Babur and the Bibis: The Leading Women of the Early Mughal Court – The Friday Times


We all know about the great Mughal Empire that ruled the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1857 AD. The first emperor and founder of the Empire was Zaheeruddin Babur. Before winning the Battle of Panipat in 1526, he was the ruler of Kabul. He was fascinated by the diversity of the Indian subcontinent. He tried in 1519 to conquer it but did not succeed. He finally achieved success in 1526.

Babur was a great patron of art and architecture. He also composed 600 poems. He lived a very dramatic life where he spent most of his youth with the intention of conquering and reconquering various places – especially Samarkand. He enjoyed the great arts: elegant calligraphy, fine cuisine, singing and dancing.

In order to rule and ensure the security of his dynasty, Babur needed legal wives to have legitimate male heirs.

While in Kabul, he had 20 children by his legal wives, including his four surviving sons. Through his official marriages, Babur’s life can be divided into three stages.

Early in his life, as a Central Asian Timurid, he married two of his twin cousins, but both of these marriages were political in nature. These marriages were with Ayesha Sultan Begum and Zaynab Sultan Begam. He divorced Ayesha while Zaynab died of smallpox – and that’s how those marriages ended prematurely.

Babur’s next marriage was to his Timurid relative Masuma Sultan Begum. They first met at their common relative’s wedding in Herat. According to Babur, Masuma was first attracted to him – then Babur also liked her. Both married with the wishes of their families. Masuma died during their first childbirth, although their daughter survived. Babur’s next Timurid wife was Saliha Sultan Begum, who bore him a daughter.

Babur still needed a male heir to support his dynasty. He was now the ruler of Kabul. His next three marriages were not to the Timurid princess. They came from respectable families in Kabul, who spoke Persian. Among these three, Babur’s main wife was Maham Begum. She was highly respected, and in 1508 she bore her first surviving son, Mirza Humayun. She also had four other children, but they did not survive.

Babur’s next marriage was to Gulrukh Begum, who bore him four sons and one daughter. Of four, only two, Mirza Kamran and Mirza Askari, survived. Gulrukh meant “pink face”. After Gulrukh, Babur married Dildar Begum. She had two sons and three daughters. Of these two sons, one was Mirza Hindal, who served as a commander and administrator – and one of the three daughters, Gulbadan Begum, later remained a leading figure in Humayun’s court.

While he was ruler of Kabul, he wanted to maintain good relations with the locals in order to maintain his dynasty. Babur’s last marriage was political in nature. In 1519 he married Bibi Mubarak, also known as Afghan Begum. His father, Malik Shah Mansoor was a leader of the Yousafzai Pashtuns. She spoke Pashto and Dari. As Babur was too old and she was a young woman, they had no children.

In his last stage of life, as ruler of India, he no longer married. When he established his rule in northern India, he then called upon the women of his house to join him in India, from Kabul.

Such were the beginnings of a South Asian dynasty, which later became as famous for producing illustrious women as it was for its men.


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