Vagabond Princess: A Conversation with Ruby Lal

Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan is a captivating biography of one of the world’s greatest adventurers, the itinerant Mughal Princess Gulbadan. In this Q&A, we talk with author Ruby Lal about Gulbadan’s long-forgotten memoir, movement and migration in the Mughal Empire, how a feminist historian practices history writing, and more.

How did you come to write Vagabond Princess?

RL: I was the first scholar to work with Princess Gulbadan’s rarely consulted memoir. A treasure, an astute account of the daily lives of women in the Mughal court, it yields information otherwise effaced from the record. I brought Gulbadan’s memoir to the world’s attention in my first book, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World (2005). At the time, I was immersed in the singular detail that in 1577, the Princess guided her harem companions across the seas to the Muslim holy cities. I didn’t sit with the striking fact that she and her companions stayed in Arabia for four years. Royal sojourners. Back then, I had no idea that a veritable scandal had erupted while Gulbadan was in Arabia.

I continued to illumine missing, powerful female figures and feminine worlds, most recently in Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan. Gulbadan appears in the early pages of that book, and readers and critics were intrigued by her. During national and international events for Empress, I was asked about her over and over.

As the inquiries about Gulbadan’s adventures kept coming, I, too, returned to questions I had only asked myself in passing. Why had her party stayed in western Arabia for four years? What did they do there? What happened when their ship was wrecked near Aden on the return journey?

Something else had intrigued me since I first consulted her manuscript in the British Library. At folio 83, mid-sentence, the manuscript breaks off. Only one copy of the manuscript survives, although it was common practice in royal circles to make several copies. The mystery deepened and I realized the Princess demanded a full biography.

Who is Princess Gulbadan?

RL: A generation before Empress Nur Jahan—the only woman co-sovereign in the Mughal world—there lived a brave and cerebral royal woman. Gulbadan, literally “Rosebody,” was the beloved daughter of Babur, the patriarch of the magnificent Mughals of India, and the first and only woman historian of the Empire.

Gulbadan lived a forceful, itinerant life surrounded by formidable women. In her youth, her constant travels had spanned Kabul, Agra, and Lahore, where she had lived in tented gardens and mud citadels. Later in life, absorbed in wanderlust, she came to live behind the red sandstone walls of her nephew Akbar the Great’s harem. At the ripe age of fifty-two, she deftly defied her powerful nephew and his authoritarian impulses by leading a group of eleven women on a pilgrimage across the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. An unparalleled journey for the times and for herself, it came out of her powerful thinking.

After her return, at Akbar’s invitation, she wrote a chronicle in prose. It was meant to be a source for the first official history of the Empire that Akbar commissioned. A Mughal Jane Austen, Gulbadan was committed to recording women’s points of view, the places where they lived, what they thought, said and did. In her unique, subversive, and unprecedented work, Gulbadan dug deep and curated in melodic Persian the vibrant world of women, children, eunuchs, men and women arguing, women bartered in war zones.

What do you make of the fact that movement was so inherent to the Mughals and in their time?

RL: Gulbadan’s life and work record a world that speaks of wide horizons and of communities and cultures that her family and wider kinship networks built in interaction with new lands and populations. Migration has always been a key part of human history; its senses and implications were not fixed. In her times, the migration—of minds and bodies—was founded upon open borders, rather than the sharp boundaries of stringently regulated nation-states. At its heart lay imaginations and aspirations wide open to surprises and adventure. Six decades ago, Hannah Arendt noted that “refugee” is a multivalent word: that even in the direst circumstances of ethnic cleansing and eviction, it is for an individual to decide whether s/he is a refugee in another land. State terrorism and nationalist prejudices have added force and tragedy to migrations of adults and children today. Well-policed national boundaries, strict definitions of citizenship, who qualifies for rights and refuge, are key questions in our times. Migration and resettlement have come to be deeply intertwined with conflict and denial. Some of this existed before, but there were other important vistas, and imaginations, that we would do well to remember.

Vagabond Princess is full of brilliant female characters who wielded tremendous influence. Could
you say a bit more about Mughal society’s special place for women?

RL: Women interacted with other women, and men with other men. This was the homosocial, multigenerational arrangement at the heart of Mughal life. Gulbadan’s universe was peopled by busy women: brilliant strategists, peacemakers advising princes and younger women on law, the politics of marriage, and the ethical principles of the dynasty. Women upheld Mughal majesty and grandeur. They invoked legal principles, cited examples of great men and women of the past, and urged dissenters to follow dynastic principles. They ensured that sovereign mores remained in place in the ongoing socialpolitical adjustments.

The women did not routinely pick up weapons in war zones, but responsibility for the sustenance and longevity of the empire fell upon their shoulders. These royal women had frequently dealt with death and devastation relayed from the war front. But they were not alone. Scores of other stalwarts, such as former wet nurse and superintendent of harem, Bibi Fatima, and royal teacher Atun Mama stepped into the most hazardous situations to fulfill their commitments to the Empire. The elderly concubine Gulnar ascended to occupy a place of honor at court and was among the women who went with the Princess on her adventure.

Women like the Afghan Lady—beloved stepmother of the Princess—ensured that peace was established between her clan and the Mughals through her marriage with Babur. In her tribal world, to be honorable was the highest virtue. And honor entailed camaraderie, courage, and an intense sense of duty. Negotiation, tact, peace and conciliation were thought to be natural gifts or intrinsic qualities of both royal and non-royal women.

Why do you think Gulbadan has been largely forgotten by history?

RL: The answer is male disbelief. In my book, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, I opened up the process and becoming of the Mughal Empire by giving historical depth to the society of the harem: palace quarters for multi-generation royal and non-royal women, cloistered from the public, but not from intense political and social debate and drama. Romanticized and stereotyped in both colonial and postcolonial writings, the harem warranted further study. I laid out its fundamentals, explained its complex creation, and showed the richly layered lives, tastes, and passions of its denizens. That book was inspired by Gulbadan’s memoir. A senior male colleague at the time asked me: “How are you going to write this history? There are no sources for it.” This echoed a question that generations of feminist scholars have heard.

Domesticity and Power garnered praise for disturbing this so-called “lack of sources.” My mode was to turn to those very sources that had been neglected by male historians such as the Princess’s memoir. And to ask questions about history writing: who decides what counts as source, and therefore as “history”? Nevertheless, the “lack” reappeared as I continued my explorations of these feminine worlds, including as I plumbed the history of as public a figure as Nur Jahan, the only woman ruler of Mughal India. There is an abundance of sources on her life and reign. But as I worked on her biography, the question was asked by another distinguished Mughal scholar, again male: “But doesn’t Nur Jahan appear only in representation?” He was puzzled that I could center her story when she didn’t order or write a chronicle herself.

There are no sources and Isn’t this representation? Both are underpinned by a fundamental male disbelief in the veracity of feminine experiences and the possibilities of women’s thinking. And an acute denial of women-centered sources. Hence, Gulbadan’s stellar book, or poetry, or art and architecture are relegated to “margins” of history—to mere footnotes in volumes on politics, war, economy, and agrarian histories, all written by men and about men. These objections symbolize the difficulties that all critical oppositional histories—feminist, left-wing, indigenous, and minority—face in confounding and expanding upon received male histories. There is so much more to history than that!

Ruby Lal is an acclaimed historian of India, a professor at Emory University, and the author of three books and numerous essays, op-eds, and literary pieces. Her book Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan won the Georgia Author of the Year Award in biography and was a finalist in history for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Learn more at

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