The Inspiring Journey of Gulbadan Begum: A Tale of Bravery and Rebellion

In 1576, Gulbadan Begum, a Mughal princess, embarked on an extraordinary pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, becoming the first woman in Mughal India to undertake the sacred Hajj. Despite the lack of detailed records about her journey, historian Ruby Lal reveals the remarkable story of Gulbadan’s epic voyage in her book, Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan. Gulbadan’s pilgrimage was marked by acts of bravery, kindness, and rebellion, challenging the traditional expectations for royal women in Mughal society.

Born in Kabul in 1523, Gulbadan grew up surrounded by strong women who played important roles in courtly affairs. As the daughter of Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, she frequently experienced the separation from her father due to his military campaigns. These early experiences of movement and displacement shaped Gulbadan’s resilience and wanderlust.

The Mughal princess’s desire to embark on the Hajj was driven by her restlessness within the walled harem established by her nephew, Emperor Akbar. While Akbar sought to consolidate his power and portray himself as a divine figure, Gulbadan longed for freedom. In 1576, she set off with a cohort of royal women, sailing on grand Mughal ships built by Akbar himself.

The journey was fraught with dangers, including the threat of Portuguese attacks at sea and militant groups along the land route through Persia. After a year of waiting in Surat, Gulbadan and her companions finally reached Mecca, where they made a significant decision to stay in Arabia for the next four years. Here, they became vagabonds, distributing alms and gaining attention from the locals. However, Gulbadan’s benevolence drew the ire of Ottoman Sultan Murad, who saw it as a display of Akbar’s political influence.

The Sultan issued three decrees to evict Gulbadan and the Mughal ladies from Arabia, but each time she defied him, exhibiting an unprecedented act of rebellion for a Mughal woman. Eventually, Sultan Murad resorted to using the severe term “na-meshru” against them, inviting even Akbar’s displeasure. In 1580, Gulbadan and her cohort returned to India, and her journey concluded in Khanwa in 1582.

Upon her return, Gulbadan was hailed as a ruler and even contributed as the only female writer in the Akbarnama, a chronicle commissioned by Akbar to showcase his dynasty’s grandeur. However, her time in Arabia and the censure she faced from Sultan Murad found no mention in the book or any other historical accounts.

Gulbadan’s epic voyage challenges the notion that Mughal women were confined to seclusion and passivity. Her story highlights bravery, resilience, and a yearning for freedom in a society dominated by powerful men. By piecing together fragmented records and delving into various historical sources, Ruby Lal sheds light on a remarkable woman who defied societal norms and embarked on a daring pilgrimage.