cover image Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan

Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan

Ruby Lal. Yale Univ, $30 (296p) ISBN 978-0-300-25127-2

Historian Lal (Empress) delivers an insightful biography of princess Gulbadan Begum (1523–1603), an adventurer and influential presence at court during the early years of the Mughal empire. Born to Babur, the first Mughal king, Gulbadan’s youth was characterized by travel as her father expanded the empire across South Asia. Later, during the reign of her nephew Akbar, and after a stultifying mid-life spent in the cloistered court harem, Gulbadan was given permission to lead several other harem women on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The women’s scandalous independence (their activities were labeled “un-Islamic” by local authorities) led to their expulsion from Mecca, and the group returned home to north India more than four years later, after a shipwreck and subsequent halt to their journey afforded them an even greater period of independence. In 1587, when Akbar ordered the compilation of a monumental history of the Mughal empire, he commissioned a contribution from Gulbadan. The resulting autobiography, the Ahval-i Humayun Badshah, is one of the earliest prose works by a woman, but the portion of the Ahval describing the four-year pilgrimage is missing. Persuasively arguing that it was likely suppressed by male authorities, Lal evocatively ruminates on the feminist implications of this missing piece. The result is a comprehensive and vivid portrait of an exceptional historical figure. (Feb.)