Rediscovering the Empress who broke all conventions through her piercing intellect and gallantry which made her contribution to the greatest empire of its time unforgettable.
At a time when women of the imperial household were bound to the purdah system in keeping with the edict of Islam, when they seldom occupied public space and their identities didn’t extend beyond the gates of harem, Nur Jahan went on to establish herself as the most powerful woman of the medieval India.
Born as Mehr-Un-Nissa to a Persian noble family on 31 May, 1577 in Kandahar (present day Afghanistan), Nur was the fourth child of Mirza Ghias Beg and Asmat Begum. Her first marriage with Sher Afghan Khan, said to be arranged by Emperor Akbar himself, ended with his death in 1607. In 1611, at the age of 34, she became the 20th and the last legal wife of the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir, who gave her the name Nur Jahan (“ Light of the World”).
Nur Jahan‘s story is one of political adroitness, military competence, cultural and artistic achievements. Her brilliance as a political strategist, diplomat and architect who exercised absolute control in the Mughal court stands as a testimony to her powerful influence and unique position as the first female ruler in the annals of Mughal history. By ruling the vast Mughal empire as a co-sovereign, Nur Jahan broke all the social and cultural conventions. As an astute politician and an able Empress, she made important contributions to the legacy of Mughal empire in India, and it is to her sole credit that she assumed the stature that she did.
Due to an excessive addiction to drinking and smoking opium, Jahangir often missed court proceedings, leading to his disinterest in administration. This gave Nur an independent road to assert her authority over the court. There are well stocked historical documents that detail her speed and prowess with which she appeared on the imperial scene. The assumption of authority and yielding of such power by the Empress at a time when women were sequestered within the four walls of house was a novelty.
Nur Jahan was aware of her regal position and owing to her powerful ambition and political acumen, she may have consciously tried to establish a persisting reputation for herself. She began appearing on the political frontline by adding her own name, Nur Jahan – the Padshah Begum, to the emperor’s, in all the imperial orders. In 1617, gold and silver coins, etched with her name opposite that of Jahangir started circulating. It was a sign of sovereignty and an indication to her growing power. Such an act was nonpareil in Mughal history.
One of her many acts of defiance was her appearance in the jharokha, or the royal balcony which was strictly reserved for men. Nur Jahan took special interest in the condition of women of her time. She issued them land, and provided opportunities to the orphan girls. She even conducted international diplomacy with high ranked women in other countries. She was an adept military leader and an expert markswoman. It is recorded by many historians, including her husband, that she led several military campaigns which she planned and executed. And, she won them. She even rescued her husband who was held captive by an enemy leader, Mahabat Khan, which was a phenomenal act of bravery and courage.
Nur Jahan, apart from her political and military dexterity, was a patron of art, architecture, fashion, and poetry. She was also a prolific garden designer and was known for her refined taste and artistry. Nur Jahan wielded the scepter with great responsibility and hence became the woman “worthy of being an empress.” The exquisite legacy of arguably the most distinguished Mughal queen and her glorious story in a male dominated society left an indelible mark on the pages of history for the posterity to remember and revere.
Nuzhat Khan is a student pursuing English Honors from Jamia Millia Islamia.