India has forgotten one of its greatest monarchs—a Mughal empress

Formidable woman.
Formidable woman.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain
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The Mughal empire is remembered for a lot of things in India, but the incredible reign of a rare empress is unfortunately not one of them.

Instead, most Indians know Nur Jahan for her great romance with the 17th century emperor Jahangir, immortalised in movies, plays, and even an opera. But at a time when most royal women were cloistered in harems, Nur Jahan defied norms by openly ruling, alongside her husband, advising him on important matters and even issuing orders and coins.

“In act after act—hunting, advising, issuing imperial orders and coins, designing buildings—she ensured that her name was etched indelibly in public memory and in history,” the feminist historian Ruby Lal writes in her new book, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan (Penguin Random House India).

Following Jahangir’s death, rivals, including his son Shah Jahan, quickly moved to wrest control from his unlikely co-emperor and made sure that no other woman could follow in her footsteps. It would take over 300 years before another woman rose to the top in India, long after the Mughal empire was gone.

Lal’s book captures that brief, incredible moment in history when the widowed daughter of a Persian noble boldly redefined the role of the royal wife. In an email interview with Quartz, she explained why Nur Jahan’s achievements are often forgotten.

Edited excerpts:

Why is the romantic aspect of Nur Jahan’s story better known by most people in India? 

There is a very long history of the erasure of Nur Jahan’s power that I detail in Empress. As she travelled through the length and breadth of the country with Jahangir—issuing imperial orders, hunting a killer tiger near Mathura, discussing the expansion of the empire—she rose to being the co-sovereign. This does not mean that in her own time people did not raise eyebrows. In 1622, her stepson and Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan, had risen in revolt. The catalyst for his revolt was the moment Nur Jahan arranged a match for her daughter from her first marriage, Ladli; she chose the youngest prince, Shahriyar, for her. About that time, Shah Jahan went into rebellion against Jahangir. And its is very clear that he felt threatened; he knew about the power of Nur Jahan. In fact, Shah Jahan and Nur Jahan had been closely aligned. The year 1622 is when certain chroniclers begin to write about the chaos that Nur Jahan Begum had raked up between the father and son.

So the early criticism appears to begin around this time. The other major moment of the critique of Nur’s power was when they were on their way to Kashmir and Mahabat Khan (who went on to capture Jahangir later in 1626) goes on the journey with them to a certain distance and, according to one of the chroniclers, he says to Jahangir that a man who was governed by a woman is likely to suffer from unforeseen results. In 1626, she, completely visible, goes to save Jahangir (sitting upon an elephant on a roaring river), commanding all men including her brother Asaf Khan. She strategises and eventually saves the emperor. After this, we begin to come across a word called Fitna, in the records, also used against Ayesha, prophet Muhammad’s wife, when she went on a battle against Ali who was eventually the leader of the Shias. Over time, the word came to be used against women’s visibility, their sexuality, and so on. Following 1626, this is one word that is used repeatedly against Nur—that is to say that her power produced chaos. Later, in the Shahjahanama, we find that at one point the chronicler lists her power as a “problem”: the Shahjahanama reverts to the male inheritance of power and completely undoes her co-sovereignty with Jahangir.

Then there were also visitors to India like Thomas Roe, the ambassador of James I of England, who follows Nur and Jahangir through the camps in Gujarat and Malwa. He calls her the goddess of heathen impiety. In the 19th century, orientalist renditions of the romance of Nur and Jahangir become very important in the histories of the time; later, the colonial renditions highlight and forward such stories. Nur Jahan becomes a classic oriental queen. It is certain that the erasure of Nur’s power travels into modern times and we only hear about her romance with Jahangir, not about her work as co-sovereign of the empire.

Why did you decide to tell her story? 

I want to emphasise that Nur Jahan is the history of India. She was a Shia married to a Sunni Muslim who was also half Hindu Rajput. Further, Nur Jahan is the only woman ruler among the great Mughals of India (there are technical signs of being a sovereign and informal signs, both of which I detail in the book). That is the history of India. As far as Islam is concerned, people should know that there were incredible and powerful women in Islamic history all the way through. We have Ayesha, Raziya, we have Nur Jahan Begum, we have any number of powerful women. It is also the multicultural world.

In the modern world, we tend to think in terms of fixed identities. People in early modern times were much more open. Jahangir was engaging with Siddichandra, a Jain monk. Nur Jahan used to tease him about the pleasures of the flesh. What does this tell you? It tells you about an open engagement. It tells you about how experimental Islam is, how mixed Islam is, how vibrant Muslim women are, and how Islam is so deeply attached to India.

Ruby Lal.
Ruby Lal.
Image: Myron McGhee

What was behind her unlikely rise to power?

Her life history shows her dynamism and boldness. Of course, as I have been saying, the plural landscape of Hindustan was very important—in that it fostered experimentation and all sorts of ways of being. We should also remember that she comes from an important Persian family background, deeply invested in poetry, arts, calligraphy. Then her own initiative must be highlighted: there were other women in the harem—and indeed Nur walks in the tracks of these women’s power—but no one becomes a co-sovereign. That speaks something about her boldness, her endeavours, and of course her ambition.

Why is it that despite being a very visible co-emperor, Nur Jahan never recorded her achievements in writing? And how did this affect your story-telling? 

We privilege the idea of a “memoir,” but in fact, people have tended to express themselves in various and rich ways. What has soaked our subconscious somehow is that if she writes something herself, it is somehow the most legitimate ground of history. What about architecture, poetry, her stupendous image in which she holds a gun, held at the Rampur Raza library, acknowledged by art historians as a real Nur painted between 1612-1617: why are these not solid evidence for her reign? And why not that fabulous masnavi, a poem form, that Mulla Kami Shirazi wrote marvelling at her bravery in 1626 when she strategises and saves Jahangir after he was taken captive for 100 days? Historians have called it a panegyric account. Which courtly history is not panegyric? Is Akbarnama not panegyric? I think the problem is that sources are different in their histories of production, and it takes patient work trying to understand the technicality of each genre. The issue is this: Those who raise eyebrows around women’s leadership, it is actually not about evidence, even if that is how it is said. It is to do with an inherent disbelief in women’s power.

What would you say is Nur Jahan’s legacy in India? 

She is one of the Great Mughals of India, an inspiring female sovereign.