Harem an Arabic word meaning prohibited or the sacred enclosure. Harem, Harim or Herem was the secluded part of royal household where lived mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, entertainers, lady servants, concubines etc. Entry of outsiders into the Harem was prohibited.
The Harem system developed into a domestic institution under the Mughals. Abul Fazl in his ain-i-akbari and akbarnamah gives a vivid description of the Harem administration. The female apartment of the Mughal emperor was called Mahal. Abul Fazl named it as Shabistan-i-Khas. The ladies occupied a large portion of the royal household. They all had separate apartments. There were three more palaces in which the concubines of the emperor were accommodated. They were known as Leathevar (Sunday), Mongol (Tuesday) and Zenisher (Saturday) Mahals. On these days the emperor used to visit the said palaces. Besides these there was a separate palace known as Bengali Mahal for the foreign concubines of the emperor.
The private rooms made for the Mughal queens were very rich. The ladies lived in splendour, pomp and luxury in these mahals where they sat and saw but could not be seen. Their enclosure contained splendid and beautiful apartments in keeping with rank and income. Every chamber had its reservoir of running water at the door, on every side were gardens, streams, fountains and comfortable resting places on which they could sleep coolly at night.
The emperors elaborately organised the harem. Chaste women were appointed as daroghas and superintendents of the harem and they were assigned different sections to look after. Matrons were appointed to maintain order and discipline in the harem. These ladies were given liberal salaries, which were disbursed by Tahvildars or the cash keepers. The highest female servant who controlled the harem was mahaldar. She also acted as a spy in the interest of the emperor or the king. The interference of the mahaldar often resulted in a quarrel between her and the princes of royal family because they did not relish the watchful eyes of these mahaldars.
The harem was guarded with great caution and attention. The most trustworthy women guards were placed near the apartment of the emperor. On the outer fringe eunuchs were placed and at a proper distance from them were deputed bands of faithful Rajput guards. No one could easily enter the harem. The doors of the harem were closed at sunset and torches were left burning. Each lady guard was obliged to send the reports to the nazir of all that happened in the harem. The written reports of all the events that occurred in the harem were sent to the emperor. Whenever the wives of some nobles desired to visit the harem, they had to notify first to the servants of the harem who would forward the request to the officers of the palace. After this, those eligible were permitted to enter the harem. Nazir was a term used for the eunuchs who guarded the harem. Each princess had a nazir in whom she reposed great confidence. Whenever the Emperor or the Nawab moved within the palace the procession was usually accompanied with kaneezes (women servants).
After the death of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam I in 1712, the central power in Delhi disintegrated through palace revolutions and independent provincial dynasties grew up in Bengal, Hyderabad and Lucknow. The independent Bengal nawabs maintained harem following the Mughal tradition. This continued even after the defeat of sirajuddaula. The English officers of the east india company and English merchants maintained harem in the style of the nawabs. In the English harem there were Armenian, Portuguese, Bengali and also women from different parts of India.
Normally the Bengal nawabs married more than two or three wives. The senior most wife commanded the greatest respect and influence. The whole management of the harem was under the direct command of the nawab. The nawab visited a particular wife on a particular day. The kaneezes arranged for all kinds of comforts for him. Only the favourite wife accompanied the nawab when he would go out. The rest of the wives were left behind under the care of the eunuchs. These ladies in the nawab's harem wore the most expensive clothes, ate rich food and enjoyed all worldly pleasures. They were often very jealous of each other for gaining favours of the nawab. Eunuchs and purchased Bengali slave girls were appointed to guard each wife to ensure that she was seen by no other man except the nawab. The other ladies of the nobility (wives of amirs) also led a luxurious life.
Each wife of a Bengal nawab lived in a separate apartment of the palace. They were given monthly allowances. They had many slaves and maids to serve them. Their grandour varied according to their influence upon the nawab. Massive walls, with tanks and gardens inside surrounded the apartments of these Begums. Following the Mughal tradition the Bengal nawabs kept concubines. These concubines did their best to attract and please the nawab and encouraged him to use opium and intoxicating drugs and also played musical instruments. These concubines sometimes took the place of the real begums who, naturally, felt jealous of them. Each concubine had her own apartment.
There were however exceptions among the Bengal nawabs who conducted the harem administration in a different way. alivardi khan was a man of piety and contemporary Europeans have paid eloquent tribute to the qualities of this remarkable man. He abstained from wine and women, conferring his loyalty to his only wife. Alivardi never entered the zenana without sending notice. Wives and daughters of fallen rebel chiefs found asylum in the harem of Alivardi. They were treated with kindness and assigned decent accommodation in the inner apartments of the harem. Whenever he received any fruit or any special gift he sent those to his consort and other ladies of the harem. After his evening and night prayers Alivardi ate some fruits and sweets in company of his begum and ladies of the zenana. At this time he drank a cup of water cooled with saltpetre or with ice.
Bibliography Abul Fazl, Ain-i-Akbari, Vol. I (Translated by H Blochman), 2nd ed, Calcutta, 1939; Jadunath Sarker, The History of Bengal, Vol. 11, Dhaka, 1948; Shahryar Iqbal, Mughol Shomaj O Rajnitite Nari (in Bangla), Dhaka, 1995.