When I told my dad I was reading a biography on Nur Jahan, he became excited and asked if I knew anything about her. I did not, barring that she was a Mughal queen. She was not the one for whom the Taj Mahal was built (that honor goes to Mumtaz Mahal), but she was a recognizable name. Enough to get me to read the biography in the first place, at least. I told my dad as much. He proceeded to tell me the chronology of Mughal emperors, beginning with Babur, and then Humayun, Akbar, and Jahangir. It turns out Nur Jahan was the wife of Jahangir.
Perhaps you already knew all of this, that she reigned alongside her husband from 1611 to 1627. I sadly did not. A stark reminder, reading Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal, that my historical knowledge (already a fairly weak point for me) struggles beyond the Eurocentric, the American, the “Western” focal points. When I read the dates of her rule (or co-rule, if I must), I immediately matched it with corresponding historical events in England—the death of Queen Elizabeth a few years prior. And then I reprimanded myself for being so whitewashed, so colonized in thinking, as it were.
Why shouldn’t I have learned in greater detail about the magnificence, strength, and brutal reign that defines the Mughal Empire?
I guess I am now.
Empress is bursting with life and mystery, it’s satisfying and beguiling at once. Lal paints a portrait of a woman from the peripheral glances of written history. She does what any accomplished and well-trained pursuer of the humanities does—fascinating analysis to draw conclusions that have evidently been collecting dust on the shelf for too long.
And just like the surviving portraits of the indomitable queen, this book is swathed in power, delicacy, and far too many lingering questions. It’s unavoidable, since there is only so much material a historian can work with. But in the age of smashing the patriarchy, #MeToo, and the burgeoning rise of women’s voices against a backdrop of Trumps, McConnells, Kavanaughs, bin Salmans, and the like, a new reading needs to occur on the materials to be had. And Lal does that, breathing such a remarkable storm of empowerment into Nur Jahan’s memory.
I was not surprised to read the different depictions of Nur Jahan by historians throughout the centuries—even those that respected her classified her as a model manipulator, a troublesome and vexing woman who did little good for the Empire but only caused trouble by her meddling. Men would say such things, wouldn’t they, about a woman in power. A woman whose husband loved and respected her so much that he knew without a doubt he could entrust her with overseeing laws, controlling regions, leading armies, hunting tigers in his place, along with her wifely pursuits and roles with building rapport with women and daughters of the harem, arranging prosperous marriages, overseeing the architectural design of gardens and structures, and more. Yes, the fact that this woman could shoot a musket with alarming accuracy and demonstrate astounding intellect that could silence her adversaries, just did not sit well with men. Particularly not during a time when men considered the following as suitable guidance for dealing with women:
“Once she is grown up, do your utmost to give her in marriage; it were best for the girl not to come into existence, but, being born, she had better be married or be buried.” (from 11th century work, Qabus-Nama).
It has always been fun times to be a woman!
But Nur defied everything, and I wish the world could recognize that more lawfully, proudly, and completely. 300 years before India as we know it now would have its first modern female leader, another woman already assumed that role, during an Islamic empire. “Nur drew on traditions of Mughal matriarchy as well as those of royal consorts and princesses in order to create a new form of power, a ‘third space’,” Lal writes, describing how she laid down “technical proof of her reign” that no one could deny.
And then she was shoved aside as quickly as her step-son could manage it. Revolting, but the attempt to erase history is something we live with today, so seeing how it happened to her is no surprise. And yet, Shah Jahan (the leader who constructed that Taj Mahal for his wife) could not actually destroy evidence of her existence, not when currency already existed with her name printed on it, not when she still was lord over numerous properties and villages even if she was deposed as dowager empress more or less. And certainly not when his own grand masterpiece the Taj Mahal was based directly off of the mausoleum she designed for her parents, the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah.
Can’t erase a woman’s achievements, but you can push them aside, ignore them, or usurp them as your own. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Okay, I wasn’t only taken aback by the full-fledged badassery of the empress. Another element of Mughal culture captivates me, and makes me realize there is potential for humankind. Or perhaps there’s always a way to strike a balance.
I’m referring to the marriage of cultures and faiths that transpired during that period. The amalgamation of Islam and Hinduism, South Asian and Persian cultures, the hybridization of Hindi, Arabic, and Farsi, truly reflects a remarkable time.
The comfortable coexistence of Hindu rajas and the Mughals, of Hindavi and Persian, the Bible and the Quran, the orthodox and heterodox—in um, the diversity of beliefs and practices that made Akbar’s India a charmed place—was difficult to maintain.
But they did maintain it. The emperors took on wives from Muslim and Hindu backgrounds, they adopted rituals and symbolic gestures from Hindu beliefs that they believed were also reflected in Islam, thereby unifying the two further. There was this extraordinary sense of cohesion and respect which I can only imagine was a constant juggling act. A perpetual highwire routine of balance. And utterly unimaginable today, when you have a such tension between Pakistan and India, between Islam and Hinduism, where you have Hindu nationalists trying to “legally” change the name of the historic city of Allahabad to Prayagraj to further erase Muslim identity and legacy there.
Naturally not everyone would have been happy being ruled by Muslims, so the discord between Muslims and Hindus must have existed for centuries. But reading about the dynamics of the Empire (which was also damn brutal—blinding your rebelling son was a fairly decent response to his attempt to overthrow you, for one. And this happened at least three times per emperor, it seems), well, I can only detest the colonizing British even more for their repugnant effects on the subcontinent (let alone the world). Their approach of divide-and-conquer has truly paid its dividends now.
How did the Mughals do it? Granted, theirs was not the most chaste lifestyle—harems, drinking, opium, believing themselves to be an extension of God, the usual. Yet, they managed for 300 years or so to achieve a mix and melding of culture and belief. That is far more unbelievable than a woman being a true leader in her own right.