Her self-assessment was in contrast to her role as an astute politician, an enigmatic queen, and an innovative architect. The only woman with a non-imperial lineage to acquire the stature of an empress, Nur Jahan sought to inscribe on her tomb in Lahore ‘On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.’ For one who rewrote history, the epitaph marks her boundless generosity and unlimited humility come alive. History may not have been as kind to her as she was to her fellow beings. During her lifetime, Nur Jahan was always eager to help orphans, beggars, and the homeless. She would often intervene to protect peasants from harassment or over taxation by provincial authorities. Farid Bhakkri, who served the Mughal court, noted that the Empress supported the weddings of orphan girls, and even designed an inexpensive wedding dress Nur Mahali, still used by brides of poorer families. By offering choice of marriage to the most vulnerable inhabitants of the harem, Nur became the earliest feminist in a male Mughal dynasty.
Till recently, historians failed to recognize her exceptional talents and instead attributed Nur’s meteoric rise to the vulnerability of an inebriated Jahangir, her Emperor husband. Although many of her male contemporaries were in awe of Nur, it was hard for them to swallow that a woman could attain unprecedented political and cultural acumen. Even the Europeans like Thomas Roe and Peter Mundy, who were privy to the Mughal court, could not quite wrap their minds around a woman coming to power because of her sheer talents. No surprise, therefore, most attributed her cunning and conniving nature for gaining co-sovereign authority over a lovelorn king.
Historian Ruby Lal thinks otherwise. Taking a deep dive into the historical records, she yields provocative and extensive evidence of the forces that shaped Nur Jahan. Who could have ever thought that a baby girl born on a roadside to parents who were fleeing repressive Persia for Indian green pastures would not only become the most favored wife of emperor Jahangir but would attain the status of an Empress? How did it happen? And, how could she do it? From enlightened parental education in early years to an independent existence after first marriage, times favored her expressive inheritance. Also, it must have helped Nur develop a distinct identity as, unlike most Mughal women, she spent the least period in the imperial harem.
Nur Jahan was a product of her time, and did not miss any opportunity to hone and demonstrate her skills. Jahangir’s vow to give up hunting gave Nur an opportunity to show her shooting prowess. No one is sure where and when did she learn shooting but she could amaze everybody by slaying four tigers in only six shots. Jahangir’s mobility too helped Nur deepen and broaden her leadership skills. While the Emperor pursued his interests in nature, geography, art, and philosophy, Nur took on administrative responsibilities by issuing imperial orders under her seal.
Empress provides an extraordinary detailed account of a remarkable woman, who lived through the reign of three great Mughal rulers. Hailing from a family of Nobles, her father served the Mughal courts of Akbar and Jahangir, she learnt imperial demeanor from her father and brothers. As a result, Nur seemed more canny than other royal women of her age about the workings of the empire. It reflected in the manner in which she conducted herself, both within the court and with the masses. Lal provides a detailed account of how Nur liberated the Emperor from the captivity of a rebellion nobleman, something that doesn’t get as much attention in historical literature.
While Nur Jahan rise to power was relatively swift, her downfall was even swifter. Her political scheme to anoint her son-in-law Shahryar as the future Emperor did not go to well with the Emperor-in-Waiting Shah Jahan, who made every possible attempt at erasing her legacy by holding her responsible for the succession chaos that took place in the last years of Jahangir’s reign. All attempts at demonetizing currency coins of the Jahangir-NurJahan era were unsuccessful, some coins bearing Nur Jahan's seal survived and are safely preserved in museum(s). Lal’s Empress gives Nur Jahan the due, and acknowledges that if she had her strengths she had her raw ambition and vulnerabilities too.
Nur Jahan’s last years’ were of isolated existence in Lahore, much of which she spent in building her own mausoleum. That she was a remarkable woman, a perfect example of beauty with brains, whose legend will continue to be remembered with affection, awe and pride. As a discerning reader of medieval history, I yearn to know more about the life of Nur's daughter Ladli, the widow of Shahryar.
by Ruby Lall
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 188, Price: Rs 599