The Life of the Maharanis
This page is more 'factual' than any other on this site in that it is a blend of history, legend and personal observation concerning the women of the Rajput, whose lives were luxurious, refined, but often tragic. Despite the horror of other cultures in the face of traditions like sati, it is said to be sacrifices like these that make Rajputana (Rajasthan) a sacred land. I have myself heard an educated Indian defend the satis of the past, though not the present, and I felt as though for him to disown these past sacrifices would be showing the ultimate disrespect for these women who became goddesses.
In the palaces the women's quarters were always separate from the men's and were known as the zenana. A king might have several wives, and they lived separately with their servants in their own houses or apartments within the women's part of the palace. Each one was accompanied by her own servants, and presumably, her daughters and younger sons. The Kama Sutra, which contains far more information than a mere list of 'positions' says that: 'The suites of the royal queens should be in the heart of the zenana, ringed by the apartments of the concubines; the outermost rooms should be given to the courtesans, actresses and dancing girls'. Hierarchy was extremely important within the harem, and bitter struggles no doubt took place. At Amber, twelve queen's flats surround a central courtyard with a covered area where women could meet and talk. Although the walls are now covered in faded and blackened pink washes you can still just pick out painted decorations in a few areas. Although not specifically for the women, one feature of Amber fort struck me particularly. Keeping cool in summer here was a royal privilege. There is a small dark room beside a courtyard containing a pool and a fountain. The room is cleverly designed to allow water to flow through it creating a cooling effect. A continuous chain of servants would use buckets to collect water from the pool in the courtyard and climb steps in the blazing sun up to the roof of the room. They poured the water through a special channel and it flowed down the wall of the room, then across the floor and through the courtyard until it rejoined the pool. This created a cooling effect for the people in the room, though not, one imagines for the people hauling the water. Perhaps, in this room, the Maharajah received small presents from his ladies and planned which he would spend the night with, as described in the Kama Sutra.
Jodh Bai was a daughter of the Maharaja of Amber in the 16th Century, and may have spent some of her childhood at Amber. Her marriage to the Mughal ruler Akbar is considered one of the reasons for his success, a sign that he was willing to work with the Hindu aristocracy rather than impose a foreign rule. Jodh Bai became the mother of Akbar's first surviving son and heir Jahangir. Akbar waited a long time for this son, and in desperation consulted a holy man at Sikri who promised him three sons. When Jodh Bai became pregnant Akbar sent her to live near the holy man, and when the prophecy came true, Akbar built the new capital of Fatehpur Sikri in his honour. Akbar was particularly interested in religion, and perhaps as part of his determination to please everyone he had a Muslim wife from Turkey, Ruqayya, and a Christian wife, Maryam as well as his Hindu wife Jodh Bai. A large part of the fort of Fatehpur Sikri is given over to the homes of these three wives, and another private home for Akbar's mother. Each home is beautifully decorated in a different style, appropriate to the culture and religion of each of the three women. The guides told us that an equal area had been given over to each, but the houses of Ruqayya and Maryam are smaller as a lot of their area was taken up by gardens. Jodh Bai, we are told, did not like gardens and she lived in a completely enclosed palace around a private courtyard. All her buildings are in traditional Hindu style and she also had her own shrine to Krishna.
Mumtaz Mahal was not really a Maharani being neither a Rajput, nor even a Hindu, but she is one of the great women to be mythologised in this area. Akbar's grandson Shah Jahan built India's most famous monument, the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth with their fourteenth child. It was a love marriage in the first place, perhaps not entirely approved of by Shah Jahan's entourage. It is said that, when she realised she could not live, Mumtaz begged her husband to build her the most beautiful tomb that had ever existed. The Taj drained the kingdom's wealth and perhaps grief eroded Shah Jahan's ability to govern. At any rate, he spent the last years of his life locked in his apartments in Agra Fort by his eldest son, and attended by his eldest daughter. His main occupation was to gaze at the Taj through his bedroom window, and at the opposite river bank where he had once planned to build a matching 'Black Taj' for himself. We wandered through the gardens surrounding the tomb. Here the crowds die away, the white dome and turrets of the Taj fade into the distance. In one of the walls is a small museum where we admired matching miniatures of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, both painted as attractive young people. It was curious to gaze on that face and wonder how beautiful she really was, this woman, who ended up in the most famous tomb in the world.
Throughout all of India royal women observed life on the streets, the audiences of the kings, dances and religious ceremonies from behind carved wood or stone screens which hid them from sight. Often the view was bad, and there was room for relatively few women. The most famous and impressive of these screens is the Palace of Winds at Jaipur, which is well worth seeing from both the back and the front. I have read that the women of the zenana travelled across the royal complex by underground passages to reach the Palace of Winds and view festivities in the streets, at Amber Fort you can get an idea of the type of labyrinth that this might represent. Another interesting example is at Jaisalmer where both the men and women's quarters are topped with a roof terrace. The men's terrace is surrounded by a low balcony, whereas the women's terrace has tall carved jala screens all around it.
Under the circumstances, it is a bit hard to understand how Krishna Kumari's tragedy occurred. Her beauty became famous throughout the whole land, someone who was privileged to see her must have boasted of it. By some accident, the young girl was betrothed to two men at the same time. According to our guide, her husband promised her to one man, and her eldest brother, not knowing this, promised her to another. Neither of these was willing to give up such a famous prize and war was inevitable. There was only one way out of the dilemma: whether it was suggested to her, or she thought of it herself, the young princess removed herself from the clutches of either of the two by drinking poison. The room in which she died was painted in her honor, and though small, it is perhaps the most richly decorated in the whole palace of Udaipur.