History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Nur Jahan, the twentieth wife: the Empress who stole her husband’s thunder

Everybody knows about Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, in whose name the Taj Mahal was built. But what about her predecessor, Nur Jahan? Nur Jahan did not have a historic monument built to her name. But much of the Mughal architecture that we see today could be accredited to her. In fact, the Taj Mahal was itself inspired by a tomb that Nur Jahan commissioned for her father, Mirza Ghias Baig. 

[Image Description: The tomb of Nur Jahan’s father, Itimad-ud-Daula, in Agra. It is made out of marble and features a long pathway.] via ThinkStock images
In a world dominated by bloodlines and lineage, Nur Jahan was not of royal birth herself. Yet, she ruled the empire in her husband, Jehangir’s name for fifteen years. And this empire was far more diverse than that of Queen Elizabeth I even though they lived through the same century. 

In a time where women were confined to the walls of the harem, Nur Jahan took charge of the imperial seal and enacted legislation. She minted coins in her name and was the only woman in Mughal history to do so. She was a patron of the arts and architecture, commissioning several forts and buildings. Unlike others, she did not need a man to build her a monument, she could pretty much just do it herself. 

[Image Description: A silver coin bearing the names of Nur Jahan (right) and Jehangir (left).] via BBC
Is she beginning to sound like a real-life version of Daenarys Targaryen? Well, she was not too far from it. She had incredible military tact and was skilled in warfare. An incident from Jehangir’s memoirs describes her shooting four tigers with six arrows. 

She boasted significant clout. The indelible marks that she left on the Indian landscape are still tangible today. Be it the historical heritage of India or the peshwaz silhouette in fashion were all her signature style. She was a prolific garden designer and a diplomat.

Her intelligence was piercing, and her wit unmatched. She was multilingual and a composer in Persian. She went wherever life allowed, breaking away from convention. Where it did not allow, she mended the rules to her own accord. She wrote poetry. And in a society that did not allow female poets, she wrote under a pseudonym, Makhfi.

Here is an excerpt of her words from Maulvi Zakaullah Dehlvi’s book, Tahreekh-e-Hindustan:

“A nightingale would leave the flower if it laid eyes on me in the garden. A Brahmin would give up worshipping idols if he beheld me. Like fragrance in the flower, I am veiled in my poetry. He who desires to lay eyes on me should see me in my poetry.”

But how does a woman this unconventional lead a conventionally happy married life? What effects did her excellence and Jehangir’s lack thereof have on their relationship? 

Well, she was his twentieth wife. And he was her second husband. She was a 35-year-old widow of a Mughal government official, Sher Afghan, when she married Jehangir. In many mythical renditions, Jehangir saw Nur Jahan in Meena Bazar for the first time. In others, he saw her at the court whilst she was still married to Sher Afghan. And apparently, he was so besotted by her that he had her husband killed.

Jehangir and Nur Jahan’s love story is perhaps more firmly rooted in folklore than in history. It is the space where fact and fiction meet. It is the space where reality and fabrications merge to form a narrative of their own. So, one can never fully know what exactly happened. All one can say with confidence is that it was love at first sight.

[Image Description: Nur Jahan with a portrait of the Emperor Jehangir done with opaque watercolor and gold on paper
c. 1627, Mughal court. The flared dress that she is wearing is  a peshwaz.] via Cleveland Museum of Art, Universal Compendium
In an era where the only contribution a queen could make to a kingdom was to produce several heirs, Nur Jahan did not birth any royal babies. Her identity today remains her own, not as the mother of a king. 

She was a true revolutionary. Jehangir was relatively passive as a result of his dependence on opium and wine. This stark contrast, of his indulgence and her shrewdness, caused a lot of speculation about their personal dynamics. Many earlier historians were unable to accept that any man, much less a king would allow his wife to overwrite his popularity. And so they made claims: that it was she who dulled his senses by drugging him so much so that he remained nothing but a puppet ruler- only a soft symbol of power. 

But what can historians say about a woman who does not fit into the rigid gender roles of history? Because they were unable to fathom her, they cast her as a scheming and manipulative temptress. 

Yet, it is commonly known that even through his sickness, Jehangir turned only to her. She covered up for his political incompetence by crushing revolts and consolidating power. She saved him metaphorically and literally. When Jehangir was taken hostage by an enemy, she joined the military battle to release him and won. Theirs was an unconventional, yet memorable romance. 

[Image Description: A painting of Nur Jehan (left) and Jehangir (right) taking a moonlit stroll through the palace.] via Good Times
Though her husband was named Emperor, she was the real power behind the throne. He first brought her to court. He named her from Mehrunissa to Nur Mahal (Light of the Palace) and eventually to Nur Jahan (Light of the World).

But today, his name is commemorated because of her. 

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By Safa Shoaib

Safa Shoaib is an educator and counselor turned entrepreneur, writer, and editor. She has a B.A. Honors in English Literature from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and has written for local publications such as the Express Tribune. She is a history buff who is equally passionate about literature.
In 2021, she co-founded Deja New Pakistan, the first of its kind marketplace of pre-owned fashion in Pakistan, pursuing the vision of sustainable fashion.