Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mehrunissa the forgotten empress

A classic love story always ends with both lovers dying together, one partner dying, and the other living on and eventually dying of a broken heart. As myth, legend, folklore and history will tell us. The other half of a truly loving relationship will find it inconceivable to go on in normal fashion, once their partner is no more.

In most of these 'classic' love stories,  the woman is always the epitome of feminine beauty, and the man is always dashing and every ounce the virile hero. Which is why the story of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal, and the monument of love he commissioned in her memory - the Taj Mahal, has fascinated the world for centuries.

Because of her marble mausoleum and the story of 'great love' which led to its construction, Mumtaz Mahal became and is the most famous Mughal woman of her time.
The Mughal woman I'm more fascinated with however is Nur Jehan or Mehrunissa. The 20th and last wife of Emperor Jehangir, the father of Shah Jehan.


 Nur Jehan's original name was Mehr-un-nisa. Her parents were Persian immigrants, and she was born to them while they were journeying to the Indian Sub-continent. Though her forefathers were affluent men who served at the Persian court, the poverty they endured on their journey to India, almost caused her parents to abandon her on the way. The history of Mughal India would have been a little different if they did.

Mehr-un-nisa grew to be an intelligent young woman with a flair for poetry and an independent nature. She was said to be quite beautiful too, porcelain skin, jet black hair and inky blue eyes. It was the desire of her parents to marry their daughter to a man who would understand and appreciate her intelligent nature.

However as her father served at the court of Emperor Akhbar, naturally the decision of the monarch who had the right of life itself over his subjects held sway. At the age of 17, she was married to Sher Afghan Quli Khan, a man many years her senior, and a soldier who had impressed Akhbar with his prowess in war. Sher Afghan was subsequently made the governor of a city in Bengal.

There are two versions to the story of Mehr-un-nisa and Jehangir. In one version, Jehangir knew her in his youth and wanted to marry her. But Akhbar decided to marry her to Sher Afghan instead.

In this version, when Jehangir becomes emperor, he makes his intention known to Sher Afghan that he wants Mehr-un-nisa for his harem. But that an angry Sher Afghan refuses, goes against the emperor, and dies in a skirmish.

The widowed Mehr-un-nisa then enters the harem as a lady-in-waiting to Jehangir's step-mother, Ruqaya Begum. And the couple marry several years later.

In another version, both Jehangir and Mehr-un-nisa only meet when she attends the palace meena bazaar. He is said to have been utterly infatuated with her, and they marry shortly after. However in both versions, the widowed Meh-un-nisa serves at the imperial harem for several years as lady-in-waiting to Ruqaya Begum before marrying Jehangir.

Regardless of how long Jehangir knew Mehr-un-nisa before marrying her. Their marriage shocked many. At the time of their wedding, she was 34, a widow with a young daughter. Considered old by the standards of the age in which she lived.

She was said to be very beautiful, but there were many far younger beauties around. Plus when emperors marry, politics and future alliances play a strong part in the union. Mehr-un-nisa had nothing to offer in that sense.

So naturally Jehangir's choice of bride shocked many. What shocked people further was that he showed no inclination to marry again after that. Mehr-un-nisa who subsequently came to be known as Nur Jehan, a title Jehangir bestowed upon her. Was Jehangir's 20th and last wife.

Jehangir's love for Mehr-un-nisa was the stuff of legend. But it was also a mature love not without its trials and tribulations. At the time of their marriage, Mehr-un-nisa was 34 and Jehangir in his 50s. Their marriage lasted for 16 years until the death of Jehangir. Mehr-un-nisa lived on and died at 68.

The personality of Nur Jehan

Nur Jehan is the only empress in the history of Mughal India who held a strong sway over the affairs of the empire. Jehangir had coinage struck in her name - a first for an empress. Jehangir's addiction to opium and cocaine was also a factor that led to Nur Jehan becoming the power behind the throne.

She gave audiences in her own right ( something only the sovereign did) and ministers had to consult with her on affairs of state. This unconventional aspect of her personality did not endear her to many. Especially the emperor's close associates and the women of the harem.

Early in their marriage, as loving a couple as they were, she was also known to have sparred openly with the emperor, to the horror of many. But the marriage thrived. The emperor accepting Nur Jehan for the strong minded and unconventional woman that she was.

Unencumbered by the ordeal of having to bear children again and again (Mehr-un-nisa had one daughter - Ladli from her first marriage. Her niece Mumtaz Mahal who married Jehangir's son Shah Jahan, had 14 children, and died shortly after the last child was born.) She pretty much had time to cultivate other talents and pursuits.

She is said to have set the standard in fashion among the women in the imperial harem. Even before her marriage to Jehangir, Nur Jehan designed fabrics and fashioned her own clothes. She was also well versed in the art of making perfumes. She wrote poetry, and loved gardening.

During her time as empress, she designed many Mughal gardens. She was also very interested in architecture. It is said that the design of the Taj Mahal closely resembles the tomb of Nur Jehan's father in Agra. Known as Itmad-Ud-Daulah's tomb. She also commissioned the construction of her own mausoleum in Shahdara Bagh in Lahore, Pakistan near the tomb of Jehangir. The monument has since become quite a tourist attraction.

Nur Jehan was not without her faults, her plan to hold on to the reigns of power after Jehangir's death, led to her downfall. She intended to put Jehangir's youngest son Prince Shahryar whom she had wed to her daughter Ladli, on the throne.

The rightful heir, Prince Khurram later to be known as Emperor Shah Jahan, staged a revolt and took the throne by force after Jehangir's death. Wary of his wily stepmother. Shah Jahan had her under house arrest until the end of her days.

During this time, Nur Jehan wrote poetry, created scents, and designed the tombs of her father, Jehangir, and herself.

Novelist Indu Sunderasan gives a superb account of Nur Jehan's life in 'The Twentieth Wife' and 'Feast of Roses'. Sunderasan also shows the reader another side of the famed Taj Mahal lovers - Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal.

 Nur Jehan was no angel, she was a real woman, a survivor, a person who carved her own unique niche in a time  and age that didn't afford women a chance to shine, beyond marrying well and bearing children.

And for that I consider her a true heroine of her time.



Small Kucing said...

hope can get that book over here

Jothi said...

I bought the books in Borders in 2007. I think you can still get it here. If not can always buy online.

Anonymous said...

I've read The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. Honestly, Nur Jahan was the finest example of the immense capabilities of women - ambitious, shrewd, intelligent, vengeful, passionate, demurity, and simply unquenchable. Our generation could benefit from a woman like her, me thinks.