A woman who held immense political power, someone who held herself through all the grief, survived the clutches of conquerors, someone who loved her partner passionately and immensely, someone who cared for the poor and the needy. Hamida Banu Begum, the Persian wife of Mughal Emperor Humayun, is today credited for building the marvelous Humayun’s tomb that went on to become the archetype for the architecture and design of the Taj Mahal.
Banu Begum was born in a family of nobles from Khurasan, Northern Iran, and got married to her young cousin Nasiruddin Muhammad, who came to be known as Humayun, the second ruler of the Mughals. As Humayun took upon the title of Padishah (Persian title equivalent to king), Bega Begum gave birth to an offspring in Agra who died during infancy. Although there are no records of the death of this infant, other than Babur disapproving of the name that was decided by Banu Begum. A few years later, she gave birth to another child; a girl named Aqiqa, who lost her life at the age of 6 by drowning in the Battle of Chausa with Sher Shah Suri in Bihar. After this battle, the Empress was taken as hostage by the Pashtun king, who according to sources treated her very well. After some time, Banu Begum was let free along with others who were held captive.
Author and Historian, Rana Safvi speaks of Bega Begum in the following way: “Bega Begum was a strong-headed woman. Someone who did not fear to speak her mind to even the Emperor, was able to survive being taken prisoner by the enemy, bore the loss her children and still retained a powerful stature.”
Post the bloodbath and vociferous times, Humayun reclaimed the throne from Sher Shah Suri, but died very soon by falling from the fleet of stairs of his library in Delhi. During this tragedy, Bega Begum was in Kabul and she was immediately called back to Delhi, where her stepson; Akbar had defeated King Hemu.
Ira Mukhoty writes, “Bega Begum, now, is standing in the headwind of an unsettling storm. She has always been very close to her nephew, whom she helped raise for ten years in Kabul after the early deaths of her own children. Akbar, who has a strong bond with all the older women of his family, is always indebted to the care she lavished on him as a child”.
In the coming years after the death of Humayun, Akbar expanded the empire and moved to Agra, while Bega Begum stayed in Delhi; the place where his beloved took his last breath. In Delhi, she commissioned the Humayun’s tomb which would be the first example of Mughal Persianate Garden tomb. After some time, Bega Begum along with Gulbadan Begum went to the Haj Yatra which was very uncommon amongst women to do (Bega Begum is also called Haji Begum). On her Yatra to Haj, Bega Begum got back with many Persian artisans and craftsmen who would work on the Humayun’s Tomb. These artisans worked along with local masons under the guidance of the chief architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas.
Ira Mukhoty writes, “The site for the tomb is chosen carefully, in close proximity to Nizamuddin’s Durgah and with the Yamuna flowing beside it, making access to the tomb easier. The tomb will combine, for the first time in Hindustan, certain elements of Central Asian architecture which till now had never been found together. They include a massive onion-shaped Timurid dome, radial geometry and symmetry and the use of red sandstone along with white marble structures,”
Picture Credits: Sahil M Beg
Even after the completion of the Humayun’s Tomb, Bega Begum; The first woman builder of the Mughal Dynasty continued to live in Delhi. She continued to build bazaars, madrasas, gardens, and seminaries. Father Antonio Monserrate, who was a Jesuit, invited by Akbar, notes in his writings that Bega Begum devoted herself completely to prayers and supported close to 500 people with her alms.
Bega Begum lies buried next to her husband in the Humayun’s Tomb while her legacy lives on in the gardens of the mausoleum that is today dotted by morning walk lovers. She continues to live in parts of this country, still breaking patriarchal notions and being a strong feminine figure. There is a Bega Begum in all of us!
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