There have been many powerful women in history. The list includes Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher, to name but a few.
Many other strong female leaders have either been forgotten, removed, or ignored by historians. Take Nur Jahan, the wife of Nur-ud-din Muhammad Salim, more commonly known as Jahangir, the fourth Mughal emperor. She was more capable and intelligent than her husband, and soon became one of the most powerful and respected woman of her time. Some historians believe that she was the true ruler of the Mughal Empire—and the real power behind the throne.
Ruby Lal’s book, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, is an intriguing examination of a reign like few others. A professor of South Asian history at Emory University, Lal’s written extensively about the period related to Mughal. Her new book provides an important perspective on a once-revered empress lost in the sands of time.
Lal writes that she “first met Nur Jahan when I was a restless nine-year-old growing up in Dehradun, India, 150 miles north of Delhi.” Her mother told her Nur’s story, calling the protagonist “Maharani, Queen of Queens in Hindi.” While she admits “some of the details of that day’s story are hazy, what struck me was that while Nur ruled the empire alongside her husband, dispensing justice and masterminding daring escapes, she also wrote poetry and designed clothing, gardens, and buildings.” In fact, she “felt more real to me than other heroines my mother spoke about.”
Mihr un-Nisa, who grew up to be Nur Jahan, was born in 1577 to Asmat Begum (mother) and Ghiyas Beg (father). Her parents were “educated people from noble families” and “liberal members of the ruling class in a Persia where liberality went in and out of fashion and often contended with fundamentalism.” Persians were viewed favorably in the Mughal courts, which led Ghiyas to move his family to India to serve as an important official for Akbar, the third Mughal emperor.
This fortuitous event created a unique opportunity for Nur. “Although the idea of universal education for women didn’t exist,” Lal writes, “there was a tradition in Persia and Al-Hind of men acknowledging the intellectual achievements of women.” There were female scholars and poets and two hundred “noteworthy” women in Damascus in the 12th century. Nur would, therefore, be exposed to “awe-inspiring, well-remembered queens and princesses in the Islamic world.” Moreover, her parents ensured their daughters would be remembered for their “intelligence, piety, self-control, good judgment, tenderness, and temperate speech.”
As Ghiyas grew in stature in the Mughal courts, Asmat became friendly with Akbar’s wife, Salimeh, who was also Persian. Nur would likely have joined her mother on some of these visits. At some point she met Prince Salim, who would grow up to become Jahangir.
A romance soon blossomed, which frustrated Akbar. In an attempt to end it, the emperor forced Nur to marry Ali Quli Beg, later known as Sher Afgan, “an ordinary provincial Mughal officer.” The couple shared a Persian heritage and language. Lal felt Quli “would appreciate her curiosity and innate intelligence” and discuss “matters of trade, taxes, public grievances, the particulars of his visits to Rajmahal, and news from the Mughal court.” The author also suggests Nur’s “grasp of governance” could mean Quli “talked about these things with her.”
Nur gave birth to Ladli, the Loved One, in 1600 or 1601—their only child. Quli died in 1607 under mysterious circumstances. Some have suggested it was due to suspicion “of complicity in the 1607 plot against Jahangir.” Others attribute it to having “mortally wounded the governor” after a battle with a fellow soldier, Haidar Malik Chadurah. Still others suggest his death came about through Nur’s treachery.
Whatever the case, the newly widowed Nur reunited with Jahangir and married him in 1611. Although the emperor was a womanizer, and hundreds of beautiful wives were at his disposal, they didn’t seem to compare to the charms of his childhood sweetheart. Nur’s ascent to the Mughal throne was complete.
The remainder of Empress focuses on Nur’s intelligence, talents, and ability to win over the court. Lal notes she “devoted the early years of her second marriage to building politically astute alliances and observing affairs of state with close attention.” As the emperor’s favorite wife, she soon became a “force within the harem” and “more and more involved in an important royal observance, the ritual weighing of the emperor.”
Jahangir also praised Nur’s skills as a hunter, which Lal interprets as the emperor “not so obliquely endorsing her ability to rule.” Mughals believed hunting “symbolized imperial dominance, as it had for their Mongrol and Turk ancestors.” Nur, according to legend, was able to kill four tigers with only six shots in Malwa in 1617. In Jahangir’s autobiography Tuzuk, a poet devised a couplet to honor this achievement,
Though Nur Jahan be in form a woman
In the ranks of men she’s a tiger-slayer.
The tiger-slayer gradually became an important figure in the Mughal courts with respect to state decisions and military matters. She issued edicts, which most Islamic women never dared dream of doing, and became the first woman to have her name on a Mughal coin. She designed palace gardens, including the Ram Bagh (Light-Scattering Garden), which is only 5 kilometers away from the Taj Mahal. She even helped defend the empire against the “rebellious prince” Shah Jahan after Jahangir died in 1627—a battle she lost, although she survived to live out her last days in a beautiful mansion in Lahore.
Nur Jahan’s rivals and enemies, including Shah Jahan, sought to wipe her name and influence from the history of the Mughal empire. Their efforts succeeded to some extent. “Yet in the Shahjahani histories, in her coins and monuments, in the work of feminist scholars,” writes Lal, “a much richer and more complete story of Nur’s achievements resides. It is as if, no matter what, some people will themselves into history.” Thanks to Empress, Nur’s remarkable story won’t soon be forgotten.