The beautiful wife of Abdul Wasi

The assassination attempt on Akbar which followed and her purported European connections

I had initially planned to spend time studying the so called European connections of the mystery wife of Akbar, the famous and powerful Maryam uz Zamani, the purported mother of Salim Khan more famously known as Jahangir. Fresh from a trip to Fathepur Sikhri, I assumed that things would become clear as to whether she had Hindu or Muslim origins or if she was of Portuguese or Armenian extract as some historians had alluded. After a study which proved tiresome and inconclusive, I decided to allow all that information swirling in my head to settle down for a while and get back to it later. Instead I decided to dwell a bit on another wife that Akbar had acquired a little later.  There was a lot of intrigue in this story, sufficient for me to jot it all down, and for you to peruse.

Akbar married his first cousin Ruqaiya, in 1552 (there were a couple of other marriages earlier). Even though he married the daughter of Jamal Khan next in 1556 and the daughter of Abdu’llah Khan Mughal in 1561, his second main consort was Salima Sultan whom he married in 1561. The third was supposedly his favorite, the famous Maryam Zamani whom he married in 1562. He also married Nathibai Sahiba in the same year. In total he had about 35 listed consorts and many more in his harem, rumored to be in total somewhere close to 300.

But the fourth listed consort (his 6th or 7th alliance actually) was the mysterious ‘beautiful wife of Abdul Wassi’. It is an interesting story which ended up with a failed assassination attempt on Akbar. Some call her a secondary wife, but the Ain al Akbari lists her as the 4th (many have incorrectly confused her with Bibi Daulat Shad the mother of two of Akbar’s daughters) wife, which she was. Note here that none of Akbar’s wives are named by the scribes of that time, and we know the real names of only a very few of them.

Let’s first get to know a character who was a noble in Akbar’s court, named Sheikh Badah. Now if you peruse the same source, i.e. Al Badaoni’s notes, in more detail, we can see that Badah had two sons, Sadullah and Abdul Fathah. The fourth wife of Akbar is described to be the wife of Abdul Wasi, and she is the daughter in law of Sheikh Badah. What is further confusing is that Abdul Wasi (a Shia) is from Bidar near Hyderabad in the Deccan while Shiekh Badah or Buddh (perhaps originally a Sufi from Bihar) is from Agra and a Sunni, so he cannot possibly be the third son of Sheikh Badaha. Let’s leave it there for now.

We do know that Al Badaoni was scornful of Akbar, but is still considered a serious scribe of the period, even though he entered Akbar’s employment as a translator only in 1574, ten years later than the occurrence of these events and so must have therefore written some of this based on heresy. His work Muntak̲hab_Ut_Tawārik̲h in three volumes is a general History of the Muslims of India. The second volume is the one that deals with Akbar's reign up to 1595 and is a text which when compared to Akbarnama (a work of praise), a frank and critical account of Akbar's administrative measures, particularly those connected to his conduct and religious leanings. This volume was apparently hidden till Akbar's death and was published only after Jahangir's accession. It is this Volume 2 which mentions the story of Wasi’s wife and the assassination attempt which followed. Let’s see what he has to say, but before that we should also see the intrigues in the Moghul palace and the attempts being made by Akbar to consolidate his powers and move away from the proxy rule of his guardian (not quite the wet nurse as popularly felt) Mahum Anga and his mentor Bairam Khan.

Initially Akbar did wise in appointing the Bairam Khan as his own Vakil (He was Humayun’s trusted aide earlier and was titled Khan Khanam during Humayun’s exile at Iran) or regent. It is believed that Bairam helped Akbar rule firmly and wisely under his regency but as time went by, became more and more authoritarian without consulting Akbar. After a couple of issues concerning elephants their relationship started to get strained, but Akbar then tried to strengthen their ties by getting his cousin Salima Sultan married to Bairam Khan as had been decided by Humayun years back. Soon after this, Akbar decided that things had come to a head and declared himself that he had broken off from Bairam Khan and assumed full power of the throne. Bairam Khan was asked to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca and settle there. After a brief revolt, he formally begged Akbar’s pardon and proceeded to Gujarat in order to sail off to Mecca as ordained by the emperor. He was waylaid by a band of Afghans headed by Mubarak Khan and murdered. Anyway some time later, Akbar then married Salima, his cousin and Bayram Khan’s widow in 1561.

Some of you may recall that Mahum or Maham Anga was the de facto regent of the Mughal state after the exclusion of Bairam Khan in 1560 and until Akbar's assumption of full power in 1562, shortly before her death. Maham Anga was a daughter of Mubrika Begum, wife of Babur. The next two years saw the scheming of this grand old lady in trying to attain control over the Mughal throne.
Sharafudin Mirza, a man of noble descent with the blood of Timur in his veins, did not get along well with his father Khwajah Mu'in and so went to seek his fortunes in the court of Akbar. Through the powerful influence of Mahum, Akbar's nurse, and Adham Khan, her son (No. 19), Mirza Sharaf was appointed Panjhazdri. Akbar gave him his sister Bukhski Bibi Begum in marriage, and made him governor of Ajmer and Nagor. Soon he was involved in intrigues of the Agra courts and in 970H or 1562, was in a rebellious mode.

In the spring of 1562 Sharafuddin Mirza conquered the fort of Mirtha (in Jodhpur state) from a Rajput princeling after a bitter contest. As it appears, Sharafuddin Mirza a jagirdhar of Mewat and related to the Akbar line through Baber decided to intervene in the affairs of Amber in Ajmer, but in timely fashion (and to make sure his nephew Shuja did not lay further claim on the throne), Bihari Mall, the raja of Amber appealed to Akbar and offered the hand of his daughter Harkhabai or Hira Kunwari in marriage.

It was during Ramzan 969 that Adam khan, Mahum’s son was put to death by Akbar for killing his foster father Atgah Khan, following which Mahum died of grief. Perhaps Sharafudin was involved in some scheming with Mahum and Atgah and had to flee. Anyway to sum up, he teamed up with Abul Maali who returned from mecca and started a revolt against Akbar.

Akbar who was hunting near Mathura, hastened to Delhi to quell the disturbance and also with a plan to bring more local chiefs to his side. Some time back, the lords of Agra suggested to Akbar that marriages with girls from noble families would be a good idea to cement their support.

Quoting Al Badaoni,

This was the cause of the circumstances which lead to the suggestions of Shaikh Badah, and Lahrah, lords of Agra. The circumstances are as follows. A widowed daughter-in-law of Shaikh Badah, Fatimah by name (though, unworthy of such an honorable appellation), through evil passions and pride of life, which bear the fruits of wantonness, by the intervention of a tire-women lived in adultery with Baqi Khan, brother of Buzurg Adham Khan, whose house was near hers. And this adultery was afterwards dragged into a marriage.

She used to bring with her to festive gatherings, another daughter-in-law of Shaikh Badah, who had a husband living, whose name was 'Abd-ul-Wasi'. And the story of the devotee's cat', which is told in the beginning of the Anwar-i-Sohaili, came true. Now this woman, whose husband was still living, was wonderfully beautiful, and altogether a charming wife without a peer. One day it chanced that the eyes of the Emperor fell upon her, and so he sent to the Shaikh a proposal of union, and held out hopes to the husband.

For it is a law of the Moghul Emperors' that, if the Emperor cast his eye with desire on any woman, the husband is bound to divorce her, as is shown in the story of Sultan Abu Sa'fd and Mir Choban and his son Damashq Kliwajah. Then 'Abdul-Wasi', reading the verse: "God's earth is wide, to a master of the world the world is not narrow'" bound three divorces in the corner of the skirt of his wife, and went to the city of Bidar in the kingdom of the Dakkan, and so was lost sight of; and that virtuous lady entered the Imperial Haram.

Then Fatimah, at the instigation of her own father-in-law urged that the Emperor should become connected in marriage with other nobles also of Agra and Delhi, that the relation of equality [between the different' families] being manifested, any necessity for unreasonable preference might be avoided.

And a great terror fell upon the city.

At this time, when one day the Emperor was walking and came near the Madrasah-e Begum, a slave named Fulad, whom Mirza Sharaf-ud-din Husain, when he fled and went to Makka, had set free, shot an arrow at him from the top to the balcony of the Madrasah, which happily did no more than graze his skin. When the full significance of this incident was made known to the Emperor by supernatural admonition and the miracles of the Pir’s of Delhi, he gave up his intention. The Emperor ordered the wretched man to be brought to his deserts at once, although some of the Amir’s wished to delay a little until the affairs should be investigated, with a view to discovering what persons were implicated in the conspiracy. His Majesty went on horseback to the fortress, and there the physicians applied themselves to his cure, so that in a short time he was healed of his wound, and mounting his royal litter went to Agra.

The Akbarnama expectedly mentions only this part - Though H.M. the Shahinshah from his farsightedness and reticence did not give time for the examination of the circumstances of that evildoer, yet so much was ascertained as that this presumptuous iron-hearted one was a slave of Sharafu-d-din Husain Mirza's father, and that his name was Qatlaq Faulad. That rebel (Sharafu-d-din) had sent him from Jalaur with evil designs to be a companion of Shah Abu-l-ma'ali. When the latter fled from India and went towards Kabul he sent this inauspicious one upon this business. In order to [cause] his own destruction he (Faulad) placed the arrow of strife on the bow of fate and prepared the materials of eternal ignominy, and did not perceive how impossible it is for evil thoughts of wretches to enter the protected sanctuary of him who is befriended by God. On the contrary, whatever evil thought they have entertained recoils upon themselves in ruin and destruction.

The assassination attempt
Anyway Faulad was dealt with and Akbar took the girl to his harem. Neither her name nor her future days or actions are mentioned in any chronicles, but she remained in the annals of history as his 4th wife, or the beautiful ex-wife of Abdul Wasi. Akbar attributed his miraculous escape to the blessings and visit to Sufi Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah at Delhi, just before the event.

Sharafudin fled again, this time to Gujarat where he took asylum in the court of one Chengiz Khan. But after Akbar conquered Gujarat, he had to flee again and this time he fled to the Deccan plains, presumably Bidar where Abdul Wasi had previously gone. But he was captured on the way at Baglanah and handed over to Akbar. To scare him, Akbar made a show of trampling him under the foot of his tame elephant and then put him behind bars. He later sent him to Muzaffar Khan in Bengal and asked him to keep an eye on him and planned a return of his jagir should he show signs of repentance. If not, he was to be sent to Makkah.

So you can now conclude with some surety that Abdul Wasi and Sharaffudin were in cahoots and Bidar was where Sharaffudin was headed. Anyway it is felt by historians that Akbar forced Wasi to divorce his wife and cede her to him because of Wasi’s tie up with the rebel Sharaffudin. That is how the beautiful wife of Abdul Wasim became the beautiful 4th wife of Akbar, all in all, a scandalous alliance.

The story did not end there because of the storm raised over the identity of Akbar’s principal wife and later the Queen mother during Jahangir’s reign, the much talked about Mariam uz Zamani. A farman of Maryam is believed to establish that she was indeed the mother of Jahangir. It is also widely believed that Maryam was the Rajput wife of Akbar, the daughter of Bihari Mall of Amber. However even now though by conjecture most have accepted that such is the case, it is not an irrefutable fact. Portuguese clergy of the period stated that Maryam was of Portuguese origin and an Armenian writer assured his readers that she was indeed an Armenian Christian. Further intrigue was brought in with the discovery of a paintings showing Akbar with Maryam and Maryam wearing a pearl necklace depicting a cross (then came to light a fine painting depicting the European wife). Adding fuel to the fire, yet another writer went to great lengths to assume that Abdul Wassi was actually Abdul Massi, a Christian and that his wife was Mary, thus giving this 4th wife a Christian identity. Let’s check on this last aspect and see if we can cast any new light.

F Fanthome states - There is a tradition which I am inclined to believe, that Mary, who had a sister Juliana by name, was the daughter, by an Armenian mother, of one Dr. Martindell or Martingell (in the imperial service), and that she was married to Akbar, while Juliana who practiced as a doctress in the seraglio was married to Prince Bourbon. In the list of the Emperor's wives given above, there is one who is mentioned (No. 4) as "the beautiful wife of Abdul Wassi," or, as I believe, Abdul Massi (Massi signifies Messiah). Now it is a fact established by inscriptions on graves in the Catholic cemetery at Agra, that during the Moghul reign Christians bore Mahomedan names and Mahomedan titles, and I conceive Abdul Wassi or Massi was a Christian. Under the circumstance, I should not be surprised if "the beautiful wife of Abdul Wassi" was no other than Mary herself. The way in which his (Abdul Wassi's) name is mentioned in the Ain shows that the man possessed no high social status, and a plebeian's widow, under ordinary circumstances, Akbar was not likely to marry. He could not have an opportunity of seeing such a woman. Probably on account of her sister, Mary had been to the imperial palace, and when she became a widow Akbar made her his spouse.

We can see that Fanthome was not in possession of real facts when he wrote the above, and it was just an assumption. So it can safely be discarded and the beautiful wife of Wasi again withdraws into the shadows. It is a pity that we can’t get a look at her or get to know details of her later life. Did she rot away in the harem where these wine guzzling and opium consuming monarchs spent their evening hours consorting with a bevy of beautiful women? Historians state that Akbar turned a new leaf after the rumblings in Delhi and the assassination attempt, not coveting another’s wife thereafter!

But well, was there a Christian wife as alluded? Perhaps there was, unless there is a better explanation to the painting exhibited even today in Delhi. Who is then the lady, titled ‘Akbar’s European wife’ and shown the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi? Was she the Maria Masceranhas, Juliana’s sister and connected to the Bourbons of Bhopal or was she the Turkish sultana? As you can imagine, this brings us to another vexing subject, the Turkish Sultana (she as you know had her own palace hall in the Fathepur Sikhri), which I will get to on a later date.

In the next article, we will discuss the question of who Jahangir's mother was and if it was indeed the one entitled Maryam uz-Zamani. Was Maryam, as popularly believed, the daughter of Raja Bhara Mal of Amber, having been married to Akbar at Sambhar in 1562, or was she somebody else, as suggested by some historians? It is indeed a stimulating topic where various historians had made rapid conclusions suiting their respective ends, but not really tying all the loose ends.

The Ain i Akbari, Volume 1 - Abū al-Faz̤l ibn Mubārak
Muntak̲hab_Ut_tawārik̲h – Abdul Khadir bin Maluk Shah Al Badaoni
A Genealogical Table of the Mughal Family - Ellen S. Smart
Akbar the greatest Moghul – SM Burke
Reminiscences of Agra – Frederic Fanthome
Women in Mughal India – Rekha Misra


Bhagwat said…
Mirium Zamani was known as Jagat Gosain by her Hindu friends. In either case, her name translates the same - universal / global saint -

There are many letters and grants made by 'Jagat Gosain' to Hindu temples in Vrindavan. Some of those letters and grants are still preserved as valuable historical documents by temples in Nathdwara and Kakroli (Rajasthan).
I am sure similar documents are preserved by other temples around Rajasthan and UP. Looking at these grants, it is fair to assume that she was a Hindu princess, probably the daughter of Amber.

Fact that Amber / Jaipur did well in the court of Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan, points to their princess(s) being favoured empresses in the royal harem. It is very probable that Harkabai / Hira kuwari was the mother of Jahangir as the Jaipur rulers consolidated their position in the court and became even more important than the rulers of Mewad. Jahangir married princess of Jodhpur and it is possible that she gave birth to ShahJahan.
Maddy said…
Thanks Bhagwat..
I have not yet completed my research on Maryam Zamani. It is a very complicated subject which has been muddled up by connections to the rulers of Amber. I will get to this separately.