Maham Anga: The Woman who Called the Shots in Akbar’s Court
Very few residents of modern Delhi realise that opposite the National Zoological Gardens and entrance to Purana Qila lies a monument built by a woman immortalised for being power-hungry, treacherous, deceitful and scheming, but without whom the Mughal Empire might never have blossomed as it did after her death.
In the mid-16th CE, Maham Anga was the power behind the Mughal throne, a foster sister-in-law to an incumbent Emperor and chief wet nurse and caregiver to a future one. She was a woman with ambitions and the means to realise them.
Anga built Khair-ul-Manzil (‘The Most Auspicious of Houses’), a mosque and madrasa complex, it is said, for women only. It was built on a spot which showcases Anga’s ambitions – directly opposite the entrance to Mughal Emperor Humayun’s Dinpanah Fort (Purana Qila) and right next to the immense gateway built by Emperor Sher Shah Suri, known as the Lal Darwaza.
The inscription on the gateway states: “In the time of Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad (Akbar), who is the greatest of just kings, when Maham Beg (Anga), the protector of chastity, erected this building for the virtuous, Shahab-ud-Din Ahmad Khan (Anga’s son-in-law) assisted in the erection of this good house.”
The mosque has an unusual upper story of classrooms and a courtyard enclosed within a high screen, which suggests the madrasa was meant for girls and the mosque for women only.
The main doorway has flashes of red sandstone for effect. The main courtyard contains a pool which must have once been filled with water for wazu or ritual cleansing. There are no minarets, but from what little remains of the main façade of the mosque, it seems to have been decorated in blue tiles and blue-and-yellow mosaic patterns akin to those found in Central Asia, along with extensive calligraphy.
Inside, one can still make out the same decorative patterns, especially in the mihrab, or the niche pointing to Mecca, and in the main dome. This mosque and madrasa complex must have once dazzled under the bright Indian sun.
Maham Anga’s rise to power started decades before she was able to start construction of Khair-ul-Manzil. In 1541 CE, Emperor Humayun and his wife Hamida Banu Begum fled to Persia on self-imposed exile in order to garner the support of the Saffavid Shah Tahmasp as they had been uprooted from their seat in Agra by Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan General in the Mughal army who founded the relatively short-lived Suri Dynasty.
Nadim Khan Kuka was Humayun’s foster brother and had served him faithfully for a number of years. He accompanied Humayun to Persia, leaving behind his wife, Maham Anga, and their two sons, Quli Khan Kuka and Adham Khan Kuka, known in history simply as Adham Khan.
When Humayun left Agra, Anga was made chief wet nurse and carer to his son and one-year-old heir to the Mughal throne – Akbar. It was customary in Mughal royal families for infants to be fed by loyal and deserving women as a mark of honour.
Her own son Adham was 10 years old when Akbar was placed in her care in Kandahar, in present-day Afghanistan. Anga never actually breast-fed Akbar. She supervised a team of 11 wet nurses, the principal of which was Jiji Anga, who had an infant almost the same age as Akbar. Jiji, in turn, was the wife of Shams-Ud-Din of Ghazni, later known as Ataga Khan, the General who saved the life of Humayun in the Battle of Chausa, which was fought against Sher Shah Suri.
Maham Anga played a vital role in the life of the infant Emperor and protected Akbar with her life when, at the age of three, he was taken hostage by his paternal uncle Kamran in Kabul. In 1544 CE, Akbar was 3 when his uncle summoned him and his sister from Kandahar to Kabul. Kamran, who wanted to depose and kill Humayun for the throne, had placed Akbar as a shield on the battlements of the Kabul Fort so that Humayun wouldn’t use canons against him. On hearing this, Maham Anga rushed to the spot and wrenched Akbar off the ramparts.
When Humayun rode into India in 1555 CE, to reclaim the Mughal Empire, all the women of the royal zenana stayed behind in Kabul, but Maham Anga accompanied the now 13-year-old Akbar and his father Humayun to India.
She was present when, barely a year later, Humayun died after a fall on his library steps, and the 14-year-old Akbar was crowned Emperor by his General Bairam Khan, who also elevated himself to the rank of Vakil-e-Sultanat (Prime Minister).
After his coronation in 1556 CE, Akbar sent for the royal zenana to come to Agra from Kabul. When these royal ladies arrived outside Agra, it was Maham Anga who was dispatched by the new Mughal Emperor to greet them.
By this point, Bairam Khan began to grow nervous about the closeness between Anga and Akbar, and the power she had begun to wield. He even believed at one point that there was a plot to assassinate him. It was Anga who convinced him that he was mistaken.
Anga soon exerted considerable influence in this new court. Her son Adham Khan had unbridled access to the young Emperor while even senior noblemen had to wait for an audience with him. To create distance between Akbar and Bairam Khan, Anga also pulled off a coup of sorts when, on her advice, Akbar suddenly left Agra for Delhi on the pretext of meeting his mother Hamida Banu Begum, who was in Delhi at the time.
While in Delhi, Anga worked with Hamida Banu Begum to influence the young Akbar against the increasingly powerful Bairam Khan. She played on Akbar’s emotions, begging that she be allowed to go to Mecca, saying there was no point in her staying by the Emperor’s side because Bairam Khan was certain to launch campaigns against her. Akbar grew emotional on hearing this and asked her to stay on in Delhi with him, which had been her intention all along.
Akbar then promoted Anga’s son-in-law Shahab-ud-Din Ahmad Khan, who took over state affairs of the Mughal Empire. He ‘demoted’ Bairam Khan without actually taking away his title of Vakil-e-Sultanat. Many nobles switched sides quickly and Maham Anga gave away large jagirs or land grants, and ranks through Akbar to ensure their loyalty. Akbar even gave Shahab-ud-Din and Maham Anga the titles of Vakalat (Vice-Regency).
In the meantime, Anga’s son, Adham Khan, had been promoted as General of the Mughal forces even as Bairam Khan was demoted and retired. Around the time Khair-ul-Manzil was completed in Delhi, he successfully defeated the ruler of Malwa, Baz Bahadur, who had his capital at the citadel of Mandu in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Baz Bahadur was an ethnic Pathan more famous for his merry-making than his war tactics. After his defeat, he fled, and his treasury and zenana fell into the hands of Adham Khan.
Roopmati, his Queen, famous for her beauty and charm, drank poison so she wouldn’t be taken by the victor. But Adham Khan did get hold of the immense treasury and many nautch or dancing girls famed for their beauty. Instead of sending everything back to Akbar, as was the custom, Adham Khan sent back just a few elephants, and kept the great treasure and most of the captured women for himself.
Akbar was now 19 and no longer a child. On hearing of the spoils Adham Khan hadn’t sent back to him, the young Emperor rode south to Malwa himself. Anga, on learning of this, managed to intervene. Adham Khan presented all the treasure and the captured dancing girls to Akbar. But with the help of his mother’s servants, managed to later steal two of those women away from the royal zenana.
Akbar learnt of this betrayal and ordered a search, which petrified Anga because she knew this would prove that Adham Khan wasn’t loyal to Akbar. She managed to have the girls killed – there are differing versions of how. What is certain is that no one ever found those women and, in the absence of any proof of betrayal, Akbar chose to overlook the incident.
Half a year after all this, Akbar, now 20, recalled Adham Khan, now 30, from Malwa to Agra, which would set in motion the events that led to his death and the downfall of his mother. On a hot summer afternoon, after reaching Agra, Adham Khan in full view of court ministers, had one of his men stab Akbar’s favourite General Shams-ud-Din Ataga Khan with a dagger and kill him. The General had recently been made Vakil-e-Sultanat, replacing Munim Khan, a General who was close to Anga.
Adham Khan then walked to the nearby royal zenana, where Akbar was taking an afternoon nap. He was prevented from entering by the eunuch Ni’mat, but the commotion over his attempt to enter the hallowed space woke Akbar, who emerged with a scimitar in his hand, saw the body of Ataga Khan and was enraged. He struck Adham Khan, who fell with the force of the blow. The Emperor then ordered his servants to bind Adham Khan and throw him from the terrace, a drop of about eight feet.
When Adham Khan survived that fall, Akbar ordered him to be picked up and dropped again, this time head-first. Adham Khan was dead in minutes. Akbar proceeded to inform Maham Anga of all that had happened. She is said to have whispered, “You did well.” But Maham Anga was grief-stricken after Adham Khan’s death and passed away a few days later.
Akbar ordered a mausoleum to be built in Mehrauli to bury his foster brother and foster mother. The mausoleum stands close to the Sufi shrine of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and is one of the first tombs built in the Mughal Empire. But despite its almost regal size, it is devoid of any decorative elements.
In the 1830s, a British officer named Blake of the Bengal Civil Service, converted this tomb into his residential apartments and removed the graves to make way for a dining hall. Though the officer died soon after, it continued to be used as a rest house by the British for years. At later points, it served as a police station and then a post office.
The tomb was vacated and restored by an order of Lord Curzon, Governor-General of India at the time. Curzon had restored many monuments during his term and he even got the remains of Adham Khan returned to the site. They sit right below the central dome, sunlit through the day by the natural light that streams in through the mausoleum’s many windows. The remains of his mother, Maham Anga, were never found.
Maham Anga, though not of royal blood, rose to great heights in the Mughal court, and the fact that Akbar held her in reverence even after her death is proved by the fact that her other son, Quli Khan, lived out his life in peace and was allowed to build a mausoleum for himself, which still stands within the premises of the Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
Khair-ul-Manzil, meanwhile, would be the site of an assassination attempt two years after Anga’s death. Akbar was leading a procession outside the compound, which was still managed by those loyal to Anga. Suddenly, an arrow was shot from a balcony. It lodged itself in Akbar’s shoulder and he retaliated instantly, ordering the man who had shot it to be put to death on the spot. He never questioned his motives. Perhaps Akbar didn’t want to know. It is said that the assassination attempt was orchestrated by a group of nobles in Delhi as Akbar had married a noblewoman from Delhi after he forced her to divorce her husband.
Much later, during the Revolt of 1857, Indian revolutionaries would barricade themselves within the walled complex of the Khair-ul-Manzil. The British retaliated with canon fire, damaging the main courtyard and adjoining madrasa complex. The complex is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India but Muslim devotees are allowed to use the mosque for prayers.
We can only hope that Khair-ul-Manzil survives for a few more centuries, keeping alive the memory of an extraordinary and yet mortal woman.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barun Ghosh is an alumnus of the Parsons School of Design, New York. Apart from being an entrepreneur, he’s a landscape, architecture and food photographer. He is also a heritage enthusiast and currently pursuing a degree in history (honours) from IGNOU. He tweets at @barunghosh.