Cosmopolitan Harems

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Cosmopolitan Harems

by Vidhu Singh, dramaturg

European travelers were surprised to discover that the Mughal harem contained a smorgasbord of cultures with women and hijras from many parts of the world, which is reflected in our production.

For instance, with our specific cast, it is likely that Hamida and Salima arrived at the harem through the Arab slave trade from Africa. Roshni, of Japanese descent, could have made it to India through the Portuguese slave trade that extended from Japan to Goa. Mariyam possibly arrived from a kingdom in the Philippines, which had pre-Spanish links with India via South East Asia. And Gulal’s character is inspired by the fierce warrior tribes of Mongolia.

Female bodyguards protected polygamous monarchs and royal families during ancient, medieval, and Mughal times, but scholarship about them remains scarce.

Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Maurya empire, had female bodyguards, according to his political advisor, Kautilya. In Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, a famous Sanskrit play, King Dushyanta is accompanied by Yavanas, (Ionian or Greek female bodyguards) armed with bows and arrows.

Since the founding of the Mughal Empire by Emperor Babar, the imperial harem was guarded by female warriors. These robust women, who were taken from warlike cultures along the Silk Road—Greece, Kashmir, Turkey and Abyssinia (Ethiopia)—did not historically speak the local language or veil themselves.

One of over 50 miniatures from The Ni’matnama (Book of Delights), a book of recipes commissioned by Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Khalji.

While the institution of the harem was inherently oppressive in nature, there are remarkable historical examples where women had power, such as the 15th century harem of Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Khalji of Malwa (Central India). According to historian Ruchika Sharma, The Jahangirnama (Memoirs of Emperor Jahangir) describes the Sultan’s powerful harem of 15,000 women. He changed the name of his capital from Mandu to Shadiabad, or “City of Joy.” In Tarikh-i-Ferishta (The History of Hindustan), the historian Ferishta notes that women in the Sultan’s harem were taught wrestling and the art of warfare; they included 500 Turkish women who excelled in the art of archery, and 500 Abyssinian women armed with swords, shields, and firearms. Dressed in male attire, these women were a formidable force in medieval India.

With the expansion of the Mughal Empire, the royal harem became increasingly larger and institutionalized, emerging as a symbol of Mughal power.

House of Joy has been extended to September 8! Get tickets and more information here.

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