Begum Nur Jahan, Empress of India, wielded real power behind the throne

Moomtaz Emrith
(Windsor, Ontario, Canada)

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Nur Jahan was one of the rare Queens of Mughal India, who left her imprint on the history of the land. She was the last woman Emperor Jehangir, who succeeded his father, Akbar the Great, on the throne of Delhi as Emperor of India, and who became his favourite wife and consort, assisting him in a large measure in running the affairs of the state. Indeed, Emperor Jehangir trusted her judgment and wise counsels so much that he gradually gave himself up more and more to enjoying his own ‘pleasures’ and slowly let his Queen run the country. Nur Jahan would thus preside over the Council of State, issue orders, make decisions that affected the whole country. She was respected and admired for her strong administrative capabilities and high sense of responsibility.

Mughal power in India at the time was at the peak of its glory and Nur Jahan saw to it that it continued to be so. She had gradually come to surround herself with some capable advisers among whom were notably her own father, Mirza Ghaus, who had been the Grand Vizier of the realm during Emperor Akbar’s reign and her own brother, father of Anjuman Bano, who would later become Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj Mahal fame. Indeed, Nur Jahan became so powerful and influential that she prevailed on her husband, the Emperor, to even have a special coin minted to her name — a feat in Indian history that has not been replicated.

Nur Jahan’s real name was Mehr-un-Nissa Begum. She was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on May 31, 1577. Her father moved to India, where he found a position at the Court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. In fact, he would end up as his Grand Vizier. At seventeen, Mehr-un-Nissa was married to a Persian noble called Sher Afghan Quli Khan, who was also in the service of the Mughals and who was at one time appointed Governor of Bihar. However, when Emperor Akbar died in 1605, his son, Prince Salim, succeeded him as Emperor Jehangir and around the same period, Nur Jahan’s husband, Sher Afghan Khan, was sent to the Deccan, where he got himself embroiled into some political problems for which he was summoned to Delhi by the Emperor. But Sher Afghan would not respond to the Emperor’s order. Instead, he raised an army to challenge the imperial authority and in the tussle that ensued, Sher Aghan was killed. Mehr-un-Nissa thus found herself a widow and mother of a daughter. She was then in her mid-thirties.

However, thanks to her father’s connections at the Mughal Court, Mehr-un-Nissa was brought to the Court to serve as lady-in-waiting to Emperor Jehangir’s step-mother, Dowager Rukaya Sultan Begum. Mehr-un-Nissa was an extremely beautiful and attractive woman and it was while in the service of the Queen mother that Emperor Jehangir got to see her for the first time at the Court and fell madly in love with her. He would press her to marry him but Mehr-un-Nissa would manage to keep him waiting until 1611, when she finally consented and was officially married to the Emperor who, at first named her Empress Nur Mahal and later Empress Nur Jahan of India, that is, “Light of the World”.
Nur Jahan was known not only for her great beauty but also for her many other inherent talents and skills. She was very smart and very well educated and was admired for her bravery, charisma and courage. She was decisive, and pro-active and would thus assist her husband adroitly in carrying out the affairs of the state, defending the borders of the Empire and keeping peace and order throughout the land. In fact, during the last years of Jehangir’s rule, it is said, she was “the real power behind the throne.”

As a matter of fact, Nur Jahan was unique in that capacity. No other Queen before her had wielded such influence and such power over the Empire as she did. It was, therefore, not surprising that Jehangir slowly let her run the affairs of the state and Nur Jahan gladly took over the administration and ran the show all by herself. She would run the Mughal Empire with a firm hand. She would deal with family feuds, rebellions and uprisings and even get involved in the intrigues for succession as Jehangir would not name a successor. She would thus be instrumental in getting Prince Khurram, Jehangir’s eldest son, to marry her niece Anjuman Bano, who was the daughter of her brother. Also, she shrewdly arranged her only daughter Ladli Begum by her first husband, Sher Afghan Khan, to marry the youngest son of Jehangir, Prince Shahryar — no doubt with the dubious hope that should the young Prince ascend the throne as Emperor, she stood a good chance of continuing her influence behind the throne. But her plans would fall short. Prince Khurram, helped by Nur Jahan’s own brother, who was Prince Khurram’s father-in-law, succeeded his father Jehangir as Emperor Shah Jahan. Thus Empress Nur Jahan’s plans of continuing to wield any influence at Court after her husband’s death, would not materialize. Emperor Shah Jahan took complete control of the affairs of the realm. Nur Jahan’s ‘rule’ thus lasted from 1611 till 1627, the year Emperor Jehangir died.

Empress Nur Jahan would be gracefully made to retire by the new Emperor to a comfortable and quiet life devoting herself to her preferred hobbies, which were, among others, writing poetry, making perfumes and indulging in art works. She would die in Lahore in 1645 and would be laid to rest in Shahdara Bagh, Lahore, (now in Pakistan) not far from her husband, Emperor Jehangir’s tomb. Emperor Shah Jahan built her a beautiful Mausoleum which, reportedly, attracts lots of visitors, both from Pakistan and the sub-continent every year. Next to her white marble cenotaph is the grave of her only child — her daughter, Ladli Begum from her first husband.

By the way, it would not be out of place to add as a footnote, that Begum Nur Jahan is also credited by many to be the ‘inventor’ of the famous and popular Mughal dish : the Biryani.
Nur Jahan left her mark on India, indeed. She was a strong person, who was never intimidated to exercise her authority, at the behest of her Emperor-husband. She was feared and respected. To-day, there are many landmarks in India — particularly around Agra and Delhi built under her watch, that remind us of her indelible imprint on the land. She was the brain behind many buildings and monuments that still stand to-day and remain among the well known tourist attractions of India. Empress Nur Jahan remains an iconic personality in Indian history and who is still remembered with awe and reverence by all who read Indian history.

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