Nur Jahan (1577–1646) was one of the most powerful women in Indian history. A Persian widow who married the weak Indian king Jahangir, Nur Jahan was the true ruler. In a time when women were unseen and rarely heard, she issued orders from behind the curtains of the harem. In addition to inviting court intrigue and power struggles, Nur Jahan also contributed to women's fashion and embroidery, mutual trade with Europeans, coinage, gardens, architecture, and the design of magnificent marble tombs. Some historians called her selfish and opportunistic, others expounded on her generosity.
Married a Persian
Nur Jahan was born Mihrunnissa (meaning "seal of womankind") in India in 1577, although she was the daughter of a Persian emigrant exiled from his homeland. Her father, Mirza Ghiyas al-Din Muhammador, who served in the magnificent court of the Teymourees in India under the name Itimaduddaula ("pillar of the state"), was said to be elegant and cultivated, a prime example of the aristocracy and a good role model of courtly behavior.
Some sources say that Jahan and Sciah Selim (who would become Emperor Jahangir of India) met as adolescents. Jahangir's father, Emperor Akbar, disapproved of the relationship. In any event, Jahan was married at age 17 to a Persian soldier and adventurer named Ali Quli Istunjuloo, who was renamed Sher Akfan after he killed a lion with his word. Sher Akfan secured an administrative post serving the Moghul Empire at Burdwan in Bengal when Jahangir first inherited the throne in 1605. Akfan found himself caught between politics and jealousy: he sided with Jahangir's enemies, and Jahangir coveted his wife.
At this time, Jahan was already lauded as a woman of great beauty as well as intelligence. The legend says that when Jahangir became emperor, he intended to make Jahan his wife. He accused Akfan of "having a tendency to rebellion" and ordered his soldiers to assassinate Akfan in 1607.
Jahan, widowed and burdened with a baby daughter, Ladili Begam, was brought to the Moghul court to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Emperor Akbar's widow, Lady Salima, in the imperial harem in Agra. It took four years, but Jahangir was at last ready to marry Jahan in 1611.
Became the Twentieth Wife
Jahangir loved Jahan beyond all other women, even though she was considered too old to marry at age 34. Although she became his twentieth wife, he made her his principal queen and renamed her Nur Mahal, or "light of the palace." Later, in 1616, he would bestow upon her the new name, Nur Jahan, "light of the world." Jahangir and Jahan had no children together.
As a king, Jahangir curiously demonstrated his disinterest in politics, affairs of the court, and squabbles in the zanana, or women's quarters. Indolent and alcoholic, Jahangir spent his time enjoying the pleasures of food, wine, and daily doses of opium, while Nur Jahan became the undisputed sovereign. In his memoirs (quoted in A History of India), Jahangir had written that "Nur Jahan was wise enough to conduct the business of State," while he "only wanted a bottle of wine and a piece of meat to make merry." King and country were now tools in Jahan's hands.
From Jahangir's harem, Jahan ruled with supreme authority. According to Medieval India under Mohammedan Rule 712–1764, British Ambassador to India Sir Thomas Roe wrote, "He hath one Wife, or Queen, whom he esteems and favours above all other Women; and his whole Empire is govern'd at this day by her counsel." Nur Jahan is said to never have broken purdah, the Islamic rule of women hiding themselves from men. From behind the curtains of the harem, she issued her orders to trusted male officers and eunuchs in her service. She granted appointments, controlled promotions, and approved orders.
In addition to gaining the love and trust of the emperor, she easily won admiration from her subjects. With her intelligence and courage, she learned about and exploited the power structure prevalent in the Moghul court and was able to bend laws to suit those in need. Nur Jahan was said to have been very generous, giving alms to beggars. She especially helped orphan girls marry well, paying for their dowries with her own money.
Granted Her Family Privilege
Jahan was reportedly ruthless in keeping her interests and alliances at the fore. She cunningly removed from the harem women who could jeopardize her status or affections with the king, and she removed old captains and ministers, replacing them with men loyal to her.
With her nearly absolute power, Nur Jahan was not above bestowing leading positions at the imperial court upon her own family. Her father, Sher Akfan, was promoted to chief minister for Jahangir. Her brother, Asaf Khan, was given the second highest rank in court. She created a triumvirate of power with her issuing the orders, and her father and brother carrying them out.
To add to the soap opera-like intrigue, Nur Jahan tried to secure her family's place in Jahangir's succession by marrying off her daughter, Ladili Begam, from her first husband, to Khusrau, the king's eldest son. When Khusrau refused, she enticed Prince Khurram (later known as Shah Jahan, "king of the world"), who also refused. Jahan settled on marrying Ladili to Jahangir's youngest son, Prince Shahryar.
Meanwhile, Asaf Khan succeeded in marrying his daughter, Arjumand Banu Begum, to Shah Jahan in 1612. Shah Jahan renamed her Mumtaz Mahal, "jewel of the palace." When Mumtaz Mahal, Nur Jahan's niece, died in childbirth in 1631, Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to her memory.
With Ladili married to Shahryar, Nur Jahan began actively to work against Shahryar's brother Shah Jahan as Jahangir's heir to the throne. Some historians said that Nur Jahan's ambition knew no limits. Under her invisible rule and unscrupulous favoritism, the empire succumbed to bitter jealousies, corruption, and rebellion.
Jahangir's Ill Health
Nur Jahan's grasp on the empire only tightened after Jahangir fell ill in 1620. He suffered poor health from his alcoholism, asthma, and opium addiction. Two years later, her father died in 1622. With her brother away from court, Nur Jahan ruled alone from inside the harem. Factions were growing as Shah Jahan gained the support of Asaf Khan, Nur Jahan's brother and Shah Jahan's father-in-law. Nur Jahan urged Jahangir to name a successor, preferably her daughter's husband, Prince Shahryar, known as a handsome fool. Shah Jahan also wanted to be named heir.
When India lost Kandahar to the shah of Persia in 1622, Jahangir ordered Shah Jahan to retake the annexed region. Fearing Nur Jahan's further intrigues at court if he was gone, he refused to leave. Civil war broke out as Shah Jahan gathered a rebel force against Jahangir and Nur Jahan, but it was quashed by capable General Mahabat Khan. Shah Jahan was exiled, attempted to establish his own kingdom, but ultimately surrendered. It was not until 1625 when he reconciled with his father.
Nur Jahan now set her sites on Mahabat Khan, who posed a threat to her power. Fearing for his life and disgusted over the court politics, Mahabat rebelled. When Jahangir was separated from his guard, Mahabat seized the emperor in a surprise attack and imprisoned him. Ever courageous, Nur Jahan escaped the imperial guard and gathered an army made up of supporters to rescue Jahangir.
Tales recount how Nur Jahan led her troops atop an elephant, shooting arrows from behind her curtained howdah enclosure. An arrow penetrated the curtain to wound her granddaughter, Prince Shahryar's daughter, sitting on her lap. Jahan boldly entered Mahabat's camp but was eventually captured and put into prison with her husband. With Nur Jahan in prison, Mahabat's suspicions waned. Nevertheless, she managed to sway supporters even in prison. Soon, king and queen were free, and Mahabat fled to join sides with Shah Jahan.
Widowed Queen Quietly Retired
Jahangir died on October 28, 1627, the opium and extravagant lifestyle finally overtaking him. Nur Jahan and her brother Asaf Khan now found themselves on opposite sides of a succession dispute. Encouraged by Jahan, Shahryar proclaimed himself emperor at Lahore. Yet Shah Jahan, with Asaf's backing, returned from his stay in Deccan. Asaf imprisoned Shahryar, then later killed him by strangulation. Four other princes who stood in Shah Jahan's way were murdered. Shah Jahan was declared emperor at Agra in February 1628.
By comparison, Nur Jahan was fortunate. Used to controlling the court, she now quietly accepted banishment in Lahore and retired into private life. She received a handsome pension of 200,000 rupees per year, and always wore the white robe of mourning for her husband. While maintaining strict seclusion, she spent her time designing magnificent tombs for her husband, father, and herself. Nur Jahan died in 1646.
Excelled in Many Talents
A woman of remarkable talent in a variety of skills, Nur Jahan influenced fashion and cosmetics, encouraged trade with Europeans, designed gardens, wrote poetry, and painted. Even in coinage, her notoriety was such that Jahangir added her name to his on coins of the realm, an unprecedented gesture in Muslim history.
Nur Jahan influenced commerce as well as the court, turning the Moghul capital of Agra into a cosmopolitan city. She had the power to allow or obstruct trade routes and collected duties from the merchants who passed through the empire's lands. The queen carried on her own cloth business, owned ships that took pilgrims to Mecca, and bought luxury goods from Europeans.
From within the zanana, she wielded considerable influence. Fashion trends were swayed by her tastes and creations. She developed new patterns in fabric, embroidery, and dress styles. It is believed that she designed the new styles of turban and clothing of the emperor. Fashions in women's clothing she adopted were still popular at the end of the 16th century. Artistic and creative, she experimented with various perfumes, hair ointment, jewelry, food, silks, and porcelain from different countries. Coming from a literary family, she wrote poetry and encouraged poetry contests among the court women.
Nur Jahan and Jahangir were known for constructing beautiful Persian style gardens used in their summer retreat in Kashmir and for official functions. These public and private gardens were unique in using water to accentuate the layout. Jahangir also presented his queen with paintings and manuscripts that reflected the art of her Persian homeland.
Nur Jahan's architectural achievements have passed the test of time. Some of the mosques, caravansaries and tombs that she built have survived. She designed new architectural features utilized in the Tomb of Itimaduddaula, her father, which sits on the riverbank in Agra. Her own tomb in Lahore is smaller than those of her husband and father, yet it was the first complete marble Moghul structure. Her tomb is located in a garden near Jahangir's tomb.
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