The remarkable Princess Gulbadan, flower of the Mughal court

In 1587, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, himself illiterate but with grand vision and even greater ambition, commanded his courtier Abu’l-Fazl to write an official history of his reign and dynasty. An order went around Akbar’s court that anyone who was ‘gifted with the talent for writing history’ should put pen to paper and record the events that had shaped their times. Unusually for a male-dominated society, this included the emperor’s aunt. The 64-year-old Princess Gulbadan was well placed to provide a first-hand description of the creation and consolidation of the Mughal empire, for she was the beloved daughter of the Emperor Babur, who founded the dynasty, and the half-sister of

Scattering my father’s ashes in Santiago de Compostela

We are in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela to scatter our father’s ashes. He and my youngest sister had planned to walk the Camino, which finishes here at the resting place of Saint James, to mark the start of her adulthood and the beginning of his retirement. Instead, my two sisters have been walking the ancient pilgrims’ route for the past few weeks. I’ve flown into the city to meet them at the end. Most of Dad’s ashes went into a smart Regency tea caddy. The funeral directors had offered us a standard-issue urn but we decided he’d prefer something jolly and Georgian. The lacquered box didn’t quite

Why it’s time for a pilgrimage revival

At 3 a.m, with sleepless hours slipping by as storms besiege my tent, it’s easy to ask: why? Why swap the security of a home for a pilgrimage on foot with no itinerary beyond a smudged path on a 14th century map? And no comforts beyond those carried on my back or offered by strangers? Back on the bright path next morning, though, the question answers itself. The way is its own reward: the land resonates; the past speaks; my soul sings – and so do I. But my departure had not only been inspired by the pull of the open road. There were push factors, too. The economic attrition

Three men on a pilgrimage: Haven, by Emma Donoghue, reviewed

I used to envy Catholic novelists – Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, François Mauriac – as having that extra point of view, namely eternity. The Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue doesn’t entirely qualify as a Catholic writer, even though she’s on record as saying she’s currently obsessed with Catholic theology, specifically Purgatory, but there’s a thread of Catholicism (particularly the Irish variety) in many of her books. Also, it has to be said that she’s frightfully good at suffering and endurance. I thought this when reading her 2020 novel The Pull of the Stars, set in the 1918 flu epidemic, and Haven is no exception. This must surely be her most Catholic

A Chaucerian tale: Pilgrims, by Matthew Kneale, reviewed

Matthew Kneale is much drawn to people of the past. In his award-winning English Passengers, he captured the sensibilities of a group of 19th-century seafarers bound for Tasmania in search of the Garden of Eden by chronicling their voyage in 21 singular, vibrant voices, and by weaving into their journey a heavy thread of racist and colonial endeavour. In his latest book, he returns to these themes of voyage and discovery, adventure and prejudice with his band of 13th-century pilgrims who have assembled in England as a ‘proper party’ in order to travel to Rome — without, they hope, being ‘stabbed or robbed or cudgelled to death along the road’.