Of the Mughal era-monuments in Delhi, many were built under the patronage of the Empire’s women. But somehow, the story of their accomplishments lacks detail in tourism brochures and hardly feature in schoolbooks! Owing to the growing popularity of heritage walks in Old Delhi, at least now one knows that Chandni Chowk was designed by Jahanara, Mumtaz-Shahjahan’s eldest daughter !
Even then, there are many more mosques and tombs in Delhi to explore – which were commissioned by Mughal women, indicating their power and agency. If you’ve been thinking that women of the Mughal times remained in purdah or limited to the harem – a visit to these monuments is sure to change your mind!
Without these monuments built by the Mughal women, the story of Delhi would be incomplete!
Humayun’s Tomb by Bega Begum
Bega Begum, Humayun’s senior wife, was a formidable force to be reckoned with! Following Humayun’s death, a grieving Bega Begum travelled to Mecca and became the first Mughal woman to undertake the Hajj all by herself. She subsequently came to be known as “Haji” Begum. On her return, she vowed to build a tribute to her husband, and commissioned a grand mausoleum for Humayun.
Designed by the architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, this became the first example of a Persian charbagh (paradise-gardens) in India and set the tone for Mughal architectural legacy. Bega Begum supervised the construction of this tomb personally.
The monument is however, ambiguously credited to ‘Humayun’s Wife’ which a lot of people mistake for Hamida Banu Begum (Akbar’s birth mother). Both wives remain buried here.
Today, Humayun’s Tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been restored to glory by the Aga Khan Trust.
Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque by Maham Anaga
The name ‘Khair-ul-Manazil’ means the ‘best of houses’. Interestingly this is also a chronogram; meaning, when written in Persian script, the letters give out a numerical value – the year of it’s construction i.e 969 Hijri or 1561-62 A.D.
The mosque, situated opposite the Purana Qila in Delhi, is often misunderstood to be part of the Qila itself. However, the Quila is an older structure. The mosque also used to have a madrasa or school of learning – which does not exist today; though the prayer chamber continues to be used each Friday for namaaz offerings.
In the prayer-chamber of the mosque, an inscription bears the name of Maham Anaga, identifying her as the one who commissioned the mosque. Maham Anaga, the Turkish wet-nurse of Akbar was quite influential in court (as you can see from her placement in the painting) :
Fatehpuri Mosque by Fatehpuri Begum
The second largest mosque in Delhi, this one stands right opposite the Red Fort (the erstwhile seat of power), on the west end of Chandni Chowk. Often overlooked by travellers, this mosque was built by one of Shahjahan’s wives who hailed from Fatehpur Sikri (hence the name) in 1650.
During the 1857 revolt, the mosque became a hotbed of national sentiment. After the mutiny was suppressed, the British took over it. While the prayer area was released, the spaces around were auctioned to a local trader for Rs. 19000. He used it as a storehouse till 1877 when the mosque building was returned to the Muslims after negotiating an exchange of 4 villages (the Delhi Durbar was to take place soon)!
It is said that a number of Indian soldiers killed in the revolt were buried in the courtyard of the mosque. You’d also notice how this mosque is unique – for it is not built on a platform (a common architectural process at the time)!
Apart from this mosque, Shahjahan’s other wives who we hardly hear of – Akbarabadi Begum & Sirhindi Begum also built mosques in the city of Shajahanabad (Old Delhi). The mosque built by Akbarabadi Begum was destroyed during 1857’s mutiny.
However, the mosque recently resurfaced during a Delhi-metro construction and has been in the news ever since.
Interestingly some sources also credit Akbarabadi Begum for laying out the Shalimar Bagh (in Delhi!):
A serai built here is known to have hosted the royal family. It was here that Aurangzeb proclaimed himself the King after overthrowing Shahjahan in 1658.
Speaking of Aurangzeb, his wife Aurangabadi Begum too, built a mosque in 1703 near the Lahori Gate of Shahjahanabad .
The younger daughter of Shahjahan and Jahanara’s sister, Roshanara was not far behind when it came to design. This Mughal-style garden laid by her in 1650 remains to be one of the biggest gardens in Delhi. And while Roshanara had intended this to be her pleasure garden, she remained here after her death too; buried in the central pavilion within the garden, lacking a headstone!
The British used it as their summer retreat and established the ‘Roshanara Club’ – which even today has an elite touch to it. It is believed that it became the first venue for cricket matches in the city – though architecture/history lovers will still find all elements of Mughal design intact.
Only two buildings survive today within the garden – a central pavilion (baradari) and an entrance gate.
The original charbagh layout of the garden, in the middle of which the current pavilion must have stood, was effaced when it was converted into an English garden. You can still spot the water channels and remnants of delicate artwork in the interiors.
Aurangzeb’s daughters were patrons of art too. While Zeb-un-nissa supported poetry, and literature; her sister Zeenat-ul-nissa built a grand mosque beside the Yamuna in 1707. It is said to have been influenced by the Jama Masjid built by Shahjahan and is also referred to as the Ghata Masjid. Her tomb, to the north of the mosque, was destroyed in 1857 while the mosque was used as a bakery by British troops.
Qudsia Bagh & Sunehri Masjid by Qudsia Begum
As the British Library states:
“Qudsiya Begum, also known as Udham Bai, was a queen of the Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shah (1702-1748), and wielded considerable influence during the early stages of his reign. When her son, Ahmad Shah, succeeded to the throne in 1748, Qudsiya Begum and her confidant Prime Minister Javed Khan held the true reigns of power.
She was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and architecture and is best known for the palace and garden complex known as Qudsiya Bagh. The mosque that she built with Javed Khan is known as the Sunahri Mosque (1750-51) and once had metal-plated domes. Although the mosque is small the lofty minarets and large bulbous domes give the building an ostentatious appearance.”
The mosque, outside the Delhi Gate of the Red Fort is not to be confused with the one near Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Chandni Chowk. The mosque build by Qudsia Begum was significantly damaged during the 1857 rebellion. Here’s another glimpse from the archives of the British Library:
A mansion in Lal Kuan Bazaar by Zeenat Mahal
Constructed in 1846, this mansion once belonged to Zeenat Mahal – the favourite wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar. The transformation of Zeenat Mahal’s palatial haveli to a dilapidated structure is heartbreaking. Today, part of the haveli has been converted into a girls school – so in a small way, Zeenat Mahal’s legacy lives on.
Fakhr-ul-masjid by Kaniz Fatima
In the words of Sir Thomas Metcalfe:
The Fakhrool Musajid was built by Kuneez i Fatima widow of Shoojaat Khan about A.D. 1729, to the memory of her husband who was one of the confidential followers of Nizam ool Moolk, Minister of Mohummud Shah. It adjoins the Estate and is nearly opposite to the Church erected by the late Colonel Skinner C.B. and has been of late years repaired at no inconsiderable expense by that distinguished Officer, for the convenience of his followers military and menial.”
Mughal women built tombs, gardens and caravan serais; commissioned mosques and palaces of which many have been lost to history / destroyed.
Like this caravan serai built by Jahanara:
But even today, the legacy of these Mughal women remains in the shadows of their male counterparts; their stories, untold. The question is, until when?