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The remarkable life of Mughal Empress Nur Jahan

In Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, Ruby Lal portrays her as an inspiring proto-feminist

By Raziuddin Aquil
  • Published 8.02.19, 2:56 AM
  • Updated 8.02.19, 2:56 AM
  • 3 mins read
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Idealized portrait of the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan Image: Wikimedia Commons

Historians are increasingly emerging from the ivory towers of academia to engage with a larger general readership. In doing so, they are deploying current historical research for educating readers on themes of topical interest or offering interesting biographies of charismatic figures of the past. Ruby Lal’s, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, is one such important attempt. Asserting her feminist historian credentials, Lal has portrayed Nur Jahan (1577-1645) as an inspiring proto-feminist and an empress in her own right.

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Some exhilarating work on women and questions relating to gender in medieval and early modern India have emerged in recent decades, but no amount of writing is enough on the resourceful women who dominated Mughal politics. This is particularly significant because they asserted themselves at a time when they were being sequestered in well-guarded harems from the reign of the most powerful of emperors, Akbar (1556-1605).

Mughal women were often highly accomplished scholars, writers, poets and intellectuals, either through their excellence and initiatives to break restrictions or because Mughal India was not a regressive place for elite women. In general, at the height of their power, the Mughals practised an inclusive political culture, providing space for a diversity of beliefs and practices.

Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627) built upon the broad-based Akbari dispensation, which in turn invoked the experience of the early-sixteenth century founder of the empire, Babur, and his successor, Humayun (reflected among other accounts in the narrative of the formidable Gulbadan Begum, Babur’s daughter). The Mughals also invoked their Chingizi and Timurid legacy and drew on the historical experience of various former Muslim sultanates of the subcontinent, which also witnessed the remarkable rise and rule of Razia Sultan, who was nominated by her father, Sultan Iltutmish, the initial consolidator of the Delhi Sultanate.

Jahangir’s exceptional granddaughters, Raushan Ara and Jahan Ara, are also known for their firm and divergent political stands during the war of succession, which culminated with Aurangzeb (1658-1707) capturing power by eliminating his brothers and incarcerating his father, Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658). Jahan Ara’s mother and Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Arjumand Banu (Mumtaz Mahal), in whose honour the emperor built the Taj Mahal, was a daughter of Nur Jahan’s brother, the prominent minister, Asaf Khan. Nur Jahan and Asaf Khan were among the gifted children of I’timad ud-Daula Ghiyas Beg, one of the most distinguished Iranian nobles of the Mughal empire.

Thus, Nur Jahan belonged to a highly influential family of Persian aristocratic background. When brought to Jahangir’s harem as a widow of Sher Afgan, the Iranian-Mughal administrator of Burdwan in Bengal, she was “thirty-one years old, attractive, dignified, and well trained in the behaviour and duties required of noblewomen connected with palace society”. Meanwhile, Jahangir had already married as many as nineteen times, had a gaggle of concubines, and was adored by senior harem residents. As Lal points out: “Political ambition, intrigue, and aspirations cultivated in the harem were tightly entwined with courtly matters”; the harem, thus, offered women surprising opportunities — “wide horizons behind high walls”. Not long after her marriage with Jahangir, as his twentieth wife, Nur Jahan went on to eliminate all opposition and competition to dominate the emperor’s private and public life for nearly a decade.

The family’s hold on the emperor was further strengthened by Nur Jahan marrying her daughter from her first marriage, Ladli Begum, with Jahangir’s youngest son, Shahryar, besides marrying her niece Arjumand Banu (daughter of Asaf Khan) with Khurram, the future Shah Jahan. As reports indicate, Nur Jahan herself assumed enough power to express her claims on sovereignty, which according to Lal was self-evident as a co-sovereign and even de facto ruler. However, her attempts to push for Shahryar as a possible successor of Jahangir created an unbridgeable rift not only between her and Khurram, who rebelled, but also with her brother, Asaf Khan. Mercifully, they ensured that she would lead a dignified retired life in Lahore till she passed away, nearly two decades after Jahangir’s death.

In her somewhat exaggerated deference for the enigmatic charm of the remarkable personality of Nur Jahan, Lal writes: “In act after act — hunting, advising, issuing imperial orders and coins, designing buildings — she ensured that her name was etched indelibly in public memory and history.” Unfortunately for Nur Jahan and her biographer, the theologians never read khutba (Friday sermon) in her name, which would indeed make her a legitimate empress of Hindustan. Instead, she was dismissed by her political rivals as a gold-digger, a scheming and mischievous woman, whose ambitious manoeuvres and aggressive interventions in matters of governance caused much consternation. For some opponents, it was a veritable fitna — seditious enterprise of disastrous consequences for the empire.

Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan By Ruby Lal, Penguin, Rs 599