Sometime in the early 1560s, a Mughal woman returns to Delhi from Mecca, where she had gone to perform Hajj, among the very few women in the dynasty to do so. Along with her, she brings several craftsmen, who, with the locals, will work under her watch to build a grand mausoleum, a first of its kind, that she had commissioned in memory of her beloved husband, the late Emperor Humayun.
The mausoleum will not only be the first remarkable example of Mughal architecture in the country but will also become an archetype to future projects of the dynasts, including the Taj Mahal. She would dedicate her entire life caring for the poor and to the memory of her beloved husband. She would also be known as a woman who not only held immense power but also endured tragedy and was even held captive once by the enemy. This is the story of Bega Begum.
Born into a family of nobles from Khurasan in northern Iran, Bega Begum was married to her 19-year-old cousin Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad, who would later rule India and be known by his regnal name Humayun. Bega was what author Ira Mukhoty in her book Daughter of the Sun writes as “her husband’s bride of youth, the bride of his first forays into Hindustan and his early, erratic and aimless wanderings through Bengal”.
Years later, when Humayun was crowned Padishah (a Persian title equivalent to King), Bega arrived in Agra, where she gave birth to a boy, who unfortunately died in infancy. There are no written records of this tragic loss in history, apart from the fact that the infant’s grandfather, Emperor Babur, had disapproved the choice of the name ‘Al-Aman’ for him by his father.
In the coming years, the Mughal Empress gave birth to another child, this time a girl who was named Aqiqa. But tragedy struck again, and the six-year-old lost her life (presumed to be drowned) during the infamous battle with Sher Shah Suri at Chausa in Bihar. Here, Bega too was taken prisoner but was treated with great courtesy and respect by the Pashtun king and later set free along with others.
“Bega Begum was a strong-headed woman. Someone who did not fear to speak her mind to even the Emperor, was able to survive being taken prisoner by the enemy, bore the loss her children and still retained a powerful stature,” Rana Safvi, historian and author tell indianexpress.com.
She did not have any more children.
Following the tumultuous years of wars and loss, Humayun recovered his throne but only to die after falling down a flight of stairs at his library in Delhi. Bega, who was in Kabul at the time, was asked to return to India only after her step-son, Akbar, defeated the then King Hemu.
“Bega Begum, now, is standing in the headwind of an unsettling storm. She has always been very close to her nephew, whom she helped raise for ten years in Kabul after the early deaths of her own children. Akbar, who has a strong bond with all the older women of his family, is always indebted to the care she lavished on him as a child,” Mukhoty writes.
In the coming years, as Akbar expands his empire and moves his capital to Agra, Bega chooses to remain in Delhi, the city where her husband breathed his last. Here, she commissions what would be the first magnificent example of Mughal Persianate garden tomb as a mausoleum for her husband.
At some point in the next few years, Bega went to Mecca for three years to perform Hajj and is referred to as Haji Begum by many. She brings along with her several Persian artisans, who along with the local masons work under the guidance of chief architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas.
“The site for the tomb is chosen carefully, in close proximity to Nizamuddin’s Durgah and with the Yamuna flowing beside it, making access to the tomb easier. The tomb will combine, for the first time in Hindustan, certain elements of Central Asian architecture which till now had never been found together. They include a massive onion-shaped Timurid dome, radial geometry and symmetry and the use of red sandstone along with white marble structures,” Mukhoty adds.
Even after the completion of the Humayun’s Tomb, Bega, one of the first Mughal builders continued to live in Delhi.
Jesuit priest Antoine de Monserrate, who was invited by Akbar from Goa to learn more about Christianity, in his writing in the year 1591, claims Bega had devoted herself to prayer and supported as many as 500 people with her alms.
“One of his wives had loved Emaumus [Humayun] so faithfully that she had a small house built close by the tomb and had watched there till the day of her death. Throughout her widowhood, she devoted herself to prayer and to alms-giving. Indeed she maintained 500 poor people by her alms. Had she only been a Christian, hers would have been the life of a heroine.”
Following her death, Bega Begum was buried in the tomb near to her husband’s grave.