empire, is a historical figure well-worth discovering.

Lal is a fluent writer, with a good grasp of atmosphere and description. She knows how to tell a good story and herein lies the rub. Actual facts are somewhat thin on the ground, and parts of Vagabond Princess take a certain amount of literary license:


The emperor listened intently as Gulbadan spelled out an idea. Long ago, she told him, she had made a vow to visit the Holy Places. Now she wished to travel across the seas to Mecca and Medina to fulfill her pledge to God. Akbar knew that Gulbadan had traversed the vast, dangerous roads linking Afghanistan and northern India, had seen settlements and resettlements, had been part of caravans traveling amid welcome news as well as news of devastation, exile, and migration.


It could well have happened like that, but we of course don’t and can’t know. However plausible, it still looks like conjecture. And despite her having written a book, Lal gives us little of Gulbadan’s own voice (perhaps because the Humayun-nama is not a memoir but a biography).

Lal is convincing, at least to the non-specialist who doesn’t have access to, or knowledge of what’s in, the archives, but one can’t help thinking that Vagabond Princess would have made (and would make) a marvelous historical novel.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.