Imperial Indian Beauties

European artists devoted their talents to depicting imperial Indian beauties in their own inimitable style. Among the earliest European observers, who claim to have gazed at the royal ladies of the Mughal Court, are Sir Thomas Roe, Bernier and Manucci. Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador at Jahangir’s court, recorded that he snatched a glimpse of the royal ladies who were equally keen to see him, says Pran Neville

THERE was much curiosity about women belonging to aristocratic homes. They were secluded and kept in the zenanas. The Muslim women observed strict purdha considered essential as part of a respectable way of life. Many high caste aristocratic Hindu families adopted this practice and emulated social customs prevalent in the Mughal times among Muslim nobility. In South India, women of rank, except those of Muslim nobles families, could be seen and admired. This was true also of the Maratha ladies who were skilled horse riders which won the admiration of British observers.


Among the earliest European observers, who claim to have gazed at the royal ladies of the Mughal Court, are Sir Thomas Roe, Bernier and Manucci. Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador at Jahangir’s court, recorded that he snatched a glimpse of the royal ladies who were equally keen to see him: “At one side in a window were his two principal wives, whose curiosity made them break little holes in a grate of reed that hung before them, to gaze on me, I saw first their fingers, and after laying their faces close, now one eye now another. Sometime I could discern the full proportion, they were indifferently white, black hair smooth up, but if I had no other light, their diamonds and pearls has sufficed to shew them: when I looked up they retyred and were so merry, that I supposed they laughed at me.”



Zeenat Mahal, the favourite wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar, by an unknown artist In spite of his long sojourn at the Mughal Court, the French physician and traveller Francois Bernier saw even less than Roe. His Travels in the Mughal Empire (1656-1668) is a storehouse of varied information. He used to catch a glance of the court beauties of his day by walking behind an elephant, the tinkling of whose silver bells would entice the shy damsels to put their heads out of the windows of their litters.

The Italian physician to Aurangzeb, Niccolao Manucci, however, claimed to have entered the harem in his capacity as a doctor. He eloquently describes the ladies’ fine clothes and extravagant jewellery and writes that they often feigned illness so that “they may have the chance of some conversation with and have their pulse felt, by the physician.” He had to stretch his hand inside the curtain and sometimes it was held, kissed, softly bitten and even placed on the breast.

We come across a unique mid 18th century account by an English lady published in England in 1743 and reproduced by an American journal, Virginia Gazette.It is about her meeting with a Nawab’s wife at Madras. She describes in detail the opulence of the Begum’s costume and exotic richness of the jewellery with several strings of glittering diamonds and pearls. She adds: “Her person is slim, genteel, middle stature, her complexion tawny, her eyes black as possible, large and fine, and painted at the edges; her lips were coloured red, and between every tooth, which were white and regular, was painted black, to look like ebony… Her face was done over with frosted work of leaf gold; the nails of her fingers and toes were painted red; so were the insides of her hands; her hair was black as jet, very long and thick, combed neatly back and braided; it hung much below her waist.” She was ‘amazed and astounded’ by such a picture of luxury and noted that she thought she was in a dream sequence all the time. She concluded “that these immense riches are all the enjoyments they have; for they are not suffered to stir out all the year round; and when obliged to travel, are covered up in their palanquins in such a manner that no mortal can see them, and it would be death for any men to attempt it.”

the favourite Hindu wife of the King of Oudh by George Beechey, c. 1830Some women authors who had access to zenanas used the opportunity to study the customs and manners of ladies of rank and offer graphic descriptions of their lifestyle. A general belief that emanated from these stories about the “hoories of the East” was that every woman behind purdha was exceptionally beautiful. However, that inveterate traveller, Fanny Parks mentioned in her Wanderings of a Pilgrim, in Search of the Picturesque (1850) that “in a whole zenana there may be two or three handsome women, and all the rest remarkably ugly.” She visited the zenana of the

Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah and met a princess and some other ladies who stuck her as singularly plain but there were dancing girls of rare beauty.On the other hand,John Henry Grose in his Voyage to the East Indies (1766) observes that Indians “take care to have their seraglios, or harems furnished with the handsomest women that can be procured for love or money. Those of Kashmir are the most preferred… being much fairer and having besides the advantage of delicacy in shape and make, which is chiefly in request among them. This taste they even push to such an extravagance, as to a scruple no price hardly for a female slave, which to her other beauties should have that added of a plumpness covering the smallest bones that can be imagined, for the bone they think the weight chiefly consists, and therefore those who weight the least, are by them reckoned the rarest and most delicate pieces.”

Another authentic account about the life in the zenana and the relationship between the several wives is provided by Mrs Meer Hassan Ali, an English lady, married to a Lucknow noble (1816-1828). In her fascinating work, Observations of the Mussulmauns of India (1832), she describes a high class Muslim lady as “the bird from the nest immured in a cage but cheerful, contented and satisfied with the seclusion to which she was born… As a good wife she receives her husband with undisguised pleasure, although she has just before learned that another member has been added to his well peopled harem.” Mrs Ali adds that “ladies of the zenana were not restricted from the society of their own sex and had companions amongst their dependents. Some ladies of rank had two to ten companions independent of slaves and domestics and there were some of the royal family of Lucknow who entertained in their service two or three hundred females dependents of all classes.”

Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, from a contemporary engraving, c. 1850There is another absorbing account of Cutch ladies by Mrs Marianne Postans who made a comprehensive study of the people of Cutch. She visited the harem of the Rao of Cutch and was struck by the amazing beauty and charm of the queen mother, the Rani. She was the daughter of a chief of Soodahs, a community of Thurr desert famous for the remarkable beauty of their women who were sought after by the Rajput Chiefs. She records: “If lusty love would go in quest of beauty, few of the daughters of the land could I think compete with the passing fairness of the Soodah maidens.”

Sir Richard Burton, traveller, scholar and prolific writer and translator of Kama Sutra took pride in interacting with the upperclass Sindhi women. He tells us how, posing as a half Arab, half Iranian travelling salesman, he managed to get entry into the secluded quarters and talked to women. Sometimes in a new town he would set up a shop and give heavy discounts to all the ladies, — particularly the pretty ones — that honoured him by patronising his concern. His personal responses to their physical attraction and feminine charm are expressed in colourful language: “Her eyes are large and full of fire, black and white as an onyx stone, with long drooping lashes undeniably beautiful. I do not know exactly whether to approve of that setting of Kajal which encircles the gems; it heightens the colour and defines the form, but also it exaggerates the eyes into becoming the feature of the face — which is not advisable. However, I dare not condemn it.”

Women of rank in the South were not necessarily secluded. Lord Valentia, who came to India as a tourist, to see the country and pay his respects to the Mughals, reports in his Voyages and Travels to India (1809) that he shook hands with the Rani of Ramnad. He also managed to meet the widow of Nana Fadnavis, a Maratha lady. Col. Broughton of the East India Company was impressed by Maratha women, their bold look and manners, riding on horseback along with their husbands. The Marathas, in fact, never accepted the Muslim custom of keeping their women under restraint. Bhima Bai, daughter of Jaswant Rao Holkar, told him that, as she had neither husband nor son, it was her duty to lead her troops in battle.

Among the historical figures who came in contact with the East India Company were: Baiza Bai, Luxmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi and Rani Jindan of Lahore. Baiza Bai, a Maratha princess, widow of Daulat Rao Scindia, was an intelligent woman, whose political ambitions were thwarted by the laws — both British and Indian. The famous Rani of Jhansi, who played a leading role during the 1857 mutiny, had greatly impressed the British with the force and charm of her personality. They also recognised that she had the character and capacity to rule the state. Sir Robert Hamilton, the Company’s Agent in Central India, considered her to be “very civil, polite and clever young lady.” She was a good-looking woman “rather stout but not too stout.” John Lang, who knew her, writes: “Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger and even now it had many charms… The expression also was very intelligent. The eyes were particularly fine and the nose very delicately shaped. She was not very fair, though she was far from black… Her dress was plain white muslin, so fine in texture and drawn about her in such a way that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible — and a remarkably fine figure she had. What spoilt her was her voice.” She used to dress like a man (with a turban) and rode like one. Rani Jindan came into limelight when she tried to unite the Sikh Chiefs under her leadership to thwart the British drive to annex Punjab. “The Rani” according to Herbert Edwards, author of A year on The Punjab Frontier (1851)”… had more wit and daring than any man of her nation”. Another account describes her to be in “possession of a wonderful ability to act with energy and spirit.” She was also reported, to be “skilful in the use of her pen” as revealed by her correspondence with the British Resident, Henry Lawrence (1847).

” Excerpted from Beyond The Veil Indian women in The Raj by Pran Nevile.