BIOGRAPHIES

Female Heroes of Asia: India

Nur Jahan

(1577-1645 C.E.)

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Nur Jahan was one of the most influential women of her day. As favorite wife of the powerful Mughal emperor Jahangir, she found herself uniquely positioned to brilliantly utilize her skills in administration, politics, economics, and culture.

Nur Jahan was born into an aristocratic Persian family who had immigrated to India. She was married at age seventeen to a Persian soldier who had a much admired military career. Upon later siding with the emperor's enemies, he was executed, leaving Nur a widow with a young daughter called Ladli. In 1607 Nur Jahan was brought to court to serve as a lady-in-waiting to one of Jahangir's court women. It was here, maybe at the spring festival of Nauroz in 1611, where Jahangir first set eyes upon her. All reports say that she was a remarkable beauty and it perhaps is not surprising that Jahangir married her within two months. He first gave her the title Nur Mahal which he changed in 1616 to Nur Jahan, or "Light of the World."

At the time of her marriage Nur Jahan was considered middle aged. She was a widow of a man who had lost favor with the emperor, and was only one of many other wives and concubines of the emperor, with whom he had children.Yet within nine years Nur Jahan acquired all the rights of sovereignty and government normally due the emperor, becoming virtually in charge of the whole empire until the emperor died in 1627. The key to her success was Jahangir's addiction to both drugs and alcohol and his adoration of Nur Jahan above everyone else in his vast zanana (women's quarters within the court). Jahangir needed Nur to help maintain his health and help him rule.

Since women were not suppose to appear face to face with men in court, Nur Jahan ruled through trusted males. But it was she who approved all orders and grants of appointment in Jahangir's name, and controlled all promotions and demotions within the royal government. She took special interest in the affairs of women, giving them land and dowries for orphan girls. She had coins struck in her name, collected duties on goods from merchants who passed though the empire's lands, and traded with Europeans who brought luxury goods from the continent. Given her ability to obstruct or facilitate the opening up of both foreign and domestic trade, her patronage was eagerly sought, and paid for. She herself owned ships which took pilgrims as well as cargo to Mecca. Her business connections and wealth grew. Her officers were everywhere. The cosmopolitan city of Agra, the Mughal capital, grew as a crossroad of commerce.

Nur Jahan also ruled the emperor's vast zanana which housed hundreds of people including Jahangir's wives, ladies -in-waiting, concubines, servants, slaves, female guards, spies, entertainers, crafts people, visiting relatives. eunuchs, and all the children belonging to the women. Nur greatly influenced the zanana's tastes in cosmetics, fashions, food, and artistic expression. She spent money lavishly, experimenting with new perfumes, hair ointments, jewelry, silks, brocades, porcelain, and cuisine from other lands. Fashions at court, highly influenced by Persian culture, began to blend into local styles. Women's clothing was modified to take account of the hot weather. Since Nur came from a line of poets, she naturally wrote too and encouraged this among the court women. Poetry contests were held, and favorite female poets from beyond the court were sometimes sponsored by the queen, such as the Persian poet Mehri.

Both Jahangir and Nur Jahan were devotees of the elegant and sophisticated Mughal artistic style, the Taj Mughal being one example. The emperor owned an admirable collection of exquisite miniature paintings, and together with Nur constructed beautiful gardens, notably in the court's summer retreat in Kashmir. Nur used some gardens for official functions; others were opened up for the populous in general to use. Architecture, too, was an important imperial activity; some of the mosques, caravasaries and tombs Nur Jahan had built are visible today.

Nur Jahal enjoyed the height of her power when she was surrounded by loyal men which included members of her own family. Struggles between Jahangir's sons for power, however, slowly chipped away at her reign. The ultimate winner was Jahangir's third son, Shah Jahan, who later built the beautiful Taj Mahal for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. By this time Nur Jahan's influence was weak. Shah Jahan had been allied with Nur Jahan through most of his father's reign, but when she swung her support to others he rebelled. An old and trusted general, Mahabat Khan, disgusted with the direction of court politics, and particularly the role of a Nur Jahan, joined the rebellion. "Never," he said," has there been a king so subject to the will of his wife."

Nur's cleverness could not save her, and upon Shah Jahan's succession to the crown, he had her confined. Her imprisonment ended her influence at court, and she spent the last years of her life in exile in Lahore. Here she spent a quiet time living with her daughter until her own death in 1645. Her tomb lies in Lahore next to Jahangir's. Both she had erected along with the gardens that surround them.


Sources:

Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India, Ellison Banks Findley, Oxford University Press, 1993. The definitive source.

Women in India: Lessons from the Ancient Aryans through the Early Modern Mughals, Lyn Reese, Women in World History Curriculum. A more substantial biography and a primary source activity.


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