Intimate Servants and Political Power: Tracking Two Eunuch Lives in the Late Mughal World

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Emma Kalb, University of Chicago
In this paper I will be exploring the lives of two prominent eunuch slaves active at the Mughal court in Delhi during the first half of the eighteenth century: Javed Khan and Roz Afzun Khan. Eunuchs are ubiquitous in the sources of the Mughal period, serving in a wide range of roles from personal servant or guard to military general or governor. The eighteenth century saw an increase in the prominence of eunuchs, at least as represented in its texts, testified to by the dramatic rise of Javed Khan "Nawab Bahadur" to the position of effective regent during the reign of Ahmad Shah (r. 1748-1754), followed swiftly by his assassination in 1752 by the Chief Minister, Safdarjang. In contrast, Roz Afzun Khan, superintendent of the Mughal harem, had a long career serving emperors from Aurangzeb to Alamgir II, marked similarly by a deep political involvement evident, for example, in his role in the murder of influential noble Amir Khan in 1746 as well as in the overthrow of Ahmad Shah and subsequent enthronement of Alamgir II in 1754. Through focusing on the lives of these two contemporaries, as described in contemporary Persian-language histories, I will examine the ways in which their careers, divergent in their direction as well as depiction, reveal both the scope of the agency of such figures in this period of political turbulence and possibility, as well as its limits. In doing so I hope to address questions of how status and influence were attained and wielded in this period by eunuch slaves, either despite or because of the ways in which they were marked as biologically and socially different, and of how this makes more complex our larger picture of how political power was negotiated and contested in the late Mughal world.
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