So, most people have heard the story of the Taj Mahal, right? The Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan was so deeply in love with his wife Mumtaz Mahal, that when she died he built and named the Taj Mahal after her as her tomb. It’s a moving and deeply touching love story which has been told for generations and has since come to symbolize old-school historical romance. Less talked about, however, was the void that Mumtaz Mahal’s absence left in Shah Jehan’s life and his first daughter, Princess Jahanara Begum who helped him cope.
Jahanara Begum is arguably the most well-known of the Mughal princesses. That admittedly doesn’t say much given that many of the Mughal royal women and their achievements are forgotten today, much like other female rulers. Known as Begum Sahib (Princess of Princesses), you can imagine that she has a certain amount of street cred in relation to her parents’ story but her legacy extends far beyond that.
At the tender age of 17, she was given the position and title of Padhsah Begum, essentially becoming the most powerful female in the empire, and being trusted with this position despite her father having two other wives well and alive. Emperor Shah Jehan held Jahanara close to him, as she was the one to bring him out of his long mourning period, and on top of her new position, she became the emperor’s advisor in many court decisions.
Her father granted her half her mother’s estate while splitting the remaining half amongst his five other children. The money she received was later used to help build mosques and send food to the needy in Mekkah. She was intelligent and was one of the few women in the empire who owned a ship, with which she conducted independent trade to earn extra money, most of which she put into education or helping the people again. She had a love for the arts and was the one who introduced Sufism into the Mughal empire. She and one of her younger brothers, Dara Shikoh, were devoted believers in the practice and she penned several works which are still known today, including commentaries of Rumi’s Mathnawi. She also ordered translations of important Sufi literature, often writing several of them herself. She was also an architect and was put in charge of five of the Imperial buildings as well as Chandni Chowk, a bazaar that still exists in India today.
Having been raised in the isolated and peaceful harem of the Mughal Empire, Jahanara was no fighter, and she opted for peaceful resolutions where possible. Many people described the princess as a kind and compassionate soul. One example of her constant care for others above herself was an incident in 1644 when Jahanara ended up in an accident where her clothes were set on fire. She was left with life-threatening wounds and spent four months in agony with her father by her side. But she refused to place blame on anyone for the accident, choosing to comfort her father in even her dire state. And during those months in recovery, she tried to still play her role for the family and kingdom. When her brother Aurangzeb was banished by their father she took the time to beg him to reconsider. And then the moment she recovered she chose to celebrate the occasion by distributing her weight in gold to the citizens most in need.
And so, for many years she lived in peace, carrying out her duties as per her assigned title and contributing to the people’s needs and the empire’s development with dedication. But the empire and succession were a volatile atmosphere and a succession war broke out between Dara and Aurangzeb. The war was a brutal affair that ended up pitting the peaceful Jahanara against not only her brother but her younger sister Roshanara as well. Both sisters chose to support a different brother in the war. Jahanara tried in vain to stop her siblings from fighting, sending letters to try and sway Aurangzeb and then visiting him with the offer of partitioning the empire between the brother. The war ended with Dara dead and Aurangzeb taking over the palace, placing their father under arrest right next to his precious Taj Mahal. Jahanara was stripped of her title and replaced with Roshanara, but she took solace in watching over her father in his remaining days.
But it wasn’t long before her father would pass away. And the aftermath of his death saw Jahanara and Aurangzeb reconciling as she was returned her title and position and was given a new title, Empress of Princesses. Once Jahanara was brought back into the political fold she was given special privileges. Her brother respected her knowledge and would often hear her out even if he did not always listen to her complaints. She argued for his strict tax rules on non-Muslim citizens to be abolished and worked hard to fight his increasingly conservative political views.
Her remaining days saw her doubling down in her efforts to spread the arts. She commissioned several mosques, gardens, and other structures to be built. She also continued painting, wrote poetry, studied and furthered the knowledge of Islamic mysticism. One of her final acts was to commission her own graveyard and tomb. It was not as grand as those of her ancestors and she modeled it after a Sufi saint she admired. She also wrote her tomb’s inscription herself. It reads:
“Allah is the Living, the Sustaining
Let no one cover my grave except with greenery,
For this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor.
The mortal simplistic Princess Jahanara,
Disciple of Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chisti,
Daughter of Shah Jahan the conqueror”.
Jahanara Begum dedicated her life to her family, her duty, and her people. She is everything that a princess should be and so much more.
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