Nur Jahan

by Khadija Tauseef

When one talks of Nur Jahan, the image of a grand Empress comes to mind, and yet that is far from the truth. An immigrant girl from Kandahar, who had been born on route to India. Her parents had been fleeing Tehran, and the day before Mehr-un-Nisa was born the caravan they were traveling with was robbed. With three children already to feed, they saw the infant as an extra burden and so they chose to abandon her. 

Idealised portrait of the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan c. 1627
(image: WikiCommons)

From the start, she has had to for everything that she gets. Abandoned as an infant, she survived until her parents took pity and rescued her from the forest, they had left her in. India was supposed to be their fresh start despite all that they had been through, fate smiled, on them, when her father was introduced to Emperor Akbar.

She grew up to be an accomplished young woman, and there are tales, about how her beauty and intelligence, made the young prince, Salim fall for her. She may have been the daughter of a nobleman, but he did not think of her as worthy of being a princess.  Thus, she was married to Sher Afghan, whom she came to love and respect deeply. Her husband was a loyal supporter of Emperor Akbar, and for a while, the two lived happily and she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Ladli Begam. 

However, those peaceful days weren’t to last, Sher Afghan’s loyalty was tested when Prince Salim (future Emperor Jahangir) rose against his father. Sher Afghan fought on Akbar’s side thus falling out of the prince’s favor. Therefore, when Jahangir took the throne, after his father’s death, he posted Sher Afghan at a location far from the capital. Unfortunately, later, Jahangir sought revenge on all those who stood against him, and therefore, Sher Afghan lost his life.

Now a widow, with a young daughter, she returned to her father’s house in the capital, and soon her father helped her into the royal harem. Ellison Banks writes in her book, “Nur Jahan: Empress of India,”

“Women used their money to lay out gardens and waterways and to build buildings like sarais for travelers, or mosques for worshippers, or tombs for relatives…. Women’s money was also given in charity, generally to the needy and impoverished at large, but occasionally to individual persons or establishments that seemed worthy of mahal indulgence.” 

From ‘Nur Jahan: Empress of India’ by Ellison Banks

Within the Harem, Nur Jahan once more caught the eye of Jahangir. Infatuated, he proposed marriage and once he had permission, Nur Jahan became the twentieth and last legal wife of the emperor. By the time of their marriage, Jahangir had become less interested in the affairs of the country and most of his time was spent in a state of intoxication. It was at this time that Nur Jahan started to assist her husband in matters of state and other issues. Everything that had happened to her up to that point had shaped her and molded her into a strong woman. With access to immense wealth and a lot of free time, she started investing in various projects.

Nurjahan & Jahangir taking a moonlit stroll

However, due to the laws of seclusion, Nur Jahan often required the assistance of a male relative or her husband to ensure that her projects would be carried out. She carried out trade and took part in the construction of several buildings, but always with the help of others. Although most of what we learn of Nur Jahan comes from her husband’s memoir, “The Jahangir Nama.” On many occasions, she would offer gold to the poor. Dispersing, literally, her weight in gold, on happy occasions or when her husband recovered. 

Nur Jahan used her money, to pay for the weddings of orphan girls, she would provide them with clothes and money for their dowry. The Iqbalnama notes Nur Jahan’s generous nature:

“Whoever threw himself upon her protection was preserved from tyranny and oppression; and if ever she learned that any orphan girl was destitute and friendless, she would bring about her marriage, and give her a wedding portion. It is probable that during her reign no less than 500 orphan girls were thus married and portioned.” 

One of the most famous tales surrounding her generous nature, she wanted all people to have access to their king. So, she had a golden chain made, that extended from the outside into the emperor’s chambers. No matter what the time, anyone could come to the palace and pull the chain, alerting the emperor that someone wanted an audience with him. Many people were able to voice their grievances, but the poor could ask their monarch for aid whenever needed. When Nur Jahan died, she requested that the golden chain be buried with her. She said that if God were to ask her what good she has done, then she may present the chain which helped many people. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to verify this, as her tomb had been robbed and her bones left scattered until archaeologists found them and reburied them. 

Tomb of Nur Jahan in Lahore, Pakistan
(image: WikiCommons)

Nur Jahan was a scholar, architect, markswoman, entrepreneur, and much more. She made many historical monuments and yet what she wanted to be remembered for was the people she helped.

The golden chain may have been lost to history, but her legacy lives on. 

About the Author

My name is Khadija Tauseef, I am a historian with a passion for writing. I try to make history interesting for people to read and take more interest in. After all in order to change the world we must learn from history. 

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