Standing tall along the River Ravi, just a few kilometres in the outskirts of Lahore, is Nur Jehan’s (real name Mehrunnisa) mausoleum, which has recently gone through renovation.
The tomb of the Mughal Empress, however, does little justice to the woman who lived being called the ‘Light of the World.’ She had designed and paid for the building of her tomb herself, during her lifetime, just as she had designed and paid for the massive tomb of her husband, Emperor Jahangir, a few metres away from hers, just across the railway track of Shah-dara (Royal Pathway). Both buildings are recognised as UNESCO heritage sites.
The renovation has given Nur Jehan’s tomb a contemporary look. The architecture is similar to most buildings erected in Jahangir’s era — floors made of hand-cut red tiles, carefully marked with the maker’s original stamp, the tomb itself a tiny fortress, surrounded by a garden, the Gulabi Bagh (Rose Garden).
Stories of romance between Jahangir and his (twentieth) wife, of having hunted deer in this town and a little afar in Sheikhupura where Jahangir’s love nest — the Jahangir Fort — now lies in ruins, haunt the place. (Sheikhu was Jahangir’s nickname, and the town was named after him.)
Dirk Collier, in his book The Great Mughals and their India (Hay House; 2016), writes extensively about the only female dynast of the Mughal empire. He says that Mehrunnisa was born to Persian parents who had fled their homeland after having fallen out of favour with the Shah. On their way to the much liberal Mughal empire, Ghayas Beg (later named Itimaadud Daula) had to halt his caravan for his wife went into labour, giving birth to Mehrunnisa in Kandahar, a prime city of the then Mughal kingdom.
As luck would have it, Ghayas Beg was appointed as a courtier with Emperor Akbar’s court shortly after the baby girl was born. The girl was given off as a bride at just 17 years of age, to an Afghan warrior in the Mughal army, named Ali Quli Khan (nicked Sher Afghan by the new emperor, Jahangir). She was a good match for Khan, having trained in archery, painting and poetry, and earned great respect in the royal court when she killed four tigers with six arrows from her howda atop an elephant (source: Tuzuk–e-Jahangiri).
Collier rejects Jahangir’s claims of having married Nur Jehan by design as “nonsense.” It is pertinent to set the record straight that Nur Jehan was not a prize won at the end of a duel between two men; she was a widow of a governor who later married an emperor. As was the custom, the widow of the deceased governor was brought to the royal court, along with her three-year-old daughter, Laadli Begum, to serve as a maid-in-waiting at the Zenankhana (Ladies’ Chamber).
At the Zenankhana, Nur Jehan got the chance to explore and express her innate ability to design clothes. She herself dressed in plain whites, as per popular custom of the widows in the subcontinent, but according to historian, author and photographer Rana Safvi, “Nur Jehan fashioned brightly coloured brocades, tissues, and silks for the ladies of the harem. Her designs were much sought after and often set the fashion trends. To her goes the credit for inventing the Dudámí (flowered muslin) for peshwáz (gowns open in the front), pánchtoliah for orhnís (a new design for veils), bádlah (embroidery with metal strips), kinárí (lace), and farsh-i-chandaní (white cloth for floor covering).”
The Zenankhana at the royal palaces used to arrange frivolities for the ladies, and Meena Bazaar was one such event. The bazaar set in the spring of 1611 was quite eventful for Nur Jehan, as it was here that the emperor first saw her and later popped the question. It is roughly recorded that the couple was married only two months later.
Nur Jehan has been called a ‘defiant’ queen. She did not limit herself to the Zenankhana, like the women before her did. She came forward to claim the public space for herself, starting with making an appearance alongside her husband, for the “Jharoka darshan” (Rana Safvi; 2018), an ancient Mughal custom where the king came up on the balcony for the audience of common people. Nur Jehan went on with her political journey from this small act of defiance.
Within six years of their marriage, Nur Jehan had become the first Mughal Empress to give royal orders in her own name. Some of the courtiers and jury members were not happy with her interference in court matters (Dirk Collier; 2016) and slowly, rumours started doing the rounds that she was an opportunist who had taken advantage of Jahangir’s binge-drinking and opium-eating habits in order to establish her own politics. This was said when she was performing all the duties of the king, except leading the Friday sermons. Her seal had become official. The Emperor was smitten by her, and kept giving her titles such as ‘Nur Mahal’ (Light of the Palace), ‘Nur Jehan,’ and the official ‘Badshah Begum.’
Ruby Lal writes in her book, “Yes, the emperor was a drunkard and he smoked opium. Yes, he was deeply in love with his wife. But that’s not why Nur became a ruler to be reckoned with. In fact, Nur and Jahangir complemented each other, and the emperor never felt uncomfortable with his wife’s burgeoning influence as co-sovereign.”
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In 1617, Nur became the first Muslim woman to have gold and silver coins minted with her name on them. This gave a very powerful message about her authority to the common man as well as travellers and foreign merchants.
Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan supported his step mother when he was young, but with time, he became more critical of her rulings. He became religiously conservative while Nur Jehan was a liberal, which caused friction between the two. He married Asif Khan’s daughter, Mumtaz Mahal, who would later become the lady of the Taj Mahal. This became a cause for worry for Nur Jehan whose politics could be ruined if Shah Jahan became king since her brother Asif Khan would support his son-in-law instead of his sister (Nur Jehan). Very tactfully, Nur Jehan married her only child, Laadli, from her earlier marriage, with Shahryar, Jahangir’s‘nincompoop’ son, in order to create a balance against Shah Jahan.
In the same scheme, Nur Jehan had already appointed her half-brother Asif Khan as Prime Minister. Despite her strategic war skills, Jahangir was taken by Mahabbat Khan, a strong contender of the post of PM, and Nur Jehan gave herself up to be with her husband in imprisonment. But this was no tragic tale of sacrifice as during these eight months of “house arrest,” Nur Jehan grew as a politician, and bought support from the royal courtiers with money and promises.
Mahabbat Khan was soon sidelined, and he fled, leaving Nur Jehan to rule the Mughal Empire for a few months during Jahangir’s illness. She retired from politics after Jahangir passed away in 1627, and lived with her daughter (Laadli) until her death in 1645. She was buried close to the graves of her husband and brother, Asif.
Her humble looking tomb might not reflect all of her qualities but the prism of history must be turned in a direction that exposes the brilliant spectrum of heroic traits women like Nur Jehan possessed.