It can be aptly summarised in one word — lopsided. It was a man’s world. Women were merely objects of pleasure, sex and bearing children. They were status symbols and the more you have in your harem, the higher your prestige. Akbar was said to have over a thousand: Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Arabs, Turks, Caucasians and Moors. They were kept in strict seclusion, guarded by troops of eunuchs and not allowed to go out without the Monarch’s permission. He spent his evenings with them to have his drinks, listen to music and have sex with one or two. He could not possibly enjoy a lot of them; that was beyond their prowess no matter how many kushtas (aphrodisiacs) they consumed. Mughal rulers never wrote about the sexual exploits. With severe censorship how did the sordid goings in harems get known? Eunuchs were occasionally allowed to go out, as were female servants. Bazars of cities like Delhi and Agra were full of salacious gossip of what was going on in the palaces. Foreigners like Tavernier and Manucci wrote about them in their memoirs.[When will Pakistan stamp out the jihadis?- Hindustan Times (LT Pragmatic)]
This is true of most harems; the women and eunuchs had their own politics which sometimes influenced succession. Gore Vidal’s Creation, for example, describes the intrigues in Xerxes’ harem. Also due to this you often see eunuchs as main characters in historical fiction since they could enter any room in the palace. The investigator in Jason Goodwin’s The Snake Stone, The Janissary Tree and The Bellini Card set in 19th century Istanbul is Yashim the Eunuch. The book I picked this week from the library, Anne Perry’s The Sheen on the Silk, set in 13th century Byzanthium, features a physician disguising as a eunuch to solve a murder mystery.
And of course, who can forget Zheng He