Stories of Khwajasaras Should Be an Important Part of the Study of Mughal History

During the Mughal era, khwajasaras or eunuchs were not limited to the harems, but held important positions in political and administrative organisations as well. However, as "non-males" in a patriarchal system, they were subject to animosity.

In the vicinity of Agra, on the route which once took people to Allahabad, there is a place by the name Etmadpur. The area is marked by a magnificent two-storey water pavilion. The water has now dried up and the pavilion stands at the centre of vast, marshy land, dotted by herdsmen and their goats. To the north of this pavilion is a causeway, which must have originally connected it to land. At a little distance is the octagonal tomb of the Etmad Khan khwajasara (eunuch), after whom the place was named.

Similar to this structure, on the route from Agra to Gwalior, one would come across another tomb and tank of another khwajasara, Firuz Khan. The tomb, octagonal again, stands atop a large platform. The ornamentation of the gateway and the tomb are exquisite and the architectural decorations hint of Jahangir’s period. Both these khwajasaras commanded immense power in the administrative setup of the Mughals. While Etmad Khan held the high rank of 3,000 under Akbar’s Mansabdar system, Firuz Khan rose rapidly from Jahangir to Shah Jahan’s reign and died on an equally high rank of 3,000.

These structures tell a history of the life and work of khwajasaras in the Mughal world, which is quite different from what has been popularly assumed. In popular culture, khwajasaras are seen as limited to harems (seraglio), which is associated with unnecessary romanticism. Harem is seen as a place of fulfilment of carnal pleasures. The Mughal harem specially becomes a centre of myth making, since it represents the space of sexual escapades of otherwise shrewd and all powerful emperors.

There is no doubt that khwajasaras were associated with the harem. They were part of an elaborate organisation ensuring the functioning of a harem. They were treasury supervisors and also of properties of the royal ladies. Khwajasaras used to hold guard too, as one contemporary writer observes, any entourage of royal women was incomplete without the ‘sour’ faced eunuchs forming a protective circle around them. The royal women, while on the move, couldn’t be seen by the public because of this guard of eunuchs.

Having established this, it becomes important to foreground the other duties performed by the khwajasaras, which weren’t linked to the harem at all. They were active participants in the political and administrative functioning of the empire as well.

Participation in political, administrative organisations

That a history of active participation of sexual minorities in Mughal political and administrative organisations can be forgotten says a lot about the way popular history and popular culture function. While contemporary historians have enormous amount of information on the khwajasaras, it has not been utilised.

Khwajasaras played the role of trusted servants, conveying messages and confidential information. Roshanara Begum, Aurangzeb’s sister, used her trusted eunuchs to circulate confidential information regarding her brother’s illness. It was a eunuch who was given charge of Aurangzeb’s son in case he did not recover from his illness. Even Shah Jahan, when he was imprisoned by his son, was in the protective custody of eunuch Aitbar Khan.

The role of Khwajasaras was not limited only to royal service. They were active participants in the administrative functioning of the state as well. Itibar Khan, a confidential servant of Babur, was made responsible for the safety of royal ladies who were travelling from Iran to India. He was also made the governor of Delhi during the reign of Akbar. Khwaja Agah enjoyed the position of faujdar (garrison commander) of Agra on several occasions. During Jahangir’s reign, Wafadar was sent to govern the strategic location of Gujarat. Itibar Khan defended the city of Agra when Shah Jahan marched on it during his rebellion.

Thus there was an important and apparent presence of khwajasaras in spaces apart from the harem.

Not a sign of absence of animosity

Babur meeting a princess, work of Mansur, Baburnama, AD 1598, National Museum, New Delhi. In the frame, khwajasaras can be seen in the service of the princess.

This active participation of khwajasaras in the administrative setup shouldn’t however be confused with absence of animosity towards them. They were the non-males in an overall patriarchal setup and were treated with hatred. Men thought khwajasaras were envious of their manhood.

It is assumed that there prevailed a sense of inferiority in the minds of khwajasaras regarding their sexuality, a hint reflected in Aitbar Khan’s outburst when his family visited him when he was in a powerful position. The eunuch blamed his family for his inability to enjoy man’s greatest pleasure.

It is difficult to ascertain how far the eunuchs cradled animosity towards men, because we hardly have information from their perspective, but it is well known that khwajasaras were faithful and sincere to their masters, both male and female. The khwajasara of Prince Murad Bakhsh even laid down his life for his master.

The narrative of khwajasaras envying manhood might just have been an attempt to legitimise their dehumanisation. Contemporary observers called them animals, monsters and baboons, generally attributing to them qualities of being covetous of gold, diamond and pearls.

Khwajasaras are reported to have been foul in speech and fond of silly stories. It is said that they were licentious in examining everything, both goods and women, which came into the palace. But the fact is that it was the job of these khwajasaras to inspect goods coming and leaving the palace. They were the officers on guard. They had the authority to search everything with great care and detail to stop the entry of bhang, wine, opium, nutmegs or any other drug which can act as intoxicant. Entry of radishes, cucumbers or similar vegetables that may be used for sexual pleasure by women was also prohibited inside the harem by royal orders. Khwajasaras properly performing their duties was also constructed as evil by contemporary writers.

Link between the two worlds

It can be safely assumed that khwajasaras were the link between the harem and the outside world, a passageway connecting the ‘male’ world and the ‘female’ world, dwelling between the protectors and the protected; they were on the margins of the social hierarchical order and were disadvantaged at numerous levels, yet they had the unique authority to move freely across the veil dividing the genders

Some historical sources suggest that the argument around jealousy can be built in the reverse order as well. It can be argued that men were jealous of the khwajasaras’ access to women. This can be better understood from an incident that took place during Aurangzeb’s reign, where a khwajasara developed a romantic relationship with a woman. Didar Khan, one of the principal eunuchs of the seraglio of Aurangzeb, developed a relationship with the sister of a common folk. They could meet easily and the affair was feasible only because Didar Khan was a khwajasara. Eventually, the khwajasara was brutally stabbed by the woman’s brother when the affair came to light. It was only after the women and eunuchs of the harem protested that the emperor handed a token punishment to the murderer.

In contrast to this, Khwajasaras were sometimes punished for no apparent crime. When two men were allegedly caught by the guards from the harem of Roshanara Begum, Aurangzeb’s sister, a huge scandal was created. It was an unsaid truth that the men must have entered the harem with the royal lady’s knowledge. Yet, to protect the princess’ name, the head khwajasara was blamed for being careless in guarding the harem. He was removed from the office. This entire episode is narrated by Manucci, a contemporary observer. The authenticity of his account is dubious as he bases it largely on bazaar gossip with much fictitious content. This incident is a reflection of the true conditions of the khwajasaras. Their persecution was taken for granted and was an accepted norm in popular imagination.

It seems that despite the power exercised by khwajasaras, a general attitude of animosity towards them was prevalent. Some thought they exerted more power than they should, while others saw them excelling despite being mischievous. Khwajasara Etimad Khan, the one after whom Etmadpur is named, had risen to a high position. He was struck dead by a soldier with the allegation that he had a “harsh attitude”. Harsh attitude of a khwajasara, even one enjoying a high rank, could not be tolerated. Though there was a sense of authority associated with this sexual minority, they had to face much animosity and hardship.

Khwajasaras couldn’t go on pilgrimage to spend their wealth and had no blood successors to keep their memory alive. Thus, they invested in architectural enterprises to keep alive their memory. The two architectural remains mentioned above still stand tall, despite several bouts of invasion faced by north India and the test of time. As was originally intended, the names of some of these khwajasaras still live on in modern times. These surviving structures keep alive not only their name, but hint towards the glory and power they commanded, despite being persecuted and oppressed in a patriarchal setup.

Lubna Irfan is a research scholar at the Centre of Advanced Study, department of history in Aligarh Muslim University.