Mumtaz Mahal (c. 1592–1631)
Mumtaz Mahal (c. 1592–1631)
Mumtaz Mahal (c. 1592–1631)
Indian empress of Persian extraction who is buried in the Taj Mahal, the most beautiful mausoleum—and, according to many, the most beautiful building—in the world. Name variations: Arjemand or Arjumand Banu; Nawab Aliya. Pronunciation: MOOM-taz mah-HALL. Born around 1592, probably in India; died after giving birth to her 14th child on June 7, 1631, in Burhanpur, India; buried in Agra, India; daughter of Asaf Khan (a noble and prime minister in the court of the Mughal emperor Jahangir); married Prince Khurram, later known as Shah Jahan (third son of Jahangir and his successor as Mughal emperor), in April 1612; children: eight sons, including Dara Shikoh (b. 1615) and Aurangzeb (October 23, 1618–1707, who succeeded Shah Jahan as Mughal emperor), and six daughters, including Jahanara and Roshanara.
Married Prince Khurram at the instigation of her father, who wanted to advance her fortunes at the expense of Jahangir's empress (1612); became Khurram's constant companion for the next 19 years, earning the title Mumtaz Mahal (Jewel of the Palace) when he took the Mughal throne under the name of Shah Jahan (1628).
The Taj Mahal is considered by many connoisseurs to be the most beautiful building in the world. It stands in the popular imagination as a monument to the great love between Shah Jahan, the most powerful of the Mughal emperors, and his empress-wife Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan was the son of the emperor Jahangir, grandson of the Great Mughal Akbar, and great-great-grandson of Babar who subdued the Hindus. Mumtaz Mahal was the niece of Jahangir and Nur Jahan , the most powerful of the Mughal empresses. Mumtaz Mahal's father Asaf Khan was Jahangir's prime minister, and Asaf and his sister Nur Jahan engineered Mumtaz Mahal's marriage to Shah Jahan, who was then known as Prince Khurram. Although the prince had a reputation as a bit of a libertine (he already had two children from a previous relationship), he devoted himself to his wife after his marriage. Mumtaz Mahal accompanied him constantly on his many military campaigns against the Hindu princes of the Indian Deccan plain. Perhaps the greatest indication of his devotion, however, is the Taj itself—the "Crown of the Jewel," an unchanging memorial to his wife's memory.
The woman whose memory the Taj enshrines, however, is almost unknown. Mumtaz Mahal was not a Hindu, and, although she was born around 1592 in India and named Arjemand, she came from a Persian (and therefore Muslim) family. Her grandfather, Ghiyas Beg, had arrived from Persia to settle in India during the reign of Khurram's grandfather Akbar and sought service with him. Ghiyas Beg had married his daughter Nur Jahan, then known as Mehrunissa, to the Persian Sher Afkun; but Sher Afkun died in 1607, and Nur Jahan married Jahangir, Akbar's successor, in 1611. She was awarded the title Nur Jahan—"Light of the World"—and set about improving the status of her family. "Nur Jahan's relatives were entrusted
with the most important posts in the realm," writes S.M. Ikram. "Her father obtained a high office and her brother, Asaf Khan, in course of time, became the Prime Minister, and his daughter… married Prince Khurram." The Persian connection of Nur Jahan's family, Ikram continues, "attracted from Iran a large number of brilliant soldiers, scholars, poets and civil servants, who played an important role in the administration and the cultural life of Mughal India."
Arjemand was about 19 when she was married to the 20-year-old Prince Khurram. Based on what is known about the lives of well-born Muslim women in India at the time, he had probably never seen her before. It was considered infamous for Muslim women in India to appear in public without wearing the veil. Purdah was a related and common Muslim practice of the time—the seclusion of well-born women in separate quarters, segregated from those of the household's men. "Seclusion… became a sign of respect and was strictly observed among the high class families of both [Hindu and Muslim]… communities," writes a historian in R.C. Majumdar's The History and Culture of the Indian People.
Eunuchs were freely employed as a means of communication between the male and female members of a royal or noble's family. Even male doctors were not allowed to face the ailing ladies of the noble and princely families. The ladies would stir out of their houses very rarely and that, too, in covered palanquins, surrounded on all sides by servants and eunuchs.
"If, for any reason, a Muslim lady of rank discarded purdah, even for a temporary period," the historian concludes, "the consequences for her were disastrous. Amir Khan, the Governor of Kabul, felt no scruple in renouncing his wife when her purdah was broken in an attempt to save her life by leaping from the back of the elephant who had run amuck."
It is said that not once, for the eighteen years of their married life, did they ever spend a single day apart.
Given the severe restrictions on Muslim women, Arjemand's relative freedom and close association with Khurram seems even more remarkable. "He was known to have discussed all state affairs with her," writes Bamber Gascoigne, "and when state documents had been finally drafted he would send them into the harem for her to affix the royal seal." She also had a direct effect on foreign policy, and spoke out against the Portuguese slave trade and the practice of taking Hindu and Muslim children from their parents to be raised as Christians. "They were rash enough even to offend Mumtaz Mahal," declares Vincent A. Smith, "by detaining two slave girls whom she claimed."
Contemporary sources all note the fact that Arjemand accompanied Khurram everywhere, instead of remaining closeted in her harem. Since she gave birth to 14 children during her 19-year marriage, she was usually pregnant as well. And Khurram rarely stayed in one place for long. He was a fervent Muslim (unlike his father Jahangir and grandfather Akbar, both of whom showed great tolerance for Hindu beliefs and practices), and spent much of his early married life on military campaigns against the Hindu kingdoms of Ahmnedagar and Bijapur on the great Deccan plain. Arjemand was probably accompanying him from 1623 to 1626, when Khurram launched a rebellion against his father's advisors—including Arjemand's aunt Nur Jahan.
Toward the end of his reign, Jahangir had developed a drug problem, and he left much of the process of ruling in the capable hands of his wife Nur Jahan. Now Nur Jahan had a daughter named Ladili Begum by her first marriage to Sher Afghan, and she arranged to marry Ladili to Shahriyar, Khurram's younger brother. Prince Khurram became convinced that Nur Jahan meant to replace him as heir with Shahriyar. His suspicions were confirmed, when, failing on one of his military expeditions, Khurram was held in disgrace and Shahriyar was honored in his place. As a result, Khurram launched a rebellion that lasted for three years before he finally surrendered to the imperial forces in 1626. He was forced to give up two of his and Arjemand's surviving sons—Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb—as pledges for his good behavior.
Asaf Khan, Arjemand's father and Khurram's only true ally during the rebellion, preferred to see his daughter as empress rather than his niece Ladili. When Jahangir died in 1627, Asaf seized and held power in the name of his son-in-law. He also recovered his grandsons from Nur Jahan's custody. "The happiness of the parents was indescribable," writes S.A.A. Rizvi. Khurram proclaimed himself Emperor Shah Jahan on January 2, 1628, and rewarded Asaf Khan with the office of wakil. At the same time, Arjemand was given the title "Mumtaz Mahal"—the "Jewel of the Palace." "Nur Jahan," Rizvi concludes, "was awarded a pension of two lacs of rupees and retired to Lahore, where she died in 1655."
Shah Jahan's first task as a new emperor was to eliminate all possible rivals to the throne. He then moved against the few remaining governors who had been appointed by his father or by Nur Jahan. In December 1629, he went up against Khan-i Jahan Lodi, who had been his opponent in the rebellion of 1626–29. Shah Jahan had just finished fighting Khan-i Jahan Lodi in the province of Burhanpur when the 39-year-old Mumtaz Mahal, who had been accompanying him as usual, died in June 1631. Following the delivery of her 14th child (only seven of them survived her), she had contracted a fever. "Her body," writes Smith, "was interred there temporarily, and after six months, when her mourning husband quitted the Deccan, was transferred to Agra, where it was placed in a provisional sepulchre." "She must have possessed uncommon charm," the historian concludes, "to be able to secure for so many years her husband's errant affections."
"Mumtaz Mahal had been as influential a companion to Shah Jahan as her aunt Nur Jahan to his father," writes Gascoigne:
but whereas Nur Jahan's role had been one of dominance hers was essentially a matter of support and advice.… Her death left a profound gap in his existence; it was said that for two years he lived the life of one in mourning, rejecting all indulgence or ostentation, and going without gorgeous clothes or rich food or music.
Shah Jahan's depression at the loss of his beloved wife affected him in other ways as well. Historians note that he turned away from his military campaigns at this time, letting them fall into the hands of his two eldest sons, Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. Instead he turned increasingly to architecture, his second-greatest passion. "He resolved to build his wife the most magnificent memorial on earth," explains Alistair Shearer. He began construction of Mumtaz's mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, in January 1632.
Shah Jahan completed the Taj in February 1643 and, according to most reports, nearly bankrupted the country in the process. The cost of the entire project amounted to more than five million rupees. Shah Jahan gathered an international team of architects, artisans, and designers that included a Persian, a Frank, a Turk, and an Italian. Peter Mundy, an English writer who visited Agra during the first months of construction, reported: "The building… goes on with excessive labor and cost, prosecuted with extraordinary diligence; Gold and silver are esteemed common metal, and Marble but as ordinary stone." The marble in question was imported on elephant-back from quarries in Rajasthan, hundreds of miles away. The jewels used in the decoration of the mausoleum came from as far as Tibet, Russia, and Iraq. "It is as if all the skill, expertise, and resources accumulated by the eclectic, adventurous Mughal dynasty," Shearer writes, "came together at one point in time and space to create what has become the most enduring romantic symbol of human love."
The Taj itself is not only a memorial to Mumtaz; it is also a representation of the Muslim concept of heaven. "The Mughals, originally from the steppes of Central Asia, shared their nomadic ancestors' love of gardens," Shearer writes. "Each bed was originally planted with four hundred flowers. The canals were lined with trees: cypress symbolizing death, fruit trees symbolizing life. In its heyday the garden must have been magnificent." The gardens also contain reflecting pools which mirror the image of the Taj in the same way, it is believed, that the Qur'an mirrors the truth of heaven. The dome of the mausoleum resembles a pearl, the jewel that represents most clearly to Muslims the perfection of Allah. In the tomb and its surroundings, Shah Jahan did his best to create on earth the paradise that he believed his queen now inhabited.
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal had had four sons who lived to adulthood. Late in his reign, however, his sons launched a rebellion against his rule, as Shah Jahan had against his own father Jahangir. In the dynastic struggle that followed, his son Aurangzeb emerged triumphant. Aurangzeb, who was an even stricter Muslim than his father, ordered the execution of his brothers and in 1658 forced his father to abdicate in his favor. Shah Jahan lived another eight years, a prisoner in his palace at Agra. "He would sit staring across the curve of the Jumna towards the memorial to his beloved wife, and his own most famous achievement, the Taj Mahal," writes Gascoigne. When the former emperor finally died, on January 22, 1666, his body was taken to the Taj and placed in a sarcophagus next to Mumtaz's.
Aurangzeb honored the memories of his father and mother and maintained the Taj throughout his reign. When he died in 1707, however, the power of the Mughals went into decline. Within 30 years of his death, Agra itself was sacked and the Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan was carried off by the Persians to Tehran and placed in the palace of the shah of Persia. Local Hindus, members of the Jhat tribe, carried off the solid silver doors that closed the gate to the tomb gardens. The Taj fell into neglect, its gardens overgrown, its stone weather-worn.
During the British Raj, the mausoleum occasionally served as a dancing-hall or as a drinking-place for unruly British soldiers. The Taj narrowly escaped destruction in the 1830s at the hands of the British governor-general, Lord William Bentinck (1828–1835), who wanted to tear the building down and ship it off to England to be sold as souvenirs. "The reason we can stand and marvel at the Taj today," Shearer notes, "is solely that Bentinck's scheme was not, in our ugly modern phrase, 'financially viable.'"
It was another governor-general, Lord Curzon, who restored Mumtaz Mahal's tomb to its original beauty and once again made it a pilgrimage spot for lovers and romantics. The American writer Richard Halliburton, one of the most popular travel writers and lecturers of the early 20th century, visited the empress' mausoleum in the 1920s and spread its reputation across the United States. Halliburton reports a story of the grace and beauty of the empress Mumtaz Mahal, the Jewel of the Palace:
Legends say that if a man and a maid greatly love each other, and have only goodness and mercy in their hearts, and if they come to the garden [of the Taj] together to watch the full moon rise, they may chance to see the sepulcher fade into mist and moonbeams. And in the mist they may see the image of the Queen, revealed for one magic moment—all beautiful and radiant.
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Shearer, Alistair. The Traveler's Key to Northern India: A Guide to the Sacred Places of Northern India. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Smith, Vincent A. The Oxford History of India, Part II. Revised by J.B. Harrison. 3rd ed. Edited by Percival Spear. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.
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Kenneth R. Shepherd , Adjunct Instructor in History, Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn, Michigan