The most pow­er­ful woman in the East

Nur Ja­han took charge of the Mughal em­pire while her hus­band was drunk as a lord, says SAMEER RAHIM

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS -

Bi­ogra­phies of “for­got­ten women” have been a flour­ish­ing in­dus­try for well over a decade, es­pe­cially those in Europe. But there are still many women in the East — in the Is­lamic world es­pe­cially — whose sto­ries have yet to be told. Male court his­to­ri­ans have un­der­val­ued the con­tri­bu­tions of such women — usu­ally the wives or moth­ers of pow­er­ful men — to their civil­i­sa­tions. That means the mod­ern his­to­rian wish­ing to re­con­struct their lives has very lit­tle re­li­able ma­te­rial with which to work.

Ruby Lal, an In­dian his­to­rian now teach­ing in Amer­ica, faces ex­actly these chal­lenges in writ­ing the bi­og­ra­phy of the Mughal em­press Nur Ja­han, a near con­tem­po­rary of El­iz­a­beth I. That she suc­ceeds so ad­mirably with a rel­a­tive lack of au­then­tic ma­te­rial is a trib­ute to her dex­ter­ity as a writer. She en­livens the mostly aus­tere his­tor­i­cal record by in­clud­ing (with due caveats) the many en­ter­tain­ing leg­ends that have ac­crued around Nur Ja­han over the cen­turies. In so do­ing she not only paints an ab­sorb­ing portrait of a re­mark­able woman, but also of­fers a stylish re­con­struc­tion of a fas­ci­nat­ing slice of Mughal life.

Nur Ja­han (“Light of the World”) was Em­peror Ja­hangir’s 20th and fi­nal wife. When she mar­ried him in 1611, she was a 31-year-old widow. Her first hus­band was a re­spected no­ble­man who came to a sticky end when he re­belled against Ja­hangir. Later sto­ry­tellers and film-mak­ers, keen on cre­at­ing a dra­matic love story, have spec­u­lated that the em­peror and Nur Ja­han had been sweet­hearts be­fore her mar­riage — her orig­i­nal name was Mihr-un-Nisa: her fam­ily were refugees from Per­sia, who were fi­nally re­united af­ter her con­ve­nient wid­ow­hood.

Ja­hangir, like his fa­ther Ak­bar, was a re­li­giously tol­er­ant and cul­tured monarch who liked to sur­round him­self with mu­si­cians and poets. He loved im­pe­rial pomp, and moved his lux­u­ri­ous court around his In­dian em­pire to show his peo­ple who was in charge. His mo­bile Hall of Pri­vate Au­di­ence was likely to have con­tained 72 rooms with 1,000 car­pets.

But he was also a drunk and a drug ad­dict. Al­co­holism was com­mon among Mughal monar­chs, but even so, he packed it away: Lal tells us he drank “20 cups of dou­bly dis­tilled spir­its, 14 dur­ing the day time and the re­main­der at night”. He didn’t help mat­ters when he be­gan mix­ing al­co­hol with opium. In his mem­oirs, Ja­hangir ad­mits that the only per­son who could help him tame his drink­ing was his favourite, Nur Ja­han.

A keen ob­server of court pol­i­tics and state­craft, Nur Ja­han took on more re­spon­si­bil­ity for run­ning the em­pire while her hus­band dis­tracted him­self with frip­peries. Nur Ja­han is­sued or­ders in her own name and, in 1616, gold and sil­ver coins were minted with her im­age on the ob­verse side of her hus­band’s. She signed her own name on of­fi­cial doc­u­ments: Nur Ja­han, the Lady Em­peror.

Where did she learn her po­lit­i­cal skills? Lal spec­u­lates that it was in the harem, which was full of rivalries and al­liances be­tween the sovereign’s Mus­lim and Hindu wives. Lal writes: “She seemed more canny than other royal women her age about the work­ings of the em­pire, exhibiting the knowl­edge ex­pected of es­teemed el­der women like her harem men­tors.” Not that she wielded her power solely through the stereo­typ­i­cal fe­male wiles of gos­sip and ma­nip­u­la­tion: she was a fierce woman, who on a hunt­ing trip with her hus­band once shot dead a tiger — a typ­i­cal sym­bol of mas­cu­line au­thor­ity. When Ja­hangir was cap­tured dur­ing a re­bel­lion, she rode to his res­cue on an ele­phant.

The mar­tial-spir­ited Nur Ja­han is cap­tured well by a con­tem­po­rary painting of her by the court artist Ab­dul-Hasas Nadir uz-Za­man. In­stead of sit­ting de­murely with a veil, as women were mostly de­picted in minia­tures, she is stand­ing alone and up­right in a tur­ban, hold­ing a long mus­ket that she ap­pears to be reload­ing. There is a vigour and free­dom in her stance that is rare for the time. As Lal writes: “Nei­ther of the two Is­lamic em­pires of Nur’s time, Safavid Iran and Ot­toman Turkey, could boast of such graphic ev­i­dence of an em­press en­gaged in in­trepid im­pe­rial ad­ven­ture.” At the time she was com­pared to the Queen of Sheba, who ap­pears in the Ko­ran as Solomon’s wife.

Lal notes that she was also an ar­chi­tec­tural in­no­va­tor. The Light-Scat­ter­ing Gar­den, which she de­signed, took the model of a Per­sian gar­den and made it more in­for­mal and open, adding pavil­ions, ar­cades and walled rooms for shade that echoed the harem’s lay­out. She also had a hand in the as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful shrine to her par­ents called the I’timad udDaulah

When her hus­band Ja­hangir was cap­tured dur­ing a re­bel­lion, she rode to his res­cue on an ele­phant

tomb, which mod­ern vis­i­tors to Agra might have heard de­scribed as the “Baby Taj”. But as Lal points out, the Taj Ma­hal, built by Ja­hangir’s suc­ces­sor Shah Ja­han, is in re­al­ity the baby of the Nur Ja­han cre­ation.

She was also a gen­er­ous pa­tron, ar­rang­ing more than 500 mar­riages for or­phaned women, and cre­at­ing a style of cheap wed­ding dress still in use to­day, called a Nur Ma­hali. She seems to have fully earned the pan­e­gyrics of the court poet Shi­razi, who ac­knowl­edged that: “Her glory and dig­nity had cap­tured the world.”

Cer­tainly she has cap­tured the heart of Lal, who does a mar­vel­lous job of piec­ing to­gether the scant ev­i­dence about her hero­ine’s life. It must be said, though, that there are quite of lot of “would haves” and “maybes” in her ac­count and while as a re­con­struc­tion it is plau­si­ble, you do won­der what a less sym­pa­thetic bi­og­ra­phy might look like. Also, for a fe­male-cen­tred his­tory, there is an aw­ful lot about men in this book.

Per­haps that is in­evitable. No mat­ter how much power she had, Nur Ja­han was al­ways re­liant on a pow­er­ful man. (Maybe that is why Ja­hangir felt he could trust her with so much power: un­like one of his power-hun­gry sons or un­ruly no­bles.) Clev­erly, she mar­ried off the daugh­ter from her first mar­riage to Ja­hangir’s el­dest son, Shahryar, think­ing that he would in­herit the throne. But in the event he was out­smarted by his brother Shah Ja­han, and so the last 18 years of Nur Ja­han’s sec­ond wid­ow­hood were spent qui­etly plan­ning her beloved hus­band’s shrine in La­hore.

Per­haps she was also re­flect­ing on a life in which she had risen from be­ing a refugee born on the run to be­com­ing the most pow­er­ful woman — per­haps for a while even per­son — in the Mughal Em­pire. Un­like her hus­band, she left no mem­oirs, but as Lal shows, she cer­tainly left her mark.

Power play: Dur­ing her life­time, Nur Ja­han was com­pared to the Queen of Sheba

BI­OG­RA­PHY Em­press Ruby LalWW Nor­ton, hard­back, 380 pages, €25.20

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