“Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan” by Ruby Lal


In popular imagination and even works of scholarship, the names of the six Great Mughals—all male—dominate the narrative of the Mughal Empire in the history of India. School textbooks name them, detail their conquests, their religious tolerance or intolerance, the art and architecture they ushered in, and the gardens they left behind. That Nur Jahan, the 20th wife of the fourth emperor Jahangir (the son of Akbar the Great), was co-sovereign is missing from even the trivia people know about the carefree Prince Salim, the later Emperor Jahangir.

In her new book Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, feminist historian Ruby Lal goes beyond the more or less well-known stories about how Jahangir fell in love with her. About the paucity of the material on Nur, the author says:


I dived deeply into the Persian court records. Nur is there, it turns out; all we have to do is to look for her, which sometimes entails peering around the towering figures of men.


The resulting book does not just about uncover things unknown about the queen; it is also a contribution to the scholarship on Jahangir, who, the author says, is not the caricature he is often dismissed to be. Ruby Lal says:

Until very recently, historians brought a distinct orientalism to bear on an unexceptional ruler who didn’t measure up to his father, Akbar the Great. Several scholars have now taken a hard look at these old-fashioned histories of Jahangir, and reappraised him as a man with diverse talents, an aesthete, a nature lover, philosopher open to many doctrines, and curious traveler. It is fully in keeping with this open-mindedness that having a co-sovereign was no problem for Jahangir. From the moment he became the emperor, he continually challenged limits, including his father Akbar’s prescriptions for how an ideal Mughal king should live and be.

Lal reads Jahangir’s memoir Jahangirnama carefully to appreciate how Nur’s rise was not necessarily surprising. Jahangir’s book includes entries praising her talents and describing personal moments between him and Nur. The other sources that help Lal in bringing together the details of her reign are Mu’tamad Khan’s history of Jahangir’s reign, Iqbalnama-i Jahangiri; the work of 18th century-court historian Muhammad Hadi; the poetry of Mulla Kami Shriazi; the observations of the representatives of foreign trading companies; her paintings; and the coins and edicts issued by her.

Hunting was the sort of things rulers did.

Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, Ruby Lal (Penguin India, August 2018; WW Norton, July 2018)
Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, Ruby Lal (Penguin India, August 2018; WW Norton, July 2018)

Lal battles with several kinds of absences to reconstruct the life of Nur Jahan Padshah Begum. The first kind relates to the popular legends about her. Lal notes that these legends do little more than reinforce patriarchal attitudes that undermine women’s voices and achievements. The romantic stories account for how Jahangir might have met her and lost his heart. He finally “got” her when he had her husband killed for being a part of a conspiracy against him and married the widow Mihr un-Nisa. (Nur Jahan was a name that Jahangir bestowed upon her, like her earlier name Nur Mahal.) The stories go only up to a point: they stop at the marriage. As Lal puts it, “In the popular imagination, Nur’s story seems to stop at the very moment when her life’s best work began.” Lal strives to undo the ways in which her personality is diminished to being an object of love.

There are plenty of stories about her rivalry with the other wives. These come from the sensational gossip that went about the palace and the harem. One tale tells how Jagat Gosain, another wife of Jahangir and the mother of Shah Jahan (the fifth and next Mughal Emperor) mother, killed a lion when she suddenly woke up to find it staring at them while the king was fast asleep with the queens. The story adds that Nur was frightened while Jagat Gosain proved herself brave. Lack of verisimilitude aside, this is easily dismissed as an invention for Nur’s hunting skills are rapturously written about in her husband’s memoir: he records her tiger-slaying episodes of 1617 and 1619.

Hunting was the sort of things rulers did. Lal puts together such bits to systematically uncover how Nur’s being and actions came to fulfill all the visible and symbolic attributes of a sovereign:


For more than a decade and a half, from a few years after their wedding until Jahangir’s death, Nur Jahan ruled along with her husband, effectively and prominently, successfully navigating the labyrinth of feudal courtly politics and the male-centered culture of the Mughal world. She issued her own imperial orders, and coins of the realm bore her name along with her husband’s. In Islamic thought and practice, the edicts and the coins were convincing technical signs of sovereignty. Furthermore, Nur sat where no other Mughal queen had sat before or would after, in the jharokha, an elaborately carved balcony projecting from the place wall, from which government business was conducted.


But Lal also notes what eluded Nur:


Despite the edicts, the coins, the jharokha, and the sovereignty her husband publicly bestowed upon her, one technical, legal prerogative of a Mughal ruler eluded Nur: the mention of the monarch’s name during the khutba, the central sermon of Friday prayers… The matter of the sermon wasn’t straightforward anyway; its importance in establishing sovereignty had always been a little ambiguous. As a rebellious young price, Jahangir had his name read during a khutba to challenge his father. In time to come, his son Shah Jahan would revolt in exactly the same way. Nur Jahan wasn’t a rebel or a dissenter – and she wasn’t a man. She would have accepted that the world she had come to co-rule was an emphatically patriarchal one.


Nur Jahan’s life and work are also obscured by  the set of biases of the men writing about her in her own time and afterwards. On the one hand,  some courtiers saw her as a power-hungry woman, a manipulator and mischief-maker. One of Jahangir’s courtiers, Mahabat, is said to have confronted the emperor thus:


His Majesty must have read … the histories of the ancient sovereigns … Was there any king so subject to the will of his wife? The world is surprised that such a wise and sensible Emperor as Jahangir should permit a woman to have such great influence over him.


On the other hand, European observers attributed Nur’s rise to power to her husband’s addiction to alcohol and opium. Here was a foolish, uxorious emperor unable and unfit to rule. The life of Nur is caught up in such binaries: she took advantage of Jahangir’s weaknesses, or Jahangir indulged her excessively. Lal writes:


Faced with the reality of a de facto woman sovereign, most official observers of Nur’s achievements, instead of acknowledging that she’d earned her position on the strength of her talents, explained it in terms of more palatable (to them) and conceivable (to them): she was a gold-digger and schemer.

Nur, one poet puts it beautifully, was the refuge for the kingdom.

Mahabat, the courtier who had tried to warn the emperor in the fashion of driving some sense into the emperor’s head,  kidnapped him later, albeit for different reasons. Nur went to battle to get her husband back; initially unsuccessful, she had to surrender but later managed to planned their rescue. Nur, one poet puts it beautifully, was the refuge for the kingdom. In saving the king, she saved the kingdom. None of this added to her credibility; what the men noticed was  a woman with more power than they thought she should have.

These suspicions of Nur derive from deeply rooted prejudice, both then and now. Nur gave Ladli, her daughter from her first marriage to Shahrayar, Shah Jahan’s half-brother. Shah Jahan saw this as a threat to his right to succession and led a rebellion against his father. The previously cordial relationship between Shah Jahan and Nur snapped and once this was obvious for everyone to see, the civil war was not far behind.

Court historians writing during the reign of Shah Jahan accuse Nur of driving a wedge between the father and the son, provoking the latter to rebel and causing fitna or chaos, a charge—her detractors well knew — that had been levelled against Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Ayisha, who led a battle against Ali. She was defeated but Ali rebuked her: “Is that what the Messenger of God ordered you to do? Didn’t he order you to remain quietly in your house?” Sunnullah Effendi, the 16th-century Ottoman cleric, said that a people who entrusts its affairs to a woman will never know prosperity. Lal discusses the continuity in patriarchal attitude:


For centuries … the Islamic world associated fitna with what were seen as innately destructive elements in women: their sexuality was ruinous, their ambition damaging, women were a source of trouble, turmoil, and temptation. Women’s domain was the sacred, inner quarters. What else could follow a transgression of these boundaries but fitna?

Nur is everywhere. All one has to do is look for her.

Thus were Nur’s merits erased: her contribution as the Empress and Great Wazir (a post bestowed upon her by Jahangir on her father’s death), her philanthropic work of caring for orphan girls and letting them decide between marriage or self-employment, and her designing of clothes, gardens and monuments.

“It is as if, no matter what, some people will themselves into history,” Lal concludes. People who want to look for Nur Jahan will find her traces in the Taj Mahal. There is another monument in Agra called the Baby Taj. It is the tomb that Nur designed for her parents and the model on which Shah Jahan’s magnificent tribute to his wife is based. Again, Mumtaz Mahal, his beloved wife for whom he built the mausoleum, was Nur Jahan’s niece.

As Lal says, Nur is everywhere. All one has to do is look for her.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.