Nur Jahan (1577–1645)

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Nur Jahan (1577–1645)

Empress of Mughal India, brilliant political and military strategist, architect, and diplomat, who had absolute control in the Mughal court. Name variations: Noor Jahan or Jehan; Nur Mahal or Nourmahal; Mehr-on-Nesa, Mehrunnisa, Mehr-un-nisa, Mihm-un-Nisa, Mehrunissa, or Mehrunnissa. Born Mehrunnisa in 1577 in Qandahar, Persia (Iran); died in 1645 in Lahore, India (now in Pakistan); daughter of Mirza Ghiyas Beg (a literary artist in Tehran) and Asmat Begum; educated by private tutors; studied Persian culture and language as well as tradition and languages of adopted country, India; married Ali Quli (Sher Afghan or Afkun), in 1594 (died 1607); married Prince Salim (1569–1627), later Jahangir, 4th Mughal emperor of India (r. 1605–1627), in 1611; children: (first marriage) Ladili Begum or Ladli Begum.

Rewriting women back into history, particularly Medieval Indian history, has often illuminated the power and influence of these women which was formerly discussed only within the context of the imperial stature of their husbands, fathers, and/or sons. Nur Jahan's story is one of political dexterity, military competence, and cultural achievements. As cultural manifestations change, her legend has reached mythological proportions; some of the reality of her life remains shrouded in mystery. There is no denying, however, that Nur Jahan, as the wife of Emperor Jahangir and de facto ruler of India, made important contributions to the history of the Mughal Empire in India, working the social and cultural conventions to her advantage and taking the Mughal Empire to greater heights. In the process of her political maneuvering, she retained her integrity, and that of the house of the Mughals, and thus she has won considerable esteem and admiration.

Nur Jahan would become the empress of Mughal-only India in 1611. The nomadic Mughals had established their dynasty in 1526. Even though they ruled for a little over 250 years between the 16th and the 18th centuries, a mere blip in India's history, each ruler reinforced the charismatic brand of the dynasty. The subcontinent continues to reverberate with the legacies of the rule; the ghosts of the Mughals still haunt India and Pakistan. Nur Jahan became empress when the Mughals had already successfully branded Hindustan (India) with their particular seal. India had been unified, a successful socio-political and cultural system set in place, a rich and profitable trade established. The Mughal court became the envy of all Asia and Europe. Despite the riches and fame of the Mughal royalty, the women of the imperial household were bound to the purdah system in keeping with the injunctions of Islam. Their identity and self extended no further than the guarded gates of the palace harem. They were seldom seen and never heard. Given this scenario, Nur Jahan's high profile during her husband's reign becomes even more remarkable. She broke away from the conventions and participated fully in the empire's administration. She had traveled a long road to become the empress of Hindustan, and it is to her sole credit that she assumed the stature that she did.

Circumstances of her birth were dramatic. She was born in a caravan in 1577 as it wound through the inhospitable mountainous regions near Qandahar, a town on the border of Persia and Mughal India. Her parents, Mirza Ghiyas Beg and Asmat Begum , were fleeing Tehran to seek their fortune in Emperor Akbar's court at Agra. When the caravan was attacked by dacoits (armed robbers who traveled in gangs), the infant was abandoned, but another member of the caravan retrieved the baby, then named Mehrunnisa, and returned her to her parents. She was their fourth child. This tale has often informed the legend associated with the resiliency of Nur Jahan. Some say the signs of future greatness were present from the day she was born.

As the daughter of successful immigrant Persians of noble lineage, her childhood years were spent like those of most children of other accomplished families. She grew up in the women's quarters at court, learning the arts and letters of her native Persia. She also traveled near her adopted home, thus acquainting herself with the traditions and practices of Hindustanis, both Muslims and Hindus. Sources of the time portray her as vivacious, alluring, and compelling.

Following the tradition of the time, she was given in marriage to Ali Quli, a Persian adventurer, at the young age of 17. Though it was a rather unremarkable match, she was beginning to manifest her remarkable bearing. Ali Quli was an outstanding sharpshooter, who earned the title of Sher Afghan or "Tiger Slayer" while part of the retinue of Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir). Mehrunnisa's expert skills at hunting and shooting developed during her first marriage. In later years, she would become the best markswoman in Jahangir's hunting retinue, once bringing down four tigers with six bullets. A poet in attendance to the shoot praised her in verse: "Though Nur Jahan be in form a woman, / In the ranks of men she's a tiger-slayer."

In 1605, Mehrunnisa had her only child, whom she loved dearly, with Ali Quli; her daughter Ladili Begum , "The Beloved One." In years to come, Mehrunnisa would avoid using her daughter as a marital pawn in palace intrigues. Both mother and daughter would spend their widowhood together and, upon their deaths, would be buried side by side in a garden of Nur Jahan's design.

Mehrunnisa was widowed in 1607. A gap in historical events from this time to 1611, when she married Emperor Jahangir, has given rise to a number of spurious fables about Jahangir deliberately killing Ali so that he could marry the beautiful and accomplished Mehrunnisa. Jahangir had a gentle and contemplative side to his nature, but when angered he showed all the characteristics of an oriental potentate, including elaborate displays of cruelty to defeated enemies. It would be a disservice to the life of Mehrunnisa, however, to invest these tales of her first husband's death with truth.

Though she had no children with Jahangir, she was a loving stepmother to his children from other wives. She was particularly fond of Prince Khurram, later the builder of the Taj Mahal as Emperor Shah Jahan, and took a strong interest in educating and molding him as the future Mughal emperor. After Mehrunnisa became Empress Nur Jahan ("Light of the Palace") in 1611, her phenomenal and remarkable career commenced.

Within the first six months of her marriage, Nur Jahan assumed the reins of the empire. It was an easy acquisition of power, made easier by the emperor's excessive love of drinking and opium, leading to his disinterest in administration, and by Nur Jahan's perceptiveness and charm. Nur Jahan's family had held high positions in the Mughal court, hence she was no stranger to the extent and authority of government. Historical documentation is replete with details of the method, speed and efficiency with which she appeared on the imperial scene, virtually obliterating her husband's position in the empire. Her assumption of authority marked a phase of extraordinary affluence and peace in the history of the Mughal Empire.

Nur Jahan stood forth in public; she broke through all restraint and custom, and acquired power by her own address, more than by the weakness of [her husband] Jahangir.

—Alexander Dow

Nur Jahan's political accomplishments as empress are well documented. It might even be said that, cognizant of her regal position, she may have consciously attempted to establish an enduring reputation for herself. Most remarkable of all is the rapidity with which she emerged on the political frontline. The first unprecedented act was to add her own name, "Nur Jahan, the Queen Begum," to the emperor's signature in all letters and grants of appointment, allowing her to control the passage of all levels of promotions and demotions in the imperial government service. She next took a special interest in the condition of women in the empire. Her favorite cause was procurement of sufficient dowries for the marriages of orphan girls. She held an informal court where she received, and passed judgment on, petitions from court nobles. The empress struck coins in her name, thus granting to herself an important aspect of sovereignty; it was an unparalleled act in Mughal history. She traded with European merchants and collected duties from traveling merchants from other provinces. She assigned herself the task of inspecting the credentials of all foreign emissaries to the Mughal Court. She even conducted international diplomacy with high-placed women in other countries, to wit, the queen mother of Turan. Intelligent and judicious, Nur Jahan tested the extent to which she could conduct the administration and made certain that while her own family flourished it was in no way at the expense of the empire. She recognized her limits; she knew her acts were unconventional but made sure that the integrity of the imperial household was not compromised. All these actions indicate her adoption and dispensation of power commensurate with the position of any sovereign ruler. Nur Jahan wielded the scepter, earning the reputation of a woman "worthy to be a queen."

Nur Jahan was an adept military leader as well. Historians, among them her husband, have recorded her valiant efforts at quelling several revolts in the empire. With the help of the emperor's loyal forces, she usually won the military campaigns that she planned and executed. On one occasion, she rode out to battle on an elephant carrying her granddaughter (who had been seriously injured) on her lap. During the skirmish, the elephant was also severely wounded, but Nur Jahan did not retreat until she had broken through the enemy lines.

Though Nur Jahan is remembered in India as the most powerful of all Mughal women, there is more to this extraordinary woman than her political and military dexterity. She left an indelible mark on art, architecture, fashion, poetry, and cooking—an imprint so memorable that after four centuries Indians still recognize their debt to her. It is in these realms that we see, read, and hear her story as she told it. Nur Jahan's legacy can be seen in the spectacular mausoleums, gardens, and mosques, or in the current fashion of women's clothing, or even in the menus of Mughalai restaurants in India and the United States.

Nur Jahan's architectural contributions include the merging of Persian and Indian styles. She had a discriminating eye and was married to a man who was equally appreciative of, and sensitive to, aesthetic appeal. Nur Jahan's name is attached to two magnificent buildings: the tombs of her father and of her husband. Her father's mausoleum, built in 1622, is located in Agra (unfortunately, it is often eclipsed by the more famous tomb, the Taj Mahal). An exquisite gardentomb of Mughal India, her father's mausoleum is the first example of inlaid marble work in a style that evolved directly from the Persian tile-mosaics. It is a handsome sight with intricate lattice work and semiprecious stones laid in pietra dura. One may even claim that Nur Jahan set the precedent for the architectural style of the Taj Mahal. Emperor Jahangir had commenced building his tomb in his living years in Lahore; Nur Jahan completed the ethereal marble structure after his death. Her taste is evident in the dainty marble inlay work; her love of nature visible in the delicate floral patterns; her affection for her imperial husband palpable in her painstaking devotion to the completion of the mausoleum.

The most beguiling of Nur Jahan's artistic contributions was the most ephemeral—gardening. A prolific garden designer, she has been called the "greatest garden lover of them all." The imperial couple were devoted to gardens, a Persian tradition that they kept alive. For Emperor Jahangir, gardens were a manifestation of private indulgence. But Nur Jahan elevated a personal recreation into an imperial pursuit. Jahangir's gardens in Kashmir are breathtaking. Of no small significance are Nur Jahan's gardens. One of the most notable is the Noor Afshan (Light Scattering) in Agra, completed around 1619. It is the oldest recognizable Mughal garden in India. Others are the Noor Manzil (Abode of Light) and Moti Bagh (Garden of Pearls), both in Agra, and the Shah Dara (Royal Threshold) in Lahore which surrounds her husband's tomb. The gardens have beautiful fountains and cascades running through the center of the geometric squares. She erected large open pavilions between the cascades so that in the summer the breeze was cooled by the water as she sat in the open-air structures reading or writing poetry. The gardens had flowers all year round, excellent fruit trees and vines, and an abundance of water. In his memoirs, Jahangir has recorded numerous occasions when the couple spent weeks in various gardens enjoying each other's company. Nur Jahan's designs reflect the affluence of her empire as much as her enthusiasm and ardor for her Persian tradition.

Nur Jahan's artistry was not limited to regal creations. A pragmatic woman, she recognized that travelers needed taverns, particularly in the incredible heat of India, and ordered the construction of such inns or sarais. These sarais, with resting places for approximately 500 horses and 2,000 travelers, were run by the empire. She had gardens planted on each side of the sarais for the pleasure of the weary travelers. A religious woman, a believer in Islam, Nur Jahan also had mosques constructed, the most outstanding of which is in Srinagar, Kashmir. Erected in 1623 and called the Shahee Masjid (Imperial Mosque), it is built exclusively of stones.

While Nur Jahan's public creations have endured and may still be visited, her advancements in domestic arts are just as existent, albeit tempered by four centuries. The culinary tradition of India attributes several dishes to Nur Jahan. She was particularly adept at creating meat preparations; new recipes of rare and distinguished taste have endured the tests of palate and time. One may still find these in Mughal restaurants and cookbooks. Central to domestic arts is dress and fabric. Stitched instead of wrapped clothing, longer skirt lengths, a type of tight trouser (paijama), and fashionably designed scarves are attributed to Nur Jahan's revolution in designing and executing haute couture. She also left some of her favorite embroidery patterns in the trellis and lattice work on the buildings. Nur Jahan's textiles of choice include silver-threaded brocade and lace, flowered muslin, and lightweight muslin for veils. The most popular outfits in modern-day India are the Nur Jahani styles of apparel and pattern.

Nur Jahan's interests extended to literature and painting as well. She came from a literary and scholarly family, and thus composed fairly competent poetry. Well versed in Arabic and Persian, she wrote under the name of Makhfi, "the concealed one." Some of her best verse was extemporaneous, usually of a joking quality when she teased her husband. Once Jahangir wore a garment in which rubies were used in place of buttons. As soon as she saw him, Nur Jahan composed a verse:

It is not the ruby you wear on your robe,
It is a drop of my blood that has seized you by the collar.

Also attributed to Nur Jahan are the following verses created during a stroll in the gardens with her husband:

It appears not that it is stars shining in the sky,
But that the sky has spread pebbles for playing by the Emperor.
When I pass through the garden in such beauty and perfection,
A cry of "blessed" arises from the nightingales' souls.

Nur Jahan was a patron of other women poets whose works survive and display poetry of a high order. Her patronage extended to painting as well. The royal couple encouraged the miniature painting form, and the increasing depiction of women in these paintings has been attributed to her beneficence and encouragement. She also collected a vast number of paintings from European merchants which inspired her to encourage the use of secular topics in paintings. The benefactions of the empress adorn the National Museum and private collections in India.

The glorious and illustrious reign of, arguably, the most distinguished of all Mughal queens came to a sudden end. When Emperor Jahangir died on October 28, 1627, leaving the question of succession undecided, Nur Jahan had been maneuvering to have her son-in-law Shahriyar, Ladili Begum's husband and Prince Khurram's younger brother, be the next emperor. However, her stepson Prince Khurram, whom she had loved and raised, had other plans. Nur Jahan had grown suspicious of Khurram and had resented his growing influence over Jahangir, despite the fact that Khurram had begun his rise to preeminence with her help. She had tried to build up Shahriyar's prospects as a counterweight to Khurram's influence, in the hope that she would be able to remain influential after Jahangir's death. Even though she used all her resources to assist her son-in-law in the war of succession, it was one battle that the indefatigable empress did not win. Shahriyar proved unable to make good his claim to the throne. Khurram sent messages to Nur Jahan's brother Asaf Khan (father of Mumtaz Mahal ) ordering that all possible rivals be put to death, and Asaf's subordinates hastened to obey, killing at least four, including Nur Jahan's son-in-law Shahriyar.

Prince Khurram took the throne in 1628 as Shah Jahan. Asaf Khan was rewarded with the position of chief minister, and Nur Jahan was sent to a dignified exile where she was permitted to live on for 18 years by avoiding intrigues. Her daughter, widowed by Shahriyar's murder, joined her, and they spent the rest of their days in the seclusion of their home in Lahore. Nur Jahan wore only white clothes and went to no public celebrations. We know very little of her life in Lahore except that she lived in a house of her own design surrounded by beautiful gardens. She was frustrated, but accepted her severely curtailed powers because she was "too positive a character to quibble when her defeat was plain."

It may be fair to speculate that she spent a large part of her time in charity and religious activities. Nur Jahan visited her husband's tomb often and was faithful to his memory. The irony is that Shah Jahan, whom she had promoted until the last years of her husband's life, launched a visceral attack to eliminate her from all historical memory. He withdrew from circulation all coins stamped with her name, defamed her, and cleansed his administration of her presence. It is to the credit of the charismatic empress that history and tradition continue to laud and appreciate her. Nur Jahan died in Lahore on December 18, 1645. After a modest funeral she was buried in a tomb of her own design. Her mausoleum reflects a minute facsimile of the elegant and brilliant patterns and decorations she once loved. It stands as a metaphor of the last barren days of Nur Jahan's life. On her grave is the inscription:

On our lone grave no roses bloom,
No nightingale would sing;
No friendly lamp dispels the gloom,
No moth e'er burns its wing.


Aziz, Abdul. "A History of the Reign of Shah Jahan (Based on Original Sources)," in Journal of Indian History. Vol. 6, no. 1–3, 1927, pp. 235–257.

Findly, Ellison Banks. Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Mishra, R. Women in Mughal India. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1967.

Nath, Renuka. Notable Mughal And Hindu Women in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, A.D. New Delhi, India: Inter-India, 1990.

suggested reading:

Dow, Alexander. The History of Hindostan. Vol. 3, From the Death of Akbar to the Settlement of the Empire Under Aurunzebe. London: S. Beckert & P.A. De Hondt, 1770 (reprint, New Delhi, India: Today and Tomorrow's Printers, 1973).

Findly, Ellison Banks. "Religious Resources for Secular Power: The Case of Nur Jahan," in Women and Religion volume, edited by Debra Campbell. Colby Library Quarterly. Vol. 25, no. 3. September 1989, pp. 129–148.

——. "Nur Jahan and the Idea of Kashmir," in B.K. Thapar Commemorative Volume, edited by M.C. Joshi. New Delhi, India: Archaeological Survey of India.

Brahmjyot K. Grewal , Assistant Professor of History at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa